GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Curley
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Night-School will be opened on Monday Evening.”
Evening schools allowed children and adults who would not have normally attained an education to get the opportunity. In my Education class, Schools and American Society (taught by Prof. Casey Handfield), we discussed educational disparity in colonial America. Children’s formal education in the colonies was limited, often to a select group of middling and elite white males. However, there were many other forms of education that took place in the colonies, such as apprenticeship, indentured servitude, and dame schools. Apprenticeship was a way for many children to learn a skill over time; although their formal education may have been limited, they learned a skill that provided them with a livelihood once they were older and finished the apprenticeship. Some forms of indentured servitude also allowed for learning a skill from the master. At dame schools, children learned basic skills from women (usually childless or older and widowed). However, most of these women had little formal schooling themselves, but would teach based on religious ideals.
Evening schools were another important form of education in colonial times, as I learned from also consulting Robert Francis Seybolt’s Evening School in Colonial America. Some of the colonists sent their apprentices or indentured servants to night school during the winter months. Because the days were shorter, less light meant fewer work hours. This allowed some apprentices and servants to learn a skill during the day and then go to an evening school to learn basic writing, reading, and math skills. Apprentices and servants who got to go to evening schools would have been very lucky to learn both a skill that would provide them with a livelihood and the skills to make their future business successful.
Evening schools in the colonies originated in the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1661. Once that colony became part of the New York in 1674, the evening schools were slowly taken over by English night schools. In Boston, the first mention of an evening school was in 1724 in the Boston Gazette. According to Seybolt, these two port cities, New York and Boston, were the first to establish this sort of schools, with inland towns and villages getting them later.
John Franks advertised his school in the New-London Gazette. He taught it in his home. Starting the classes in October and continuing every Monday for the whole of winter provided Franks’ students ample time for work during the week and then once darkness fell and the work day was done they could go to class.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Elizabeth is a veteran guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project, having already taken on these responsibilities for two weeks as part of my introductory Public History course last spring. As a result, she came to the project this time already possessing familiarity with the advantages and disadvantages of working with digitized sources. Rather than using my additional commentary to elaborate on her analysis of the advertisement she selected for today, I’ve decided instead to discuss one of the challenges inherent in using digital surrogates for the New-London Gazette.
First, it’s necessary to understand the material aspects of the original October 3, 1766, issue of this newspaper. Like other colonial newspapers, each issue consisted of four pages created by printing on both sides of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. While some surviving issues have remained separate, many others have been gathered together, arranged chronologically, and bound into large volumes, either by printers or subscribers in the eighteenth century or by archivists and librarians at some point since. As a result, when historians consult eighteenth-century newspapers, they often work what look like oversized books that must be supported in special wooden cradles in order to preserve the bindings and avoid damage to the individual issues.
As a result of binding so many newspapers together, sometimes it is difficult to read the material in the column printed closest to the fold. Without sufficient space devoted to the margin that could later be used by the bookbinder, the binding draws the pages too close together to read (or photograph or digitize) all of the printing on the page. On the other hand, the distinctive appearance of a newspaper in a tightly bound volume makes it easy to determine at a glance which were even- and odd-numbered pages when reading the newspaper on microfilm or a computer screen. Both media eliminate other aspects of the material text that readers would otherwise use when working with an original issue. Have a look at the third and fourth pages of the issue that included today’s advertisement.
It is easy to tell which side of the page was adjacent to the binding, which also makes it easy to determine which was an even-numbered page and which was an odd-numbered page. Note that the advertisement Elizabeth chose appeared far away from the original fold of the newspaper and, thus, far away from the binding of the bound volume. This helped to make it legible when it was photographed and digitized. On the other hand, news items and advertisements that appeared close to the binding have been partially obscured. It is difficult to read them. Keyword searches using current technologies do not effectively “read” those items either. Readers working with the original bound volume of newspapers can shift position to view the page from a slightly different angle or carefully open the volume just a little wider, but these options are not available to researchers using microfilm or digital surrogates. The image of the page as it appears is the only possible image available to them.
As I have argued many times, digitization is wonderful, but it is not perfect. Sometimes it introduces new problems or eliminates possible solutions that working with original documents would allow. As an Education and History major, Elizabeth is especially interested in advertisements about colonial education. That John Franks’ advertisement for “A Night-School” was is legible for Elizabeth and other historians to consult is a wonderful circumstance that was in no way guaranteed by the historical and technological processes that have contributed to the production, preservation, and dissemination of the original documents.
 See also Joel Spring, American Education, 16th ed. (McGraw Hill, 2013)
 Robert Francis Seybolt, The Evening School in Colonial America (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1925).