What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The said Eustis has to sell (being a Consignment) a few Setts Pamela.”
A revolution in reading took place during the eighteenth century. Early Americans shifted away from intensive reading of the bible and theological and devotional materials in favor of extensive reading of a variety of different genres, including history, poetry and genre, travel narratives, political philosophy, and even novels.
Critics almost immediately lamented the rise of the novel, claiming that the characters and plots challenged traditional virtues and could corrupt readers. In particular, critics worried about the effect reading novels might have on young women. In today’s advertisement, Jane Eustis offered a copy of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson first published in 1740, and Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, another epistolary novel by Richardson, published eight years after Pamela. Both novels were extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but they were also criticized for what was considered an improper sensuality. The plot of Pamela, for instance, includes an attempted seduction and rape. Although the cover page claimed the novel had been published “In order to cultivate the Principles of VIRTUE and RELIGION in the Minds of the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES,” some critics charged that scenes considered too graphic actually had the opposite effect.
Jane Eustis, a woman operating a business in a commercial world dominated by men, made it clear in her advertisement that although she sold Pamela and Clarissa she did so on consignment. She did not indicate whether she had actually read either book but allowed for sufficient doubt. Customers who wished to purchase and read Pamela and Clarissa may not have cared how familiar Eustis was with their contents, but customers who objected to the novels might wonder about a she-merchant’s interest in those books and chose not to patronize her shop at all. By stating that she sold the books on consignment for another party, Eustis steered a middle course that protected her reputation while allowing her to participate in the marketplace.
Note: When Eustis announced that she sold “a few Setts Pamela with Cuts” she was not referring to an abridged version with material cut out. Instead, she meant that images — either woodcuts or engravings — accompanied each volume.