It may seem strange for the first entry for this blog to be titled “The Story So Far,” but that title recognizes that The Adverts 250 Project began elsewhere. Since October 24, 2015, it has existed exclusively as part of my Twitter feed (@TradeCardCarl for those who would like to visit and follow me there or #Adverts250 for just the featured advertisements). Good advice from friends and colleagues, however, prompted me to seek out a more permanent home for this digital humanities and public history project, one that will make the advertisements and commentary more easily accessible over time.
I plan to continue a daily update, here and on Twitter, featuring both an advertisement published in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago and brief commentary. This blog will make possible additional content, including periodic reflections on pursuing this project. I am interested in exploring advertising and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America, but I would also like to discuss the process of conducting the research and making it available to other audiences. Innumerable interesting and informative advertisements were published in American newspapers and other media during the eighteenth century, but only a fraction of them are available to be featured as part of this project. My supplementary posts will explore the sources currently available, noting how archiving and digitization processes have sometimes limited access even while opening it to a greater degree than at any time in the past.
In the future I also plan to feature contributions from guests, especially undergraduates enrolled in my Public History, Colonial America, and Revolutionary America courses at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I have a lot I want to accomplish. Eighteenth-century advertisements have so many stories to tell about the people and culture of early America. I have also generated my own stories throughout the research process. The first story I would like to share gives credit to those who have inspired me and reveals the genesis of this project.
This project began as a whim. I had no idea what it might become when I featured the first advertisement.
During the first two months of the Fall 2015 semester I had been following The Stamp Act at 250 (@KillingStamp), a group project for Joseph M. Adelman’s History 304 – American Revolution course at Framingham State University. As Adelman noted in his instructions to his students, “This summer and fall marks the 250th anniversary of the protests against the Stamp Act, one of the first major acts of resistance during the imperial crisis that resulted in the American Revolution. During this project, the entire class will jointly produce a Twitter feed to commemorate the protests.”
Using primary sources previously digitized and made available online, especially America’s Historical Newspapers (offered by Readex), Adelman’s students tweeted the debates and protests against the Stamp Act in real time, but 250 years later. Throughout the fall, followers “witnessed” how events in the colonies unfolded as colonists became increasingly discontent with the imminent implementation of the Stamp Act.
I was relatively new to Twitter at the time, having first established an account a few months earlier when I participated in the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Conference and Workshop. I figured that if I was going to learn that much about digital humanities and their public history applications that I should at least have a Twitter handle. Still, I found Twitter to be an acquired taste. I did not tweet much until I began the Adverts 250 Project.
Inspired in part by the work being done by Adelman’s students, one Saturday afternoon I decided to tweet an image of an advertisement that had appeared in a colonial newspaper exactly 250 years ago that day. I chose an advertisement from “Wm Murray At the Sign of General WOLFE” for several reasons. Its typography was interesting, with “William” shortened to “Wm” and in a much larger font than anything else in the advertisement, as well as “WOLFE” in all capitals. The shop’s location “At the Sign of General WOLFE” evoked visual images of the streets of eighteenth-century Boston. Murray made some (but not all) of the standard appeals in eighteenth-century advertising when he noted that he stocked “AN Assortment of English Goods … which he will sell cheaper than can be had at any other Shop in Town.” In the midst of the consumer revolution, he offered potential customers a choice of many goods at low prices.
He also made an appeal to patriotism and a sense of belonging in the nation. Here context was especially important. I have previously published work on advertising’s role in creating an American identity during the era of the American Revolution and into the early nineteenth century. That work, however, has focused almost exclusively on American patriotism as distinctive and intentionally separate from former connections to the British Empire. In 1765, however, that rupture had not yet occurred. For colonists, a sense of patriotism and nationhood was imbedded in their identity as part of the British Empire. Major General James Wolfe, a British army officer, was remembered chiefly for his victory over the French during the Battle of Quebec in 1759. Wounded during the battle, Wolfe died on the Plains of Abraham outside the walled city, making him a hero and martyr for the British Empire in the wake of Britain’s decisive victory in this battle and its repercussions. French forces in North America came under increasing pressure. Eventually the French were ejected from North America at the conclusion of the war.
I understood why Murray chose “the Sign of General WOLFE” at first glance, but the day after I tweeted the advertisement I realized that perhaps it needed a little more explanation for others less familiar with the history of the Atlantic World in the eighteenth century. Twitter does not allow for such extensive commentary, but I was able to provide an overview in 140 characters: “Invoking hero of British Empire to market imported English goods: such shop signs replaced with symbols of American patriotism in 1780s.”
An image of an advertisement accompanied by brief commentary: the Adverts 250 Project was born!