What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“One of Mrs. Stoke’s hand bills relating to her boarding school in Charlestown.”
Newspaper notices accounted for the vast majority of advertisements that circulated in eighteenth-century America, yet they were not the only form of marketing familiar in the colonies or the new nation. Advertisers distributed a variety of other media, including broadsides, trade cards, billheads, catalogs, magazine wrappers, subscription notices, furniture labels, and handbills. Even more ephemeral than newspapers, relatively few of these items survive today. Those that are extant testify to a vibrant landscape of advertising in early America.
In some cases, newspaper notices alluded to other advertisements, providing a more complete story of their production and circulation in eighteenth-century America. For instance, printers, booksellers, auctioneers, and others sometimes noted in their advertisements that they provided free catalogs to prospective customers who wished to learn more about their inventory. Sometimes newspaper notices placed for purposes other than marketing consumer goods and services mentioned advertisements distributed via other media.
Such was the case in a notice that ran in the December 27, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Lewis Johnson informed the public that several certificates and bills had been “STOLEN out of a desk in [his] house.” Je offered a reward to “whoever will give any information of the thief.” To help anyone who might come in contact with the culprit identify the stolen bills, Johnson reported that the “money was put up on one of Mrs. Stokes’s hand bills relating to her boarding school in Charlestown.” That single sentence, embedded in a newspaper advertisement about a theft, revealed quite a bit about another advertisement that circulated separately. Not only had a schoolmistress in Charleston, South Carolina, hired a printer to produce handbills about her boarding school, at least one of those handbills found its way to Savannah, Georgia. Whether or not he had any interest in Stokes’s school, Johnson held onto the handbill, adapting it to his own purposes when he used it as a folder to contain his certificates and bills. A significant proportion of eighteenth-century advertising ephemera in the collections of research libraries and historical societies have been preserved among family papers related to finances and household management. This suggests that advertising was integrated into the everyday lives of early Americans. In this instance, Johnson encountered Stokes’s handbill regularly as he saw to his own finances (before the theft), while readers of the Georgia Gazette saw references to an advertisement that many might have also seen circulating elsewhere.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“For a more particular description I refer to my printed catalogue.”
In the spring of 1768 William Semple advertised “A LARGE assortment of MERCHANDIZE” recently imported from Glasgow and Liverpool. Although he enumerated a few of those items, such as “Silk gauzes of all kinds” and “Scotch threads,” he devoted most of the space in his advertisement to listing dozens of titles from among “a great collection of BOOKS.” He concluded by inviting prospective customers to consult his “printed catalogue” for “a more particular description” of his inventory of books.
Semple did not rely on newspaper advertisements alone to promote the books he sold. Like many other eighteenth-century printers and booksellers, he distributed a catalog intended to entice prospective customers by informing them of the various books, pamphlets, plays, and other printed items available. A reading revolution took place in the eighteenth century: habits shifted from intensive reading of the Bible and devotional materials to extensive reading from among many genres. Book catalogs played a role in fueling that reading revolution by drawing attention to titles that consumers might not otherwise have considered purchasing.
In this case, Semple offered few details about his catalog other than noting that it was printed rather than a manuscript list. Some booksellers advised that they sold their book catalogs for nominal fees, but Semple did not indicate that was the case. He may have distributed his catalogs gratisin hopes that doing so would yield a higher return on his investment. His advertisement also does not reveal if his catalog was a broadside or a pamphlet. He simply stated that a “printed catalogue” existed as a supplement to his newspaper advertisements.
In A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800, Robert B. Winans has compiled a list of 286 extant American book catalogs published before the nineteenth century. Booksellers’ catalogs and publishers’ catalogs accounted for just over half, with social library catalogs, auction catalogs, circulating library catalogs, and college library catalogs comprising the remainder. In addition to the 286 book catalogs with at least one surviving copy, Winans includes entries for others identified from newspaper advertisements and other sources. He suspects, however, that “many if not most of them may be bibliographic ghosts.” He also reports, “Many other newspaper advertisements could just as legitimately form the basis for additional entries. But I have not included such entries since I have grave doubts about their validity.” He does not further explain his skepticism.
Winans includes an unnumbered entry for a “Catalogue of books in history, divinity, law, arts and sciences and the several parts of polite literature, to be sold by Garrat Noel, bookseller” advertised in the August 3, 1767, edition of the New-York Gazette, although no extant copy has been located. He does not include any entry for Semple’s catalog among those published the following year. Winans’s annotated bibliography of extant book catalogs documents an impressive array of marketing materials distributed in eighteenth-century America. Despite his skepticism about some that appeared in advertisements yet have not survived (which hardly comes as a surprise that such ephemeral items either no longer exist or have not yet been identified), these advertisements indicate that colonists had an expectation that booksellers and publishers did indeed print and distribute book catalogs as an alternate means of marketing their wares.
