What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“JUST PUBLISHED … A Volume of Curious Papers.”
A brief advertisement in the October 17, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette (published in Salem) announced that “A Volume of Curious Papers collected by His Honor the Lieutenant-Governor, which may serve as an Appendix to his History of Massachusets Bay” had gone to press and was “now ready to be delivered to the Subscribers by T. and J. FLEET, Printers in Boston.” This notice was a variation on advertisements that ran in newspapers throughout New England during the previous week. One variation ran in the New-Hampshire Gazette (published in Portsmouth) on Friday, October 13 and in the Providence Gazette on Saturday, October 14. The Fleets inserted a slightly different version in their own newspaper, the Boston Evening-Post, on Monday, October 16. That same day, variations ran in the Boston-Gazette, the Connecticut Courant (published in Hartford), and the Newport Mercury. Following publication in the Essex Gazette on October 17, a similar notice appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on Thursday, October 19. Over the course of a week, the Fleets inserted notices about the publication of this “Volume of Curious Papers” in eight newspapers printed in six cities and towns in four colonies.
This meant that readers in Boston, Hartford, Newport, Portsmouth, Providence, Salem, and beyond encountered similar advertisements for the same product, a book about the history of Massachusetts, as they perused their local newspapers. Although most advertisers were not so enterprising when it came to publishing notices in multiple colonies, members of the book trades often relied on subscription notices distributed widely as a means of creating markets for books they wished to publish. Printers published proposals in several newspapers and, later, published updates for subscribers who pre-ordered books, including, ultimately, announcements informing both subscribers and the general public when they published a proposed work.
These advertisements contributed to the formation of what Benedict Anderson termed “imagined communities” of geographically dispersed people drawn together through the experience of simultaneously reading the same content in newspapers. In the eighteenth century, most of this content consisted of news and editorials, especially since colonial printers liberally reprinted material from one newspaper to another. T.H. Breen has argued that colonists also formed imagined communities around consumption practices, demonstrating that the same sorts of goods appeared in newspaper advertisements from New England to Georgia. Subscription notices and subsequent advertisements, however, did not merely expose readers to similar wares. Like the news and editorials reprinted from one newspaper to another, they replicated content associated with particular products, in this case a “Volume of Curious Papers” about the history of Massachusetts. Print helped to knit together colonists in the era of the American Revolution, but the print that did so was not limited to newspaper reports or political pamphlets distributed far and wide. Sometimes advertising also contributed to the formation of imagined communities in early America.