Selecting Adverts: Newspapers Published this Week (250 Years Ago)

This week I would like to spend some time discussing the sources that make the Adverts 250 Project possible and my methods for selecting which advertisements to feature. Each advertisement reveals something about early American life and culture, some because they offer unique features of one kind or another and others because they are so common or formulaic that they provide a glimpse of everyday life. One of the challenges of working with some print (newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets) and manuscript (letters, diaries, journals) sources is that historical actors often considered aspects of daily life, such as their use of material culture items, so common that they did not merit comment. All too often I commiserate with fellow scholars as we wish that we could find that crucial piece of evidence, the “smoking gun,” that would tell us more about eighteenth-century attitudes and behaviors that are hidden and unknown to us today. Advertisements, however, often explicitly provide details about some of the most mundane aspects of everyday life in eighteenth-century America.

This is a project that began in my living room. Thanks to ongoing projects to photograph and digitize eighteenth-century newspapers, I am able to continue this project anywhere I have access to the Internet. To date, I have not consulted original newspapers (except to get a better quality image to accompany the link on The Octo), relying instead on the digital surrogates made available via a Readex database, “America’s Historical Newspapers.” At my request, my campus library purchased a subscription, which I use in both my own research and the classes I teach. This makes it possible for me – and my students – to access primary sources that certainly were not readily available just a couple of decades ago. There’s no need to go to an archive that houses the originals or a major research library that possesses microfilm copies. In a future post I will reflect on the benefits of both those methods. I am not trying to suggest that digital surrogates are superior to other formats. Rather, I want to acknowledge how new technologies and digital humanities projects have made this particular public history project possible.

To choose advertisements to feature I first need to identify which newspapers printed in 1766 are included in my library’s subscription to “America’s Historical Newspapers.” This amounts to fifteen newspapers from seven colonies:

New Hampshire

  • New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)

Massachusetts

  • Boston Evening-Post
  • Boston Gazette
  • Boston News-Letter
  • Boston Post-Boy

Rhode Island

  • Newport Mercury
  • Providence Gazette

Connecticut

  • Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New London)

New York

  • New-York Gazette
  • New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy
  • New-York Journal
  • New-York Mercury

Pennsylvania

  • Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote (Philadelphia)

Georgia

  • Georgia Gazette (Savannah)
Jan 15 - Masthead for 1:13:1766 New-York Mercury
Masthead for New-York Mercury (January 13, 1766)

In choosing advertisements for the past week, not all of these newspapers were viable options. The Georgia Gazette, for instance, had been suspended near the end of 1765. It did not resume publication until the third week of May 1766. Other newspapers were in a similar situation, though it is worth mentioning that even if a newspaper was in operation during this period in 1766 that does not guarantee that any copies are still extant. And, even if a copy does survive, it may not have been photographed or digitized and made available in “America’s Historical Newspapers.” Such resources are often built around the collections from a particular historical society, research library, or other institution. As a result, digital surrogates available in many databases are limited to what is physically part of the collections at the institution where the project originated. This is changing over time as those overseeing a variety of digital humanities projects seek to fill in gaps and provide more comprehensive coverage, but it remains a limiting factor that anybody pursuing research using eighteenth-century sources should take into consideration.

Similarly, consumers of their research – whether fellow scholars, self-proclaimed history buffs, or general audiences – should also be aware that many of the resources that have facilitated research over the past couple of decades are not exhaustive. Impressive, yes, but a variety of factors have determined what is actually available to modern researchers: factors that range from which documents survive from the eighteenth century to decisions made by librarians and curators in cataloging and preserving those items to practical and financial considerations of project managers and their corporate partners in the process of designing and executing databases and other projects. For the Adverts 250 Project, this means that I have relatively easy access to many eighteenth-century newspapers, but certainly not every newspaper published in 1766, nor even every newspaper from that year that happens to survive.

Another factor influences which advertisements I select to feature. I confess that I do not speak or read German. Unfortunately, the Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote will not be a regular part of this project. As a result, I acknowledge that I am overlooking the particular experiences of a sizable number of settlers in Pennsylvania and other Middle Atlantic colonies.

In the end, I had access to ten newspapers from five colonies as I selected advertisements to feature this past week.

New Hampshire

  • New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)

Massachusetts

  • Boston Evening-Post
  • Boston Gazette
  • Boston News-Letter
  • Boston Post-Boy

Rhode Island

  • Newport Mercury

Connecticut

  • Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New London)

New York

  • New-York Gazette
  • New-York Mercury
Jan 15 - Masthead for 1:13:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Masthead for Boston Evening-Post (January 13, 1766)

While this may seem like copious sources at first glance, those who regularly work with eighteenth-century newspapers realize that this is deceptive because newspapers were not published daily in colonial America. New issues were never printed on Sundays. Indeed, each of these titles appeared only once a week. So, a list that initially suggests seventy issues (or sixty, if discounting Sundays) based on modern publication practices actually yields merely ten issues. This is certainly sufficient for this project, but I believe it is important context for readers, for the consumers of my work, especially those who do not have as much familiarity with eighteenth-century newspapers.

For my extended commentary essay next week, I will explain how I chart each issue on a calendar to gain a sense of which newspapers were being published where in the colonies on any given day of the week in 1766. Centuries after these newspapers were printed, the timing of their publications exerts significant impact on the contours of the Adverts 250 Project.

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