Robert B. Winans, A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800 (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1981), xvi.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“(For other Advertisements, see the Suppliment.)”
Compared to newspapers published in most other towns and cities, Hartford’s Connecticut Courant featured relatively little advertising. The March 21, 1768, edition devoted even less space to advertisements than usual, presumably because the printer, Thomas Green, opted to insert “Letter X” of John Dickinson’s “LETTERS from a FARMER in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies” in its entirety. Only five advertisements appeared in the issue, a short notice from the “Treasury-Office” immediately below the masthead as the first item in the first column on the first page and four others that comprised less than a column on the third page.
Samuel Gilbert’s notice concerning “A good, convenient Dwelling-House and Garden” for sale or rent was the last of those advertisements. “Letter X” filled the remainder of the issue, but Green first inserted an announcement at the conclusion of Gilbert’s advertisement: “(For other Advertisements, see the Suppliment.)” These directions suggest that Green did indeed have other paid notices to disseminate to the public, but the copy of the Connecticut Courant photographed and digitized by Readex for its America’s Historical Newspapers database does not include a supplement. The database does include, however, a nearly complete run of that newspaper for 1768, lacking only two of the issues printed on each Monday of the year. (Gaps in the issue numbers make it clear that two are indeed missing.) Readex reproduced supplements to other issues when they were among the collections of the libraries and archives that partnered with the company in making these historical sources more widely available and accessible. That the database does not include the supplement for the March 21, 1768, edition of the Connecticut Courant suggests that no extant copy had been located. This is disappointing but hardly surprising. We are fortunate to have an almost complete archive of the Connecticut Courant, a situation that demonstrates that newspapers were less ephemeral than other printed media that disseminated advertising in eighteenth-century America. The traces of other forms of advertising, including broadsides and catalogs, mentioned in early American newspapers, printers’ ledgers, and other sources indicate that our collections of newspapers and their advertisements will always be much more complete than our collections of other advertising media from the period.
An ephemeral advertising supplement that disappeared over time, however, might not be the only explanation. Alternately, Green may have gotten ahead of himself when he advised readers to consult the supplement for other advertisements. The printer may have intended to publish and distribute an additional half sheet, a common practice for other newspapers but less common for the Connecticut Courant, but ultimately ran out of time or determined that he did not have sufficient advertising content to merit the expenditure of resources. Green may have announced a supplement that has not survived to the twenty-first century because it never actually existed in the eighteenth century. Our archive of the Connecticut Courant may be more complete than the evidence from the period otherwise suggests. The announcement concerning an advertising supplement may testify to the aspirations of the printer rather than the work he accomplished.
This week’s extended commentary post is scheduled to publish as a virtual text just as my panel, “Beyond the Book,” commences at the Early American Material Texts conference in Philadelphia. I will be speaking about “Eighteenth-Century Advertising Ephemera: Paratexts that Framed Early American Magazines.” The material that follows below is an excerpt from my pre-circulated paper, the portion that discusses the challenges of conducting archival work on magazines as material texts whose form changed dramatically, both in the eighteenth century as the result of interventions by the original subscribers and throughout subsequent centuries as the result of archival and digitization practices.
Many scholars have examined the cultural, political, and intellectual content of the late-eighteenth-century magazines that poured off the presses in the major port cities of the new United States, yet they have placed little emphasis on the magazine as a commercial medium, in part because almost no advertising appeared within the pages of those magazines and in part because most magazines are today found preserved in bound volumes without the supplementary media, including wrappers and inserts, that featured each issue’s advertising. Here it is important to underscore that the magazines we encounter in digitized form in the American Periodical Series and, indeed, even most that are preserved in archives no longer take the material form they had when they first came into the possession of eighteenth-century readers. A variety of factors have contributed to this. For instance, many subscribers typically took multiple issues, most often six months at a time, to a bookbinder to be bound into a single volume. In the process, ancillary materials were removed, leaving magazines that were largely sanitized of commercial notices, even when they included essays on commerce and economics. As a result, most of the eighteenth-century magazines examined by modern scholars look quite different, take starkly different material form, and, as a result, transmit very different messages than when they were first issued more than two centuries ago.
