October 19

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (October 19, 1772).

“PROPOSALS For Re-Printing by Subscription … Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Spirit of Laws.”

It would have been hard for readers to miss the subscription proposal that dominated the final page of the October 19, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  John Boyles announced his intention to publish an “American Edition” of the “Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Sprit of the Laws,” a work of political philosophy “Which ought to be in EVERY MAN’s Hands.”  Boyles explained that the book had been “Translated from the French Original” as well as “translated and published in most of the civilized Nations of EUROPE.”  Colonizers who wished to participate in the transatlantic republic of letters needed to acquire copies of their own.  To make this particular edition even more attractive than imported alternatives, the publisher stated that it would include “a larger Account of the Life and Writings of the AUTHOR, than is in the European Editions.”

The format of the subscription proposal suggests that it may have been printed separately as a broadside or handbill, on paper of a different size, for distribution beyond subscribers to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  If that was indeed the case, the compositor did not wish to set the type once again in order to insert the subscription proposal in the newspaper.  Its width exceeded two newspaper columns, causing the compositor to create a narrow third column by rotating the type for additional advertisements to run perpendicular to the page.  In the years immediately preceding the American Revolution, advertisers sometimes arranged to have book catalogues, broadsides, or handbills incorporated into newspapers, expanding the reach of their marketing efforts.  That being the case, I suspect that more advertising ephemera circulated in early America than has been identified and preserved in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections.  This subscription proposal in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy hints at a hidden history of early American advertising impossible to recover in its entirety.  Although newspaper notices constituted, by the far, the most voluminous form of advertising in early America, other printed media likely circulated more frequently than previously realized.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (October 19, 1772).

May 9

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 9, 1771).

“An ODE set to Music, consecrated to the memory the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

In the months immediately after the death of George Whitefield on September 30, 1770, a variety of printers, booksellers, authors, and others produced and marketed an array of commemorative items that simultaneously commodified one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  This trend tapered off by the end of the year, only to be reinvigorated in the spring of 1771 when vessels arrived from England carrying copies of Whitefield’s will and sermons preached in his memory in London.  Colonial printers produced and sold American editions.  They also distributed them to booksellers and other retailers, enlarging the market for such items.

The May 9, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette carried an advertisement for yet another piece of Whitefield memorabilia, one not previously promoted in the public prints.  John Boyles informed prospective customers that he sold “An ODE set to Music, consecrated to the memory of the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, A.M. By one of his friends in Boston, New England.”  According to the catalog entry maintained by the American Antiquarian Society, this broadside featured eight stanzas and included music for four voices, making it a unique entry among the broadsides, hymnals, and other commemorative items advertised in colonial newspapers.

The catalog entry also indicates that this broadside was presumably published in Boston by an unknown printer in 1770.  This advertisement, however, suggests that Boyles may have been the printer and that he published the broadside in the spring of 1771.  According to his advertisement in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Boyles ran a “PRINTING-OFFICE, next Door to the THREE DOVES in Marlborough-Street.”  In advertisements for other Whitefield items published in the fall of 1770, Boyles appeared among the list of printers and booksellers who sold those items.  Upon seeing a resurgence of marketing for Whitefield memorabilia in the spring, Boyles may have decided to produce a commemorative item of his own, hoping to take advantage of renewed interest and consumer demand.  If so, he likely experienced steady sales of Whitefield items he carried in the fall and did not want to miss out on a potentially lucrative means of generating additional revenue.  In producing his own broadside, Boyles assumed greater risk, but also stood to earn more profits.

Advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia became a familiar sight in several newspapers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania in the spring of 1771.  Printers and booksellers offered colonists several opportunities to commemorate the minister’s death by purchasing items created in his memory.  The “ODE set to Music” was a novel item that likely attracted interest among both consumers who previously purchased other memorabilia and those who had not yet expressed their regard for the minister through participation in the marketplace.

February 6

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (February 4, 1771).

“Next Door to the THREE DOVES.”

In an advertisement in the supplement that accompanied the February 4, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette, Thomas Knight advised prospective customers that he sold window glass and bottles “at the Three Kings in Cornhill.”  A short notice in the standard issue informed the public that the “Sale of Sugars, which was advertised to be at the Bunch of Grapes To-Morrow, is postpon’d.”  John Boyles advertised several dozen books in the supplement, listing the titles in two columns.  He also made reference to a shop sign in order to direct readers to his location.  The bookseller gave his location as “Next Door to the THREE DOVES, In Marlborough-Street, Boston.”

Like other major urban ports, Boston did not adopt street numbers until the very end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.  Prior to that, advertisers and others resorted to a variety of means of describing locations.  For instance, they indicated street names and mentioned nearby landmarks.  Shop signs also helped when giving directions, not only for those at the locations marked by the signs but also for others in close proximity.  Boyles apparently had not commissioned his own sign for his bookshop, but that did not prevent him from using a sign affiliated with another business as a landmark for finding his location.

Some proprietors deployed their shop signs as brands representing their businesses, regularly naming them in their newspaper advertisements and sometimes inserting woodcuts depicting them.  The most ambitious eighteenth-century advertisers also distributed trade cards and billheads that made reference to their shop signs and included images.  Yet other entrepreneurs considered those shop signs a form of public property rather than the sole domain of the businesses they marked.  Boyles, for instance, did not seem to believe that the Three Doves belonged exclusively to his neighbor’s business.  He appropriated the shop sign in his own marketing efforts, using it as an efficient means of directing his own customers to his bookshop.

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.