August 19

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

Boston Evening-Post (August 19, 1771).

“Will make as good Allowance to Travelling Traders, &c. as if purchased of the Printer.”

A portion of the commencement exercises at Harvard in 1771 generated such enthusiasm in some quarters and outrage in others that printer Ezekiel Russell decided to publish Andrew Croswell’s “Brief Remarks on the Satyrical Drollery at Cambridge, last COMMENCEMENT DAY; with special Reference to the Character of STEPHEN the PREACHER; which raised such extravagant Mirth.”  (Read the British Museum’s copy.)  For those who attended the event, this publication served as a counterbalance to the “vain laughter, and clapping” that “gave great offence” (at least to Croswell).  For others who had not heard the “Satyrical Drollery” and witnessed “such extravagant Mirth,” the pamphlet gave them an opportunity to learn more about what had transpired, though through the lecturing tone of a critic who had not appreciated the behavior he saw exhibited at the commencement.  For Russell, this represented an opportunity to generate revenues and increase foot traffic in his shop.

Yet Russell’s shop on Marlborough Street in Boston was not the only location where consumers could acquire copies of the pamphlet.  An advertisement in the August 19, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post advised that they “may likewise be had at KNOX’S LONDON BOOK-STORE, in Cornhill.”  Henry Knox, the bookseller who later became a senior general in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the new nation’s first Secretary of War, had recently placed his own advertisements in the city’s newspapers.  In addition, residents of Newburyport and the surrounding towns could instead visit B. Emerson, who stocked a limited number of copies.  The following day, and advertisement in the Essex Gazette advised readers in Salem that Samuel Hall also sold the pamphlet.

Russell also envisioned other means of distribution.  In his advertisement, he indicated that Knox “will make as good Allowance to Travelling Traders, &c. as if purchased of the Printer.”  In other words, itinerant peddlers as well as booksellers and shopkeepers received discounts for buying in volume for the purposes of retailing to their own customers.  Knox offered them the same prices they would have otherwise received by purchasing directly from Russell.  The printer and his associates worked together to incite demand by disseminating copies of the pamphlet and offering deals to retailers.  The newspaper advertisement alerted prospective customers to three locations that carried the “Brief Remarks,” but also encouraged them to ask for it from “Travelling Traders” and others who might have also added it to their inventories.

October 11

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 11, 1770).

“AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD … By PHILLIS.”

On October 11, 1770, coverage of George Whitefield’s death on September 30 continued to radiate out from Boston with news appearing in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal.  The commodification of Whitefield’s death intensified as well.  Both newspapers printed in Boston on that day, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and the Massachusetts Spy, carried advertisements for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the reverend and learned GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

Phillis Wheatley, now recognized as one of the most significant poets in eighteenth-century America, composed the poem, though in the advertisements she was known as “PHILLIS, A servant girl of seventeen years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston.”  Referring to the young woman as a “servant girl” obscured the fact that she was enslaved by the Wheatley family.  The advertisements further explained that she “has been but nine years in this country from Africa.”  This event brought together Whitefield, the influential minister following his death, and Wheatley, the young poet near the beginning of her literary career.  Although both are well known to historians and others today, much of Wheatley’s acclaim came after her death at the age of thirty-one in 1784.  Arguably, Wheatley is more famous than Whitefield in twenty-first-century America, reversing their relative status compared to the eighteenth century.

In addition to the novelty of an African poet, Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles also promoted the image that adorned the broadside, proclaiming that it was “Embellished with a plate, representing the posture in which the Rev. Mr. Whitefield lay before and after his interment at Newbury-Port.”  Examine the Library Company of Philadelphia’s copy of Wheatley’s “Elegiac Poem,” including an introduction that doubled as the copy for the advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, the woodcut depicting Whitefield, and black borders that symbolized mourning in the eighteenth century.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 11, 1770).

Wheatley’s poem sold by Russell and Boyles was not the only one advertised on October 11.  In a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, Richard Draper announced that he published “An Elegy to the Memory of that pious and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST The Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”  Exercising he prerogative as printer of that newspaper, Draper placed his advertisement before the one for the broadside with Wheatley’s poem and the woodcut of Whitefield.

Both poems celebrated Whitefield’s life and ministry.  Both gave colonial consumers an opportunity to mourn for Whitefield and feel better connected to his ministry, even if they had never had the chance to hear him preach.  Especially for those who had not witnessed Whitefield deliver a sermon, purchasing one of these broadsides allowed them to have an experience closely associated with Whitefield’s life by commemorating his death.  The printers who produced, marketed, and sold these broadsides simultaneously honored Whitefield’s memory and commodified his death, merging mourning and making money.