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?

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.”

July 17

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

Jul 17 - 7:17:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (July 17, 1766).

Mary Biddle sold “MAPS of the Province of Pennsylvania and PLANS and PROSPECTS of the CITY of PHILADELPHIA” at “the House of Capt. M’Funn, in Third street, above Arch street.” Her advertisement did not provide much additional information, leaving the impression that she might have been a mere retailer of these items. She offered very little detail about the maps, a bit of a surprise considering the labor and expertise that went into creating and producing maps in the eighteenth century. What was Mary Biddle’s connection to the maps she advertised?

Jul 17 - 10:7:1762 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (October 7, 1762).

Many readers may have already been aware of some of the particulars of the map Biddle sold. Nearly four years earlier she (and others) had published a subscription notice in advance of producing the map. By seeking subscribers, Biddle and her partners were able to gauge interest in their project in order to determine if it would be profitable. The subscription notice also served to incite interest in the project, increasing the chances that it would be successful and turn a profit.

That subscription notice included more information about Biddle’s role in making the map available to the public. She was listed as an editor, along with Matthew Clarkson. Despite the impression created by her later advertisement, Biddle was not merely a retailer. She was a cartographer in her own right!

The Library of Congress provides some biographical information that tells more of Biddle’s story. She was the daughter of Nicholas Scull and Abigail Heap. Scull was a prominent surveyor and cartographer who served as Surveyor General of Pennsylvania from 1748 until his death in 1761. All three of Scull’s sons went on to become surveyors, but it appears that the elder Scull passed along his knowledge to his daughter as well.

Jul 17 - Map of Philadelphia
Nicholas Scull, Matthew Clarkson, and Mary Biddle, To the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen, Common Council of Freemen of Philadelphia this Plan of the Improved Part of the City (Philadelphia:  Sold by the Editors, Matthew Clarkson and Mary Biddle, 1762).  Library of Congress.  For more detail, zoom in on the map via the Library of Congress.

When Mary Biddle and her husband fell on hard times, she contributed to the family by editing this map, which had been “surveyed and laid down by the late Nicholas Scull.” The map itself included an advertisement in the lower right corner: “Sold by the Editors Matthew Clarkson and Mary Biddle in PHILADELPHIA.” This map was eventually republished many times, but the 1762 edition was the only one that acknowledged Biddle’s contribution.

Today’s short advertisement belies the significant role that Mary Biddle played in the creation, production, and distribution of this important map. In that regard it was similar to many other advertisements placed by men for the businesses they operated that did not acknowledge the labor, skill, expertise, or other contributions their wives and other female relatives contributed to their enterprises.

May 11

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

May 11 - 5:9:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (May 9, 1766).

“He proposes to begin the publication of a NEWSPAPER on Friday next.”

William Rind was preparing to publish a newspaper. In fact, he was a week away from launching a rival newspaper to the Virginia Gazette published by Alexander Purdie and Company. Rind also published his newspaper in Williamsburg on Fridays, but to avoid confusion he named it Rind’s Virginia Gazette in order to distinguish it from its competitor as much as possible. (I wonder if Purdie and Company engaged in similar sarcasm as they set type for this advertisement promoting a rival publication, an advertisement that appeared in their own newspaper.)

Rind needed to estimate how many copies of the first and subsequent issues he should print. His advertisement included a call for “those Gentlemen with whom he has left subscription papers, to return the lists of those who have already signed.” What did he mean by subscription papers? To assess and encourage interest in his newspaper Rind, like others who printed books and periodicals in the eighteenth century, first distributed another form of advertising known as subscription papers or subscription notices: printed announcements that included a prospectus describing the purpose and intentions of the proposed publication as well as a list of terms for subscribing (such as cost and frequency of publication). Rind likely made arrangements with local merchants and shopkeepers to post his subscription papers. The subscription papers may have had space for new subscribers to write their names; alternately, the merchants and shopkeepers aiding Rind may have kept lists of their own. Whichever method was employed, Rind called on “those Gentlemen with who he has left subscription papers” to forward the lists of subscribers to him.