July 2

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

Jul 2 - 7:7:1770 New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (July 2, 1770).

Catalogues may be had the day of viewing at the place of sale.”

On Monday, July 2, 1770, John Taylor ran an advertisement that announced an auction scheduled for the following Thursday.  He advised readers of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury that the items up for bid included “houshold furniture, china, glass, and jewellery ware, silver watches, some copper, tea, and kitchen furniture.”  He concluded the list with “&c.” (the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera), an indication of even more items than the newspaper advertisement could contain.

Prospective bidders did not, however, need to consult the newspaper advertisement for a complete listing of the items offered for sale.  Taylor announced that “Catalogues may be had the day of viewing at the place of sale.”  Auctioneers and booksellers both made frequent reference to catalogs in their advertisements, though relatively few of those eighteenth-century auction catalogs or book catalogs survive.  Some historians suspect that many of those catalogs never existed; it is impossible to know for certain.  The mere promise of a catalog may have helped to convince some readers to visit Taylor’s auction house.  Taylor scheduled an advance viewing of the goods as a means of priming interest, but handing out catalogs encouraged viewers to continue engaging with items of potential interest after departing the auction house.  Upon examining the items for sale, prospective bidders did not have to rely on memory alone as they contemplated which actions they would take.  A catalog also provided additional details that prospective bidders could further enhance with their own notes.

Like other auctioneers, Taylor almost certainly realized that anticipation was an integral component of a successful auction.  Prospective bidders envisioned acquiring goods before they had an opportunity to purchase them.  They could imagine bargains if others did not bid on the items they wanted, but they could also imagine steadily increasing their bids if they encountered competition.  Either way, prospective bidders made some sort of commitment before the auction began.  By providing catalogs, Taylor facilitated these acts of imagination, increasing the likelihood that prospective bidders put them into action at the auction.

April 24

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

Apr 24 - 4:24:1770 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 24, 1770).

“A Printed Catalogue will be timely delivered.”

In advance of an auction of a “A Collection of BOOKS,” Nicholas Langford placed an advertisement in the April 24, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  He provided a preview of some of the items for sale, including “Johnson’s Dictionary” in two volumes and thirty-two volumes of the London Magazinefrom the Beginning.”  Langford could have inserted a more extensive account of the “Collection of “BOOKS.”  Instead, he declared that “A Printed Catalogue will be timely delivered.”  He used his newspaper advertisement to promote another form of marketing ephemera that prospective customers could consult and find useful prior to and during the auction.

Indeed, book catalogs and auction catalogs (and catalogs for book auctions) were ephemeral.  Little or no evidence exists concerning the production and distribution of many catalogs except for mentions of them in newspaper advertisements.  Some may never have existed except in those advertisements; bibliographers and historians of print culture suspect that advertisers like Langford sometimes promised catalogs that never went to press.  While some catalogs mentioned in newspaper notices may very well have turned out to be bibliographic ghosts, enough eighteenth-century catalogs have survived to demonstrate that medium did circulate in early America.

It would not have served Langford well to allude to a catalog that would not be “timely delivered” or even delivered at all.  As an entrepreneur seeking to attract as many bidders to his auction as possible, it served his interests to distribute the catalog.  In addition, it would have damaged his reputation if prospective buyers sent for a catalog and he had to confess that he had not managed to follow through on the intention that he had announced to the public in a newspaper advertisement.  Even if something prevented Langford or others from publishing some of the catalogs mentioned in newspaper advertisements, that they were referenced at all suggests that they were a form of marketing media that colonists expected to encounter.

January 26

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

Pennsylvania Journal (January 26, 1769).

“Catalogues may be had of what Books will be sold this Night.”

