What as advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The curious in books … are requested to call for the Catalogue.”
An advertisement in the September 14, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet invited readers to visit “the Book-Store of WILLIAM WOODHOUSE” to receive a free copy of “A CATALOGUE OF A COLLECTION OF NEW AND OLD BOOKS, In all the Arts and Sciences, and in various Languages.” The advertisement indicates that the lengthy title of the catalog included “Also, as large quantity of entertaining Novels, with the lowest price printed to each book.” At a glance, it appears that Woodhouse was responsible for compiling and promoting this catalog, but closer inspection reveals that Woodhouse almost certainly collaborated with another bookseller, Robert Bell.
Ten months later, Bell distributed a catalog that replicated the title of the catalog advertised in September 1772, with the exception of adding his name: “ROBERT BELL’s SALE CATALOGUE Of a COLLECTION of NEW AND OLD BOOK, In all the Arts and Sciences, and in various Languages, Also, a large Quantity of entertaining NOVELS; with the lowest Price printed to each BOOK; NOW SELLING, At the BOOK-STORE of WILLIAM WOODHOUSE, Bookseller, Stationer, and Bookbinder, in Front-street, near Chestnut-street, Philadelphia.” Woodhouse apparently provided retail space for Bell in both 1772 and 1773.
Yet more than merely identical titles testify to Bell’s role in producing and marketing the catalog. The newspaper advertisement concluded with a nota bene that declared, “In this Collection are many uncommon BOOKS, seldom to be found;—therefore, the curious in books—the Directors of Libraries—and all others, that delight in the food of the mind, are requested to call for the Catalogue at said WOODHOUSE’S, as above.” Those flourishes, especially “the curious in books” and “food of the mind,” echoed the language that the flamboyant Bell deployed in other advertisements. For instance, he previously marketed “ROBERTSON’S celebrated History of CHARLES the Fifth” to “ALL Gentlemen that possess a sentimental TASTE.”
Bell was one of the most innovative and influential American booksellers and publishers of the eighteenth century. Inserting the “lowest price” in the entry for each book in the catalog distinguished it from other catalogs that merely listed authors, titles, and, sometimes, sizes ranging from folio to quarto to octavo to duodecimo. In addition, Bell supplemented newspaper advertisements and catalogs with broadsides and subscription notices, creating savvy marketing campaigns that incorporated multiple media to entice colonizers to become consumers of the books that he hawked.