February 13

GUEST CURATOR: Dillon Escandon

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (February 13, 1772).

“BOOKS … which have just been received in the Paoli, Capt, Cazneau.”

This advertisement struck me particularly because I have always been curious about what kinds of books people read during the era of the American Revolution. Henry Knox listed books of divinity, surgery, sea books, and bibles. The source of the books also caught my attention. Many of the books were recently shipped in the Paoli by Captain Cazneau.

I wanted to learn more about the people mentioned in this advertisement, Henry Knox and Captain Cazneau. I learned that Henry Knox lived in Boston and worked as a bookseller before joining the Continental Army and participating in the siege of Boston. He ultimately became a member of George Washington’s cabinet as the first Secretary of War for the United States.  I did not locate as much information about Captain Cazneau.  In my research, I found a letter from June 8, 1780, written by Thomas Digges to John Adams that mentioned a “Capt. Cazneau” and a voyage to Ireland during the American Revolution.  Cazneau delivered “four Louis D’ors” to Digges to pay one of Adams’s debts.  I did not find out as much about his role in the American Revolution as I did about Henry Knox.



I often tell my students that being an historian is similar to being a detective.  Reconstructing the past requires searching for clues in a variety of places, both primary sources and secondary sources.  Especially when consulting primary sources, historians sift through many, many items to determine which provide helpful clues and which do not.  It is a laborious and time-consuming process.  In the end, we do not always uncover all the clues that we want or need to offer a complete explanation of what happened.

Dillon had that experience in his effort to learn more about the people mentioned in the advertisement he selected.  When he embarked on his research, he consulted both primary sources and secondary sources, distinguishing his approach from the work undertaken by most students in my Revolutionary America class working on their own contributions to the Adverts 250 Project.  Working with eighteenth-century newspapers gave them an opportunity to consult primary sources from the era of the American Revolution.  After selecting their advertisements, each student needed to identify at least one additional source that helped them provide historical context as they explained what we might learn about the past from newspaper advertisements.  In most instances, students chose secondary sources to aid in analyzing their advertisements.  That presented many opportunities for discussing what constituted authoritative and reliable sources.

When Dillon went in search of primary sources, his research prompted a different conversation about the challenges of “doing” history.  He found a reference in a letter to John Adams to a “Capt. Cazneau” that might have been the same “Captain Cazneau” in Henry Knox’s advertisement published nearly a decade earlier.  Dillon identified a tantalizing clue, but one that requires much more research and consulting many more documents than the scope of the project assigned to him for my Revolutionary America class.  In this instance, I did not expect him to tell a complete story about Cazneau’s life and career.  Instead, I considered it valuable for him to have the experience of doing some of that detective work required of historians in order to gain greater appreciation for the research, writing, and revising that goes into crafting the narratives in secondary sources we read and discussed throughout the semester.

February 5

What was advertised in colonial America 250 years ago today?

Henry Knox, trade card, engraved by Nathaniel Hurd, Boston, ca. 1771-1774. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

“London Book Store.”

Earlier this week, the Adverts 250 Project featured an advertisement that bookseller Henry Knox placed in the Boston Evening-Post.  In addition to listing various genres of books available at the “LONDON BOOK-STORE, Opposite Williams’s Court, A little Southward of the Town-House in Cornhill,” the advertisement also informed readers that “A Catalogue … may be seen at said Store.”  Like many eighteenth-century entrepreneurs, Knox supplemented his newspaper advertisements with other marketing media.  He distributed at least three book catalogs in the early 1770s.  He also disseminated a trade card to capture the attention of prospective customers.

Measuring approximately four inches by five inches, the trade card gave Knox’s address, “London Book Store Cornhill, Boston” and announced that the bookseller “Makes & binds Waste Books, Journals Ledgers, and all other Sorts of Blank Books at the Shortest Notice.”  Knox offered those services in his newspaper advertisements as well, though he usually mentioned them at the end of his notice.  He reversed the order on his trade card, advising colonizers that he “ALSO Sells Books in all Languages, Arts, and Sciences, Stationary, &c. &c.”  Ending with “&c.” (a common abbreviation for et cetera) signaled that he stocked a variety of other writing supplies.  His newspaper advertisements mentioned “Quills, Sealing Wax, Wafers, very neat gilt and border’d Message Cards, [and] fine black Writing Ink.”

An ornate border surrounded the advertising copy on Knox’s trade card.  As a result, it resembled trade cards produced and distributed in London, but it bore the initials “NH.”  Nathaniel Hurd, an American artisan, did the engraving for Knox’s trade card and others.  For instance, he engraved a trade card that promoted “Sperma-ceti Candles Made by Joseph Palmer & Co. at Germantown Near Boston, & Sold at their Store in Boston New-England.”  He also engraved a trade card for Philip Godfrid Kast, an apothecary who “Hath Lately Imported from London, a Large Assortment of Drugs & Medicines.”  Hurd likely lent his skills to the production of other trade cards, contributing to a culture of advertising in early America that extended beyond newspaper notices.

February 3

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 3, 1772).

“Collection of BOOKS … A Catalogue of which may be seen at said Store.”

Henry Knox is most often remembered as the general who oversaw artillery for the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the new nation’s first Secretary of War in George Washington’s cabinet.  Before the Revolution, however, Knox earned his livelihood as a bookseller in Boston.  He frequently advertised books and stationery available at his “LONDON BOOK-STORE” in the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers.  In an advertisement that ran in February 1772, for instance, he promoted a “Large and valuable Collection of BOOKS” as well as “Writing Paper of all Sorts and Sizes … and almost every other kind of Stationary.”

Knox did not name any of the titles he had on hand, but he did list several genres, including “Divinity, History, Law, Physick, and Surgery” and “A Variety of New Novels, Sea Books, All Kinds of School Books, and Classical Authors.”  To entice prospective customers to visit, he confided that “A Catalogue … may be seen at said Store.”  Many booksellers supplemented their newspaper advertisements with other marketing materials, including trade cards, broadsides, and catalogs.  Some historians of early American print culture have cast doubt on how many book catalogs booksellers actually produced and disseminated, suggesting that many catalogs mentioned in newspaper advertisements never materialized.  In this case, however, Knox likely referred to a thirty-two page “Catalogue of books, imported and to be sold by Henry Knox, at the London Book-Store, a Little Southward of the Town-House, in Cornhill, Boston, MDCCLXXII.”  At least two copies survive, one held by the Grolier Club in New York and the other in the collections of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University.

Knox distributed at least one other catalog before the American Revolution.  The Library Company of Philadelphia and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine Library in London each have an undated catalog that highlighted titles by “Much Esteemed Authors in Physic and Surgery.”  That four-page catalog has tentatively been dated to 1772 because the copy in the collections of the Library Company has been bound with and precedes A New Lecture on Heads by George Alexander Stevens, originally printed in London and reprinted for Henry Knox in 1772.  Just as books published in the twenty-first century often include advertisements for other books, printers and booksellers in early American sometimes inserted advertising in the books they produced and sold.


The catalogers at the American Antiquarian Society provided invaluable assistance in telling the story of Henry Knox and his book catalogs.