Reflections from Guest Curator Jonathan Bisceglia

During my time working on the Adverts 250 Project I spent quite a lot of time trying to decipher the meaning of sometimes very vague advertisements for things as basic as lodging and as complex as slavery. I feel this taught me more about history than pretty much anything I have ever done. The reason this was so powerful and effective for me was because it was real and in most cases I could see the actual thing I was learning about and working with. These were not just some boring anecdotes in a text book or a slow documentary. They were actual advertisements in newspapers created 250 years ago. Working with this type of primary sources is something that I have never had a chance to do, which was scary at first, but once I started doing my research it became a lot easier to decipher meaning in these sources.

I cannot stress enough the meaning this project has to me. There are several different reasons why I was hesitant to even work on the project but having worked through it I feel changed in many ways. I know this sounds cliché but for me this project changed quite a bit in my life and gave me new meaning for the future.

At the beginning of the Adverts 250 Project I thought the most difficult part would be gathering the information and then composing my summary and analysis. This was not the case. This project created a revival in what was a dwindling passion for history. The hardest part of the project was coming to terms with the idea that I wanted to change my prospective future career. I had originally planned on being a high school history teacher but the Adverts 250 Project made me realize that I would not enjoy that but rather I would enjoy teaching upper-level students who can appreciate it more.

This would become the meaning that I found during the course of my week guest curating for the Adverts 250 Project. I would also say that this was also one the most rewarding parts of the project. The other was the amount of information that I learned through my time curating the project. This is not just how to look at a primary source and deduce what it is about, but actually what can be learned from every single advertisement. For instance, my advertisement from April 19, 1767, by James King was an open advertisement to try to get men who were “Genteel” to lodge at his abode. Through my years of history class, we had never even used the word genteel. Of course I had known what it meant today but this new curiosity led me to so much new knowledge about the topic and ideas about gentility in colonial and Revolutionary America that I had never had before.

As I already stated, this project really meant a lot to me. It was challenging at times, rewarding at others, but for the most part it was a fun project. I have now realized the importance of doing work like this in college. It has opened my eyes to the possibilities of the future but more importantly it has shown to me that I truly am interested in history and I want to devote my life to this sort of studying and teaching.


Reflections from Guest Curator Shannon Dewar

For as long as I can remember, History has been my favorite subject in school. I can remember doing full body outlines of prominent women in the Revolutionary War, basket weaving, and making our own countries up and creating their own governments throughout my days as a student in elementary school. Middle and high school challenged me to delve deeper into both primary and secondary sources and I grew a passion for uncovering knowledge about the past. My fondest memory was the summer going into junior year when we had homework for AP U.S History: it was to read John Adams by David McCullough. While most others in my class found the book long and considered it boring, I found it enriching and insightful. It was from that point on that I knew my love of history would be with me forever, and it ignited in me a spark to continue that passion as a major in college.

Being a guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project has given me the opportunity fall in love with history all over again. I have been able to view it from an entirely new perspective. Instead of just reading sources and integrating them into essays for classes, I actually get to do history. I was able to take what I’ve learned, and actually create my own pieces to be posted for many historians and others to view. After all the years I had been the one reading people’s work, now I can actually know that someone is reading and learning from mine.

While serving as guest curator has been an amazing and insightful experience, it has not come without its challenges. I have had to learn about an entirely new topic, advertising. In addition, I have had to delve deeper into commerce and business in the colonial and Revolutionary periods and learn about the economy in a new light. Though challenging, this project has allowed me to see more into the daily life of Revolutionary America and enabled me to acquire new knowledge about the period.

Just as this project has had challenges, it has also had many rewards. I have absolutely loved the chance to work on a project that allows me to address readers not just within in the small realm of my classroom on campus, but way beyond that, including both national and international readers. The thought of someone reading my work who does not know me is quite amazing. Also, I’ve grown in confidence in my ability to write about history, and take chances in my work, allowing myself to interpret what I read and see differently than how others may. Throughout the process, I have loved to work with sources at the American Antiquarian Society and in online databases that I have never seen before. Being able to work at the American Antiquarian Society, I believe, has been my favorite part, because it is places like that where history is still alive and flourishing.

Going forward, I hope that I get the chance to work again in some capacity with a digital humanities project. It has allowed me to grow in confidence as a writer and historian, as well as provided me with undergraduate experience in a different kind of project. Guest curating the Adverts 250 Project has taught me skills that will take me farther into my future endeavors.

