Burkitt: Expensive Books & 18th-Century Publishing

Lena Denis / Fall 2013 Glassford & Henderson E-Tern

One day when I was transcribing the debit account of a man named William Turner from Loudoun, Virginia, I stopped short at the price of one of his purchases. Most items he bought, ranging from fine fabrics to metal tools, cost less than 10 shillings. The nicest fabrics he bought came in at just under  20 shillings. With that in mind, take note of the last item on his list:

You can see that on June 26, 1769, Turner bought “2 good penknives” for 3 shillings. The next item, “1 Burkitt on the new Testament,” is listed at 52/6, a whopping 52 shillings and 6 pence. Since there are 20 shillings to a pound, this single item, in an economic environment in which most items did not cost more than 10 shillings, cost William Turner 2 pounds, 12 shillings and 6 pence. With books showing up only occasionally in the ledgers, what book could possibly be worth that much money?

In this excerpt of Turner's account, take note of the purchase price of the final item on June 26, 1769.

After doing some research, I determined that the description “Burkitt on the new Testament” referred to a massive, two-volume work fully-entitled Expository Notes, with Practical Observations on the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Wherein the Whole of the Sacred Text is Recited, the Sense Explained, and the Instructive Example of the blessed Jesus, and his Apostles, to our Imitation Recommended. The author was William Burkitt (1650-1703), an “evangelical churchman” and commentator from Suffolk, England. According to the Dictionary of National Biography produced in Britain in the early 19th century, this was Burkitt’s crowning achievement and an extremely popular work, published in numerous editions in England.[1] It was universally lauded and widely read even in the colonies. In a study of what South Carolina residents were reading in the 18th century, Walter B. Edgar showed that Burkitt’s commentary was the most popular religious book in a survey of 2,314 inventoried libraries.[2] The most recent edition available in 1769, perhaps the one Turner bought, was published in 1765. At more than 700 pages long, sheer size was a large part of its costliness, as it must have taken a long time to produce such enormous tomes. Another factor was the location of the printing press, and the cost of exporting already expensive books. As we will see, not only did location of presses contribute to the expense of books, but it also would ultimately play a role in the war for American independence from Britain.

William Turner would not have been able to buy an edition of Burkitt’s Notes produced on American soil, because it would have bankrupted any American printer who tried. The principle reason that it would have been too expensive was its size. In 1760s America, print sellers had just gotten to the point at which they could comfortably sell small items like pamphlets and newspapers without going into debt.[3] Anything larger had to come from London, where printing was a huge business that employed dozens of people at any press. Even then, books would take such a long time to produce that booksellers typically had to sell their wares via subscription. When it started to become economically viable to print books in America, booksellers did the same thing, including in Virginia. Not only did production time dictate the necessity of setting up subscriptions for books, but even with well-funded subscribers it was very difficult for publishers to make a profit from selling especially large books, due to the limitations of the relatively small-scale printing presses of America.[4] Here is an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, a notable colonial newspaper begun in 1736 by the printer William Parks, who had been born in England but moved to the colonies and made it a mission to establish colonial newspapers that could be political as well as informative.[5] The advertisement dates from September 26, 1771, two years and a few months after Turner bought his copy of Burkitt in Colchester.

Robert Bell's advertisment in Rind's edition of the Virginia Gazette, September 26, 1771. Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

This notice advertises for books produced by an American publisher, Robert Bell, on American soil and with American paper. Bell outlines how much buyers would save by subscribing to his books rather than purchasing ones made in Britain.

Even so, the first edition of William Burkitt’s Notesto be produced in America would not come for another 20 years. Making anything hundreds of pages long was an enormous risk, even after the colonies achieved independence. The first successful print run of Burkitt’s commentary in America was not until 1794, in New Haven, Connecticut.[6]

In 1794, the first American printing of William Burkitt's Expository Notes... was printed in New Haven, Connecticut. Image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.

However, even after this first native success, the risk was not over. Would-be publishers Dunning and Hyer, who traveled between New York and Philadelphia, learned this the hard way while trying to print Burkitt’s book in 1796. Even selling subscriptions and printing sections in parts, they only managed to print one volume before the entire venture failed. The pages that Dunning and Hyer printed were eventually reused for later editions, as discovered by the Library Company of Philadelphia when they researched one of their holdings of Burkitt’s work.[7] It seems like a sad end for Dunning and Hyer’s venture, but it was notable that such risks were taken for Burkitt’s book. This attempt, along with the expense of William Turner’s account, shows us that it must have been a precious object to many Americans. Here ends the story of how Burkitt’s work made it across the ocean into American homes, but there’s another story to be told in the next post, about the how the book trade got embroiled in the struggle for American independence from Great Britain.


[1] Leslie Stephen [and Sidney Lee], eds., Dictionary of National Biography [New York: Macmillan, Smith, Elder & Co., 1886], accessed February 9, 2014, https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7092612M/Dictionary_of_national_biography.

[2] William B. Edgar, “Some Popular Books in Colonial South Carolina,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 72 (July 1971): 174.

[3] William S. Reese, “The First Hundred Years of Printing in British North America: Printers and Collectors,” William Reese Company, accessed February 9, 2014,  http://www.reeseco.com/papers/first100.htm.

[4] Reese, Ibid.

[5] Patricia Ann Carlson, “William Parks, Colonial Printer, to Dr. Charles Carroll,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 86 (1978): 408.

[6] OCLC WorldCat, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.worldcat.org/title/expository-notes-with-practical-observations-upon-the-new-testament-of-our-lord-and-saviour-jesus-christ-wherein-the-whole-of-the-sacred-text-is-recited-the-sense-explained-and-the-instructive-example-of-the-blessed-jesus-and-his-apostles-to-our-imitation-recommended/oclc/62825785&referer=brief_results.

[7] The Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia for the Year 1990, accessed February 9, 2014, http://books.google.com/books?id=CtKBjumlMBwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

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One Response to Burkitt: Expensive Books & 18th-Century Publishing

  1. Eric says:

    1769: 52/6
    2014: Free

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