Reflections from Guest Curator Megan Watts

Guest curating the Adverts 250 Project was a challenging, but rewarding, experience. I learned a substantial amount about “doing” history. In the past I had read books and articles analyzing historical documents, but my only experience in really making sense of history was writing essays on a very specific topic. Adverts 250 differed from that. There was a huge amount of flexibility and autonomy. While I had to remain in a specific year, month, and week range, I had a plethora of newspaper options to choose from. I could choose an advertisement from Savannah or one from Boston or one from Newport. More than that, I could decide which advertisement should be considered for the research blog. There was much more choice in the matter, and much more discernment needed. A difficult component of this project for me was deciding what part of the advertisement to focus on and remaining faithful to that choice. Some advertisements had dozens of items listed. But I had to be careful to choose an element that I could write about and compose a significant entry; sometimes it was challenging. At times I chose a product that I thought would be easy to write about, only to find that there was not a lot of information out there on the subject. In the end, however, I learned more about why it is so important to actually dissect historical documents and their purpose because doing so offers so much insight into colonial life.

The advertisements I analyzed contained significant commercial and social elements of colonial times and taught me a lot about that period. Some of these included that indigo was a primary crop of South Carolina, there was a specific etiquette regarding clothes, and that leather was an important commodity in early America. It really opened my eyes to the realities of colonial life and what would have been important to colonists, which differed from some of my expectations. There were some details that I never would have thought were significant before this project taught me to look more closely at primary documents. Everything had a purpose. The use of lowercase “long s” (that looks like an “f”) instead of the standard “s,” saved space in newspapers. Mentioning a landmark, like a bridge, street or shop sign, served to tell potential consumers where something was to be sold, especially since some stores were not well known and also there were some communities that did not have established names for streets. A shorter advertisement could mean that there were less products to sell, that the advertisement was very direct, or that it was too expensive to publish a longer advertisement.

In addition to improving my understanding of American history and improving my analytical skills, this project also exposed me to new kinds of primary documents. Prior to this class I had never worked with newspapers, neither in digitized databases nor with original issues. In the course of this assignment I had the opportunity to do both and discover new resources that could be used for historical research. These included not only online sources but also archives of physical documents. Also this project helped me improve my skills in discerning useful secondary sources. Originally some sources I thought would apply and add to my entries ended up not working upon further review. It really helped me reevaluate what I was writing, what I wanted to say, and how the secondary source either complemented it or contradicted it.

Overall Adverts 250 taught me a lot about history and how to go about analyzing it. Over the course of this assignment I improved my process of choosing relevant primary and secondary materials. I learned how to analyze in a more precise manner. Also I made important strides in discovering a wealth of sources that provide access to historical information. It was a great learning experience.

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