What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“[illegible] and dispatched by a Packet the next Day for Falmouth.”
Digitization makes historical sources, like eighteenth-century newspapers, more readily accessible to scholars, students, and other readers. Yet the digitization process sometimes introduces errors or obstacles into the research process. For databases of digitized copies of newspapers, for instance, human error introduced in generating metadata or creating cataloging infrastructures sometimes makes it difficult or impossible to identify the appropriate dates for images of historical sources. An image of a particular page of a newspaper, for example, might be mislabeled in the metadata and then cataloged with images from pages of another issue as if it were part of that issue. Sometimes the news, advertising, and other content printed on that page provide context for unraveling the mystery, but not always. While rare occurrences in the databases that support the Adverts 250 Project, such errors are not unknown. The original documents, the newspaper pages themselves, are much less likely to be separated from the rest of the corresponding pages in their issues in the archive.
Other obstacles include errors made while photographing, scanning, or other means of creating images of original sources. Consider the third page of the February 2, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette available via America’s Historical Newspapers. While that database consistently provides the highest quality images of eighteenth-century newspapers among the various databases consulted in the production of the Adverts 250 Project, occasionally minor irregularities do appear. In this case, a band of faded text appears in the center of the page, making illegible portions of the articles in the first two columns and most of an advertisement in third column. Recovering the missing portion of the articles requires consulting the original source in the archive, provided that the error was indeed introduced via remediation. A working knowledge of eighteenth-century advertising practices, however, yields another means for discerning the contents of the advertisement. The colophon for the Providence Gazette indicates that advertisements “are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings” and then an additional fee for each subsequent week. Since most advertisements ran for a minimum of three weeks, the partially obscured advertisement, signed by Alexander Colden, likely appeared in other editions.
Sure enough, the same advertisement ran on February 9 in the next issue of this weekly newspaper. In that iteration, the entire advertisement is legible, allowing savvy readers to consult it to peruse the portions obscured in the previous issue. Curiously, the February 9 edition features similar bands of lighter text on the first and third pages. The band of illegible text on the third page, however, includes a few words rendered as legibly as the rest of the page. This suggests that the problem may not have occurred in the remediation after all. Instead, the illegible bands of text may have been the result of the printing press not making a firm impression, something that the printer managed to remedy before publishing the February 16 edition. In that case, America’s Historical Newspapers provides a digital image that accurately replicates the original source in the archive. Confirming this requires consulting the original newspapers. They remain a vital source rather than rendered obsolete by digitization.
I am consulting with colleagues who work in research libraries where they have access to the Providence Gazette to find out if the originals include these illegible bands. I will update this entry with any new information we uncover.