February 3

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (February 3, 1773).

“A LAWYER … lent the fourth volume of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES … to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot.”

After first appearing in the Pennsylvania Packet in January 1773, the curious story of the missing copy of “the fourth volume of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES, London edition,” ran among the advertisements in the February 2, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  According to the advertisement, an unnamed lawyer lent the book “to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot” and desired for the borrower to return it, not to himself but instead to bookseller Robert Bell.  Readers may have suspected that Bell created the lawyer and the story of the missing book, especially since the advertisement concluded with a nota bene that announced that later in the month the “FOURTH VOLUME of the AMERICAN EDITION of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND, will be ready for the subscribers.”  How convenient that a borrower supposedly neglected to return just that volume to the unnamed lawyer!  How convenient that the narrator of the story thought that the missing book “hath been lent to several persons since it left the proprietor’s library” and called on “the second, third, or fourth borrower” to provide information about its whereabouts!

In the final third of the eighteenth century, Bell became one of the most prominent booksellers and publishers in the colonies and the new nation, working even before the Revolution to cultivate an American literary market.  He developed innovative marketing methods and attracted even more attention to them with his flamboyant personality.  While there is no way to definitively demonstrate that Bell fabricated the story of the lawyer and the missing volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries, such a ploy would not have been beyond the enterprising bookseller who spent two years marketing an American edition of all four volumes and gathering subscribers from throughout the colonies.  He made savvy use of the public prints, so it may have been possible that he initially published the story of the lawyer and the missing book in the Pennsylvania Packet to see if it generated additional interest in the complete collection of Blackstone’s Commentaries and later considered it worth the investment to disseminate the same story in another newspaper.  He updated the nota bene to indicate that publication would take place “some time this month” rather than “Sometime in February.”  The advertisement also included a date, February 2, 1773, the day before publication of that issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Bell waited more than a week after inserting the notice in the Pennsylvania Packet before submitting it to another newspaper, further suggesting that the responses he received from the initial insertion may have aided him in deciding to run the same advertisement in an additional newspaper.  Even if he planned from the start to expand the circulation of the story of the lawyer and the missing volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries, he carefully timed his advertisements to coincide with publication of the final volume.

January 25

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

Supplement to the Pennsylvania Packet (January 25, 1773).

“A LAWYER … lent the fourth volume of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES … to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot.”

A curious story appeared among the advertisements in the supplement that accompanied the January 25, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, a story that may have been a complete fiction designed to incite interest in the forthcoming publication of “the FOURTH VOLUME of the AMERICAN EDITION of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND.”  The story concerned an unnamed lawyer seeking the return of a London edition that he lent “to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot,” but that lawyer and the missing book may very well have been creations of Robert Bell, a bookseller and publisher known for his innovative marketing strategies and flamboyant personality.  During the final third of the eighteenth century, Bell became one of the most vocal proponents of creating an American literary market, launching inventive advertising campaigns.

This particular advertisement described a lawyer who loaned the book and asked that the borrower “return it as soon as possible to ROBERT BELL, Bookseller, at the late Union Library in Third-street.”  The narrator of the advertisement, which may have been either Bell or the lawyer, stated that there was “reason to surmise the said fourth volume hath been lent to several persons since it left the proprietor’s library.”  Focus then shifted to anyone who had consulted the loaned-but-not-returned copy of the book.  “All the world assert it is a pity,” the narrator lamented, “that generosity should suffer; therefore it is hoped, even the second, third or fourth borrower possesseth integrity enough” to alert Bell about the whereabouts of the missing book.  Contending that so many readers consulted that copy of the book suggested both its utility and popularity.

That set the stage for the nota bene that appeared at the end of the advertisement.  The narrator announced that “Sometime in February” the fourth volume of the American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries “will be ready for the subscribers.”  Bell just happened to be the publisher of that project, having advertised and distributed the first three volumes in 1771 and 1772.  (The title page for the fourth volume says 1772, but this advertisement suggests that may have been an error and that Bell actually released the fourth volume in early 1773.)  Although an extensive list of subscribers appeared before the title page of the fourth volume, Bell may have anticipated printing surplus copies to sell to customers who had not subscribed in advance.  Whether or not there was any truth to the story of the lawyer who loaned out a London edition of the book, Bell seems to have tried to generate even more interest in the forthcoming publication of his American edition.

August 25

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

Connecticut Courant (August 25, 1772).


William Ellery stocked a variety of wares, but emphasized “WINES” in his advertisement in the August 25, 1772, edition of the Connecticut Courant.  Many purveyors of goods and services used their names as the sole or primary headline in their newspaper advertisements, but Ellery opted to open his advertisement with a segment of his merchandise that he thought would attract attention.  The headline, “WINES,” appeared in a large font, followed by a list of “CHOICE Old Madeira, Claret, Teneriff and Mountain, Malaga WINES.”  Only after that preview did Ellery give his name and location as a secondary headline before providing a more extensive account of beer, spirits, and groceries.  In contrast, an advertisement in the next column featured a more familiar headline, “Imported from LONDON, and to be sold by Stephen Mears, Opposite the North Meeting House in Hartford,” with “Stephen Mears” centered and in a larger font.

