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.

January 13

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

New-London Gazette (January 13, 1769).

“Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers.”

A subscription notice for “THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED JOHN WILKES” appeared among the advertisements in the January 13, 1769, edition of the New-London Gazette. The advertising copy exactly replicated that of a notice published in the New-York Journal a month earlier, with one exception. Like other subscription notices, it informed prospective customers where to submit their names to reserve a copy: “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, Charles-Town, South-Carolina, and at New London in Connecticut.” The previous advertisement did not list New London. It had been added to the subscription notice in the New-London Gazette to better engage local readers.

Whether including New London or not, both versions of the subscription notice invoked the concept of what Benedict Anderson has famously described as “imagined community.” Print culture contributed to a sense of community among readers dispersed over great distances by allowing them to read the same newspapers, books, and pamphlets, all while imaging that their counterparts in other cities and towns were simultaneously reading them and imbibing the same information and ideas. This subscription notice envisioned readers in Boston and Charleston and place in between all purchasing and reading the same book. Anderson argues that imagined community achieved via print played a vital role in the formation of the nation. Wilkes, a radical English politician and journalist, had become a popular figure in the colonies during the imperial crisis. The subscription notice for his works appeared while the Townshend Act was in effect, at the same time that many colonists mobilized nonimportation agreements in protest and the New-Hampshire Gazette was printed on smaller sheets because the publishers refused to import paper from England that would require them to pay duties.

The slightly revised version of the subscription notice had the capacity to even more effectively invoke the idea of an imagined community among colonists. It did not limit the collection of subscriptions to the four largest port cities, the places with the most printers and the most newspapers. Instead, by listing New London with Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia, the subscription notice expanded the sphere of engagement by making the proposed book more accessible on the local level for readers and prospective subscribers in New London and its environs. Reading Wilkes was not just for colonists in urban settings. Instead, it was an endeavor for colonists anywhere and everywhere.

January 8

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

Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (January 5, 1769).
“Most of these Papers will, probably, be irrevocably lost in a few Years, unless they be preserved by Printing.”

An advertisement concerning a proposed companion volume to a well-known publication appeared in the January 5, 1769, edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. In 1764, Boston bookseller Jeremiah Condy published the first volume of The History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay by Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of the colony at the time. Thomas Fleet and John Fleet printed the book, which covered the period “from the first settlement thereof in 1628 until its incorporation with the colony of Plimoth, province of Main, &c. by the Charter of King William and Queen Mary, in 1691.” Three years later, Condy published the second volume, also printed by the Fleets. It extended the narrative “from the charter of King William and Queen Mary, in 1681, until the year 1750.” Both volumes were widely advertised in Boston’s newspapers and beyond.

Condy had been working on a related project when he died in 1768. As the Fleets explained, “THE late Mr. CONDY intended to have published a Volumne of curious Papers, to have served as an Appendix to the Lieutenant-Governor’s HISTORY of the MASSACHUSETTS-BAY, but Death prevented.” Not to be deterred, the Fleets issued a subscription notice “to encourage the Printing of the same Collection.” The proposed volume would be the same size and approximate length as the other two in the series, “about 600 Pages in Octavo.”

The Fleets deployed several strategies to convince readers to purchase the companion volume. They declared that they would publish it only “as soon as a sufficient Number of Subscribers appear to defrey the Expence.” If not enough buyers made a commitment in advance, the book would not go to press. Furthermore, the Fleets warned that “No Books will be printed for Sale.” This suggested a limited edition. They would print only enough copies to fulfill the orders placed by subscribers and no additional copies for subsequent retail sales. The printers attempted to maneuver prospective customers into reserving a copy for fear of missing out if they delayed. This may have been an especially effective strategy targeting those who acquired the first and second volumes as they contemplated completing the series with the companion volume.

In addition, the Fleets called on a sense of civic pride among prospective subscribers. They painted a stark portrait of what might happen if the proposed volume did not garner sufficient interest to go to press. “As most of these Papers will, probably, be irrecoverably lost in a few Years, unless they be preserved by Printing, it is hoped that a sufficient Number of Subscribers will soon appear.” According to the Fleets, the survival of the original documents mattered less than the proliferation of copies produced on the press. Any single document or copy could be lost or destroyed, but the proliferation of copies guaranteed that subsequent generations would continue to have access to the important documents that comprised the history of the colony. In that regard, subscribers practiced a significant public service. Those who subscribed to the companion volume did so not only “for the sake of their particular Entertainment” but also “from a regard to the Public.” The printers layered the act of purchasing this book with social meaning. Acquiring this volume, the Fleets argued, fulfilled a civic responsibility that would benefit the entire community, both now and in the future.