What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Those who may have subscription papers are desired to return them to the printers.”
In February 1773, Thomas Green and Samuel Green, printers of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, inserted subscription proposals for a book by James Dana, “Pastor of the first Church in Wallingford,” into their own newspaper. Eighteenth-century printers often placed advertisements promoting their other projects in their newspapers, whether publishing books and pamphlets or peddling books, stationery, patent medicines, and other merchandise. In this instance, the Greens sought to publish a continuation of An Examination of the Late Reverend President Edwards’s “Enquiry on Freedom of Will” (1770), supplementing the new volume with “Strictures on the Rev. Mr. West’s ‘essay on moral agency.’” To entice prospective customer to reserve copies by subscribing in advance, the Greens listed the contents of the book and promised that the price “will not exceed Two Shillings.”
Subscription proposals served as a rudimentary form of market research. Printers and authors did not want to take books to press without knowing if they made a sound investment. To assess demand for proposed works, they distributed subscription notices that described the contents, the paper and type, and the costs. Customers interested in the proposed work reserved copies in advance, sometimes paying a deposit. Collecting the names of subscribers provided guidance about how many copies to print. In some instances, they discontinued projects after determining that they had not generated sufficient interest to make them viable. Sometimes, but not always, printers gave credit to those who supported the project by inserting a list of subscribers, an additional incentive for customers to reserve copies.
The Greens began promoting this book before their advertisement appeared in the Connecticut Journal in February 1773. In that advertisement they requested that “Those who may have subscription papers are desired to return them to the printers by the beginning of April next, that they may proceed with the work.” The Greens apparently provided separate advertisements, perhaps as handbills, broadsides, or pamphlets, to associates who took responsibility for distributing them and collecting the names of subscribers and how many copies they ordered. Those associates may have kept lists of their own. Alternately, they may have posted broadsides in their shops, allowing subscribers to sign their own names … and peruse the list of other subscribers to get a sense of the company they kept. Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements make frequent reference to subscription papers, suggesting that this form of advertising circulated more widely than surviving copies in research libraries and historical societies suggest. Many printers and authors, including the Greens, deployed multipronged approaches to marketing, disseminating advertisements in formats other than the newspaper advertisements so familiar to historians of early America.