December 18

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

New-York Journal (December 15, 1768).

“Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.”

A subscription notice for publishing “THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED JOHN WILKES, Esq” appeared among the advertisements in the December 15, 1768, edition of the New-York Journal. Wilkes, a radical English politician and journalist considered a friend to American liberties, was widely recognized in the colonies, so much so that the publishers of the New-England Town and Country Almanack inserted his portrait as the frontispiece and emphasized its inclusion as part of their marketing efforts. News concerning Wilkes regularly appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies. As the imperial crisis unfolded, Wilkes became a hero to Americans who opposed Parliament’s attempts to tax and otherwise interfere in colonial affairs. Printers and booksellers sensed that a market for his collected works might exist, but it required proper cultivation.

Such was the purpose of the subscription notice. It deployed several strategies intended to incite demand. Among them, it constructed what Benedict Anderson has described as an “imagined community” of readers, a community drawn together through their engagement with the same printed materials despite members being geographically dispersed. The advertisement noted that “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.” Readers of the New-York Journal who encountered this advertisement and purchased Wilkes’s works would participate in an endeavor that was more than merely local. They would join with others in faraway places, people they likely would never meet but who were exposed simultaneously to the same ideas and ideals through common acts of purchasing and reading Wilkes’s works. The notice indicated that there were “but a few Sets left unsubscribed for,” suggesting that the community was already vast and those who had not yet reserved their copies risked their own exclusion. To further evoke a common sense of identity, the subscription notice pledged that “The Paper for this Edition was manufactured, and all the Printing performed in this Country.” This was an American edition, produced by colonists for colonists from New England to the Lower South.

In marketing this three-volume set of Wilkes’s works, the publisher resorted to more than invoking the politics of the imperial crisis. This subscription notice sought to foster a sense of belonging among prospective subscribers, suggesting that they formed a community that transcended residence in one colony or another. That common identity gave colonists a shared political purpose, but it also facilitated selling books.

October 18

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

Oct 18 - 10:18:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 18, 1768).

“Those who intend to encourage this Work are requested to send their Names to Peter Valton, Mr. Peter Timothy, or Mr. Robert Wells.”

When it came to publishing newspapers, Peter Timothy, Robert Wells, and Charles Crouch were competitors. All three operated printing shops in Charleston, where Timothy published the South-Carolina Gazette, Wells published the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, and Crouch published the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. This did not, however, preclude their cooperation when it came to other ventures.

In the fall of 1768, Peter Valton circulated a subscription notice that announced his intention to publish “SIX SONATAS For the HARPSICHORD or ORGAN, WITH An Accompanyment for a VIOLIN.” Valton intended for the subscription notice to incite demand. For instance, he highlighted the quality of the paper, promised to print the names of subscribers in recognition of their support for this genteel endeavor, and offered to provide a seventh copy free to anyone who pledged to purchase six. Valton also used the subscription notice to gauge interest in the project. He needed to know if he could attract enough subscribers to make it a viable venture and, if so, how many copies to print without ending up with an unprofitable surplus. To that end, he instructed, “Those who intend to encourage this Work are requested to send their Names to Peter Valton, Mr. Peter Timothy, or Mr. Robert Wells.” When Valton inserted the advertisement in the October 18 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, its appearance brought together all three of Charleston’s newspaper publishers.

All three stood to profit from the venture, either directly or indirectly. According to Odai Johnson, Wells was the intended printer.[1] Robust sales of the prospective publication would certainly benefit him. Yet all three printers generated revenues by publishing Valton’s subscription notice in their newspapers. Timothy further lent support for the project by collecting the names of subscribers. Promoting a culture of consumption contributed to their livelihoods, even if they were not the producers or purveyors of the printed materials advertised in their newspapers.

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[1] Odai Johnson, London in a Box: Englishness and Theatre in Revolutionary America (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), 167.

August 28

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

Aug 28 - 8:25:1768 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (August 25, 1768).

“Those Gentlemen who incline to take Copies, will leave their Names with THOMAS FOXCROFT.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, the printers of the Virginia Gazette, regularly inserted notices in their own newspaper, yet they also understood the colonial book trade well enough that they did not limit their advertisements to their own publication, especially not when attempting to incite interest in a major new project from their press. During the summer of 1768 Purdie and Dixon set about publishing “A COMPLETE Revisal of all the VIRGINIA ACTS OF ASSEMBLY now in Force and Use.”

