November 19

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-Hampshire Gazette (November 19, 1773).

Printer, Bookseller, Provedore to the SENTIMENTALISTS, and Hand Servant to the FRIENDS of LITERATURE.”

Robert Bell became one of the most influential American booksellers and publishers during the second half of the eighteenth century in part due to his lively marketing efforts.  He developed a flamboyant personality that made him memorable and, simultaneously, made the books he advertised memorable.  Based in Philadelphia in 1773, he placed notices in newspapers from New England to South Carolina.  Two advertisements in the November 19 edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette demonstrate his unique style.

Both featured headlines that addressed prospective customers in a manner meant to flatter them and encourage them to identify with a peer group that they imagined buying the books that Bell presented to them.  For instance, one alerted the “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW, in AMERICA” that they could find subscription proposals for several different law books, including “BACON’s new abridgment of the law” and a “second American edition of Judge BLACKSTONE’s Commentaries on the laws of England,” at their local “booksellers shops.”  The other advertisement promoted Bell’s first American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries to the “Sons of Science in America.”  In it, Bell described himself as “Printer, Bookseller, Provedore to the SENTIMENTALISTS, and Hand Servant to the FRIENDS of LITERATURE.”  When he named those fanciful occupations, he also depicted his ideal customers.

Bell also insisted that readers envision a community that extended throughout the colonies.  His advertisements ran in newspapers published in many cities and towns, but they did not address the “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW, in PORTSMOUTH” or the “Sons of Science in New Hampshire.”  Instead, Bell treated readers near and far as an integrated market.  In his “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW” advertisement, he advised that prospective subscribers “now have an opportunity of seeing at most of the booksellers shops in the capital towns and cities on the Continent, printed proposals with conditions and specimens” for publishing several books.  In his “Sons of Science” advertisement, Bell credited the “auspicious influence” of those subscribers for making the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentariespossible.  In the other advertisement, he portrayed subscribers as “Encouragers” who “greatly contribute towards the elevation, and enlivening of Literary Manufactures in America.”

Printers, booksellers, and publishers often placed subscription proposals in newspapers in multiple colonies in their efforts to generate sufficient demand to make their projects viable.  Bell was especially proficient at disseminating advertisements and subscription papers throughout the colonies.  When he did so, he devised advertising copy that emphasized that customers were members of communities not bounded by geography.  Their interests rather than their location defined them as they joined other “Sons of Science,” “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW,” and “FRIENDS of LITERATURE” in creating a common American experience.

May 29

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Boston-Gazette (May 27, 1771).

“Encouraged by several gentlemen of eminence in the different provinces, to undertake the publication of the following litterary works, in America.”

Robert Bell, one of the most influential booksellers and publishers in eighteenth-century America, cultivated a distinctly American market for the production and consumption of books, both before and after the American Revolution.  Although American printers produced some titles, they were relatively few compared to those imported from Britain.  Bell sought to change that, advertising widely rather than only in newspapers published in his own town.

For instance, in an advertisement in the May 27, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette, Bell listed “the late Union Library in Third-street, Philadelphia” as his location.  Yet prospective customers interested in any of the titles included in his advertisement did not need to contact him there.  Instead, they could deal with Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette.  Bell proclaimed that he supplied Edes and Gill with “printed proposals, with speciments annexed” for “HUME’s elegeant HISTORY of ENGLAND, … BLACKSTONE’s splendid COMMENTARIES on the LAWS of ENGLAND, … Also, FERGUSON’s celebrated ESSAY on the HISTORY of CIVIL SOCIETY.”  As local agents acting on behalf of Bell, Edes and Gill distributed the proposals, collected the “names & residence” of subscribers, and sent the lists to Bell.  The enterprising bookseller and publisher enlisted many other local agents, instructing prospective “purchasers, of any of the fore mentioned litterary works” to contact “any of the Booksellers and Printers on this continent.”  Advertisements in other newspapers from New England to South Carolina indicated that Bell established an extensive network of associates and local agents.

In another way, this was not Bell’s endeavor alone.  He claimed that many others supported his efforts to create an America market for books printed in America.  He proclaimed that he had been “encouraged by several gentlemen of eminence in the different provinces, to undertake the publication” of several notable works “in America.”  Others, he declared, shared his vision.  Bell extended an invitation to even more readers to join them, addressing “Gentlemen who wish prosperity to the means for the enlargement of the human understanding in America.”  Such explicit reference to the edification and refinement of readers did not, however, did not tell the entire story.  Subscribers also implicitly made political statements about American identity and expressed support for American commerce.  Americans did not need to think of themselves or the books they produced and consumed as inferior to those imported from Britain.  Bell promised that “BLACKSTONE’s famous COMMENTARIES” compared favorably “page for page with the London edition.”  Prospective subscribers could conform the quality of the books by examining the proposals and, especially, the specimens entrusted to Bell’s local agents.

Bell commenced his advertisement with an announcement that “THE THIRD VOLUME OF ROBERTSON’s splendid History of CHARLES the Fifth, with compleat Indexes, is now finished for the Subscribers.”  He previously advertised all three volumes widely, starting with subscription notices before taking the work to press and providing updates and seeking additional subscribers along the way.  Alerting readers that the project came to a successful conclusion served as a testimonial to the vision that Bell and “several gentlemen of eminence in the different provinces” shared.  Achieving that vision and moving forward with the publication of American editions of other significant works required continued support from readers who committed to becoming subscribers.  Their decisions about consumption, Bell suggested, had ramifications beyond acquiring books for their own reference.