What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A most celebrated Discourse on the Death of the Rev. and renown’d GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770. Newspapers in Boston carried the first reports the following day. Over the course of the next several weeks, news radiated out. Printers in other towns reprinted articles from Boston’s newspapers and added their own coverage of reactions in their local communities. Amateur poets penned tributes to the deceased minister and submitted them to newspapers. Like news reports, those poems were reprinted from one publication to another. Although news and poems related to Whitefield’s death originally moved from New England to other places in the colonies, eventually the culture of reprinting caused newspapers in New England to carry short articles about local reaction to Whitefield’s death in New York and Philadelphia.
Nearly seven weeks had elapsed since the minister’s death when the New-Hampshire Gazette reprinted an article and poem about Whitefield from the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. It filled half a page, a significant amount of space in a newspaper comprised of only four pages. In the same issue, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, inserted an advertisement for a sermon preached by Jonathan Parsons, a “most celebrated Discourse on the Death of the Rev. and renown’d GEORGE WHITEFIELD.” The lengthy advertisement extended half a column. Between the item reprinted from the New-York Gazette and the advertisement for the sermon, content associated with the minister’s death accounted for two of the twelve columns in the November 16, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette.
Parson’s sermon was not the first item memorializing Whitefield offered for sale to the public. Nearly as soon as newspapers began running articles about the minister’s death, they also suggested that funeral sermons would soon be going to press. Booksellers found renewed interest in hawking books by Whitefield, capitalizing on current events. Printers marketed a variety of broadsides with poems, accounts of the funeral, and visual images of Whitefield lying in repose. The advertisement for this newest commemorative item included a lengthy remembrance from Parsons, reflecting on the first time he met Whitefield and extolling the minister’s work over the past three decades. The Fowles likely sought to incite greater interest in the pamphlet by whetting the appetites of prospective buyers with that excerpt.
The loss of the beloved minister led to widespread mourning, but it also prompted widespread commodification. Advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia ran in newspapers from New England to South Carolina, though they were most heavily concentrated in newspaper published in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Purchasing commemorative items likely gave colonists opportunities to express their grief and feel connected to the minister and fellow mourners, but the production of those items also represented business opportunities for printers, booksellers, and others who stood to generate revenues from the commodification of Whitefield’s death.