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Monday, January 10, 2011

John Usher's Invoices

Between 1682 and 1685 John Usher, Boston's largest bookseller, imported more than 3,000 books in five purchases from one of his London suppliers. Separating the titles listed on the invoices from theses purchases by genre helps to give us some idea as to the reading preferences of Bay Colony consumers in the late seventeenth century:
Religious texts, clearly, predominated; when you consider that most of the "educational" texts of the period included catechisms or other forms of religious instruction, it would be fair to say that almost three quarters (74%) of the books that Usher imported contained religious content. Of course, Usher undoubtedly imported books from other sources, and it's possible that those texts were of a markedly different character . . . but also highly unlikely.

In addition to books that Usher imported, he also sold at least five titles printed in New England during this time period, and four of the five (80%) were works meant to inculcate piety:

  • John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (Boston: Samuel Sewall, 1681)
  • W. Brattle Philomath, An Ephemeris of Coelestial Motions (Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1682)
  • James Fitch, An Explanation of the Solemn Advice (Boston: Samuel Green, 1683)
  • John Cotton, God's Promise to His Plantations (Boston: Samuel Green, 1686)
  • John Higginson, Our Dying Saviour's Legacy (Boston: Samuel Green, 1686)
Only Philomath's almanac is a secular text concerned more with rationality than revelation. This sample size of five domestic titles is hardly as reliable as the selection of 3,421 books that Usher imported, but since both groups of texts demonstrate the overwhelmingly religious concerns of Usher's customers, it seems safe to say that the invoices from his London source really do provide an accurate depiction of the Boston populace's reading preferences.

1 comment:

  1. That's interesting (but makes sense) that so much of the literature was Christian. I wonder what it would have been like to live in such a society....even crazier than BYU Provo. I wonder what the % of secular to religious text purchase is now.