What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Catalogue of BOOKS.”
Like purveyors of consumer goods who provided elaborate lists of their merchandise, colonial booksellers frequently published lists of the books available at their shops in their newspaper advertisements. Those lists often amounted to book catalogs adapted to a different format. In the case of an advertisement that Lathrop and Smith placed in the August 13, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Courant, the booksellers even described their notice as a “Catalogue of BOOKS.”
Arranged in five columns with a headline extending across the entire page, the impressive list occupied most of the third page. It accounted for almost one-quarter of the issue. The first three columns filled the space allotted to two columns on the other pages. The fourth and fifth columns, however, were even more narrow in order to fit in the space of a single column. That allowed the compositor to insert four additional advertisements, all of them unrelated to the book catalog, in the lower right corner of the page. By maintaining the standard column width, those advertisements could be moved within the newspaper to appear in other places in subsequent editions without needing to set the type all over again. This configuration suggests that Lathrop and Smith did not invest in broadsheet catalogs to disseminate separately, but instead relied solely on the Connecticut Courant to reach prospective customers.
Although they neglected one marketing innovation, the booksellers did adopt another. To aid readers and prospective customers in finding items of interest, the booksellers divided their inventory into several genres, including Divinity; Law; Physic, Surgery, &c.; School Books; History; and Miscellany. Within each genre, they listed the books in alphabetical order by author or, in the case of some popular works, by title. Readers perusing the Divinity section spotted “Edwards on Original Sin” and “Whitefield’s Hymns.” Those browsing books about Law encountered “Blackstone’s Commentaries” and “Every Man his own Lawyer.”
Filling nearly an entire page, this advertisement likely attracted attention. Readers could hardly have ignored it, nor could they have ignored Lathrop and Smith’s names in a larger font than even the name of the newspaper in the masthead on the first page. Published in Hartford, the Connecticut Courant usually devoted less space to advertising than newspaper printed in larger towns and cities. That made Lathrop and Smith’s “Catalogue of BOOKS” all the more noteworthy.