February 3

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

Maryland Gazette (January 31, 1771).

“AMERICA:  Printed for the SUBSCRIBERS.”

When Robert Bell published an American edition of “THE HISTORY of the REIGN of CHARLES the Fifth, Emperor of Germany” in 1771, he placed advertisements and subscription notices in multiple newspapers in several colonies.  Printer-publishers regularly adopted that strategy, especially prior to the American Revolution, because local markets did not necessarily support the publication of American editions as alternatives to imported ones.  To generate sufficient demand to make American editions viable ventures, Bell and his counterparts had to engage consumers across large regions rather than just in their own towns.

Bell, one of the most famous and influential American booksellers both before and after independence, made innovations to the practice of reprinting the same advertisements and subscription notices from one newspaper to another.  Rather than submitting identical copy to multiple newspapers, updating only the names of the local sellers and subscription agents, he devised a series of notices that varied from publication to publication.  Each contained some of the especially elaborate, even by eighteenth-century standards, language that became one of Bell’s trademarks.  He opened his advertisement in the January 31 edition of the Maryland Gazette, for instance, with a proclamation that he had “Just published … the following celebrated Work – praised – quoted – and recommended in the British House of Lords, by the most illuminated and illuminating of all modern Patriots, WILLIAM PITT, now Earl of Chatham.”  Pitt became popular among American colonists for defending their interests against attempts by Parliament to regulate commerce and other impositions.  In particular, he vigorously opposed the Stamp Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional to impose taxes on the colonies.  It was not merely Pitt’s testimonial regarding “THE HISTORY of the REIGN of CHARLES the Fifth, Emperor of Germany” that Bell expected would resonate with consumers but also his reputation as an advocate for the colonies.

Bell also included a version of the imprint in his advertisement: “AMERICA:  Printed for the SUBSCRIBERS, a Catalogue of whose Names, as Encouragers of this American Edition, will be printed in the Third Volume of this Work.”  He did not follow the usual practice of listing a city.  This was not, after all, a book printed in Philadelphia, but instead an American production that demonstrated the literary culture of the colonies considered collectively.  Bell worked to create a sense of community among subscribers who purchased copies, an imagined community, to use the phrase coined by Benedict Anderson, constructed with print and extending great distances.  Despite those distances, the subscribers had a common meeting place in the “Catalogue” of names printed in the final volume.  Publishing a list of subscribers who made a publication possible was not new, but Bell presented the opportunity for prospective buyers to be included as a testament to their patriotism and support for the American cause rather than merely an indication of their status and good taste.

The advertisement concluded with a quirky nota bene in which Bell recommended a schoolmaster from Philadelphia who recently moved to Baltimore, an endorsement seemingly unrelated to the remainder of notice.  It may have been less expensive for Bell to append the nota bene rather than insert a separate advertisement.  Whatever the reason, the nota bene fit well with Bell’s pattern of deviating from expectations and setting his own standards, both within his advertisements and in his eccentric behavior at book auctions.  His advertisement deployed familiar “Buy American” appeals, but did so in especially exuberant language, invited prospective subscribers to become part of a community of citizen-readers, and ended with a recommendation for a schoolmaster.  Bell presented consumers some of the appeals they came to expect from him as well as at least one surprise, a pattern for engaging with customers and audiences that he further developed over the next several decades.

January 27

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (January 24, 1771).

“All Persons that now choose to encourage American Manufactures.”

On January 24, 1771, Robert Bell continued marketing an American edition of “Robertson’s History of Charles the Fifth” with advertisements in both the New-York Journal and the Pennsylvania Gazette.  In the latter, the flamboyant printer, publisher, bookseller, and auctioneer announced publication of the second volume and promised that the “THIRD VOLUME of this celebrated History is now in the Press, and will soon be finished.”  Bell noted that the second volume was “now ready to be delivered to the Subscribers,” purchasers who reserved copies in advance.  In a nota bene, he advised “SUBSCRIBERS in the Jerseys” to visit Isaac Collins in Burlington or Dunlap Adams in Trenton to retrieve their copies.

