May 22

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

May 22 - 5:22:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (May 22, 1767).

Fraught with Entertainment.”

Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, also sold books that they imported from England or exchanged with other printers in the colonies. Their advertisement filled an entire column and nearly half of another on the final page of the May 22, 1767, issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Such lengthy advertisements were not uncommon for printers and booksellers, but the length of this one resulted from an innovative format not featured in most newspaper notices. Printers and booksellers usually followed one of two standard practices when advertising books. Either they provided a list of titles for sale, a catalog of sorts, or they marketed a single volume via lengthy explications of the contents and their practical usefulness for readers.

The Fowles did a little bit of each but more in this advertisement. They included a short list of additional titles at the conclusion, but first they described several books in chatty blurbs that took a very different tone than most advertisements for books inserted in newspapers in the 1760s. The Fowles aimed to entertain readers rather than strictly instruct them (though a heavy dose of instruction was still embedded in their marketing), offering an alternate rationale for why consumers should purchase their wares.

Consider, for example, the description of “The Clandestine Marriage, A COMEDY: As it is acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.” According to the blurb, the play was “fraught with Entertainment. Some of the Scenes are truly comic, others inculcate the strictest Morality.” It also included a description of the characters, including “the conceited, infirm, and antiquated yet generous Lord Ogleby – the vulgar, money loving Sterling – the sensible Lovewell – the sycophant Canton – the impudent Brush – Mrs. Heidelberg the Dutch Widow, an ignorant Pretender to Quality Mannersthe pert, spiteful Miss Sterling, displaying in reality the modern fine Lady, and the amiable, gentle, and delicate Miss Fanny – who altogether form a Group that must afford greta [sic] Entertainment to every Reader.” In addition, the Epilogue, in particular, was “very remarkable for its Singularity and Humour.”

This shift in tone, telling readers that they would be entertained as well as receive moral instruction, made sense as part of the reading revolution that took place in the eighteenth century. Reading habits experienced a transition from intensive reading of the bible and devotional literature to more extensive reading of works of all sorts for entertainment. The Fowles demonstrate that one mode of reading did not simply replace the other. Instead, they framed several of their books to appeal to whichever purpose their customers wished to achieve in their reading habits.

March 14

GUEST CURATOR: Daniel McDermott

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

Mar 14 - 3:14:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 14, 1767).

“THE Proprietors of the Providence Library are hereby notified to meet at the Court-House.”

David Rowland, “Librarian, pro Tempore,” placed this advertisement to notify “Proprietors” of the Providence Library Company (founded 1753) that a meeting was planned to elect a new Librarian on March 28. The advertisement also notified anyone who had books belonging to the library to return them.

The greatest change in libraries over time has been to access by general readers. Today, most town libraries are open to the public but require a library card to access their collection. These are the libraries used by most person. In eighteenth-century America, access to libraries was more restricted because most were based on a monthly or yearly paid membership.

According to William Burns, the two most popular types of libraries in the eighteenth century were circulating libraries and subscription libraries. Circulating libraries had lower subscription fees, paid weekly to borrow books. Subscription libraries normally had higher membership rates and were associated with reading societies.

The Junto, Benjamin Franklin’s discussion group in Philadelphia, created one of the most famous subscription libraries. It still exists today as the Library Company of Philadelphia. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the library was one of the five largest in the United States. The Library Company of Philadelphia is a good example of how libraries are valued in our society: some last multiple centuries. Over time, other libraries that give open access to the public have joined them. Although Americans did not expect to find libraries open to all in the eighteenth century, many valued libraries and the access to knowledge and entertainment they provided.



Printers and booksellers frequently advertised their wares in eighteenth-century newspapers, sometimes listing dozens of titles, sometimes promoting a particular book, and sometimes seeking subscribers as a means of gauging interest in books they intended to publish (provided the public responded with sufficient demand in advance). A reading revolution took place in the eighteenth century as consumers purchased greater numbers of books and their reading habits shifted from intensive reading of bibles, devotional texts, and almanacs to extensive reading from an array of genres.

The reading revolution also included the founding of private lending libraries by civic organizations, including the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), the Charleston Library Society (1748), and the Providence Library Company (1753). Daniel has already provided a brief sketch of two models for operating libraries – subscription libraries and circulating libraries – that gave colonists greater access to books than most would have been able to purchase on their own.

