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