An advertisement in the January 26, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal announced an “Auction of BOOKS” that would commence “THIS Evening at FIVE o’Clock … at the City Vendue-store” and continue the following Tuesday. This advertisement also promoted another piece of marketing ephemera intended to encourage sales, “Catalogues … of what Books will be sold.” Printers, booksellers, and auctioneers frequently distributed book catalogs in the eighteenth century, probably more often than the number of surviving catalogs indicates. On the other hand, historians of the book also note that some reference to book catalogs in advertisements and other sources may be ghosts for catalogs that never went to press. Whatever the case with the catalog mentioned in this notice, colonial readers would not have considered it out of the ordinary for auctioneers to print catalogs.

In his Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800, Robert B. Winans identifies only one surviving catalog that may have been related to the January 26 auction, even if it was not the catalog mentioned in this advertisement: Catalogue of books, to be sold, by public auction, at the City Vendue-Store, in Front-Street: notice of time of the sale will be given in the public papers. Divided into four columns, this broadside (or poster) listed 350 short author entries in no particular order, except for a group of law books at beginning. It lacks an imprint, but Winans attributes it to William Bradford and Thomas Bradford, the printers of the Pennsylvania Journal. Based on the titles, he asserts that the catalog could not have been published before 1768 and probably no later than 1769.

The catalog identified by Winans may have been a precursor to the one mentioned in the advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal. It could have been posted around town or otherwise circulated to prospective customers. It could even have been the same catalog if some copies had been held in reserve to distribute on the day of the auction. The ephemeral nature of this advertising medium makes it difficult to know with any certainty. What is more certain is that book catalogs were a familiar form of advertising in colonial America’s largest urban ports by the 1760s. They only became more common as the century progressed.

June 21

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

Jun 21 - 6:21:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (June 21, 1768).

Just published in Pamphlets, and to be sold by CHARLES CROUCH.”

In an advertisement that appeared in the June 14, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Charles Crouch announced an auction of “A COLLECTION of LAW BOOKS” scheduled to occur in just over a week. He offered a brief description of the books, arguing that they were “valuable” and “rarely to be found.” He also pledged to insert a catalog in the next issue of the newspaper, a promise that he fulfilled in the June 21 edition. The catalog provided an additional description of the books up for bid: “the best Editions, well bound, and in good Condition.”

As the printer of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Crouch exercised considerable discretion when it came to the placement of his advertisements in that publication. The original announcement about the auction appeared first among the paid notices, immediately under a header that marked “New Advertisements.” The catalog occupied an even more privileged place in the next edition. Except for the masthead, it was the first item on the first page. The catalog comprised more than half the page, filling the entire first column as well as more than two-thirds of the second. Other advertisements for Crouch’s interests also appeared on the front page, including one seeking a tenant for “THE front STORE and CELLAR, in the House I now live in.” In another short notice, he announced that he sold “THE FARMER’s LETTERS to the Inhabitants of the BRITISH COLONIES,” a pamphlet that collected and reprinted John Dickinson’s series of essays that appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies. In yet another advertisement, Crouch alerted readers that he had just received a shipment of “EDWARD JOYCE’s famous Great American BALSAM,” a patent medicine made in New York. A lengthy description of the remedy and its uses extended nearly half a column. Finally, Crouch inserted a short advertisement for printed blanks and stationery, the last item on the first page.

Advertising accounted for three of the four pages of the June 21, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Paid notices generated significant revenue for Crouch, making it possible to distribute the newspaper as well as give over space to his own advertisements. It hardly seems a coincidence that so many of his advertisements were clustered on the first page of the June 21 issue. As the proprietor of the newspaper, he likely instructed the compositor to give his advertisements prominence of place, thereby increasing the number of readers likely to examine them.

Jun 21 - 6:21:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Page 1
Charles Crouch placed five of his own advertisements on the front page of the newspaper he published. (South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, June 21, 1768).

June 14

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

Jun 14 - South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (June 14, 1768).

A Catalogue of which will be in our next.”