As Daniel notes, subscription libraries and circulating libraries charged different rates to access their collections. In exchange for paying the fees, readers received different benefits. Members of subscription libraries paid annual fees for unlimited borrowing privileges, giving them broad access to the library company’s collections. Nonsubscribers could also borrow books, paying variable fees based on the size of the book (the dimensions of the pages – folio, octavo, duodecimo – not the length of the text) and the length of time they kept the book. On the other hand, circulating libraries did not usually have annual subscription fees. Instead, they charged by the week, which allowed patrons to keep expenses down by choosing how often to check out books. Circulating libraries also limited access to one book at a time.

Circulating libraries facilitated the reading revolution. A significant aspect of the shift from intensive to extensive reading involved the rise of the novel and reading for pleasure, especially by women. Subscription libraries tended not to obtain novels, but, as William Burns notes, novels “were the lifeblood of the circulating library.” Furthermore, “women comprised about half the membership of the circulating libraries,” but subscription libraries did not admit female readers (though that did not prevent men from checking out books for female relatives and friends).

Despite differences in membership, collections, and operating structure, both subscription libraries and circulating libraries emerged exclusively in cities in the eighteenth century, pointing to another important distinction between libraries then and now. Daniel notes that public libraries operated by local municipalities have greatly expanded access to information and services. Organizations like the Providence Library Company played an important role in that process as they allowed early Americans greater access to books than they previously experienced.

In Which Book Catalogues Encouraged a Revolution in Reading

Last week I examined a bookseller’s newspaper advertisement that could have doubled as a broadside book catalogue. This week I would like to continue an exploration of eighteenth-century book catalogues, focusing primarily on the evolution of this method of advertising among Philadelphia’s booksellers. The earliest catalogues were broadsides that could be posted in a public place or folded and sent through the post. Later catalogues became pamphlets and were often bound at the front or back of a book, inserted in magazines, or available free of charge as stand-alone items at booksellers’ shops. Printers and booksellers sometimes concluded their newspaper advertisements by noting that customers could get a more complete sense of their stock if they visited their shop to peruse the catalogue.

The first book catalogues were typically undifferentiated lists of goods, but booksellers steadily made innovations in format to make their catalogues a distinctive medium. In 1754, David Hall issued Philadelphia’s first broadside catalogue.[1] It included 425 short author entries in two columns, the items grouped by size with octavos and duodecimos far outnumbering folios and quartos. This method privileged some of the most expensive books by listing them first, and it also allowed potential customers to visualize the physical appearance of a book. Those who valued books as a symbol of consumption could choose a folio edition of Swan’s British Architecture and Designs that would definitely draw attention when placed on a desk or table. Another customer might prefer to continue purchasing octavo-sized volumes that would have an orderly appearance on the bookshelf. Within each size category, the books were listed in continuous paragraphs. In contrast, William Bradford distributed a broadside catalogue five years later that featured only one title per line in each of its three columns. Bradford’s style of organizing his advertisement may have made for easier skimming or reading but at the expense of limiting the number of titles he could list – only half as many as featured on Hall’s catalogue.[2] Running competing bookshops in a city of less than 30,000 inhabitants, Hall and Bradford most likely examined each other’s catalogues. The two booksellers apparently believed that potential customers preferred the format of their catalogue to that of their competition as both booksellers continued publishing their catalogues in their original format for quite some time. Fifteen years after his first catalogue appeared, Hall issued a broadsheet catalogue that closely resembled his initial catalogue: two columns with the books categorized by size and set in continuous paragraphs. That same year, William and Thomas Bradford distributed a broadsheet catalogue that listed one title per line, this time divided into four columns rather than three.[3] These early catalogues sought to attract customers solely by providing a list of books in stock, a strategy repeatedly employed in the years before the Revolution. Until the 1770s, most booksellers’ catalogues followed Hall’s or Bradford’s method for listing their stock. New innovations began to appear in the last decades of the century as booksellers increasingly targeted specialized reading audiences.

As inventories increased and booksellers experimented with different styles and formats, their catalogues became more elaborate. Generally, the earliest booksellers’ catalogues were broadsides or broadsheets listing a couple of hundred authors or titles. Although some booksellers continued to issues broadsides even into the 1790s, most switched to octavo- and duodecimo-sized volumes featuring one thousand or more books listed on dozens of pages. One extraordinary volume, a 215-page duodecimo catalogue that contained nearly 2,700 titles described by Clarence Brigham as “the most extensive and elaborate catalogue published in the eighteenth century,” was issued by H. Caritat of New York in 1799.[4] Such catalogues sometimes gave the impression that a bookseller’s stock had great depth, but often he only carried one or two copies of most of the volumes listed.

