What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“As neat as any in Boston.”
John Edwards, a “BOOKBINDER and STATIONER from BOSTON,” sold a variety of books as well as writing supplies at his shop on Queen Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Edwards did not describe himself as a bookseller, even though he devoted approximately half of his advertisement to listing some of the titles he carried. Throughout the eighteenth century members of the book trades often specialized in one trade yet supplemented their incomes by taking on some responsibilities more closely associated with other aspects of book production and distribution. Both printers and bookbinders, for instance, commonly sold books that they had not printed or bound.
By trade and training, Edwards may have considered himself first and foremost a bookbinder, taking pride in the unique skills mastered in that occupation. Yet the demand for bookbinding services in the town of Portsmouth likely made it impossible to earn his living solely from that trade. Considering that Edwards had relocated from Boston at some point, competition among bookbinders for the business of a finite number of potential customers, even in that bustling port, may have prompted him to seek out other opportunities in the neighboring colony. Fewer bookbinders resided in Portsmouth, but so did fewer potential customers. In the face of less demand for the services of bookbinders, Edwards sold consumer goods related to his trade – books and writing materials – to generate additional revenues. He likely bound some of his imported books to the taste and budget of those who purchased them.
Edwards attempted to mobilize his Boston origins to his advantage. He proclaimed that he bound “all sorts of Books” and made “Account Books of any size, as neat as any in Boston.” Having lived and worked in that city, Edwards was qualified to testify to the quality of the bookbinding done there and assess his own work in comparison. He pledged to potential customers that his work was comparable to what they would find in a larger and more distinguished market, assuring them that its quality was comparable to what they would find in the urban center that most immediately commanded their attention when making comparisons. Similarly, advertisers in Boston favorably compared their wares and workmanship to what was produced in London. Colonists looked to the next larger market for validation as they shaped their own practices of consumption.