November 21

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

Nov 21 - 11:21:1768 Connecticut Courant
Supplement to the Connecticut Courant (November 21, 1768).

“Catalogue of BOOKS, just imported from LONDON.”

For three weeks in November 1768 the partnership of Lathrop and Smith placed a full-page advertisement in the Connecticut Courant. It first appeared in the November 7 issue and again on November 14 and 21. Although Lathrop and Smith described themselves as “Apothecaries in Hartford,” they published a “Catalogue of BOOKS, just imported from LONDON” in their advertisement, listing approximately 250 titles available at their shop. To help prospective customers identify books of particular interest, they organized them by genre: Divinity, Law, Physick, School Books, History, and Miscellany.

While not unknown in the late colonial period, full-page advertisements were rare. They merited attention due to their size and the expense incurred by the advertisers. Given that the standard issue of most newspapers consisted of four pages created by printing on both sides of a broadsheet and folding it in half, full-page advertisements dominated any issue in which they appeared, accounting for one-quarter of the content. That was the case the first two times Lathrop and Smith published their book catalog in the Connecticut Courant. For its third and final insertion it comprised the second page of a half sheet supplement devoted entirely to advertisements. That supplement brought the number of pages distributed to subscribers up to six for the week. Lathrop and Smith’s advertisement still accounted for a significant proportion of content placed before readers. Its size may have prompted the printers to resort to a supplement in order to make room for other content.

In addition to filling all three columns, the first insertion also featured a nota bene printed in the right margin. “N.B. Said Lathrop & Smith, have for Sale as usual,” it advised, “A great Variety of little Cheap Books for Children.—A Variety of Tragedies, Comedies, Operas, &c.—Writing Paper, Dutch Quills, Scales & Dividers, A Universal Assortment of Medicines and Painters Colours.—Choice Bohea Tea, Chocolate, Coffee, Spices, Loafsugar, Indico, &c. &c. &c.” The nota bene may have also appeared in the subsequent insertions, but decisions about preservation and digitization of the original issues made at various points since they first circulated in colonial America may have hidden the nota bene from view.

Separate issues of the Connecticut Courant have been bound into a single volume. As a result, the original fold of the newspaper has been incorporated into the binding. This means that the inside margins are partially or completely obscured. Recall that the nota bene for Lathrop and Smith’s advertisement appeared in the right margin. That is the outside margin for odd-numbered pages, but the inside margin for even-numbered pages. The advertisement appeared on the third page when it was first published on November 7, making the nota bene quite visible, even in the volume of newspapers bound together. On November 14, however, it appeared on the fourth page. On November 21, it appeared on the second page of the supplement. In both instances the nota bene, if it remained part of the advertisement, became part of the inner margin, the portion of the page given over to binding issues together. It is impossible to tell from the photographs that have been digitized if the nota bene survived into subsequent insertions. Examination of the originals might reveal traces or confirm that it disappeared.

As the image for this advertisement makes clear, working with surrogate sources – whether microfilm or digitized images – sometimes has its limitations. Questions that cannot be answered from such sources might be addressed with more certainty when examining originals. If the nota bene was indeed discontinued after the first insertion, that raises interesting questions about the reasons. Did Lathrop and Smith request its removal? Or did the printers choose to eliminate it? What might this instance tell us about the consultation that took place between printers who produced newspapers and advertisers who paid to have their notices included in them?

July 6

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

Jul 6 - 7:6:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (July 6, 1767).

“At the London BOOK-STORE.”

Bookseller John Mein regularly advertised in Boston’s newspapers in the 1760s, often inserting lengthy advertisements that extended over multiple columns or even filled an entire page. Yet newspaper notices were not the only marketing media utilized by Mein and other eighteenth-century booksellers. They also used broadsides and catalogs to inform potential customers of the titles they sold.

To promote the “Grand Assortment of the most MODERN BOOKS, In every Branch of Polite LITERATURE, ARTS, and SCIENCES” at his “LONDON BOOK-STORE,” Mein distributed a small broadside in 1766. Measuring 20 x 13 cm (8 x 5 in), it could have been posted around town or passed out as a handbill. Unlike his newspapers advertisements, the broadside did not include titles of many books. Instead, Mein listed more than two dozen genres that might interest readers, from Divinity and Philosophy to Travels and Voyages to Anatomy and Midwifery. Potential customers need to visit his shop to discover which titles he stocked.

Jul 6 - Mein Broadside
John Mein’s broadside advertisement (Boston: 1766). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Mein adopted the opposite strategy in the fifty-two-page “CATALOGUE OF CURIOUS and VALUABLE BOOKS” he distributed the same year, listing (and numbering) 1741 different titles. For some, particularly bibles and prayer books, he also described the material aspects of the books, such as “Baskerville’s large Octavo Prayer-Book, bound in red Morocco, gilded” (#1734) and “Tate and Brady’s Psalms, fine Paper, bound in Morocco and Calf, gilded” (#1739). Mein used two different methods in categorizing his books. The first 367 were organized by size: octavo or folio. The remainder, however, fell under subject headings similar to those listed on the broadside. Under certain headings, some books were further demarcated by size. The bookseller aimed to help readers find books that corresponded to their interests, their budgets, their preferences for storing them, and their tastes for displaying them.

Mein’s newspaper advertisement melded aspects of his broadside and catalog, listing multiple titles under several categories. He also added a blurb to promote one book, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. Lest potential customers not see any books that interested them, Mein concluded by stating that he “has for Sale a grand Assortment of the best AUTHORS in evry Art and Science, and in every Branch of polite Literature.” Like other eighteenth-century booksellers, he experimented with media and organization in his efforts to market his wares. His advertising may have helped to fuel a reading revolution as colonists’ habits veered from intensive reading of devotional literature to extensive reading of many genres, including novels.

