What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A FUNERAL SERMON … on the much lamented Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
Robert Wells, bookseller and printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, placed an advertisement for “NEW BOOKS” in the February 5, 1771, edition of his newspaper. The advertisement extended an entire column, listing dozens of titles and concluding with “TOBLER’s ALMANACK” and “A FUNERAL SERMON” in memory of George Whitefield. With the latter, Wells presented consumers an opportunity to participate in commemorations of the prominent minister that occurred from New England to Georgia. Commodification of Whitefield’s death made it possible for colonists to purchase mementos that testified to their grief and regard for the minister; simultaneously, such commodification generated revenues for printers, booksellers, and others.
Whitefield, one of the most influential ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30 1770. The next day news appeared in several newspapers published in Boston and from there quickly spread to other towns and other colonies. Within a month, residents of Georgia learned of the minister’s death. Wells advertised a sermon delivered in Whitefield’s memory “at Savannah, in Georgia, November 1, 1770 … By J.J. ZUBLY, Minister of an English and German Congregation.” According to the imprint, James Johnston, printer of the Georgia Gazette, printed and sold the sermon. He most likely advertised it in his own newspaper, but few editions of the Georgia Gazette from late 1770 and beyond survive. Johnston apparently dispatched copies to Charleston in hopes of capturing another market.
Yet the advertisement for Zubly’s sermon was not the only appearance Whitefield made among the advertisements in the February 5 edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. John Fleeming’s subscription notice for an annotated “FAMILY BIBLE” filled two columns on the front page, the second of those columns devoted almost entirely to an endorsement Whitefield penned for an earlier edition. Fleeming leveraged the minister’s notes of approbation written years earlier into a posthumous testimonial for his proposed project. He distributed that advertisement widely in newspapers published in New England, but this was the first time it appeared in any of the newspapers published in South Carolina. Fleeming and his local agents updated it to indicate that “Subscriptions for said laudable Undertaking, are taken in at Charlestown by ROBERT WELLS, at the Old Printing-House, Great Stationary and Book Store; In Savannah by JAMES JOHNSTON, at his Printing-Office.”
The frequency of advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia tapered off by the end of 1770 as the immediacy of the minister’s death faded, but a couple of months later they experienced a resurgence as printers and booksellers renewed their efforts to provide commemorative items to consumers who wished to feel connected to such a significant event. Much of this resurgence occurred beyond New England, the center for most, but not all, of the marketing for Whitefield paraphernalia in the first few months after his death. Just as news spread, reprinted from newspaper to newspaper, so did the commodification of the Whitefield’s death.