January 8

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

Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (January 5, 1769).
“Most of these Papers will, probably, be irrevocably lost in a few Years, unless they be preserved by Printing.”

An advertisement concerning a proposed companion volume to a well-known publication appeared in the January 5, 1769, edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. In 1764, Boston bookseller Jeremiah Condy published the first volume of The History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay by Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of the colony at the time. Thomas Fleet and John Fleet printed the book, which covered the period “from the first settlement thereof in 1628 until its incorporation with the colony of Plimoth, province of Main, &c. by the Charter of King William and Queen Mary, in 1691.” Three years later, Condy published the second volume, also printed by the Fleets. It extended the narrative “from the charter of King William and Queen Mary, in 1681, until the year 1750.” Both volumes were widely advertised in Boston’s newspapers and beyond.

Condy had been working on a related project when he died in 1768. As the Fleets explained, “THE late Mr. CONDY intended to have published a Volumne of curious Papers, to have served as an Appendix to the Lieutenant-Governor’s HISTORY of the MASSACHUSETTS-BAY, but Death prevented.” Not to be deterred, the Fleets issued a subscription notice “to encourage the Printing of the same Collection.” The proposed volume would be the same size and approximate length as the other two in the series, “about 600 Pages in Octavo.”

The Fleets deployed several strategies to convince readers to purchase the companion volume. They declared that they would publish it only “as soon as a sufficient Number of Subscribers appear to defrey the Expence.” If not enough buyers made a commitment in advance, the book would not go to press. Furthermore, the Fleets warned that “No Books will be printed for Sale.” This suggested a limited edition. They would print only enough copies to fulfill the orders placed by subscribers and no additional copies for subsequent retail sales. The printers attempted to maneuver prospective customers into reserving a copy for fear of missing out if they delayed. This may have been an especially effective strategy targeting those who acquired the first and second volumes as they contemplated completing the series with the companion volume.

In addition, the Fleets called on a sense of civic pride among prospective subscribers. They painted a stark portrait of what might happen if the proposed volume did not garner sufficient interest to go to press. “As most of these Papers will, probably, be irrecoverably lost in a few Years, unless they be preserved by Printing, it is hoped that a sufficient Number of Subscribers will soon appear.” According to the Fleets, the survival of the original documents mattered less than the proliferation of copies produced on the press. Any single document or copy could be lost or destroyed, but the proliferation of copies guaranteed that subsequent generations would continue to have access to the important documents that comprised the history of the colony. In that regard, subscribers practiced a significant public service. Those who subscribed to the companion volume did so not only “for the sake of their particular Entertainment” but also “from a regard to the Public.” The printers layered the act of purchasing this book with social meaning. Acquiring this volume, the Fleets argued, fulfilled a civic responsibility that would benefit the entire community, both now and in the future.

December 19

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

Dec 19 - 12:19:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 19, 1767).

“By far the largest and best Assortment in this Town.”

In their attempt to incite consumer demand and attract customers, Joseph and William Russell filled their advertisement for “English, India, and Hard-Ware GOODS” with superlatives. Not content to rely on adjectives commonly used in retail advertisements (“large, neat, and compleat”) to describe their assortment of goods, they proclaimed that their inventory was “by far the largest and best Assortment in this Town.” Potential customers did not need to even entertain the notion of browsing in other shops because the Russells were certain to carry all the items they needed and wanted.

In case their selection alone did not entice consumers, the Russells guaranteed the lowest prices in Providence. They promised to sell “as CHEAP, if not CHEAPER, than any Person in this Town,” a claim that both Jonathan Russell and Thompson and Arnold disputed in their advertisements on the following page. The former advised consumers that he was “determined to sell at the very cheapest rate,” while the latter declared that they were “determined to sell as low as can be bought in any Shop or Store in this Town, or any other in New-England.” The Russells expressed confidence in their ability to charge the lowest prices because “they purchased [their goods] in England themselves.” Six weeks earlier they published a full-page advertisement that provided more explanation. William Russell had just returned from a trip to England and “brought over with him a large, neat, and compleat Assortment of … GOODS … which he purchased from the first Hands.” Eliminating English merchants from their supply chain allowed the Russells to pass along savings to their customers.

For readers not yet convinced to patronize the Russells’ shop, they also presented an argument that their business promoted the local welfare and customers could consider buying from them an act of civic responsibility. The shopkeepers stated that since “their Trade tends greatly to the Benefit of this Town, and the Country round” that “they doubt not but all the good People … will favour them with their Custom, instead of such Shops as send all the Money they receive out of the Government.” In the late 1760s a trade imbalance between the colonies and England contributed to a scarcity of specie as retailers engaged in trade with English merchants. By acquiring their merchandise directly the producers, “from the best Hands” in England, the Russells remitted less specie to associates on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition, they imported their wares “directly from LONDON,” but some of their local competitors acquired their merchandise via Boston and New York, enriching neighboring colonies at the expense of Rhode Island.

The Russells argued that customers who chose their shop enjoyed multiple advantages. They immediately benefited from the large selection and low prices, but their decisions as consumers also had ramifications for the collective economic welfare of Providence and the surrounding area.