In Which a Newspaper Advertisement Could Have Been a Broadside Book Catalogue

The guest curators from my Public History class often do not choose to feature the advertisements that I want them to select! This is simultaneously one of the most rewarding, most exciting, and most frustrating aspects of collaborating with these junior colleagues. They have prompted me to take a second look at advertisements that I otherwise would have dismissed. They have forced me to think about certain advertisements in new ways, to develop new modes of analysis instead of relying on earlier classifications that ranked some advertisements as more viable for this project than others. In the best sense of faculty/student collaboration, we are learning from each other and we are collectively learning more about the colonial period.

Still, I sometimes find it extremely frustrating when a guest curator skips over a really cool advertisement that I want to feature and explore in greater depth. (In all fairness, during those periods that guest curators are not working on the project I often find myself in the position of skipping over some awesome advertisements – or looking ahead to see which ones were published more than one week so I know I’ll have a second chance to incorporate a second choice in the near future.) I encountered one of those advertisements this week as I was browsing through the April 3, 1766, issue of the Massachusetts Gazette to see the context in which one of the featured advertisements was originally published.

Apr 8 - John Mein Advertisement 4:3:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 3, 1766).

Look at this wonderful advertisement from bookseller John Mein! Except for a small notice in the upper left corner, Mein’s advertisement covered the entire page of this issue. What an investment for him to make! This was not the first time in 1766 that an entire page of the Massachusetts Gazette was devoted to listing Mein’s stock. I couldn’t just let it pass by once again.

This item intrigues me in part because it challenges the concept of genre when it comes to eighteenth-century advertising and print culture. Technically, it is indeed a newspaper advertisement, but it is a very particular sort of newspaper advertisement that replicates a book catalogue, specifically a broadside book catalogue. Similar items circulated separately as standalone book catalogues in the eighteenth-century. This raises an interesting question: what are the parameters for determining what qualifies as a book catalogue? If this newspaper advertisement is an alternate form of a book catalogue, then does any advertisement that includes a list of books also count as a book catalogue? Are there a minimum number of books that must be listed? Or a minimum amount of space that the advertisement must cover on the page?

Perhaps it is worth spending a few moments exploring eighteenth-century book catalogues, one of those advertising media – along with trade cards, billheads, furniture labels, and other printed items – that supplemented newspaper advertising. Among their other innovations and marketing strategies, printers and booksellers introduced the consuming public to catalogue shopping as a way to try to attract customers. Participants in the book trade on both sides of the Atlantic frequently compiled a list of titles available for sale and distributed them to potential customers in a catalogue. Philadelphia printer, publisher, and bookseller Mathew Carey certainly believed in the benefits of distributing catalogues to attract potential customers of all backgrounds. Writing to bookseller N. Magruder in March of 1796, Carey expressed his regret that “sales have so considerably diminished” in his colleague’s town, but he also offered encouragement that “the distribution of the Catelogues will give a new spring to the business.”[1] Similarly, a year earlier he informed James Arthur that “if you draw me out a list of your books, I shall have some catalogues printed for you to distribute throughout the country, which will probably increase your sales considerably.”[2] Carey apparently trusted that the catalogues would indeed drum up new business for Arthur, in turn generating additional orders from and profits for his supplier in Philadelphia. Carey seemed so sure of the eventual benefits of using the catalogues to market Arthur’s stock that he promised to print and send the catalogues at “no charge” if only his associate would follow his instructions in regards to drawing up a list.

Robert B. Winans has identified 286 extant American book catalogues that circulated in the colonies and the young republic during the eighteenth century, as well as an additional four hundred unlocated catalogues identified by earlier bibliographers.[3] Winans groups these catalogues into several categories, including bookseller’s catalogues, social library catalogues, and college library catalogues. The catalogues from three of his categories are of immediate relevance to the marketing of books in early America: booksellers’ catalogues (140 titles), auction catalogues (22 titles) and publishers’ catalogues (6 titles).

Excluding catalogues published by libraries and colleges, the catalogues intended to market books and other printed materials to the general public amount to just over half of the book catalogues printed in eighteenth-century America. Of these, nearly half were distributed during the final decade of the century, and only eleven predate the 1750s. After mid-century the number of catalogues published each decade steadily increased, with a slight decline only during the 1770s, most likely as the result of the war. Not surprisingly, booksellers in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York distributed the vast majority of these catalogues. Catalogues from Philadelphia accounted for more than the other two cities combined. The catalogues issued in smaller towns tended to come from social and circulating libraries, but sometimes booksellers in places like Petersburgh, Virginia, used catalogues to inform the public of their wares.

Next week I would like to examine the evolution of American book catalogues during the eighteenth century. For now, if you were unaware that book catalogues even existed in early America I hope that John Mein’s newspaper advertisement – in its similarities to broadside book catalogues – opens up a method of advertising that you had not previously considered. Catalogue shopping became extremely popular in the late nineteenth century. Innovative as it was at that time, especially when linked with delivery via the postal service, catalogues themselves date back to a much earlier period.


[1] Mathew Carey to N. Magruder, 13 March 1796, Mathew Carey Letterbook, Lea & Febiger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[2] Mathew Carey to James Arthur, 14 January 1795, Mathew Carey Letterbook, Lea & Febiger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[3] Robert D. Winans, A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800 (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1981).