What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Send the Subscription Papers, to the Printing Office.”
An advertisement for A Treatise on Regeneration by Peter Van Mastricht ran in the August 24, 1770, edition of the Connecticut Journal. Thomas Green and Samuel Green announced that the book was “In the Press, and a few Days will be published.” The Greens had multiple audiences in mind when they composed their advertisement. They hoped to attract new customers, but they also addressed existing customers as well as associates who collected subscriptions on their behalf. A manicule drew attention to a short note at the conclusion of the advertisement: “Those Gentlemen that took in Subscriptions for printing the above Piece, are desired to send the Subscription Papers, to the Printing Office, in New Haven, the first Opportunity.”
Publishing by subscription, a popular practice prior to the American Revolution, meant taking orders in advance of printing a proposed book. This allowed printers to gauge interest so they could determine if sufficient demand existed to merit moving forward with the project. If so, this also gave them a good sense of how many copies to print in order to meet demand and have a small surplus for additional customers, but not so many that any that did not sell caused the venture to be a financial failure rather than success. Printers did not always take advance orders themselves. Instead, they distributed subscription papers to networks of associates who collected names on their behalf. Those subscription papers included an overview of the proposed book, the conditions, an enumerated list of what subscribers could expect in terms of the material qualities of the publication, and space for subscribers to sign their names. Prospective subscribers could also see which of their friends and neighbors had already subscribed.
When the Greens called on the “Gentlemen that took in Subscriptions” to return their subscription papers, they did so because they needed to determine a complete count of how many customers had already committed to purchasing Van Mastricht’s Treatise on Regeneration. They could then print an appropriate number of copies to fulfill the subscriptions and still have a reasonable number for new customers.