February 7

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

“Subscriptions are taken … by S. Hall in Salem.”

Essex Gazette (February 7, 1769).

This subscription notice for “The WORKS of the celebrated John Wilkes, Esquire, in Three VOLUMES” ran in the February 7, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette, yet that was not the first place that colonial readers encountered it. The “PROPOSALS” had previously appeared in at least two newspapers, the New-York Journal in December 1768 and the New-London Gazette in January 1769. The Essex Gazette and the New-London Gazette both reiterated the copy exactly, except for the final paragraph indicating where prospective customers could reserve their copy. The notice in the New-York Journal stated that “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.” The version in the New-London Gazette updated the list to include “at New London in Connecticut” after listing the four largest port cities in the colonies. Rather than add his name to a growing list, the printer of the Essex Gazette instead substituted “and by S. Hall in Salem” for “at New London in Connecticut.” Perhaps Hall was not aware that Timothy Green also took in subscriptions. Both printers may have received copies of the original advertisement accompanied by requests to join the network of subscription agents, but the coordination may have ended there.

The revisions to the lists of subscription agents testify to ongoing attempts to create an imagined community of readers throughout the colonies. In addition to reading many of the same news items reprinted from newspaper to newspaper, readers also encountered the same advertisement encouraging them to purchase and read the same book. In the process, geographically dispersed colonists had similar experiences as they perused the same information in the public prints – and imagined their counterparts in distant colonies simultaneously perusing the same information. Yet creating a sense of an imagined community did not require extending the list of locations whenever possible. The original notice depended on just the four most significant urban ports. Subsequent notices in the Essex Gazette and the New-London Gazette added their own location, but did not add others that also participated. Making connections to the largest cities was sufficient for envisioning an imagined community, even if compiling more extensive lists would have been even more effective. That would have required additional coordination. By the end of the century, some publishers did attempt to harness lengthy lists of subscription agents in their marketing efforts. For instance, Mathew Carey listed dozens of local agents who sold his magazine, the American Museum, in the late 1780s and early 1790s. Doing so required overseeing an extensive network of colleagues and associates. The efforts to promote the works of Wilkes in the late 1760s did not benefit from that level of coordination, though the inclusion of additional agents in more locations may have played a role in inspiring others to take a more systematic approach in subsequent marketing campaigns.

January 13

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

New-London Gazette (January 13, 1769).

“Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers.”

A subscription notice for “THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED JOHN WILKES” appeared among the advertisements in the January 13, 1769, edition of the New-London Gazette. The advertising copy exactly replicated that of a notice published in the New-York Journal a month earlier, with one exception. Like other subscription notices, it informed prospective customers where to submit their names to reserve a copy: “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, Charles-Town, South-Carolina, and at New London in Connecticut.” The previous advertisement did not list New London. It had been added to the subscription notice in the New-London Gazette to better engage local readers.

Whether including New London or not, both versions of the subscription notice invoked the concept of what Benedict Anderson has famously described as “imagined community.” Print culture contributed to a sense of community among readers dispersed over great distances by allowing them to read the same newspapers, books, and pamphlets, all while imaging that their counterparts in other cities and towns were simultaneously reading them and imbibing the same information and ideas. This subscription notice envisioned readers in Boston and Charleston and place in between all purchasing and reading the same book. Anderson argues that imagined community achieved via print played a vital role in the formation of the nation. Wilkes, a radical English politician and journalist, had become a popular figure in the colonies during the imperial crisis. The subscription notice for his works appeared while the Townshend Act was in effect, at the same time that many colonists mobilized nonimportation agreements in protest and the New-Hampshire Gazette was printed on smaller sheets because the publishers refused to import paper from England that would require them to pay duties.

The slightly revised version of the subscription notice had the capacity to even more effectively invoke the idea of an imagined community among colonists. It did not limit the collection of subscriptions to the four largest port cities, the places with the most printers and the most newspapers. Instead, by listing New London with Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia, the subscription notice expanded the sphere of engagement by making the proposed book more accessible on the local level for readers and prospective subscribers in New London and its environs. Reading Wilkes was not just for colonists in urban settings. Instead, it was an endeavor for colonists anywhere and everywhere.

December 18

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

New-York Journal (December 15, 1768).

“Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.”

A subscription notice for publishing “THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED JOHN WILKES, Esq” appeared among the advertisements in the December 15, 1768, edition of the New-York Journal. Wilkes, a radical English politician and journalist considered a friend to American liberties, was widely recognized in the colonies, so much so that the publishers of the New-England Town and Country Almanack inserted his portrait as the frontispiece and emphasized its inclusion as part of their marketing efforts. News concerning Wilkes regularly appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies. As the imperial crisis unfolded, Wilkes became a hero to Americans who opposed Parliament’s attempts to tax and otherwise interfere in colonial affairs. Printers and booksellers sensed that a market for his collected works might exist, but it required proper cultivation.

Such was the purpose of the subscription notice. It deployed several strategies intended to incite demand. Among them, it constructed what Benedict Anderson has described as an “imagined community” of readers, a community drawn together through their engagement with the same printed materials despite members being geographically dispersed. The advertisement noted that “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.” Readers of the New-York Journal who encountered this advertisement and purchased Wilkes’s works would participate in an endeavor that was more than merely local. They would join with others in faraway places, people they likely would never meet but who were exposed simultaneously to the same ideas and ideals through common acts of purchasing and reading Wilkes’s works. The notice indicated that there were “but a few Sets left unsubscribed for,” suggesting that the community was already vast and those who had not yet reserved their copies risked their own exclusion. To further evoke a common sense of identity, the subscription notice pledged that “The Paper for this Edition was manufactured, and all the Printing performed in this Country.” This was an American edition, produced by colonists for colonists from New England to the Lower South.

In marketing this three-volume set of Wilkes’s works, the publisher resorted to more than invoking the politics of the imperial crisis. This subscription notice sought to foster a sense of belonging among prospective subscribers, suggesting that they formed a community that transcended residence in one colony or another. That common identity gave colonists a shared political purpose, but it also facilitated selling books.