February 21

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

Essex Gazette (February 21, 1769).

“ADVERTISEMENTS, &c. are received for this Paper.”

Regular visitors to the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project may have noticed that the content presented on Thursdays changed significantly in January of this year. Thursdays previously featured an advertisement from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on the Adverts 250 Project and a dozen or more advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. For the last eight weeks, however, the advertisements examined on Thursdays have been drawn from the Essex Gazette. During that time, no advertisements about enslaved people published in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal have been added to the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Why? Digital images of issues of that newspaper from 1769 are not readily available. Accessible Archives, the source of all three newspapers from South Carolina that have been included in these projects, includes transcriptions of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal for 1769, but not images of the pages of that newspaper. Such images recommence with issues published in 1770.

What effect has this had on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project? It has certainly shifted the content of both. With the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal no longer available for inclusion on Thursdays, only one English-language newspaper for that day remains. The Essex Gazette had been in circulation for less than six months at the beginning of 1769. It had not yet cultivated a substantial clientele of advertisers, whereas the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal regularly featured dozens of advertisements in each issue and sometimes issued supplements for notices that overflowed from the standard issue. In addition to having far fewer advertisements to choose among for the Adverts 250 Project, this has resulted in the Essex Gazette being overrepresented in the project. It is certainly not the only one. On Mondays, the Providence Gazette is the only option. The same goes for the Georgia Gazette on Fridays. In contrast, half a dozen or more newspapers come under consideration when selecting advertisements for both Wednesdays and Saturdays, including some of the most significant newspapers with the greatest number of advertisements. As a result, newspapers from the largest urban centers – Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia – are underrepresented. This has been part of the project from the beginning due to the methodology that calls for examining an advertisement published 250 years ago to the day whenever possible. With the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal having been the only option on Thursdays for some time and the most significant option after the Essex Gazette commenced publication, Charleston had avoided that underrepresentation. Now, advertisements from Charleston compete with those from other major urban ports as those from Providence, Salem, and Savannah find their way into the project every week.

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project has been affected as well. The South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal regularly published a dozen or more advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children in each issue. Those advertisements were among the many that overflowed into supplements. Since digital images are not available for issues from 1769, the total number of advertisements incorporated into the project each week has declined. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project aims to demonstrate the ubiquity of such advertisements in colonial newspapers, arguing that they testify to the constant presence of slavery in everyday life throughout the colonies. The absence of advertisements from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal makes that argument less effective and less powerful. With the exception of an occasional advertisement from the Essex Gazette, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project now goes silent on Thursdays, giving the mistaken impression that advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children were not published in colonial America on that day. This is more significant than the overrepresentation and underrepresentation of certain newspapers in the Adverts 250 Project. The availability of digitized primary sources have made the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project possible, but both researchers and readers must remain aware that these projects draw on original sources made unevenly available. Even as the Slavery Adverts 250 Project strives to tell a more complete story about the lives of enslaved people in the era of the American Revolution as well as illustrate the connections between the press and perpetuation of slavery as an institution, the project also unintentionally obscures part of that story. Digitization has made the past much more readily accessible to scholars and general audiences alike, but it is a partial past shaped by which sources have been included and excluded in the digitization efforts that have been completed to this point.

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