To what extent were they different? Although commercial notices were largely absent from the body of the issue for any given week or month, those few magazines that are intact demonstrate that contemporary subscribers typically received issues that were delivery systems for advertising. Many of them arrived enclosed in wrappers made of blue paper that featured between two and seven pages of advertising as well as the magazine’s title page, accompanying notes about how to subscribe, and a list of booksellers who sold the magazines. Usually the title and related information took up only one page; sometimes they spread out over two pages, but rarely did they extend onto a third. This typically left three pages for advertising in most magazines but as many as six or seven pages of advertising in each issue of those publications that doubled up the number of sheets used as wrappers and devoted to advertising, including some of the century’s most successful magazines, such as the Columbian Magazine and the American Museum. Although the lack of advertising interspersed with articles does not reflect current strategies, in other ways the material forms of eighteenth-century magazines were not much different from their modern counterparts that overflow with subscription cards and other materials that flutter out when flipping through the pages. Printers and publishers stuffed a variety of inserts, trade cards, book catalogues, and subscription notices inside those blue wrappers that accompanied each monthly issue. Subscribers may have purchased magazines for the edification they provided concerning history, economics, and belles lettres, but those magazines still extant in their original form suggest that printers and other providers of goods and services used literary magazines for their own purposes of making a living and generating revenues.
This argument depends on identifying and examining eighteenth-century magazines still extant in their original form, sometimes a difficult task that merits a few words about both modern methodology and the power of archives over time. First, however, consider how the material circumstances of magazines were transformed almost immediately after publication and distribution to subscribers. Printers and publishers did not intend for supplementary advertising materials that accompanied magazines to remain with the bodies of the magazines indefinitely or even for more than a few months. Publishers and subscribers both understood that once an entire volume, typically six issues over that many months, had been published that the separate issues would be gathered and bound together. Some advertising wrappers included explicit instructions for bookbinders to remove all the supplementary material before binding the volume. Wrappers, trade cards, subscription notices, and book catalogues were out, but title pages, tables of contents, and other materials were added. The final product that ended up on subscribers’ shelves – and in modern archives – did not much resemble the original material form eighteenth-century magazines took when first delivered.
This creates challenges for researchers interested in paratexts as much as (or more than) the essays, poems, and other items that appeared in the bodies of magazines. To compound the difficulty, best practices among an earlier generation of librarians and catalogers sometimes called for dismantling single issues that had not been bound. They sought to better organize an institution’s collections by housing various components with others of their genre – book catalogues with other book catalogues or trade cards in the trade cards collection, for instance – rather than leaving them intact. Such practices did not anticipate the modes of paratextual analysis undertaken by scholars at work today. Even in instances that eighteenth-century magazines and their supplementary materials have remained intact, the companies that have produced digital surrogates have sometimes neglected to photograph and reproduce the ancillary materials, incorrectly assuming that anybody who wished to examine, say, the American Museum would be interested in only the body of that publication and not other materials delivered with it. As Kenneth Carpenter and Michael Winship cautioned in their keynote address at the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Conference last May, digital surrogates should be consulted as complements to, rather than replacements for, original documents. As we increasingly consult virtual texts we must remember that material texts sometimes tell unique stories that are not always captured in the digitization process.
We must keep eighteenth-century practices and circumstances in mind as we examine magazines in modern libraries and archives. Occasionally, the original subscribers or their bookbinders neglected to remove the advertising materials or overlooked a wrapper or insert here or there. As a result, looking at one supposedly “representative” issue of a magazine usually does not reveal the material circumstances of the original publication. Tracking down the advertisements that accompanied eighteenth-century magazines requires examining as many copies as possible to discover advertising paratexts inadvertently left behind, in both bound volumes and, when they survive, single issues. Indeed, it is often the single issues that include advertising media and testify to the original form of these publications. I have been exceptionally fortunate that curators, librarians, and other staff at several research institutions have generously allowed me to examine every issue, page by page, of eighteenth-century magazines in their collections once they have become familiar with my project and understand why this methodology is imperative. For good reason, archival staff often prefer to limit access to original materials in order to preserve it. When an institution possesses more than one copy of a magazine, for instance, one is often designated for use by researchers in order to preserve the others in their original condition as much as possible. Increasingly, researchers are asked to consult digital surrogates, which also present a “representative” copy, whenever possible. Such sources are often flawed due to the circumstances already described or, in some instances, incomplete because vendors unilaterally decided not to film or digitize ancillary materials because they did not understand the value of these paratexts for researchers. Eighteenth-century magazines exist in a variety of material and digital forms that in and of themselves shape our understanding of their original formats and purposes, sometimes misleading scholars because we do not see, touch, or read the same texts as the early Americans who originally subscribed to these magazines.