The Vault

The Books Virginia Colonists Were Buying in the Decade Before the Revolution

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This list of books sold in the post office of Williamsburg, Virginia, which was printed sometime in the 1760s, gives a sense of the kind of reading material people living in the capital of the Colony of Virginia were consuming in the decade before the American Revolution. 

The catalog offers a small number of large folios, more titles in the smaller quarto and octavo sizes, and many duodecimos (an economically sized book, measuring 5 by 7 3/8 inches). The titles were mostly nonfiction: philosophical meditations, histories, Latin and French grammars, and practical handbooks (“Harris on the Diseases of Infants”; “Miller’s Gardener’s Kalendar”). One novel that was available: Samuel Richardson’s popular Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740).

Was it common for books to be sold in post offices at this time? Joseph M. Adelman, a historian at Framingham State University who is working on a book about the history of the post office, cleared up my confusion over email: “In the eighteenth century post offices weren’t free-standing buildings. The ‘post office’ as such was often housed in another commercial establishment, most often a coffee-house or printing office.”

Many printers also sold books. In the town of Williamsburg in the 1760s, when this catalog was published, two printers—Joseph Royle and then Alexander Purdie—held the commission to serve as postmaster. “The most likely answer,” Adelman wrote, “is that the post office was the easiest identifier for this advertisement, and that it was for books sold either by Royle or Purdie.”

Click on the image below to reach a zoomable version, or visit the document’s page in the Library of Congress’ American Memory archive. 

Library of Congress.