To aid in generating sufficient revenues to make this book a viable venture, Purdie and Dixon inserted a short subscription notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette, counting on learned men in the largest port city in the colonies to purchase copies for their libraries. They likely also calculated that the extensive distribution of the Pennsylvania Gazette would set their announcement before the eyes of many more potential customers throughout the mid-Atlantic revion and beyond. The placement of their subscription notice – among the many other advertisements in the August 25 issue rather than as an announcement adjacent to the news items – suggests that the printers or their local agent paid for its insertion; its appearance was not an in-kind courtesy by the printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

That being the case, Purdie and Dixon’s subscription notice occupied significantly less space than they could have allotted for themselves in their own publication. They briefly outlined the publication scheme, including the material aspects of the book: “a large Folio Volume, of about 600 Pages, neatly bound in Calf, and lettered, printed upon a new Type, and fine Paper.” In addition, they also indicated the cost: “the Price to Subscribers Forty Shillings Virginia Currency.” The publishers then invited “those Gentlemen who incline to take Copies” to contact their local agent in Philadelphia, “THOMAS FOXCROFT, at the Post-Office.” At some later time Foxcroft would send a list of subscribers to Purdie and Dixon at their printing office in Williamsburg.

Like many other printers and publishers in eighteenth-century America, Purdie and Dixon did not rely solely on local markets to support their major initiatives, not even when the publication under consideration seemed of interest primarily to residents of their own colony. Purdie and Dixon realized that lawyers, legislators, and a variety of other consumers would be interested in a new edition of the laws currently enacted in the Virginia colony. A small investment in advertising to them could significantly improve the prospects of a successful venture for the book.

July 24

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

Jul 24 - 7:21:1768 Pennsylvania Journal
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal (July 21, 1768).

“PROPOSALS For Re-printing by SUBSCRIPTION.”

In the summer of 1768 James Adams, a printer in Wilmington, Delaware, advertised a product that was not yet available for sale, one that might not ever hit the market. He wished to reprint a book originally published in London, William Bates’s Harmony of the Divine Attributes in the Contrivance and Accomplishment of Man’s Redemption by the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet taking on this enterprise would be a significant investment for the printer, so he first sought to gauge interest and incite demand by issuing a subscription notice.

Printers throughout the colonies regularly distributed subscription notices before committing to publishing books. In them, they described the proposed publication, both the contents and the material aspects, and asked prospective customers interested in purchasing the book to become subscribers who paid a portion in advance and the remainder upon delivery. For instance, the extensive subtitle of Harmony of the Divine Attributes provided a general outline – “How the WISDOM, MERCY, JUSTICE, HOLINESS, POWER and TRUTH, of GOD are glorified in that Great and Blessed Work” – for the twenty-three sections of the book. Furthermore, it included an index to guide readers to specific topics. In terms of the material qualities of the book, Adams stated that it “shall be printed on a good letter and paper, and will be contained in one large volume octavo, making upwards of five hundred pages.” Adams invited potential subscribers to contact him for even more information, stating that “a plan or contents of the work may be had gratis.” The printer had generated additional marketing materials to supplement the subscription notices that appeared in newspapers.

Adams’s subscription notice was not the only one in the July 21, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. Two others sought subscribers for John Thompson’s Explication of the Shorter Catechism and John Warden’s System of Revealed Religion. Each listed subscription agents in more than one town. In addition to accepting subscriptions in Wilmington, Adams had agents in two much larger cities, Philadelphia and New York. Not all subscription notices resulted in publications, but Adams’s reprint of Harmony of the Divine Attributes eventually went to the press in 1771. A variety of challenges may have slowed down the production process, but the amount of time that lapsed between Adams issuing his subscription notice and finally printing the book suggests that attracting sufficient subscribers was among those challenges. Distributing subscription notices helped the printer incite sufficient demand to publish an American edition of Harmony of the Divine Attributes, but those notices did not guarantee success. All the same, responses to the subscription notices provided valuable information about whether and when Adams should move forward with the proposed project.

May 10

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

May 10 - 5:9:1768 South Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (May 9, 1768).

“PROPOSALS For Publishing by SUBSCRIPTION, ALL THE ACTS and ORDINANCES.”

John Rutledge placed a particular sort of advertisement in the May 9, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette: a subscription notice for a proposed book that had not yet been printed. This was a common practice among printers and publishers in eighteenth-century America. It allowed them to promote a book in advance, yet also gauge interest to determine if publication would yield profits. Buyers made commitments in advance to purchase proposed books, becoming “subscribers” to the enterprise. Not all subscription notices yielded publications.

