What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Collection of HYMNS for social Worship … By that eminent and illustrious Servant of Christ, the late Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
In the weeks after George Whitefield’s death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, printers, booksellers, and others supplied the grieving public with commemorative items that honored the memory of one of the most influential ministers associated with the religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening. The commodification of Whitefield’s death was widespread. Advertisements for broadsides and books appeared in newspapers from New England to South Carolina. As colonists joined together in mourning the minister, they also joined together to participate in a culture of consumption inspired by his death.
Garrat Noel, a bookseller in New York, advertised titles by Whitefield already in his inventory. John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to turn a profit by reprinting Whitefield’s popular Collection of Hymns for Social Worship. He inserted a subscription notice in the November 17 edition of the Providence Gazette, calling on prospective buyers to indicate their interest by “subscribing” for their own copies. Subscription notices helped printers assess demand for proposed publications. As Carter explained in his advertisement, “As soon as a Sufficiency of Subscriptions are obtained barely to defray the Charge of Printing, the Work will be prepared for the Press.” If he did not attract enough subscribers then he would not lose money on the enterprise. As a means of confirming their commitment, Carter asked subscribers to pay half “at subscribing” and the other half upon delivery.
Carter made several marketing appeals to entice subscribers to reserve their copies. They should acquire it, he argued, as a means of religious edification. “This valuable Work,” the printer stated, “forms of itself a Body of Divinity, and ought to be in the Hands of every Christian.” Furthermore, it was a bargain. The previous twelve editions printed in London sold for twice as much as Carter charged for his American edition. If that was not reason enough, then prospective subscribers needed to take into account the politics of making this purchase. Carter asserted that the hymnal would be printed on “good Paper, of the Manufacture of America,” rather than imported paper that had been subject to duties under the Townshend Acts until only very recently. Subscribers could demonstrate their righteousness in honoring the memory of Whitefield while simultaneously encouraging domestic production that served as an alternative to relying on imported goods.