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