Rutledge proposed publishing the acts and ordinances passed by the “GENERAL ASSEMBLY of this Province.” In a separate subscription notice in the same issue, he also proposed publishing a related work consisting of statutes passed in Great Britain “Which are expressly made of Force in this Province, by ACTS of the GENERAL ASSEMBLY.” Publication of one, however, was not contingent on publication of the other.

To encourage as many subscribers as possible, Rutledge described several attractive aspects of the proposed book. In addition to the acts and ordinances, it would also include an index, marginal notes, and references to aid readers in navigating and understanding the contents. Rutledge also commented on the material aspects of the text, noting that it would be “printed on good Paper, with a fair new Type.”

The publisher also warned that interested readers needed to reserve their copy in advance rather than assume that they could purchase a surplus copy after the book went to press. “No more Copies will be printed,” he declared, “than shall be subscribed for by the first Day of November next, when the Subscriptions will be closed.” Furthermore, “if a sufficient Number be not then obtained, the Work will not be put to the Press.” Rutledge allowed six months for subscribers to commit to paying “Thirty Pounds Currency” for the proposed work, but it was an all-or-nothing proposition. He would not move forward unless he had enough subscribers and he would not print additional copies. Rutledge cultivated a sense of urgency by suggesting that prospective customers would miss out if they lacked the necessary resolution to subscribe promptly.

Rutledge advertised a product that did not yet exist. Doing so allowed him to assess the market as well as incite demand. The minimal cost for inserting subscription notices in the South-Carolina Gazette presented an alternative to publishing a book that ended up being a poor investment.

January 13

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

Jan 13 - 1:13:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (January 13, 1768).

“PROPOSED to be published, a PAMPHLET.”

James Johnston inserted a subscription notice for “a PAMPHLET … entitled ‘Religious and Moral Observations selected from the Writings of approved Authors’” in the January 13, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. He did not promote a product already available for customers to purchase; instead, like many other eighteenth-century publishers, he presented a proposal in order to gauge public interest in the pamphlet. It would go to press only once a sufficient number of “subscribers” pledged to purchase it.

Publishing by subscription significantly reduced the financial risk. No printer wanted to invest time and materials only to produce a book or pamphlet that never sold enough copies to turn at least a small profit. With that in mind, Johnston instructed that readers “willing to encourage” the proposed pamphlet “may send in their names to the printer of this paper.” As names arrived, he would compile a subscription list (which printers sometimes inserted in proposed publications as a means of acknowledging patrons who supported the project). Johnston did not specify a publication date. Instead, he stated, “The publication will commence as soon as a sufficient number have sent in their names to defray the first expence of publishing.” Although that would not cover all of his costs, the printer considered it enough to indicate that other buyers would eventually step forward to acquire the pamphlet. For initial subscribers “the price of the pamphlet will be two shillings sterling.” Subsequent buyers could expect to pay a higher price. Offering a bargain to those who invested in the project early often helped to stimulate interest.

As part of his effort to promote the pamphlet, Johnston offered a brief description and outline. He estimated that it would be approximately sixty-four pages or “four sheets in 8vo. [octavo].” (This meant that a single sheet was folded in half three times in order to form eight leaves that were one-eight the size of the original sheet. With text printed on both sides of each leaf, this produced sixteen pages per sheet. Four sheets yielded sixty-four pages.) As the title suggested, these sixty-four pages would contain “Religious and Moral Observations” intended to bring together “the opinions and most enforcing arguments of different eminent authors.” The passages would be carefully organized “under proper Heads” and the names of the authors or books included for further reference. The pamphlet would also include “original Notes” intended to “illustrate and enforce the several passages.”

Johnston published the subscription notice to determine interest in the pamphlet, but he also planned to use the pamphlet to assess interest in “a larger publication of the same nature.” He considered the pamphlet a “specimen.” If consumers reacted positively, he would publish a more extensive version. The combination of the initial subscription notice and, eventually, sales of the pamphlet (if the subscription notice proved successful) constituted market research to guide his decisions about printing a substantial volume.

October 22

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

Oct 22 - 10:22:1767 Page 1 Boston Chronicle
Subscription Notice for the Boston Chronicle (October 22, 1767).

“PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING a NEW WEEKLY PAPER.”

