February 11

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Feb 11 - 2:10:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (February 10, 1766).

WANTED to purchase, A burthensome SLOOP of about 55 Tons.”

The average colonial consumer would not be seeking to purchase an entire ship, such as the individual in this advertisement.

One thing especially interesting about historical newspapers in general is their usage of language or terminology that is sometimes extremely unfamiliar to the average modern reader.  I particularly enjoy looking up the terminology and discovering what it means.  In the case of this advertisement, the term “burthensome” was entirely unfamiliar to me before I took some time to research it.  I found that it is the original version of the modern term “burdensome.”  In this advertisement, the word indicated the durability of a ship.

The item being sought out is a sloop.  This is a type of ship that came to have multiple meanings that vary, depending upon the historical period being discussed.



Once again, I appreciate Kathryn’s attention to language. “Porringers” and “salvers” yesterday and now “burthensome” and “sloop.” Certainly “sloop” has not fallen out of usage to the same extent as the other three, but it is a term most familiar to those with specialized knowledge of maritime history and culture. I’ll admit that while I could identify a sloop as a sailing vessel, I did not know which aspects distinguished a sloop from other vessels prior to Kathryn selecting this advertisement and writing about it. Even having conducted a bit more research, I still find the varieties of sloops perplexing. I imagine that this advertisement provides enough information (a sloop, 55 tons, constructed in the 1760s, sailing in and out of colonial American ports) to figure out much more detail after an afternoon in a library or archive.

Yet here again eighteenth-century advertisements help to demonstrate how common knowledge has changed over the centuries. A great many residents in a seafaring town like Boston would not have thought twice about a “SLOOP of about 55 tons.” They would have been able to instantly envision such a vessel and its size and configuration relative to other ships in the harbor. (Other advertisements in the same issue mention brigantines and snows.) Many would have had family, friends, or acquaintances who earned their livings sailing on such ships. Most would have connected many of the goods offered for sale in other advertisements with the sloops and other vessels that transported raw materials and finished items via networks of commerce and exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic.

Feb 10 - Sloop Mediator
Model of the sloop Mediator.

Update:  Liz Loveland alerted us to a model of the Chaleur, a sloop converted into a two-masted schooner in 1768.  The On the Water exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History also includes this model of the eighteenth-century sloop Mediator.

One thought on “February 11

  1. Periodically, I check the web for topics of interest, one of which is the vessel Chaleur which you mention.. My book about the origin of Chaleur, is currently under publisher consideration. A couple of comments about this post, if I may.

    The current description of Chaleur in the On the Water exhibit is a result of corrections I provided to the Smithsonian. That revised description isn’t yet completely accurate, but gets clarified in my book.

    “Burthensome” is not about “durability” but rather about “tuns burthen” which is a measure of the carrying capacity of the hull of a vessel. “Tuns” or “tons” is therefore not about weight, but about volume. A “55 ton” sloop is small, probably somewhere between 50-60 feet, length on deck. And, as you note, so common in our colonial period as to have been almost omnipresent.

    The confusion about the term “sloop” was predominantly because within the British navy, that definition in the 18th-century could mean warships of more than one mast. Whereas the merchant sloop of the period was only a single-masted vessel. I am building a 1:64 scale model of her in that configuration, and under her original name, the discovery of which is at the heart of this detective story about how she came to be selected for purchase by the British navy in 1764, and at that time, given the new name of Chaleur.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Randy Biddle
    Windship Studios
    Star, Idaho

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