What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Catalogues may be had at Mr. Thomas Williams and Company’s Store in Annapolis.”
Newspaper advertisements were the most common form of marketing media in eighteenth-century America, but they were not the only means of advertising. Entrepreneurs also produced and distributed broadsides, handbills, trade cards, billheads, furniture labels, subscription papers, circular letters, and catalogs. Given the ephemeral quality of those genres, they have not survived in the same numbers as newspaper advertisements, but those that have been identified in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections suggest that various forms of advertising circulated widely.
Sometimes newspaper advertisements from the period made reference to other advertising materials that consumers discarded after the served their purpose, especially subscription papers for books and other publications, auction catalogs for an array of goods, and book catalogs that often also included stationery wares. Such was the case in an advertisement for “LAW BOOKS” in the December 27, 1770, edition of the Maryland Gazette. Thomas Brereton advertised that he sold law books in Baltimore. Seeking to serve prospective customers beyond that town, he advised readers that they could acquire catalogs “at Mr. Thomas Williams and Company’s Store in Annapolis.” Consumers could shop from the catalog and place orders via the post, the eighteenth-century version of mail order.
Brereton likely recognized benefits of simultaneously distributing two forms of marketing. The newspaper advertisements went into widespread circulation throughout the colony and beyond, enlarging his market beyond Baltimore. Yet the rates for publishing lengthy newspaper advertisements, such as a list of titles from a book catalog, may have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, resorting to job printing for a specified number of catalogs may have been the more economical choice. In addition, doing so created an item devoted exclusively to the sale of Brereton’s law books without extraneous materials. Interested parties who encountered Brereton’s advertisement in newspapers they read in coffeehouse or taverns or borrowed from friends or acquaintances could request their own copies of the catalog to carry with them, mark up, and otherwise treat as they pleased.
Compared to the frequency that newspapers advertisements promoted book catalogs as ancillary marketing materials, relatively few have survived. Some historians suspect that advertisers did not produce all of the catalogs they mentioned in their newspaper notices, especially those that advertisers promised would soon become available. Despite that possibility, it did not serve Brereton to direct prospective customers to a catalog that did not exist. In this instance, he noted that the catalogs were already available, increasing the likelihood that he did indeed produce and circulate them.