May 9

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 9, 1771).

“An ODE set to Music, consecrated to the memory the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

In the months immediately after the death of George Whitefield on September 30, 1770, a variety of printers, booksellers, authors, and others produced and marketed an array of commemorative items that simultaneously commodified one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  This trend tapered off by the end of the year, only to be reinvigorated in the spring of 1771 when vessels arrived from England carrying copies of Whitefield’s will and sermons preached in his memory in London.  Colonial printers produced and sold American editions.  They also distributed them to booksellers and other retailers, enlarging the market for such items.

The May 9, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette carried an advertisement for yet another piece of Whitefield memorabilia, one not previously promoted in the public prints.  John Boyles informed prospective customers that he sold “An ODE set to Music, consecrated to the memory of the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, A.M. By one of his friends in Boston, New England.”  According to the catalog entry maintained by the American Antiquarian Society, this broadside featured eight stanzas and included music for four voices, making it a unique entry among the broadsides, hymnals, and other commemorative items advertised in colonial newspapers.

The catalog entry also indicates that this broadside was presumably published in Boston by an unknown printer in 1770.  This advertisement, however, suggests that Boyles may have been the printer and that he published the broadside in the spring of 1771.  According to his advertisement in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Boyles ran a “PRINTING-OFFICE, next Door to the THREE DOVES in Marlborough-Street.”  In advertisements for other Whitefield items published in the fall of 1770, Boyles appeared among the list of printers and booksellers who sold those items.  Upon seeing a resurgence of marketing for Whitefield memorabilia in the spring, Boyles may have decided to produce a commemorative item of his own, hoping to take advantage of renewed interest and consumer demand.  If so, he likely experienced steady sales of Whitefield items he carried in the fall and did not want to miss out on a potentially lucrative means of generating additional revenue.  In producing his own broadside, Boyles assumed greater risk, but also stood to earn more profits.

Advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia became a familiar sight in several newspapers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania in the spring of 1771.  Printers and booksellers offered colonists several opportunities to commemorate the minister’s death by purchasing items created in his memory.  The “ODE set to Music” was a novel item that likely attracted interest among both consumers who previously purchased other memorabilia and those who had not yet expressed their regard for the minister through participation in the marketplace.