What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“It is hoped will induce all Book-buyers to look at those cheap Editions, before they lay out their Money elsewhere.”
Colonial newspapers circulated throughout entire regions rather than just the towns where they were published and nearby villages. In the 1770s, many bore the names of a colony, such as the New-York Journal or the Pennsylvania Packet, as a testament to their dissemination far beyond the busy urban ports of New York and Philadelphia. More elaborate titles, such as the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal and Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer; or the Connecticut, New-Jersey, Hudson’s-River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser, also suggested the reach of those newspapers. Accordingly, advertising in colonial newspapers was not exclusively local to the town of publication. Instead, newspapers ran advertisements from purveyors of goods and services throughout the regions they served, though the vast majority did originate in the place of publication. Readers would not have been surprised, for instance, to see an advertisement from Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Wilmington, Delaware; or Trenton, New Jersey, in any of the several newspapers published in Philadelphia.
Advertisements that originated on the other side of the Atlantic, however, rarely appeared in colonial newspapers. Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans certainly hawked imported goods in the public prints, but they assumed responsibility for their own marketing. The producers of those goods usually did not participate in advertising to American consumers. That made J. Donaldson’s advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette and other newspapers published in New England all the more noteworthy. Donaldson promoted “NEW BOOKS” that he sold at “the only Shop for cheap Books” in London. To demonstrate the bargains, he devised columns for “Donaldson’s Prices,” the titles of books he sold, and “London Prices.” An edition of “Mr. Pope’s Works, with all his Notes” in six volumes typically sold for eighteen shillings, but Donaldson charged only fourteen shillings. Similarly, Milton’s Paradise Lostsold for three shillings and six pence, but Donaldson’s customers saved a shilling. He charged only two shillings and six pence for the same book.
In total, the bookseller listed twenty-six titles that amounted to more than £27 if purchased at “London Prices” but just over £14 at “Donaldson’s Prices,” approximately half the price. Donaldson prefaced his list with an explanation that “many People are not acquainted with the Prices Books are commonly sold for” so “by reading what follows, they will see it their Interest to buy at his Shop.” Below the list, he further elaborated that “By the above Comparison of Prices, it is evidence that you can buy of J DONALDSON for Fourteen Pounds and Six Pence, the same Articles which the London Booksellers charge at Twenty-seven Pounds two Shillings and six Pence.” Donaldson calculated the savings: “in this small Parcel, Thirteen Pounds and two shillings are saved.” He considered that argument enough to “induce all Book-buyers to look at those cheap Editions, before they lay out their Money elsewhere.” Although Donaldson may have welcomed orders from individual consumers in the colonies, he more likely hoped to attract the attention of printers and booksellers looking to import quantities of books. American printers produced a limited number of titles; printers, booksellers, and others who stocked books in their shops imported the vast majority of books. Donaldson offered them a means of acquiring their inventory at lower prices and increasing sales by passing along the savings to their own customers.