J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Was Three Shillings Too Much to Ask?

As I’ve discussed in recent postings, Bostonians of the early 1770s appear to have accepted that Phillis Wheatley wrote the poems ascribed to her; the people who voiced skepticism in surviving sources lived elsewhere. Her neighbors might still have refused to buy her first proposed book because of racism, of course. But I suspect there was another factor at work: cost.

In his early 1772 advertisements for the collection, printer Ezekiel Russell announced:
The Price to Subscribers, handsomely bound and lettered, will be Four Shillings.——Stitched in blue [i.e., paperback], Three Shillings.
Those prices were much higher than Russell’s usual offerings. My unsystematic sampling of his advertisements in the early 1770s found these titles and prices:
  • James Allen, The Poem Which the Committee of the Town of Boston Had Voted Unanimously to Be with the Late Oration (1772): 30 pages, “one Pistareen,” or about 1s.3d.
  • Death Realized; Or, Mr. Allen’s Dying Soliloquy (1773): 6d.
  • Isaac Skillman?, An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty (1773): 80 pages, 9d. at first, raised to 1s. ten days later.
  • Francis Hargraves, An Argument in the case of James Sommersett (1774): 56 pages, 1s.
[I can always use this reminder: “12d.” = 12 pence = 1 shilling = “1s.”]

Russell’s catalogue seems typical of Boston printers. In 1773, Isaiah Thomas printed A New Book of Poems for the Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Jr.; it filled 72 pages, and was priced at 1s.4d. I haven’t found the price for Jane Dunlap’s poems about the Rev. George Whitefield, but they ran to 20 pages.

In sum, Russell’s proposed price for Wheatley’s volume was two to three times as expensive as similar material he was offering. To be sure, her book was also supposed to be much larger than the other titles: “about 200 Pages.” So on a per-page basis, it might have offered more value. (Then again, Russell’s length estimate was way off. The London edition of Wheatley’s work, containing considerably more poems, came to only 128 pages.)

Three or four shillings for a book of poetry looks like an unusually hefty investment for Bostonians in 1772. Secular books were already a luxury item; Gloria T. Main’s study of New England probate inventories found that they were concentrated in the top fifth of estates.

In those years I found only one American poetry collection advertised in New England newspapers for a price higher than Wheatley’s. In September 1771, three Boston papers ran ads from Philadelphia printer John Dunlap seeking subscriptions for a collection of poems and other writing by the late Rev. Nathaniel Evans of New Jersey. The announced price for that book was five shillings bound.

Evans’s book had been a tough sell. His former teacher William Smith first proposed it in Philadelphia in January 1770, with a long extract in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. In March 1771, a notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette said the book was “ready to be committed to the Press.” Yet that fall printer John Dunlap was still soliciting orders in New York and Boston. He also printed special handbills.

Evans’s Poems on Several Occasions with Some Other Compositions was finally published in 1772, filling 188 pages. I don’t know how many Bostonians bought copies, if any. (Evans was an Anglican minister.)

It thus took more than two years and advertising in three American cities to collect the subscribers for Evans’s five-shilling collection. Phillis Wheatley and her supporters didn’t wait that long for three hundred orders. Less than a year after Russell started advertising her collection in the soon-to-fold Boston Censor, the Wheatleys had sent her manuscript to London.

A more thorough survey of sources about publishing in Boston in the early 1770s might produce more data and a better picture of how Wheatley’s proposal fit into that economy. But I don’t think we can overlook price as a factor in what her fan John Andrews called “the want of spirit to carry on any thing of the kind here.” And we should also credit Wheatley with as much desire as any other author to seek the best publishing opportunity.

TOMORROW: Phillis Wheatley’s book takes shape in England.

(Photograph of a hand-operated printing press above courtesy of the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, open to visitors in Boston’s North End.)


Charles Bahne said...

Looking at this entire series -- and at John Andrews' letter in its entirety -- it doesn't appear that racism is preventing the publication of Phillis Wheatley's poems. In fact, according to Andrews, it was impossible to sell the poems to a London publisher when it was supposed that the author was white; it was only after it was certified that the author was a Negro that a publisher became interested.

As John has demonstrated, the proposed 3 shilling price was high for the American market. But it was probably not too high for the London market. But customers in London would have been reluctant to buy an expensive book published in the colonies. Publishing it in London would guarantee it the largest possible audience, and greatest revenue, in the English-speaking world.

Later in Andrews' letter he states "it is supposed the Coppy will sell for [L] 100 sterlg...." By that I assume that the gross revenue for the entire print run would be 100 pounds; divide that by 300 copies and you get 6 shillings, 8 pence per book. Or divide L 100 by 500 copies and you get 4 shillings each.

(On the other hand, look at the long-term investment value: In today's market, a first edition of Phillis Wheatley's poems would be worth far more than any of those other books that John mentions!)

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not sure what John Andrews’s £100 value for the manuscript means. For one thing, when Andrews passes on rumors with numbers in them, they’re often about double what the reality turned out to be. And for another, I don’t know how the London publishing world worked then. But clearly Andrews felt that there would be demand for Phillis Wheatley’s work in London, either from printers, from their patrons (i.e., Lady Huntingdon), or from their customers.