What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Circular Letters are sent to the Members.”
A notice in the March 4, 1773, edition of the Maryland Gazette called on “Members of the LUNATICK CLUB” to gather for a meeting “at the Coffee-House” in Annapolis on March 8. The club convened for dinner on the evening of the full moon. That lunar phenomenon gave members an excuse to engage in revelries together.
The organizers apparently did not rely on newspaper notices alone to alert members about the gathering. A nota benedeclared that “Circular Letters are sent to the Members,” but surmised that they may have been overlooked. What were circular letters? In this case, they would have been similar to printed invitations. Rather than write the same message by hand over and over, one of the organizers wrote it once, submitted it to the printing office, and ordered multiple copies. The letter may have included space at the top to write a salutation to the recipient and space at the bottom for the organizer to sign it. If the club used the same circular letter each month, it likely resembled a form with blanks to fill in the date (as well as the time and location if they changed from month to month). After writing anything that needed to be added to the printed letter, the organizer folded it, sealed it with wax, wrote the name and address of the recipient on the exterior, and arranged for delivery via the post or messenger. This certainly saved time compared to writing out the entire invitation each time, especially if the club had many members.
Merchants, shopkeepers, and other entrepreneurs also distributed circular letters when they wished to contact associates or prospective customers. Again, rather than invest the time in writing the same letter multiple times, they instead had copies printed, personalized each copy for the intended recipient, and sent them through the post. When they did so, they relied on an eighteenth-century version of junk mail. Relatively few printed circular letters survive compared to other forms of early American advertising, but notices like the one the Lunatick Club placed in the Maryland Gazette imply that circular letters were more common than the examples in research libraries and historical societies suggest.