In Which Digital Surrogates Must Be Used as Complements to, Rather than Replacements for, Original Sources

In recent weeks I have questioned some of the decisions made by the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette in the early months of 1766. Several of the advertisements the guest curators have selected featured rather unconventional formats, sometimes as a line or two running across the bottom of a page and other times entire advertisements tilted counterclockwise ninety degrees. I discovered other irregularities as I consulted Early American Newspapers to see these advertisements in the context of the entire printed page. What were the printers thinking?!

I’ve suggested a couple of theories. For instance, I hypothesized that some of the unusual layout might have been the result of the printers attempting to create front and back pages with equal coverage of text. I also questioned whether some of the decisions about the layout might have been innovative experiments to draw readers’ attention to the advertising. In both instances, I promised to consult the originals, rather than the digital surrogates, to see if that would answer any questions.

It turns out that examining original issues of the New-Hampshire Gazette helped me to solve the mystery! This is an instance that demonstrates that digital surrogates cannot replace original sources. Instead, the two complement each other, allowing scholars to ask new questions and find answers that would not have been possible (or, at the very least, much less likely) when relying on only one or the other.

Here’s what was happening with the New-Hampshire Gazette in 1766. Like other newspapers of the era, this one was published on a broadsheet that was folded in half to create an issue with four pages. In this case, each page measured 9½ inches wide by 14¾ inches high. Each page featured three columns whose width each measured 2¾ inches. Let’s call that a “standard” format for the purposes of this examination.

For the February 7 issue, however, the printers switched to smaller broadsheets. I imagine that the larger ones were in short supply or not available. That issue, as well as the next two (February 14 and 21) still included four pages, but each page was 8 inches wide by 13 inches high rather than 9½ inches x 14¾ inches. Instead of three columns measuring 2¾ inches wide each, the new size accommodated two columns that were 3½ inches wide (in most cases, but I will soon describe some of the very interesting exceptions). Let’s consider these new parameters a “temporary” format for the purposes of this examination.

Starting with the February 28 issue, the newspaper returned to the larger size broadsheet, but not to any sort of “standard” format. That and the following issue, March 7, featured advertising layouts that were even more visually jolting. With the March 14 issue the New-Hampshire Gazette returned to publishing “standard” format issues of four pages with three columns measuring 2¾ inches wide each.

Although Early American Newspapers revealed to me the difference in the number of columns, it did not offer any metadata explaining the transition. The difference was immediately apparent, however, when I viewed the originals at the American Antiquarian Society. I spent quite a bit of time with a ruler measuring the pages and the columns for each issue from January 31 through March 14.

This particular kind of metadata is currently lacking in Early American Newspapers. That is an observation rather than a complaint. I realize that it would be prohibitively expensive to develop this particular metadata: all the measuring, recording, coding, and other tasks required to link this data to the digitized images that substitute for the original newspapers. As somebody who regularly uses digitized newspapers I would much prefer that the partnership of the American Antiquarian Society and Readex continue to produce digital images of as many newspapers as possible, allowing for even more expansive research by scholars working on a variety of projects and members of the general public asking a variety of questions. I understand that the trade off for access to a greater number of sources will often be less metadata for most of them. Still, I feel that the strategy that has been pursued here has been appropriate, as long as those using the digital surrogates are aware that the digital images cannot reveal everything that the original sources do.

This raises important questions about what we miss when we rely exclusively on digital sources. I first began thinking about this issue as a result of Leon Jackson’s presentation at the Digital Antiquarian Conference last summer: “Historical Haptics: Digital and Print Cultures in the Nineteenth Century.” (Check out the slides from his presentation.) He pointed out that every issue of a newspaper appears to “be” the same size when consulting digital sources: the size of the screen. That was certainly my experience with the New-Hampshire Gazette. The digital surrogates hid some important information – the size of the page – from me.

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Let’s have a look at some of the unusual layout decisions the printers made when they temporarily used smaller sheets for their newspaper.

NH Gaz 2:7:1766 Third Page
Third page of the New-Hampshire Gazette (February 7, 1766).

Consider the third page of the February 7 issue. The first two pages featured the “temporary” format: two columns that were each 3½ inches wide. The third page, however, had two columns supplemented by a third column of four advertisements each rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise. It turns out that each column measures 2¾ inches wide, as do each of the four advertisements in the extra column with perpendicular text. Each of those advertisements previously ran in earlier issues. The printers likely still had the advertisements in the forms. Rather than reset the type for the new format of the newspaper they saved time by reusing the work they had already done (and keep in mind that they would have reused it all the same if they had access to the larger broadsheets that week).

This issue also included advertisements featured here previously, both from Jonathan Moulton. On the first and fourth pages they ran for two lines across both columns at the bottom of the page. Why? Perhaps this was a means of squeezing in a little more advertising. Perhaps it was because Moulton offered a March 1 deadline for purchasing cows, making his notice time sensitive, prompting the printers to insert it even after the rest of the issue had been set for printing.

NH Gaz 2:14:1766 Second Page
Second page of the New-Hampshire Gazette (February 14, 1766).