Two months before it commenced publication, John Mein and John Fleeming distributed a subscription notice for “PRINTING a NEW WEEKLY PAPER, called The Boston Chronicle.” Their proposals advertised the newspaper in advance in an effort to gain as many subscribers as possible before the first issue even went to press. Although they did not say so explicitly in their subscription notice, they stood to sell more advertising if they could demonstrate that they attracted sufficient subscribers.

Mein and Fleeming’s broadsheet subscription notice had three parts. One side outlined the “CONDITIONS” of publication, a standard aspect of any eighteenth-century subscription notice, whether it appeared as a newspaper advertisement, on a magazine wrapper, or as a separate broadside. The other side enumerated the types of news items to be included in the new publication and described the networks the printers had established for acquiring that content.

The “CONDITIONS” provided a general overview of the newspaper. Mein and Fleeming promoted the material aspects, including the paper and type, and asserted that the subscription notice itself was a “SPECIMEN” of the newspapers prospective subscribers could expect to receive. Rather than the standard four pages, the Boston Chronicle would be eight pages, yet Mein and Fleeming specified a low price. Although it was an “EXTRAORDINARY SIZE,” it was still affordable. The weekly paper would be distributed on Mondays, like most of its competitors in Boston, and the publishers welcomed “Subscriptions from the Country,” promising to deliver the newspaper to subscribers outside the city “with the utmost regularity.”

In terms of content, they promised “All the current news, foreign and domestic, ecclesiastical or military.” Of particular interest, they would publish “debates in the great assemblies,” “Remakrkable and interesting cases, civil or criminal,” and “Whatever may contribute to promote agriculture, population, trade and manufactures in America.” Not surprisingly, given that Mein and Fleeming were both booksellers, the Boston Chronicle would include “An account of the new books” to guide readers in making their own purchases.

To obtain the necessary content, the publishers reported that “A correspondence has been established, in several parts of Great-Britain, but particularly in LONDON, by which we will receive, by every vessel, all the news-papers of any note, and every Magazine, Review, and political pamphlet without exception.” In addition, their “friends have also promised to send private anecdotes” that might not appear in newspapers printed in England. To collect as much news as possible, Mein and Fleeming had also cultivated correspondents “along the whole continent and West Indies.” They were indeed committed to receiving “All the current news, foreign and domestic” so they could pass it along to their subscribers.

Mein and Fleeming distributed the first issue of the Boston Chronicle on December 21, 1767. They continued publication for two and half years, releasing the final issue in June 1770. Their subscription notice almost certainly helped them initially as they sought sufficient subscribers, but the Boston Chronicle, like many other eighteenth-century newspapers, had a short run in the face of competition and political turmoil.

Oct 22 - 10:22:1767 Page 2 Boston Chronicle
Subscription Notice for the Boston Chronicle (October 22, 1767).

August 27

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

Aug 27 - 8:27:1767 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (August 27, 1767).

“The Subscribers are desired to send for ther Books as soon as possible.”

In 1767 Lambertus de Ronde, “Minister of the Protestant Dutch Church, at New-York,” inserted an advertisement in the New-York Journal to announce that he had finally published True Spiritual Religion, Or Delightful Service of the Lord. The minister had previously solicited subscriptions to gauge the market for his book, but the anticipated date of publication had been delayed due to “the Pre-engagement of the Printer in other Work.”

This actually worked to the author’s benefit – and to the benefit of subscribers, according to de Ronde. He took advantage of the extra time to “enlarge” the volume, drawing up an “alphabetical Table of the Contents.” In other words, he created an index “for the greater Usefulness and Conveniency of the Reader, who now can readily know on what Page the Words and Things are to be found.” Such a helpful addition to the original manuscript, de Ronde insinuated, certainly excused the delay in publishing the book!

The author also suggested that this must make his book more attractive to additional customers, not just the original subscribers. He indicated that he had “a few more to dispose of than were subscribed for.” In effect, his advertisement did not merely announce publication of True Spiritual Religion and call on subscribers to retrieve their copies. Instead, what masqueraded as an announcement actually marketed the book to other readers. In addition to promoting the utility of the index, de Ronde also praised the material qualities of the volume. It was “printed on a good Paper” and “also neatly bound” (as opposed to being sold in sheets for buyers to have bound on their own). In addition, the printer had set the book with “new large Letter” that readers would find “very Easy for the Eyes.” Even though these various enhancements made the book “more expensive,” de Ronde parted with it at “the lowest Rate” he could charge “without the Author’s Loss.” This was a bargain for potential customers!