In the final three decades of the eighteenth century, book catalogues became more innovative, partially as the result of attempts to appeal to readers with special interests. Broadsides and broadsheets became slender volumes consisting of dozens of pages, and printers, booksellers, and publishers began to market particular products to specific readers. Rather than grouping books according to size, booksellers began to categorize them by topic so potential customers could more easily find books that might be of interest. Alternately, some began to alphabetize the titles to assist readers looking for a particular book. Some catalogues even alphabetized titles within topics or provided excerpts or puffs that were intended to hook the reader and create desire for a book that he or she might not have previously considered purchasing. Mathew Carey emphasized that these innovations probably led to better sales. In a letter to his colleague Timothy Brundige, he offered the following advice: “If you were to take the trouble to draw out your lists in alphab. Order classing each Kind of Books together, such as law, medical, historical, religion &c it would be very complete & be much more serviceable than in the present confused mode.”[5]

Carey spoke from experience. He had inserted his “Catalogue of Books” in his own magazine, the American Museum, during its final years of publication, if not sooner. Carey’s catalogues offered a more systematic and sophisticated method of advertising than many earlier booksellers’ catalogues and newspaper notices, and his method of distribution allowed him to court customers who had already expressed an interest in the historical, political, and belle lettres essays that appeared in his magazine. Starting at twelve pages and eventually expanding to twenty-four, Carey’s catalogues further subdivided his merchandise into categories such as Law; Medical, Surgical, and Chemical Books; Religious Books; History, Voyages, and Travels; Poetry and Drama; and Books of Navigation.[6] His approach increased the chances that readers who discovered various advertisements stuffed in the magazine might take notice of the catalogue and helped potential customers to quickly find items matching their own interests. Carey de-emphasized his stationery wares and other items more than most other booksellers. His first catalogues inserted in the American Museum included short lists of printed blanks and stationery items, but mentioned no other goods. Carey eventually discontinued listing anything except books as his business endeavors became increasingly specialized.

By the end of the century, booksellers became increasingly specialized in their use of several advertising media, developing advertisements meant to target potential customers with particular interests, whether they were professionals, like doctors and lawyers, members of polite society interested in belles lettres, or merchants and sea captains. For instance, in the 1790s George Davis posted at least three broadside catalogues that featured law books exclusively.[7] Although others might find some volumes of interest, Davis directly addressed “Gentlemen of the Bar and their Students.” Curiously, broadside catalogues did not achieve the level of sophistication evident in contemporary octavo-sized multi-page catalogues by the end of the century. Rather than list his books by topic, Davis continued to divide them according to size. Other booksellers, such as Rice and Company, loosely grouped books together by topic but did not include any headings to aid potential customers in finding books or pamphlets they might find most interesting.[8]

The evolution of book catalogues in early America offers a glimpse of the intersection of the reading revolution and consumer revolution that simultaneously occurred in the eighteenth century. Advertisers sought to hasten the transformation of reading habits from intensive consideration of bibles and devotional works to extensive reading of a different kinds of books, including reading novels for pleasure. Book catalogues from the period demonstrate how booksellers, printers, and publishers classified their stock as well as suggest how their potential customers – readers – imagined and assessed their wares in new ways.


[1] David Hall, Imported in the Last Ships from London, and To Be Sold by David Hall, at the New-Printing Office, In Market-Street, Philadelphia, the Following Books (Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1754).

[2] William Bradford, A Catalogue of Books. Just Imported from London, and To Be Sold by W. Bradford, at the London-Coffee-House, Philadelphia, Wholseale and Retail. With Good Allowance for Those That Take a Quantity (Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1759).

[3] William and Thomas Bradford, Imported in the Last Vessels from London, and To Be Sold by William and Thomas Bradford, Printers, Booksellers, and Stationers, At Their Book-Store in Market-Street, Adjoining the London Coffee-House; Or By Thomas Bradford, At His House in Second-Street, One Door from Arch-Street, and Nearly Opposite the Sign of St. George, A Large and Neat Assortment of Books and Stationary (Philadelphia: [William and Thomas Bradford,] 1769); and David Hall, David Hall, At the New Printing-Office, in Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has to Dispose Of, Wholesale and Retail, the Following Books, &c. (Philadelphia: D. Hall and W. Sellers, 1769).

