July 20

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Jul 20 - 7:20:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (July 20, 1767). Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society. View the advertisement and the rest of the newspaper via The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.

“Just Imported, and to be Sold by Harbottle Dorr.”

Harbottle Dorr’s name jumped off the page when I first spotted this advertisement in the July 20, 1767, edition of the Boston-Gazette. In terms of content and format, his notice was not particularly distinctive. So why did this particular advertisement catch my eye? Why did it create an extra spark of excitement?

In 1767, residents of Boston knew Harbottle Dorr as a merchant, in part because he advertised in several of the local newspapers. In the course of the next quarter century, he joined the Sons of Liberty and “served intermittently as a Boston selectman for many years between 1777 and 1791.” Today he is best known to historians, especially historians of print culture, thanks to his collection of newspapers from the period of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution, now in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. As the MHS explains, “Beginning in 1765, Dorr spent more than a dozen years purchasing newspapers, writing comments in margins, inserting reference marks in articles, and assembling indexes.” He aimed “to form a political history” of events as he witnessed and participated in them. His indexes and annotations demonstrate one reader’s intensive engagement with the public prints. Thanks to digitization and other technologies, scholars and the general public have access to The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., via the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.

In addition to advertising in the July 20 issue of the Boston-Gazette, Dorr also acquired a copy for his collection. It does not appear, however, that he purchased every newspaper that ran one of his advertisements. For instance, he inserted the same advertisement in the July 20 edition of the Boston Evening-Post, but that issue is not in the collection he assembled. At the very least, he did not save or add issues merely because they published his commercial notices. He may have confirmed that his advertisements indeed appeared as expected, but that was not sufficient reason for inclusion in his project.

Still, today’s advertisement has a unique twist compared to most others featured by the Adverts 250 Project, though a twist rendered more complex by digitization of historical sources. In most cases, the provenance of the original issue makes little difference. This advertisement, however, came from a copy originally possessed by the advertiser himself. In preparing today’s entry, I consulted Dorr’s newspaper to write about his advertisement. Or did I? Does it make sense to feel a connection to the material text – to feel excited that Dorr owned, touched, and annotated this particular issue – when I have not actually used the physical manifestation of that issue but a digital surrogate instead? Maybe, but maybe not.

In the past I have joined other scholars in arguing that digitized sources are best used as complements to, rather than replacements of, original sources. After all, sometimes consulting originals yields answers just not possible to achieve when examining digital surrogates, despite their many advantages. This response, however, does not factor in the emotional component of archival work, the excitement scholars feel when handling the things owned by the people we study, a physical connection that defies the passage of time.

Yet I still experienced a flash of excitement when I examined today’s advertisement via The Annotated papers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., that I did not feel when I first saw the advertisement in Readex’s database of America’s Historical Newspapers. I feel a greater connection to the advertisement inserted in the Boston-Gazette, part of Dorr’s collection, than I do to the advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post, not in his collection, even though it was the same advertisement. Even mediated by digitization, “seeing” the original yields emotional satisfaction. In that regard, the Massachusetts Historical Society has done an even greater service than I previously realized. Their online collection of Dorr’s newspapers has enhanced my experience by associating a person with the material text.

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