July 24

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

Jul 24 - 7:24:1770 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (July 24, 1770).

“An Exhibition of modern Books, by AUCTION.”

Robert Bell, one of the most influential booksellers and auctioneers in eighteenth-century America, toured New England in the summer of 1770.  Bell is widely recognized among historians of the book for his innovative marketing practices.  The tone and language in his advertisement in the July 7, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, however, seems rather bland compared to the flashy approach that eventually became the hallmark of Bell’s efforts to promote his books and auctions.  On the other hand, another advertisement in the Essex Gazette just a few weeks later hinted at the showmanship that Bell was in the process of developing and refining.

In announcing auctions that would take place at a tavern in Salem on three consecutive nights, Bell addressed prospective bidders as “the Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.”  Deploying such salutations eventually became a trademark of his newspaper advertisements, broadsides, and book catalogs.  The advertisement in the Essex Gazette gave customers a glimpse of the personality they would encounter at the auction.  Bell described each auction as “an Exhibition of modern Books” and proclaimed that one each evening “there will really exist an Opportunity of purchasing Books cheap.”  He seemed to take readers into his confidence, offering assurances that the prospect of inexpensive books was more than just bluster to lure them to the auction.

In the same advertisement, Bell sought to incite interest in another trilogy of auctions.  “An Opportunity similar to the above,” he declared, “will revolve at the Town of NEWBURY-PORT.”  Readers of the Essex Gazette who could not attend any of the book auctions in Salem had another chance to get good bargains while mingling with other “Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.”  Like other itinerants who announced their visits in the public prints, whether peddlers or performers, Bell made clear that he would be in town for a limited time only.  He advised that “the Public may be certain that the Auctionier’s Stay in those Towns will not exceed the Time limited as above.”  Bell would be in Salem for just three nights and then in Newburyport for three more nights before moving along to his next destination.

Compared to his recent notice in the Providence Gazette, the advertisement Bell placed in the Essex Gazette much more resembled the style of promotion that made him famous in the eighteenth century and infamous in the history of the book.  His lively language suggested that his auctions would be more than the usual sort of sale.  They would be events that readers would not want to miss.

July 7

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

Jul 7 - 7:7:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 7, 1770).

“Robert Bell, BOOKSELLER and AUCTIONIER.”

Historians of the book have long credited Robert Bell as one of the most innovative, industrious, and successful booksellers in eighteenth-century America.  His auctions achieved great success, due in part to the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and in part to the marketing strategies he developed.  Carl Bridenbaugh asserts that Bell “institutionalized the colonial book auction, and more than any one else in [the era of the American Revolution] laid the solid foundations for book publishing in America.”[1]

At the time that he ran his advertisement for “An OLD LOOKING-GLASS For the LAITY and CLERGY Of all Denominations” in the Providence Gazette in the summer of 1770, he had only recently arrived in the colonies.  James N. Green explains that Bell, “a Scot who reached Philadelphia in 1768 after a career as a reprinter of English properties in Ireland, was the first American bookseller to reprint systematically new and popular British books in direct competition with imports.”[2]  This distinguished him from other booksellers who sold primarily imported books rather than taking on the risk and expense of publishing and selling American editions.  In 1770, Bell circulated a subscription proposal for Blackstone’s Commentaries.  Upon acquiring sufficient subscribers, he published an American edition in 1771 and 1772.  Green echoes Bridenbaugh, describing Bell as an “innovative and dynamic” promoter of printed wares who provided “a model of what the book culture of an independent country might be like, and he foreshadowed the transformation of the book trade in the postwar years.”[3]

Yet Bell sometimes resorted to traditional means of advertising books, especially near the beginning of his career in America.  Bell’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette was muted compared to others.  Some of his subsequent newspaper advertisements addressed readers and prospective customers as “Sons of Science,” “Sentimentalists of America,” and “The Lovers of literary entertainment, amusement and instruction.”[4]  By 1780, Bell devised advertisements that hawked his own personality in addition to describing the community of readers, including in a broadsheet in which he described himself as “Bookseller, Provedore to the Sentimentalists, and Professor of BOOK-AUCTIONEERING in America.”  According to Green, “Before Bell, book advertisements consisted of nothing more than a transcription of their titles; no one had ever used language to sell books in this way.”[5]  The length of Bell’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette, however, set it apart from others in the same issue, but the language did not distinguish it from other advertisements for books from the period.  The personality associated with his bookselling and auctioneering enterprise was still a work in progress.

**********

[1] Carl Bridenbaugh, “The Press and the Book in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 65, no. 1 (January 1941): 16.

[2] James N. Green, “The Rise of Book Publishing,” in Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, eds., An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840, vol. 2, A History of the Book in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 77.

[3] Green, “Rise of Book Publishing,” 77.

[4] Bridenbaugh, “Press and the Book,” 15.

[5] James N. Green, “English Books and Printing in the Age of Franklin,” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds., The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, vol. 1, A History of the Book in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press with the American Antiquarian Society, 2007), 285.

February 5

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

Feb 5 - 2:5:1770 New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (February 5, 1770).

“All the Books in this Catalogue are either American Manufacture, or imported long before the Non-Importation Agreement.”

Robert Bell, one of the most industrious booksellers in eighteenth-century America, owed his success in part to savvy advertising. His advertisement for an “Auction of Books” in the February 5, 1770, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, for instance, incorporated two significant marketing strategies intended to incite consumer demand.

Bell began by announcing that he had just published a “CATALOGUE of new and old BOOKS” that prospective customers could acquire “gratis at the Place of Sale.” Bell likely intended that distributing the catalog would get people through the door. When they came to pick up a catalog many might decide to view the merchandise. Then they carried away a catalog as a reminder of the books they had examined. In passing out catalogs, Bell also enhanced the dissemination of information about his merchandise beyond the reach of his newspaper advertisement. Prospective customers who obtained catalogues could share them with members of their household as well as friends and neighbors. Bell did not rely on a single medium to attract attention to his “Auction of Books.” Instead, he had multiple marketing media in circulation.

He also addressed the politics of consumption, concluding his advertisement with a note about the origins of the books he offered for sale. “[A]ll the Books in this Catalogue,” he assured prospective customers, “are either American Manufacture, or imported long before the Non-Importation Agreement.” Although colonial printers produced some American imprints, the most books in the colonies were imported from England prior to the American Revolution. Bell sought to mediate that reality by focusing on the fact that his books had been imported before merchants, shopkeepers, and others enacted a boycott of imported goods to protest the duties levied on certain imported goods in the Townshend Acts. Rather than focus on where those volumes had been produced he instead emphasized when they had arrived in the colonies. Still, he did make an appeal to the place of production when he could, noting that some of his books were indeed “American Manufacture.” To underscore the importance of these distinctions, he addressed prospective customers as “Lovers and real Practisers of Patriotism,” challenging all readers to consider the political meanings of consumer goods.

Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements have sometimes been dismissed as mere announcements that made no effort at marketing. Bell’s notice, however, demonstrates that some advertisers engaged in savvy marketing campaigns … and that consumers were exposed to their efforts to shape the colonial marketplace.