What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Subscriptions are taken in by the Priner hereof, and a Number of Gentlemen in different Parts of the Country.”
In December 1771 and continuing into 1772, Solomon Southwick, printer of the Newport Mercury, ran subscription notices for “Col. Church’s HISTORY OF K. Philip’s Indian WAR, Which began in the Month of June, 1675.” The project did not originate with Southwick; instead, he indicated “A Number of Gentlemen [were] desirous of having Reprinted” an account by Benjamin Church previously published in Boston in 1716. Neither Southwick nor the “Number of Gentlemen” assumed the risk for publishing this new edition without first gauging broader interest in the book.
Such was the purpose of a subscription notice. Subscribers reserved copies in advance, giving printers and publishers an idea of how many copies to print. If they did not acquire a sufficient number of subscribers to make a project viable, they could abandon it rather than lose money on the venture. In some cases, printers and publishers required subscribers to make payments in advance to help defray the costs of production, but in this instance Southwick specified that subscribers would pay three shilling “on Delivery of the Books.” To entice prospective subscribers, especially booksellers and other retailers who might purchase multiple copies to sell, Southwick stated, “Those who subscribe for Six Books, to have a Seventh Gratis.”
Southwick accepted subscriptions, but he also relied on a network of associates to assist in the endeavor. He informed readers that “a Number of Gentlemen in different Parts of the Country, to whom Subscription Papers have been sent,” also accepted orders for the book. Those subscription papers included the proposal and conditions for subscribing as well as space for subscribers to sign their names and indicate how many copies they wanted. Subsequent subscribers could peruse the list to see the company they kept, a factor that may have helped convince some potential subscribers that they indeed desired a copy … or at least desired seeing their names listed among those who supported the project.
Not all subscription proposals that ran in early American newspapers generated enough interest to proceed, but in this case Southwick garnered sufficient support to reprint The Entertaining History of King Philip’s War. This edition included portraits of Benjamin Church and King Philip (Metacom, a Wampanoag leader) engraved by Paul Revere. Southwick did not mention the images that would accompany the book as a means of promoting interest in the subscription notice. Other subscription notices highlighted images, but perhaps Southwick had not yet made arrangements for that particular aspect of the publication. Even without promising portraits of Church and Metacom, the subscription notices helped generate interest in the new edition.