The second page of the February 14 issue included other curious decisions about the layout. At first glance it appears that the printers followed the same course as they did for the third page for February 7. On closer examination, however, it turns out that the first column measure 3½ inches wide while the second is only 2¾ inches wide. The four advertisements rotated to form the third column all measure 2¾ inches wide.

With one exception, the first column features either new items or advertisements repeated from the previous issue and set with a 3½-inch width at that time. The exception is a “new” advertisement from Moulton which combines the two that appeared on the first and last pages of the previous issue into a single advertisement (which was then repeated in subsequent weeks).

All of the advertisements in the second column, measuring 2¾ inches wide, were repeated from issues printed on larger broadsheets on January 31 or earlier. Again, the printers reused type already set in the forms.

Careful attention to the perpendicular column reveals that all four advertisements measure 2¾ inches wide. Each was repeated from type set for the “standard” format. However, one of them underwent minor alterations to make it fit into the space available. The font size for “EDWARD EMERSON” (formerly “Edward Emerson”) was reduced and the advertisement was truncated, removing “at the lowest Rates” and shaving off a line of text as a result.

The February 21 issue, the final one printed on smaller broadsheets and featuring the “temporary” format, had a very regular appearance compared to the previous two. All four pages had two columns that measured 3½ inches wide each, giving the issue a rather clean appearance compared to those that came immediately before it (and, as we will see, those that came after). The only exception was a one-line advertisement that ran across both columns at the bottom of the second page.

NH Gaz 2:28:1766 Third Page
Third Page of New-Hampshire Gazette (February 28, 1766).

Printed once again on the larger broadsheets, the February 28 issue returned to the “standard” format of three columns, each measuring 2¾ inches wide, on every page except the third one. That page had what was becoming a familiar layout: two columns accompanied by a narrow column of advertisements rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise. Unlike either of the previous examples, however, the first and second columns measured 3½ inches wide each. All of the content was either new or repeated from issues for which type had been set to accommodate the smaller broadsheets. Again, the printers efficiently used type already in forms.

That final rotated column is definitely the most curious. The printers certainly attempted to maximize content. It featured three items that measured 2¾ inches wide: a news item from London, a new probate notice, and Edward Emerson’s advertisement (restored to its original format). The printers also inserted an advertisement that was 3½ inches in width that had originally appeared in the February 14 issue. It was too long to be wedged in along the right edge of the broadsheet so the printers removed the final four lines and inserted them as a narrow (1 inch wide) addendum next to the rest of the advertisement, giving the upper right corner of the page a rather strange appearance.

NH Gaz 3:7:1766 Third Page
Third page of the New-Hampshire Gazette (March 7, 1766).

The printers got even more creative/efficient with the layout of the third page of the March 7 issue. (All the other pages of that issue returned to the “standard” layout.) The upper quarter of the page featured two columns measuring 3½ inches wide each and a now-familiar third column with the text rotated. All of the material in the first two columns was either new or repeated from an issue that had been set intentionally with column widths of 3½ inches.

In order to maximize the number of advertisements they could squeeze into that rotated column, the printers chose two that were 3½ inches wide and a third that was 2¾ inches wide. This allowed them to fill the page in the upper right corner. As with Edward Emerson’s advertisement previously, the font size for the first line of John Wheitfield’s advertisement was reduced in order to make it fit on the page. Similarly, the first line of George Jaffrey’s notice about excise taxes on liquor (“PROVINCE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE”) was removed in the interest of space. The probate notice was left intact from the previous issue.

The lower portion of the page included three columns, each 2¾ inches wide. The printers were continuing to transition back to the “standard” format and setting new type accordingly now that they had access to the larger broadsheets once again. The first two columns included a fresh news item from London and a new advertisement for a “Milch COW.” The third column included slightly updated advertisement by shopkeeper Joseph Bass. To save space, the first line (“Just imported from LONDON”) and a nota bene at the end were removed.

All told, the third page of the March 7 issue is the most visually striking. It also most effectively demonstrates the printers’ creativity and efficiency in printing on the paper that was available to them and conserving their energy and efforts by not completely resetting type for all the advertisements as their paper supply changed and then changed again.

As noted above, the March 14 issue returned to the “standard” format. None of the layout merits further mention, except perhaps acknowledging that the missing lines from Joseph Bass’s advertisement returned now that more space was available. This and other examples in these issues suggest that printers played the primary role in decisions about format even if advertisers called the shots when it came to content.

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In the end, I am not able to make the argument that I initially hoped to make about some of the innovative layouts for advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette in the early months of 1766. I wish I could argue that the printers were experimenting with the layout as a means of drawing readers’ (and potential customers’) attention to the advertisements, but after consulting the original issues I realize that the evidence just does not bear out that interpretation. What I took for innovation in advertising turned out to be an innovation of necessity and practicality as the printers creatively and efficiently inserted as many advertisements as possible in the wake of printing on smaller broadsheets.

I would not have been able to reach this conclusion had I relied on digitized images of the newspapers alone since that format obscures the size of the newspapers and the changes in the paper supply. As much as possible, original sources and digital surrogates really must be consulted in combination as complements to each other.

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