Although Lambertus de Ronde addressed subscribers more than once in his advertisement, he did not merely inform them that True Spiritual Religion was ready for delivery. Instead, he used that as a pretext for marketing surplus copies to additional readers who had not participated in the first round of subscriptions. To some extent, he also marketed the book to the original subscribers, especially those who had not paid in full. For any who wavered in their commitment to acquire (and pay for) True Spiritual Religion, he provided multiple reasons for following through on their commitment.

June 26

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

Jun 26 - 6:26:1767 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (June 26, 1767).

The Subscribers are desired speedily to send for their Books.”

It took some time for Timothy Green to publish Joseph Fish’s book of nine sermons inspired by Matthew 26:18, but much of the responsibility for the delay belonged to the author. Fish continued to write, revise, and add material to the manuscript “After the Proposals for Printing these Sermons by Subscription, were sent abroad.” Six months before announcing that the book had been “JUST PUBLISH’D,” Green issued an advertisement requesting that those who accepted subscriptions forward their lists to him so he could determine how many copies to print.

In the interim, the book expanded. That, in turn, raised the cost of production and, ultimately, the retail price, even for subscribers. Earlier subscription notices marketed the book for 1 shilling and 10 pence, but the additional material made it necessary to increase the price by 4 pence to a total of 2 shillings and 2 pence if “stitch’d in blue Paper.” Reader who desired a volume “bound in Leather” rather than the basic wrapper could pay an additional shilling. Green catered to different tastes and price points.

He also realized that it was problematic to raise the price of Fish’s Sermons by nearly 20% after customers subscribed at a lower cost. To counter objections, he argued that “even with that Addition they will be uncommonly Cheap, as the Book contains upwards of 200 Pages.” (The reverend Fish might have been dismayed that the printer made an appeal to quantity over the quality of the contents.) In addition, Green reported that many others who had not previously subscribed were so keen on acquiring the book that they stood ready to purchase it at the higher price. The printer gave subscribers an opportunity to opt out by requesting that they send for their books soon. Any not claimed, he warned, would be sold to others who eagerly stood ready to purchase any surplus copies. Rather than apologize for raising the price and breaking the conditions set forth in the subscription notices, Green instead lectured subscribers. Even considering the higher price, they could hardly argue with the value, he admonished. After all, other prospective customers certainly acknowledged that this was a good deal. The original subscribers needed to obtain their copies as quickly possible or else risk losing out as others swooped in and claimed their books.

December 19

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

dec-19-12191766-new-london-gazette
New-London Gazette (December 19, 1766).

“These Sermons will be immediately committed to Press, as soon as it can be known how many are subscribed for.”

Timothy Green published this advertisement to encourage “Those Gentlemen who have kindly assisted in taking in Subscriptions for Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons” to send him a list of colonists they had signed up to purchase a copy of the book once it had been printed. He also requested that others “who incline to become subscribers” inform him “as speedy therein as possible” so he could determine “what Number of Books it will be necessary to print.”

In the eighteenth century printers published many books by subscription, limiting their risk and reducing the possibility of having so many unsold copies that they could not turn a profit on a particular publication. Printers gauged interest in proposed projects through a form of advertising known as the subscription notice, which usually announced an intended publication, indicated the price, and described its content and material aspects.

While subscription notices were often printed in newspapers alongside other advertisements, this type of marketing circulated in other ways as well. Broadsides (what we would call posters today) were displayed in printer’s shops and other places. The “Gentlemen” who assisted Green may have posted subscription notice broadsides in their shops or offices. Printers sometimes sent circular letters (what we would call junk mail today) to prospective customers they suspected would have an interest in a proposed publication. Rather than write the same letter by hand multiple times, printers much more efficiently created circular letters by setting the type, printing dozens or hundreds of the same letter, and writing in the names of intended recipients in a space left blank for the salutation. By the end of the eighteenth century, subscription notices appeared on the advertising wrappers that accompanied magazines. Enterprising printers also sometimes placed subscription notices as separate inserts in magazines before distributing them to subscribers.

Modern historians use subscription notices carefully. Just because a printer issued a subscription notice did not necessarily mean that it generated enough interest to move forward with publishing the book or other proposed work. In the case of “Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons,” however, Green did take the advertised book to press in 1767. Today’s advertisement did not include the full title of Joseph Fish’s The Church of Christ a Firm and Durable House: Shown in a Number of Sermons on Matth. XVI. 18. Upon this Rock I Will Build My Church, and the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It. Apparently Green’s subscription notices played a part in inciting sufficient interest to publish “Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons.”