What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Encouraged by several gentlemen of eminence in the different provinces, to undertake the publication of the following litterary works, in America.”
Robert Bell, one of the most influential booksellers and publishers in eighteenth-century America, cultivated a distinctly American market for the production and consumption of books, both before and after the American Revolution. Although American printers produced some titles, they were relatively few compared to those imported from Britain. Bell sought to change that, advertising widely rather than only in newspapers published in his own town.
For instance, in an advertisement in the May 27, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette, Bell listed “the late Union Library in Third-street, Philadelphia” as his location. Yet prospective customers interested in any of the titles included in his advertisement did not need to contact him there. Instead, they could deal with Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette. Bell proclaimed that he supplied Edes and Gill with “printed proposals, with speciments annexed” for “HUME’s elegeant HISTORY of ENGLAND, … BLACKSTONE’s splendid COMMENTARIES on the LAWS of ENGLAND, … Also, FERGUSON’s celebrated ESSAY on the HISTORY of CIVIL SOCIETY.” As local agents acting on behalf of Bell, Edes and Gill distributed the proposals, collected the “names & residence” of subscribers, and sent the lists to Bell. The enterprising bookseller and publisher enlisted many other local agents, instructing prospective “purchasers, of any of the fore mentioned litterary works” to contact “any of the Booksellers and Printers on this continent.” Advertisements in other newspapers from New England to South Carolina indicated that Bell established an extensive network of associates and local agents.
In another way, this was not Bell’s endeavor alone. He claimed that many others supported his efforts to create an America market for books printed in America. He proclaimed that he had been “encouraged by several gentlemen of eminence in the different provinces, to undertake the publication” of several notable works “in America.” Others, he declared, shared his vision. Bell extended an invitation to even more readers to join them, addressing “Gentlemen who wish prosperity to the means for the enlargement of the human understanding in America.” Such explicit reference to the edification and refinement of readers did not, however, did not tell the entire story. Subscribers also implicitly made political statements about American identity and expressed support for American commerce. Americans did not need to think of themselves or the books they produced and consumed as inferior to those imported from Britain. Bell promised that “BLACKSTONE’s famous COMMENTARIES” compared favorably “page for page with the London edition.” Prospective subscribers could conform the quality of the books by examining the proposals and, especially, the specimens entrusted to Bell’s local agents.
Bell commenced his advertisement with an announcement that “THE THIRD VOLUME OF ROBERTSON’s splendid History of CHARLES the Fifth, with compleat Indexes, is now finished for the Subscribers.” He previously advertised all three volumes widely, starting with subscription notices before taking the work to press and providing updates and seeking additional subscribers along the way. Alerting readers that the project came to a successful conclusion served as a testimonial to the vision that Bell and “several gentlemen of eminence in the different provinces” shared. Achieving that vision and moving forward with the publication of American editions of other significant works required continued support from readers who committed to becoming subscribers. Their decisions about consumption, Bell suggested, had ramifications beyond acquiring books for their own reference.