[4] Clarence S. Brigham, “American Booksellers’ Catalogues, 1734-1800,” in Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth, ed. Frederick R. Goff (Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1951), 62.

[5] Mathew Carey to T. Brundige, 20 March 1795, Mathew Carey Letterbook, Lea & Febiger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[6] Mathew Carey, Mathew Carey’s Catalogue of Books, for August, 1792 (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, July 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; ibid., Mathew Carey’s Catalogue of Books, for September, 1792 (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, August 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; ibid., Mathew Carey, No. 118 Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has Imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an Extensive Assortment of Books [October 1792] (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, September 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; ibid., Mathew Carey, No. 118 Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has Imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an Extensive Assortment of Books [November 1792] (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, October 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; and ibid., Mathew Carey, No. 118 Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has Imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an Extensive Assortment of Books [January 1793] (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, December 1792, Michael Zinman Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia.

[7] George Davis, Law Books (Philadelphia: 1792); ibid., Law Books — Latest Editions (Philadelphia: 1794); and ibid., Law Books — Latest Irish Editions (Philadelphia: 1795). Also see his four-page catalogue devoted solely to law books: Davis’s Law Catalogue, for 1799. Latest London and Irish Editions (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, Jr., 1799).

[8] Rice and Company, Rice and Co. Booksellers and Stationers, South Side of Market-Street, Next Door But One to Second-Street, Philadelphia; Have Imported in the Last Vessels from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, a Large and General Assortment of Books, and Stationary Ware, Which They Will Dispose Of By Wholesale and Retail on Very Moderate Terms (Philadelphia: 1789).

April 12

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 12 - 4:11:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 11, 1766).

“TO BE SOLD … the following BOOKS.”

This advertisement sold different types of books, from Bibles (“royal Families Bibles”) to history books and geography (“Histories of the late War” and “History of Austria”), a science book (“Winkler’s natural Philosophy”), and sets of books about warfare (“Sieges and Battles”) to novels. (Skome also sold Stoughton’s Elixir, a patent medicine.)

The advertisement also mentions “Stackhouse’s Life of Christ, Folio.” In today’s world, “folio” refers to the page numbers that appear in books. However, in the eighteenth century, a folio was a type of book that was larger than average and also more expensive, made of a piece of paper that had been folded just once, resulting in two pages. Other book sizes included quartos, octavos, and duodecimals. Quartos are slightly smaller than folios due to the fact that the paper that was used to form them was folded four times instead of two. Octavos are even smaller, as the paper used to form them has been folded eight times. Duodecimals are even smaller than octavos since they have twelve pages per sheet. One famous example of a work that was distributed as a folio was a 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s works.

For more information on the history of books, check out this syllabus for an online course on “The Book: 1450 to the Present.”



The eighteenth century was an age of revolutions. This blog explores the consumer revolution every day, one advertisement at a time. In many instances, the guest curators and I have linked the appeals made in those advertisements to the political revolution brewing in England’s American colonies. Today’s advertisement, however, called attention to another revolution that occurred throughout the eighteenth century.

Note that Skome’s lists several kinds of reading material, starting with bibles and other devotional works and concluding with “A Number of curious and entertaining NOVELS.” A number of histories, geographies, and other reference works appeared in the middle of the list. In choosing to list his titles in this order, Skome created a hierarchy that reflected many colonists’ attitudes toward the reading materials available to them, including a suspicion and hostility toward novels.

So, what does this have to do with some kind of revolution? A revolution in reading took place during the eighteenth century. Colonists’ reading habits shifted from intensive reading of a small number of printed works – primarily bibles and other texts about religion – to extensive reading of a great number of genres, including histories, travelogues, economics, poetry and other literature, and novels. The consumer revolution and the reading revolution converged as colonists purchased and read a greater variety of books than bibles and almanacs.

This greater variety included “curious and entertaining NOVELS.” Some colonists were not happy with that development, even as they cultivated an appreciation for other printed works. Most books possessed at least some redeeming content, but critics believed that the fictional tales of romance and scandal in novels promoted salacious behavior in real life. Such critiques had a gendered component as well: in a patriarchal society, many men worried about what kinds of ideas women and girls might develop when left to their own devices to read possibly unsavory novels without appropriate supervision.