In advance of an auction of “A COLLECTION of LAW BOOKS” to be held on June 22, 1768, Charles Crouch placed an advertisement in the June 14 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. He attempted to incite enthusiasm by informing potential bidders that the collection included several “valuable Articles; many of which, are now rarely to be found.” Anyone potentially interested would not want to miss this sale since auctions often yielded bargain prices, even for rare items that might otherwise cost significantly more when they exchanged hands through other sorts of transactions.

Crouch did not expect prospective buyers simply to trust his assertions about the value and rarity of the books up for auction in just over a week. Instead, he advised them that “A Catalogue … will be in our next” edition, a promise that Crouch could confidently make since he was the printer of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Publishing a catalog, whether in a newspaper or as a separate pamphlet or broadside, provided a preview of the auction. It allowed interested parties to contemplate the merchandise in advance; as they anticipated the auction they likely imagined themselves bidding and acquiring some of the items, perhaps increasing the chances they would do so once they found themselves at the auction.

Yet Crouch did not yet direct readers to such visualizations: the list of rare and valuable books would not appear in the newspaper until the following week. He mentioned the catalog, however, as an invitation to potential bidders to peruse the next issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, perhaps assuming that their eagerness would make them more inclined to select items that they did indeed wish to buy at the auction. Alternately, he ran the risk that the catalog would merely disappoint some readers if its contents did not include books they considered interesting or particularly valuable or rare. Crouch gambled that mentioning the catalog in advance would make readers more disposed to examining it and attending the auction.

December 17

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

Dec 17 - 12:17:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (December 17, 1767).

“He intends to keep an Auction of BOOKS and JEWELLERY.”

Shopkeepers who advertised merchandise for retail sale in colonial newspapers competed with vendue masters (or auctioneers) who provided a popular alternative means of acquiring consumer goods, both new and secondhand. Announcements for vendue sales, often accompanied by lists of items up for auction, appeared in some eighteenth-century newspapers nearly as frequently as advertisements placed by shopkeepers. Compared to retailers, however, many vendue masters did not devote as much effort to marketing goods soon to go up for bidding, perhaps because one of the most common appeals deployed by shopkeepers – low prices – was an inherent part of auction sales. Vendue masters could not guarantee bargains, but each and every sale promised the possibility of a great deal that could not be beat by haggling with shopkeepers. Although their advertisements did not go into as much detail as those placed by retailers, auctioneers also incorporated other popular appeals to attract potential customers, including quality, fashion, and consumer choice. Shopkeepers may have refined these strategies and created other innovative methods of marketing their wares as a means of competing with the deep discounts made possible by selling goods to the highest bidders.

That their newspaper notices differed from shopkeepers’ advertisements does not mean, however, that vendue masters were indifferent marketers. They invested their energy in other means of inciting demand and enticing potential customers to visit their action rooms. In December 1767, for instance, the “PUBLIC VENDUE MASTER” in Philadelphia announced that he “intends to keep an Auction of BOOKS and JEWELLERY.” He called on colonists “who have any to dispose of” to contact him with a list of items they wished to include in the auction. He requested that sellers contact him by the end of the month so their items “may be inserted in the first Catalogue.” In compiling and distributing auction catalogs, vendue masters added another genre to the extensive array of eighteenth-century printed advertising media that included broadsides, trade cards, billheads, furniture labels, magazine wrappers, and newspaper notices. Auction catalogs served many purposes. In contrast to relatively short advertisements in newspapers, they much more effectively invoked consumer choice by elaborating on the goods going up for bidding. Catalogs prompted potential customers to imagine possessing the items listed and to anticipate participating in the vendue. In addition to making purchases, that participation could include socializing with others who gathered for the sale before, during, and after the auction. Catalogs also guided consumers through vendues, operating as programs that they could follow or even annotate.

Philadelphia’s public vendue master alerted potential customers about an upcoming auction for books and jewelry, but publication and dissemination of an auction catalog allowed for targeted marketing of colonists most likely to participate in this sale. To that end, catalogs offered certain advantages over newspaper advertisements.