Ellery used graphic design to his advantage elsewhere in his advertisement as well.  The “N.B.” that marked the nota bene that followed his list of merchandise appeared in an even larger font than “WINES,” as did the “M” in “MR. ELLERY.”  Even if readers skimmed over “Bristol Beer, and Dorchester Ale, by the Cask, or Dozen Bottles” and “Coffee by the Bag or single Pound,” the large letters guided them to a message from the merchant.  He expressed “his Thanks to those People who have heretofore favour’d him with their Custom” and invited them to continue to “favour him with their Custom.”  Ellery deployed two of the most popular marketing appeals of the period, choice and price, proclaiming that he “his Shop is fuller sorted than ever, as he has just received a large Supply of the above Articles, and flatters himself he cans sell so low as to give intire satisfaction” to his customers.  In contrast, other advertisers tended to position such notes below the headline and above the list of goods.  Once again, Ellery adopted a format that distinguished his advertisement from others.

Ellery’s notice consisted entirely of text, as did all of the advertisements in most issues of the Connecticut Courant.  That did not mean, however, that every advertisement looked the same.  Some advertisers did rely on standard formats, but others sought to engage readers by presenting familiar messages in less familiar formats.  The design of Ellery’s advertisement challenged prospective customers to look more closely at his merchandise and the assertions he made about low prices and extensive choices.

March 2

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

Mar 2 - 3:2:1770 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (March 2, 1770).

“For SALE at William Neilson’s Store.”

In addition to advertising his wares in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, and the New-York Journal, William Neilson also inserted a notice in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy.  Yesterday I examined the iteration of the advertisement that appeared in the March 1, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal, focusing on the nota bene about his prices remaining the same as before the nonimportation agreement went into effect.  The version that ran in the Connecticut Journal listed many of the same goods, but did not deploy copy identical to the advertisement in the New-York Journal.  Most significantly, it did not include the nota bene about prices.  Why not?

After further investigation, I discovered that the nota bene was not part of the advertisement when it first appeared in any of newspapers printed in New York.  It first ran in the February 22, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal without the additional note offering assurances that Neilson did not take advantage of the nonimportation agreement to engage in price gouging.  The advertisement did not appear in the new issues of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, published four days later.  Instead, it made its next appearance in the March 1 edition of the New-York Journal, now with the nota bene.  On March 5 the advertisement – identical copy, including the nota bene – did appear in the other two New York newspapers.  The staggered appearance of the advertisements and the addition of the nota bene suggest that Neilson felt some urgency to inform prospective customers and the rest of the community that he did not jack up his prices.  Perhaps he had heard rumors or been confronted directly, prompting him to advertise more widely than he originally intended.  By the time he made that determination, it may have been too late to update the copy he sent to the Connecticut Journal.

Rather than merely noting a benefit to his customers, the nota bene that eventually appeared at the conclusion of Neilson’s advertisements may very well have been an exercise in reputation management.  Rarely did merchants and shopkeepers update their advertisements in the 1760s and 1770s.  They usually submitted copy that ran for weeks or even months.  Yet Neilson made an addition to his advertisement and then published the revised version in its entirety in two more newspapers, increasing the funds he expended on advertising.  If his reputation was at stake, he may have considered doing so a necessity well worth the additional expense.

March 24

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

Mar 24 - 3:24:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (March 24, 1768).

“Work will be taken in either at said Shop, or by Edward Wentworth, at Milton Bridge.”

In the early spring on 1768, Theophilus Chamberlain, a clothier, turned to the public prints to announce that he “HAS opened Shop near the Sign of the White-Horse in BOSTON.” Like many other artisans in the garment trades, he promoted both his skill and his prices, pledging that he did “the Clothier’s Business in the best and cheapest Manner.” Perhaps realizing that this did not sufficiently distinguish him from his competitors, Chamberlain supplemented those appeals by offering prospective customers a choice for dropping off and picking up textiles and garments. In a nota bene, he advised that “Work will be taken in either at said Shop, or by Edward Wentworth, at Milton Bridge; and may be had again at either Place as the Owner may choose.” By extending these options, the clothier marketed convenience to his clients. He acknowledged that his location might be attractive to some, but out of the way for others. In an effort to increase his clientele he made arrangements to serve them at two locations.

The typography of the advertisement highlighted the additional appeal made in the nota bene, placing special emphasis on the convenience that Chamberlain provided that his competitors did not. While the graphic design of the advertisement – indenting the entire nota bene so the additional white space on a page of dense text drew more attention to it – likely drew more eyes, it does not appear that Chamberlain made particular arrangements concerning the format of the advertisement. The advertisement immediately below it also featured a short nota bene and identical decisions concerning the layout.

Chamberlain carefully crafted the copy for his advertisement to entice readers of the Massachusetts Gazette to hire him to dress their textiles and garments, finishing them so as to give a nap, smooth surface, or gloss, depending on the fabric. He underscored price, his skill, and, especially, the convenience of multiple locations. Fortuitously for Chamberlain, the typography of the advertisement amplified the most unique of his appeals. Some of the innovation of his advertisement was intentional, but other aspects that also worked to his benefit seem to have been merely circumstantial since they depended on decisions made by the compositor independently of the advertiser.