See the Oldest Printed Advertisement in English: An Ad for a Book from 1476

Nobody pays much mind to adver­tis­ing, at least the hap­haz­ard kind of adver­tis­ing that clut­ters the space around us. But here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, when both that space and the ads that appear through­out it are as like­ly to be dig­i­tal as phys­i­cal, we might take a moment to look back at how the prac­tice of putting up notices to sell things began. In the Eng­lish lan­guage, it goes back to at least to the mid-fif­teenth cen­tu­ry — specif­i­cal­ly, to the year 1476, when Britain’s first print­er William Cax­ton pro­duced not just a man­u­al for priests called Sarum Pie (or the Ordi­nale ad usum Sarum), but eas­i­ly postable, play­ing card-sized adver­tise­ments for the book as well.

“This piece of paper, of which two copies sur­vive, is regard­ed as the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing print­ed adver­tise­ment in the Eng­lish lan­guage,” writes Erik Kwakkel at medieval­books. It states that Sarum Pie “is print­ed in the same let­ter type as the adver­tise­ment (‘enpryn­tid after the forme of this present let­tre,’ line 3). Even with­out hav­ing seen the new book, its key fea­ture, the type, can thus already be assessed.” This pio­neer­ing adver­tise­ment also “reas­sures poten­tial clients that the text of the hand­book is ‘tru­ly cor­rect’ (line 4) and that it can be acquired cheap­ly (‘he shal have them good chepe,’ lines 5–6). Both fea­tures will have been wel­comed by priests, the tar­get audi­ence, who need­ed their tex­tu­al tools to be flaw­less and did not have much mon­ey to spend on them.”

Kwakkel also gets into oth­er notable fea­tures of this decep­tive­ly sim­ple-look­ing pro­duc­tion, includ­ing “the pre­cise loca­tion of Caxton’s shop,” a warn­ing in Latin urg­ing read­ers not to remove the notice (“show­ing that it was put on dis­play some­where,” per­haps a church porch), and even the type. In both the adver­tise­ment and Sarum Pie itself, “the let­ter shapes lack ‘sharp­ness:’ fre­quent­ly ‘blobs’ and small hair­lines appear as let­ters, while an indi­vid­ual let­ter usu­al­ly has a vari­ety of appear­ances when looked at in detail,” pos­si­bly an attempt by the print­er to cre­ate “a more ‘gen­uine’ – i.e. tra­di­tion­al, ‘man­u­script’ – look.”

It would have been impor­tant back then to make print­ed books look hand-copied, since not so long before, all books were hand-copied by def­i­n­i­tion. With the first Guten­berg Bible still less than half a cen­tu­ry old, ear­ly print­ers had to make sure their rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive books did­n’t look like low-qual­i­ty sub­sti­tutes for the “real thing”; hence the assur­ances about both the type and the price in the text of Cax­ton’s adver­tise­ment. That the ori­gin of adver­tis­ing turns out to be close­ly con­nect­ed with reli­gion may come as a sur­prise — though giv­en the fact that the print rev­o­lu­tion itself began with a Bible, a prod­uct that in either phys­i­cal or dig­i­tal form now prac­ti­cal­ly sells itself, it may not be that big a sur­prise.

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via medieval­books

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

See How The Guten­berg Press Worked: Demon­stra­tion Shows the Old­est Func­tion­ing Guten­berg Press in Action

One of World’s Old­est Books Print­ed in Mul­ti-Col­or Now Opened & Dig­i­tized for the First Time

Watch the First Com­mer­cial Ever Shown on Amer­i­can TV, 1941

Sell & Spin: The His­to­ry of Adver­tis­ing, Nar­rat­ed by Dick Cavett (1999)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.