What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Printer, Bookseller, Provedore to the SENTIMENTALISTS, and Hand Servant to the FRIENDS of LITERATURE.”
Robert Bell became one of the most influential American booksellers and publishers during the second half of the eighteenth century in part due to his lively marketing efforts. He developed a flamboyant personality that made him memorable and, simultaneously, made the books he advertised memorable. Based in Philadelphia in 1773, he placed notices in newspapers from New England to South Carolina. Two advertisements in the November 19 edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette demonstrate his unique style.
Both featured headlines that addressed prospective customers in a manner meant to flatter them and encourage them to identify with a peer group that they imagined buying the books that Bell presented to them. For instance, one alerted the “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW, in AMERICA” that they could find subscription proposals for several different law books, including “BACON’s new abridgment of the law” and a “second American edition of Judge BLACKSTONE’s Commentaries on the laws of England,” at their local “booksellers shops.” The other advertisement promoted Bell’s first American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries to the “Sons of Science in America.” In it, Bell described himself as “Printer, Bookseller, Provedore to the SENTIMENTALISTS, and Hand Servant to the FRIENDS of LITERATURE.” When he named those fanciful occupations, he also depicted his ideal customers.
Bell also insisted that readers envision a community that extended throughout the colonies. His advertisements ran in newspapers published in many cities and towns, but they did not address the “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW, in PORTSMOUTH” or the “Sons of Science in New Hampshire.” Instead, Bell treated readers near and far as an integrated market. In his “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW” advertisement, he advised that prospective subscribers “now have an opportunity of seeing at most of the booksellers shops in the capital towns and cities on the Continent, printed proposals with conditions and specimens” for publishing several books. In his “Sons of Science” advertisement, Bell credited the “auspicious influence” of those subscribers for making the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentariespossible. In the other advertisement, he portrayed subscribers as “Encouragers” who “greatly contribute towards the elevation, and enlivening of Literary Manufactures in America.”
Printers, booksellers, and publishers often placed subscription proposals in newspapers in multiple colonies in their efforts to generate sufficient demand to make their projects viable. Bell was especially proficient at disseminating advertisements and subscription papers throughout the colonies. When he did so, he devised advertising copy that emphasized that customers were members of communities not bounded by geography. Their interests rather than their location defined them as they joined other “Sons of Science,” “SAGES, and STUDENTS of the LAW,” and “FRIENDS of LITERATURE” in creating a common American experience.