September 3

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 3, 1772).

“Funeral SERMON … preached by the Rev. Mr. ELI FORBES, of Brookfield.”

A few months after the death of Joshua Eaton in April 1772, a subscription notice for “SOME short Account of the LIFE and CHARACTER of the late Rev’d Mr. JOSHUA EATON, of Spencer” appeared in the September 3 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  The proposed volume also included “Seven of his serious and useful SERMONS – together with his Funeral SERMON, preached the Sabbath after his Interment by the Rev. Mr. ELI FORBES, of Brookfield.”

Subscription proposals for books that publishers anticipated would have widespread interest often listed local agents in cities and towns in several colonies.  Sometimes the networks for collecting subscriptions were regional, such as those that extended throughout New England, while others incorporated all of the colonies, including the efforts of Robert Bell to establish an American literary marketplace.  In this instance, however, the publishers suspected that Eaton’s biography and sermons would generate primarily local interest in central Massachusetts.  The list of local agents who collected subscriptions included “Deacons Watson and Murry of Spencer” as well as men in the nearby towns of Brookfield, Worcester, Shrewsbury, and Westborough.  Richard Draper and John Boyles, printers in Boston, were the only local agents outside of central Massachusetts.  The proposals did not include other agents along the Massachusetts coastline or in neighboring colonies.  Even in such a compact market, the subscription notice helped to generate sufficient interest to take the book to press, perhaps aided by the commitment of Eaton’s friends to honor the deceased minister.  Draper and Boyles printed the book sometime the following year, with a preface that Forbes, the editor, dated October 20, 1772.

That the subscription notice that ran in a newspaper printed in Boston listed local agents in several towns in central Massachusetts demonstrates the reach of colonial newspapers as they circulated far beyond the towns where they were published.  Newspaper advertisements likely would not have been the only means of spreading word about the proposed volume in Spencer and nearby towns, but if the advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter had been intended solely for prospective subscribers in and near Boston then it would not have been necessary to list more than half a dozen local agents in central Massachusetts.  In the absence of newspapers printed in that part of the colony prior to 1775, newspapers from Boston served as local publications.