What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Books for Children, very proper for Christmas and New Year’s Gifts.”
John Mein made a fairly unique appeal to potential customers when he advertised “A Large Assortment of entertaining and instructive Books for Children, very proper for Christmas and New Year’s Gifts.” The bookseller tied consumerism to the holidays in a way that few other advertisers did in late 1766 and early 1767, which differs significantly from marketing practices in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Very few advertisers acknowledged Christmas as a holiday, much less used it to promote purchases from their shops. Recognition of the new year manifested itself in advertising mostly through calls for those who previously bought on credit to settle accounts. Indeed, only a handful of advertisers linked the holidays to making purchases and giving gifts.
As with many other aspects of marketing, members of the book trade seemed to be at the forefront of this innovation. Throughout all of the advertisements placed in newspapers during December 1766 and early January 1767, booksellers alone encouraged customers to think of their wares as gifts for others. In an advertisement in the January 8, 1767, issue of the New-York Journal bookseller Garrat Noel listed “A very large Parcel of Mr. Newberry’s beautiful gilt Picture Books, for the Entertainment of his old Friends the pretty Masters and Misses of New-York, at Christmas and New-York.” The appropriately named Noel was a veteran of promoting holiday gifts, having noted in his advertisements a year earlier that it was “his annual Custom … to offer to the Public, the following List of Books, as proper for Christmas Presents and New-Year’s Gifts.”
John Mein further advanced this innovation, anticipating marketing strategies of the late nineteenth century and beyond. He announced that potential customers could pick up free “Printed Catalogues” listing the books he considered especially suited to be given as gifts. Retailers of all sorts eventually resorted to catalogs, especially Christmas catalogs, to drive sales during a season increasingly associated with consumerism.
In the 1760s, however, the media – both printers and advertisers – took little notice of the Christmas season. On the same day that Mein’s advertisement appeared in Boston and Noel’s in New York, the first page of the Virginia Gazette featured “An ODE upon CHRISTMAS” on the front page. It was dated December 4, 1766, but the printers did not consider it pressing enough to make room for it in their newspaper until five weeks later. The Christmas holiday did not dominate December in the 1760s to the extent it does in modern America.