September 1

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 29, 1771).

“The List of Subscribers will be committed to the Press in a few Weeks.”

When John Dunlap set about publishing “ALL THE POETICAL WRITINGS, AND SOME OTHER PIECES, OF THE REV. NATHANIEL EVANS” at “the Newest Printing Office in Market-Street, Philadelphia,” he looked beyond the city in his efforts to cultivate customers.  On August 29, 1771, he advertised the book in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter in hopes of selling copies to readers in New England.  In so doing, Dunlap pursued marketing practices already familiar in the colonies.  In the eighteenth-century, American printers often distributed subscription notices for their projects.  They inserted advertisements in newspapers published in multiple cities, inviting “subscribers” to order copies in advance.  Some supplemented those advertisements with handbills and circular letters.  Others even printed forms with blanks for local agents, usually booksellers and printers, to fill in the names of customers who reserved copies.

In recognition of their commitment to a project, subscribers received a premium in the form of having their names published.  Printers marketed subscription lists as valuable items intended to be bound into books along with title pages, frontispieces, tables of contents, copperplate engravings, indexes, and other ancillary materials.  Each subscription list represented a community of readers and benefactors who supported a project.  Within those printed lists, subscribers found themselves in the company of others who shared their interests, gaining status through the association.  Those who chose not to subscribe missed opportunities for public acclaim.  For his part, Dunlap made it clear that prospective subscribers had only a limited time to see their names among the ranks of those who supported “THE POETICAL WRITINGS … OF THE REV. NATHANIEL EVANS.”  Even though the book already went to press, he had not yet printed the subscription list.  Instead, he warned that “the Lost of the Subscribers will be committed to the Press in a few Week” so “all who are desirous of encouraging this Publication, and who may not yet have subscribed” should “sent their Names, without Loss of Time” to his local agents in Boston.  Dunlap sought to create a sense of urgency to convince prospective subscribers to submit their names and commit to purchasing copies of the book.

April 25

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

Apr 25 - 4:25:1770 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (April 25, 1770).

“Sincere and hearty thanks to the benefactors of Rhode Island College.”

In March 1770 Hezekiah Smith prepared to depart Charleston after a successful stay in the city.  He visited to raise funds for Rhode Island College (now Brown University) and met many benefactors during his time in South Carolina.  In advance of leaving, he inserted an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to express his appreciation as well as offer instructions for anyone who still desired to make contributions but had not yet done so.

Smith did not collect the funds and immediately return to Providence, the site of a new building and a new location for the college.  Instead, he headed further south to Savannah to continue seeking contributions.  In an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette, he outlined a strategy similar to the one he deployed in South Carolina.  He commenced by offering his “sincere and hearty thanks to the benefactors of Rhode Island College” that he had encountered so far, alerting others who had not yet donated that others in the community considered the college a worthy cause.  He also drew attention to the “subscription paper” that listed all of the benefactors and the amount they pledged.  Smith invited benefactors and others to visit Benjamin Stirk, a local agent and counterpart to David Williams in Charleston, to examine the list and confirm “that his donation goes towards making up the sum to be collected and got subscribed” in Georgia.  In the process, benefactors and prospective benefactors would also observe who else had donated and how much, spurring them on to make sure that their own contribution reflected well on themselves.  Smith implicitly relied on raising funds by placing donors in competition with each other as they participated in this sort of philanthropy as a means of asserting status and enhancing reputations.

Advertisements calling on local residents to contribute to Rhode Island College regularly appeared in the Providence Gazette in 1770, but representatives of the college did not confine their fundraising efforts to Rhode Island.  Advertisements that Smith placed in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina demonstrate that the college sought benefactors near and far.

March 27

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

Mar 27 - 3:27:1770 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (March 27, 1770).

“I shall leave a List of the Subscribers Names, together with their Benefactions.”

In late March 1770 Stephen Hopkins, John Brown, and John Jenckes continued their efforts to raise funds and acquire materials to erect a building for Rhode Island College (now Brown University) in Providence.  On behalf of the “Committee for providing Materials and overseeing the Work,” they placed a notice in the Providence Gazette that thanked the “many Gentlemen [who] have been so generous to this very useful Institution, as to become Benefactors to it” while simultaneously calling on both current supporters and “those whose beneficient Minds may incline them to become such” to send updates about their intended donations.

Yet advocates for the college did not confine their fundraising efforts to the Providence Gazette alone.  Hezekian Smith inserted a similar notice in the March 27, 1770 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  He visited the colony to promote the college and the building it needed once its sponsors made a determination to move its location from Warren, Rhode Island, to Providence.  Smith extended his “humble and hearty Thanks to the Benefactors of RHODE-ISLAND COLLEGE, whom he has met since his first Arrival in this Province.”  He also announced that he planned to depart soon, prompting him to encourage “those Gentlemen who were so Kind as to promise to send their Benefactions for the College to him” to do so.

In a nota bene, Smith declared that he would leave behind a “List of the Subscribers Names, together with their Benefactions” that each supporter could consult in order to confirm “that his Donation goes towards making up the Sum I have collected since my Arrival here.”  Smith likely had an additional motive for drawing up such a list for “Subscribers” to consult.  As they perused the list to find their own names and “Benefactions” they would also see who else had donated and how much.  They could congratulate themselves on their civic responsibility and the company they kept, but also compare their donations to those made by others.  Benefactors could judge for themselves whether they appeared generous or miserly in comparison to others on the list.  Did an unexpectedly large donation enhance their status or an unaccountably small donation diminish it?

Today, colleges and nonprofit organizations regularly publish lists of benefactors, often classifying them according to how much they donated and organizing the lists to give preeminence to the most generous.  This is both an expression of appreciation and a challenge to current and prospective donors to secure their positions on subsequent lists of benefactors.  In his efforts to raise funds for Rhode Island College, Hezekiah Smith similarly extended an acknowledgment and a challenge to benefactors in South Carolina.  In promising to leave behind a list of donors and the sums they donated, he encouraged benefactors to increase their pledges.