What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“SUBSCRIPTIONS for Hume, Blackstone, and Ferguson, are received by said Bell … and by the Booksellers and Printers in America.”
Digitization makes primary sources more widely available, but digital surrogates sometimes introduce questions about those sources that might be more easily answered by examining the originals. Consider the September 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette made available by Accessible Archives. That company provides nine pages associated with that issue. The first four comprise the standard issue, two pages printed on each side of a broadsheet then folded in half.
Another page filled entirely with advertising lacks a masthead, but does have the title, “THE SOUTH CAROLINA & AMERICAN GENERAL GAZETTE, for 1771,” and date “Sept. 10-17” running across the top. It also features a page number, 192, in the upper left corner as well as a colophon at the bottom of the last column. This may have been a one-page supplement, but paper was such a precious commodity that printers tended to fill both sides when they distributed supplements. The page numbering for the standard issue went from 187 to 190. Did the printer skip 191 in order to have the next issue begin, as usual, with an odd number? Or, is the first page of a two-page supplement missing from the digital edition? It is impossible to simply flip over the page with a digital edition, making it difficult to answer a question that likely would not even have been an issue when examining the original.
The final four pages associated with that issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette look like a subscription notice distributed by Robert Bell, a bookseller and publisher in Philadelphia. The digital images suggest they were on a sheet of a much smaller size than either the standard issue or the supplement, but specific information about the relative sizes of these pages disappeared when remediating them to photographs and digital files. How did this subscription notice become associated with that issue of the newspaper? Bell incorporated Robert Wells, printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, into his network of local agents who advertised and received subscriptions for Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England on his behalf. An advertisement for that volume appeared on the final page of the standard issue as well as the first page of the subscription notice. Perhaps Wells distributed Bell’s subscription notice with his newspaper. On the other hand, the subscription notice may have been added to the collection of newspapers at a later time by the printer, a contemporary reader, a later collector, or an archivist. Modern readers could ask a librarian or cataloger about the provenance when working with the original. Even though that might or might not reveal an answer, it is an opportunity that readers consulting digital sources may not pursue, at least not easily.
On the whole, digitization has revolutionized access to primary sources, making them more widely available rather than confined to research libraries and historical societies. Yet digital copies are not replacements for originals. They sometimes introduce questions that either would not have been part of working with original copies or would have been more easily answered. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of digitization readily recognize that digital surrogates are best considered complements to, rather than replacements for, original primary sources.