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