February 7

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

“Subscriptions are taken … by S. Hall in Salem.”

Essex Gazette (February 7, 1769).

This subscription notice for “The WORKS of the celebrated John Wilkes, Esquire, in Three VOLUMES” ran in the February 7, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette, yet that was not the first place that colonial readers encountered it. The “PROPOSALS” had previously appeared in at least two newspapers, the New-York Journal in December 1768 and the New-London Gazette in January 1769. The Essex Gazette and the New-London Gazette both reiterated the copy exactly, except for the final paragraph indicating where prospective customers could reserve their copy. The notice in the New-York Journal stated that “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.” The version in the New-London Gazette updated the list to include “at New London in Connecticut” after listing the four largest port cities in the colonies. Rather than add his name to a growing list, the printer of the Essex Gazette instead substituted “and by S. Hall in Salem” for “at New London in Connecticut.” Perhaps Hall was not aware that Timothy Green also took in subscriptions. Both printers may have received copies of the original advertisement accompanied by requests to join the network of subscription agents, but the coordination may have ended there.

The revisions to the lists of subscription agents testify to ongoing attempts to create an imagined community of readers throughout the colonies. In addition to reading many of the same news items reprinted from newspaper to newspaper, readers also encountered the same advertisement encouraging them to purchase and read the same book. In the process, geographically dispersed colonists had similar experiences as they perused the same information in the public prints – and imagined their counterparts in distant colonies simultaneously perusing the same information. Yet creating a sense of an imagined community did not require extending the list of locations whenever possible. The original notice depended on just the four most significant urban ports. Subsequent notices in the Essex Gazette and the New-London Gazette added their own location, but did not add others that also participated. Making connections to the largest cities was sufficient for envisioning an imagined community, even if compiling more extensive lists would have been even more effective. That would have required additional coordination. By the end of the century, some publishers did attempt to harness lengthy lists of subscription agents in their marketing efforts. For instance, Mathew Carey listed dozens of local agents who sold his magazine, the American Museum, in the late 1780s and early 1790s. Doing so required overseeing an extensive network of colleagues and associates. The efforts to promote the works of Wilkes in the late 1760s did not benefit from that level of coordination, though the inclusion of additional agents in more locations may have played a role in inspiring others to take a more systematic approach in subsequent marketing campaigns.