July 13

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

Connecticut Courant (July 13, 1773).

“A Universal Assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES … together with the following BOOKS.”

At the same time that booksellers Smith and Coit advertised in the Connecticut Courant in the summer of 1773 they also distributed a broadside book catalog that listed hundreds of titles available at their shop in Hartford.  While booksellers sometimes placed full-page newspaper advertisements that doubled as broadsides, that was not quite the case here.  A single page of the Connecticut Courant did not have sufficient space to accommodate all five columns of titles that appeared on the broadside.  As a result, four of those columns ran on the second page of the July 13 edition, amounting to a full-page advertisement, of sorts, and the final column ran on the third page.

That required some revisions on the part of the compositor.  Both the newspaper advertisement and the broadside book catalog featured the date “5th July, 1773.”  The printing office likely produced the broadside first, at about the same time the July 6 edition of the newspaper went to press, and then the compositor adapted type already set to fit in the next issue of the Connecticut Courant.  The same introductory material ran across the top of both the broadside and the newspaper advertisement, but the compositor did have to rest that portion to run across only four columns instead of five.  The entries in the columns themselves, however, remained the same, with the exception of “Robinson Crusoe” moving from the bottom of the fourth column to the top of the fifth column on the facing page.

The compositor also removed a list of additional merchandise, including stationery, writing supplies, and groceries, that ran across all five columns at the bottom of the broadside.  Those items did not disappear from the newspaper advertisement.  Instead, the compositor reset the type so it fit at the bottom of the additional column that appeared on the third page.  When readers held open the issue to peruse the interior pages, they saw the entire advertisement in a slightly different format than what appeared on the broadside.  The contents of Smith and Coit’s entire broadside book catalog made it into the newspaper, appearing for only a single week.  Still, that demonstrated the determination of the booksellers to disseminate multiple forms of marketing materials and the ingenuity of the compositor in making it happen.  In addition, it likely was not the first time that Smith and Coit simultaneously distributed a broadsided book catalog and a newspaper advertisement.

Smith and Coit’s Broadside Book Catalog (1773). Courtesy Huntington Library.

May 11

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

Connecticut Courant (May 11, 1773).


Hezekiah Merrill’s advertisement for books “JUST IMPORTED, FROM LONDON” filled most of the second page of the May 11, 1773, edition of the Connecticut Courant, filling the space allotted to two columns on other pages.  The compositor, however, did not abide by the usual column width.  Instead, the headline and introduction at the top of the advertisement and a nota bene giving more information at the bottom extended the entire width.  A list of books, one title per line, arranged in three columns accounted for most of the advertisement.  To direct prospective customers to items of interest, Merrill included headers for “DIVINITY,” “LAW,” “PHYSIC & SURGERY,” “HISTORY,” “SCHOOL BOOKS,” and “MISCELLANY.”

Merrill’s advertisement had the appearance of a broadside book catalog that just happened to appear in the pages of a newspaper … and the bookseller may very well have had it printed separately.  Ebenezer Watson, the printer of the Connecticut Courant, made similar arrangements with other advertisers.  In July 1773, for instance, Watson printed a broadside book catalog for Smith and Coit to distribute on their own and inserted it in the Connecticut Courant.  It filled an entire page.  I believe that this previously happened with a full-page advertisement that Smith and Coit placed on August 4, 1772, though no separate broadside book catalog has yet been located.  Similarly, no extant broadside version of Merrill’s advertisement has been identified.

Entrepreneurs created and distributed printed advertisements in a variety of formats in eighteenth-century America, from broadsides and handbills to trade cards and billheads to furniture labels and catalogs.  All of those formats were much more ephemeral than newspaper notices because printers and some subscribers saved their newspapers.  For many newspapers published in the 1700s, we have complete or nearly complete runs, granting access to an array of content that included extensive advertising.  Newspaper notices, in turn, provide evidence of other forms of advertising that have not been preserved by research libraries, historical societies, and private collectors.  Booksellers and auctioneers frequently mentioned catalogs in their newspaper advertisements, but few remain extant.  Merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others described the signs that marked their locations, sometimes including woodcuts that depicted them, though few of those signs survive today.  Similarly, printers and advertisers likely worked together in producing and distributing far more handbills and broadsides, including broadside book catalogs, than have been saved.  Given its size and unusual format, Merrill’s newspaper advertisement could have circulated separately as part of larger marketing campaign.

November 20

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

New-London Gazette (November 20, 1772).

“A curious Assortment of new-fashion’d GOODS.”

One advertisement dominated the final page of the November 20, 1772, edition of the New-London Gazette.  Ebenezer Backus, Jr., ran a notice that filled more than three-quarters of the page, inviting customers to attend a sale of a “curious Assortment of new-fashion’d GOODS” at his store in Norwich.  Although other items appeared at the top of the page, the size of Backus’s advertisement in general combined with the size of font for the word “GOODS” in the middle of the page in particular, drew attention away from everything else.  Readers may have eventually noticed the “POETS CORNER,” a weekly feature on the final page, but the prominence of Backus’s advertisement likely meant they overlooked Thomas Hartshorn’s notice calling on those indebted to him to settle accounts, at least initially.