Bell also invited those who had not yet subscribed to join the fellowship of their peers who “choose to encourage American Manufactures.”  Both before and, especially, after the American Revolution, Bell was one of the eighteenth-century’s leading proponents of creating a distinctly American literary market in terms of the production of books.  Printers and booksellers imported most of the books they offered for sale, a situation that Bell sought to modify.  In deploying the language of “American Manufactures,” he made this into a political project familiar to both producers and consumers as a result of nonimportation agreements enacted in opposition to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts.  Yet prospective customers had another reason to choose Bell’s American edition over an imported alternative:  price.  Bell charged one dollar for each volume of Robertson’s history.  In comparison, “the British Edition cannot be imported for less than Four Dollars each Volume.”  Bell’s customers enjoyed significant savings, acquiring the entire set of the American edition for less than a single volume of the British edition.

Bell concluded his advertisement with some of the verbose language that became a hallmark of his marketing efforts over the course of several decades.  Those who wished to become subscribers by sending their names to Bell or other booksellers “may depend upon Ebullitions of Gratitude.”  Bell’s advertisement incorporated several marketing strategies, including the politics of “American Manufactures,” the financial advantages for customers, and his colorful language and personality.

January 9

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 7, 1771).

“ADDRESS To those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.”

When bookseller Robert Bell inserted a notice about upcoming auctions in the January 3, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal, he devoted the second half of the advertisement to promoting an American edition of William Robertson’s multivolume History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V.  He addressed the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country.”  Bell advanced a “Buy American” marketing strategy during the period of the imperial crisis that ultimately culminated in the American Revolution.

Later that week, he continued his advertising campaign with another notice in the January 7 edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  Bell included some of the copy from the earlier advertisement in this much lengthier iteration.  Both versions highlighted the phrase “THE LAND WE LIVE IN” by printing it in all capitals and centering it on a line of its own within the advertisement, drawing attention to Bell’s proposition that consumers who purchased this work also contributed to the “elevation and enriching” of the colonies.  He enhanced that argument with a headline that described the entire advertisement as an “ADDRESS To those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.”  Potential customers, Bell asserted, had an opportunity to engage in acts of consumption that possessed political significance.

At the same time, the bookseller declared that the American edition was a bargain compared to imported alternatives.  He charged “the moderate price of One Dollar each Volume” for the three volumes, noting that the “British edition cannot be imported for less than Twelve Dollars.”  Colonists could acquire the work at a significant savings, a reward for their role in creating a distinctive American marketplace for the production and consumption of books.  Only the first volume had gone to press, so the advertisement also served as a subscription notice.  Bell encouraged “Gentlemen who have rationality enough to consider they will receive an equivalent” to an imported edition to sign on as subscribers, simultaneously flattering and cajoling prospective customers.

Bell informed the “Encouragers of printing this Grand Historical Work” that they “may depend upon ebullitions of gratitude,” but that was only an ancillary reason for purchasing Robertson’s biography of Charles the Fifth.  He presented their own edification and their responsibility for promoting domestic manufactures in the colonies as the primary reasons for buying the first volume and subscribing for the subsequent second and third volumes.

January 3

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

New-York Journal (January 3, 1770).

“The promotion of which vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”

Robert Bell was one of the most innovative, industrious, and influential booksellers in eighteenth-century America, known for the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and the entertainment he provided at auctions.  Bell’s auctions were events, public spectacles that amused those in attendance.  The bookseller was also known for his work in creating and promoting a distinctly American market for books, especially after the revolution.  He got started on that enterprise, however, several years before the colonies declared independence from Britain.

In the first issue of the New-York Journal published in 1771, Bell launched a new advertising campaign that announced book auctions on Friday and Saturday evenings.  In addition to giving information about the auctions, he devoted half of the advertisement to a nota bene about the “American Edition of Robertson’s Charles the Fifth.”  Rather than purchase imported alternatives, Bell asserted that the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country” would acquire the edition produced in the colonies.  Over the course of his career, Bell became known for the verbose and convoluted prose he deployed in his marketing materials.  He used labyrinthine language even by eighteenth-century standards, including in this advertisement for an American edition.  Consumers were already familiar with arguments in favor of domestic manufactures in the wake of boycotting imported goods, but Bell approached the endeavor with more verve than proponents when he trumped that “the promotion” of American products “vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”  The bookseller advocated on behalf of American commerce and American culture simultaneously, arguing that consumers could enhance both through the decisions they made when buying books.

Bell did not merely present customers with options for reading “Divinity, History, Novels, and Entertainment.”  Instead, he challenged them to think about how their participation in the marketplace could aid the American cause and contribute to the formation of a distinctly American identity.  He intensified those arguments as his career continued, building on marketing strategies from the early 1770s.