Backus’s notice may have circulated solely in this format, but that may not have been the case.  He could have also made arrangements with Timothy Green, the printer of the New-London Gazette, to produce additional copies to distribute as broadsides or handbills.  That seems to have been a practice among printers and entrepreneurs in the early 1770s.  Smith and Coit likely did so with a broadside book catalog that also ran in the August 4, 1772, edition of the Connecticut Courant.  Similarly, John Boyles may have adopted the same strategy with subscription proposals for Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws in the October 19, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.

The inclusion of a colophon suggests that Green printed separate broadsides or handbills for Backus to post around town or give to prospective customers.  Green did not always publish a colophon in the New-London Gazette.  When he did, it sometimes read, “NEW-LONDON: Printed by T. Green,” and other times simply stated, “Printed by T. Green.”  In contrast, the colophon centered at the bottom of the final page of the November 20 edition gave both the place of publication and the printer’s full name, “NEW-LONDON: Printed by TIMOTHY GREEN.”  Printers often placed their colophon on broadsides and handbills they printed for others, giving announcements or advertisements intended for other purposes a secondary purpose as marketing materials promoting the services offered by printers.  The presence of the colophon on the final page of the New-London Gazette does not definitively demonstrate that a broadside or handbill circulated separately, but it does support the possibility that colonizers encountered more advertising in a variety of formats than those preserved in the collections of research libraries and historical societies might suggest.

New-London Gazette (November 20, 1772).

October 19

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (October 19, 1772).

“PROPOSALS For Re-Printing by Subscription … Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Spirit of Laws.”

It would have been hard for readers to miss the subscription proposal that dominated the final page of the October 19, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  John Boyles announced his intention to publish an “American Edition” of the “Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Sprit of the Laws,” a work of political philosophy “Which ought to be in EVERY MAN’s Hands.”  Boyles explained that the book had been “Translated from the French Original” as well as “translated and published in most of the civilized Nations of EUROPE.”  Colonizers who wished to participate in the transatlantic republic of letters needed to acquire copies of their own.  To make this particular edition even more attractive than imported alternatives, the publisher stated that it would include “a larger Account of the Life and Writings of the AUTHOR, than is in the European Editions.”

The format of the subscription proposal suggests that it may have been printed separately as a broadside or handbill, on paper of a different size, for distribution beyond subscribers to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  If that was indeed the case, the compositor did not wish to set the type once again in order to insert the subscription proposal in the newspaper.  Its width exceeded two newspaper columns, causing the compositor to create a narrow third column by rotating the type for additional advertisements to run perpendicular to the page.  In the years immediately preceding the American Revolution, advertisers sometimes arranged to have book catalogues, broadsides, or handbills incorporated into newspapers, expanding the reach of their marketing efforts.  That being the case, I suspect that more advertising ephemera circulated in early America than has been identified and preserved in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections.  This subscription proposal in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy hints at a hidden history of early American advertising impossible to recover in its entirety.  Although newspaper notices constituted, by the far, the most voluminous form of advertising in early America, other printed media likely circulated more frequently than previously realized.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (October 19, 1772).

August 4

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

Connecticut Courant (August 4, 1772).

“The following BOOKS, imported directly from LONDON, are to be sold.”

Booksellers Smith and Coit had a true full-page advertisement in the August 4, 1772, edition of the Connecticut Courant.  They came close in the previous issue, but the compositor squeezed another advertisement into the space that otherwise would have been the right margin.  When readers perused the August 4 issue, they encountered only Smith and Coit’s advertisement on the final page.  Not even a colophon stating that Ebenezer Watson printed the Connecticut Courant in Hartford appeared at the bottom of the page.

Smith and Coit likely distributed this advertisement via other methods.  They may have placed an order for handbills or broadsides.  They certainly did so a year later when they disseminated a broadside promoting “a universal assortment of drugs, medicines, painter’s colours, and grocery articles; together with the following books” on sale “at their store east of the Court-House in Hartford.”  According the notes in the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog, this broadside was “Primarily booksellers’ catalog” and the “complete text of the broadside appeared in the July 6, 1773, issue of the Connecticut Courant, printed by Ebenezer Watson.”  It did not run in the standard issue of the July 6 edition, but Watson may have distributed a supplement not included in America’s Historical Newspapers.  The broadside did do double duty as the second page of the July 13 edition.  Considering that Watson collaborated with Smith and Coit in creating a broadside book catalog that also served as a full-page newspaper advertisement in the summer of 1773, they probably did so in 1772 as well.

Smith and Coit had several options for circulating their book catalog.  They may have posted it at their shop or pasted it up around town.  They may have passed it out as a handbill.  They may have given customers a copy when they made purchases, encouraging them to consider buying other titles on a subsequent visit.  They may have treated it as a circular letter, writing a short note, folding the catalog into a smaller size, sealing it, addressing it, and sending it via the post.  They may have sent copies to booksellers in other towns, alerting them to titles they had in stock to sell or exchange for others.  Smith and Coit may have distributed their book catalog in some or all of these ways.  Other advertisers utilized all of them in the second half of the eighteenth century.