Reflections from Guest Curator Ceara Morse

My second round of Adverts 250 was an interesting one to say the least. It took my experience from last semester and tried to find better sources. Sometimes I failed and at other times I excelled. Last semester I used JSTOR for all my sources but I found that to be difficult. This semester I tried to broaden my sources. I found a lot of better fitting sources and I found some very interesting stories to tell. This made my analysis that much better because I found sources I really enjoyed reading. Overall, this part of the project was the easiest. Of course there is always room for improvement. If I ever had an opportunity to do this project again, I think I would want to do more research on words I do not know in the advertisements. Plus, for some reason I thought brewers and distillers were one and the same. I learned something new.

I will say there were some crazy moments, however. I was juggling multiple projects, one of which was giving me loads of stress, but that’s a whole other story. In the beginning, I thought I was going to have an upper hand on the project because I had already done it once before, but nonetheless, life is full of curveballs and it was not as easy as I thought it would be. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, because it would not have been so satisfying to finish if it had been as easy as I expected.

I got to learn so many new things about life in the colonial and Revolutionary eras. I think my favorite thing to learn about was Eastern White Pine and the Pine Tree Riot of 1772 because that’s not something in most of the history books but it had an impact on the rising tension between the English and the colonists that led to the Revolutionary War. Another interesting thing I learned about was William Jackson. He had an interesting start thanks to his mother and he is riddled into American history, such as not participating in the non-importation agreements to being captured when he tried to flee Boston because he was a Loyalist.

I think the most rewarding part of this experience was the fact that I knew people were reading my work and getting something out of it. Most of the things I wrote about I had never even heard of before so I hope to some people who read my analysis learned something too. We gained this opportunity to read into advertisements and got the chance to delve into why certain items were so popular while others were unique. Being able “do history” is such a rewarding experience because there is always something new to learn about and then can teach that new information to someone else.

Overall, I once again thoroughly enjoyed working on this project. Learning about the past helps us in the future and I find it fascinating how some of the items being advertised can lead to much larger stories that could even relate to today. I am looking forward to continuing the Slavery Adverts 250 in a week and delving into the commercial trade of slaves.

Reflections from Guest Curator Daniel McDermott

I have previous experience in public history and historical interpretation as a Park Ranger for the National Park Service, and I have looked at and interpreted primary sources for other history classes and for tours, so heading into this project I felt comfortable and within my element. The project did still push me to further my interpretation skills and ability to analyze primary sources, all within a public history setting. I especially was pushed to find my scholarly voice as well. I feel I learned a lot about the purpose of the project and about digital humanities projects, which I find to be an importation means of linking the academic world to the public through digital platforms. I came across unexpected challenges, such creating the content to reflect the audience of the project. Researching specific sources and documents for the posts was also a welcomed challenge.

The research topic and general theme of the project allowed me to really dive into learning about everyday live in colonial and Revolutionary America. A lot of my work and writing allowed me to compare our current everyday life and find similarities and differences to eighteenth-century life. Newspapers were a particularly fascinating primary source, a means of cultural communication that is still in place today, in paper or digital. Understanding the primary sources and taking on the viewpoint of a colonist helped me develop different perspectives. It pushed me to become the audience and ask myself questions. Then being able to step outside of that perspective and write about it in present terms to make it available for the public to use and learn was engaging. I tried to focus my work on an array of topics to allow readers to see that colonial life was just as complex as today. See, specifically, my post on the different textiles, baize and tammy. I realized they seemed like unfamiliar goods, but today when I see an advertisement, I automatically know what each product is. I asked myself if readers of the newspaper would read the advertisement and automatically know everything as well. I began researching the two I personally found interesting and it eventually led to me finding Abigail Adams mentioning baize in a letter to her husband John. I wanted to make clear comparisons to today as well; I hoped this would interest readers.

As for my long-term academic plans, I feel this project will help me in different aspects. It gave me a taste of being an actual historian, doing work that I might experience when I plan to continue the study of history in graduate school. Interpretation of primary sources and researching historical topics for public history use will help develop my interpretation skills as a Park Ranger. I hope to continue linking scholarship to the public through different means, especially through digital humanities which gives it easier access to people. For doing public history in an academic setting, I thought I learned a lot of the behind the scenes work it takes, and embraced the challenges not usually found in a typical classroom setting.

Reflection from Guest Curator Samuel Birney

I will admit this project was a new challenge for me as an historian. I have done research for essays and, for the most part, delved into books and treatises or reviews regarding medieval or early modern Europe, which has been the focus for most of my studies at Assumption College. So, researching eighteenth-century newspapers from colonial America was a new transition for me. It was interesting to read through the newspaper advertisements and get an impression about what life was like for colonists just prior to the Revolution that defines most of American history.

I had assumed that colonists would have been more removed from European culture and influences, but they proved to be more interested in fostering and strengthening their ties and identity to England and Europe. The colonies were also widely involved with other colonial settlements and powers, such as the West Indies, Africans, and the Dutch and French, to name a few. As I suspected, alcohol played a large role in the colonists’ lives, due to its establishment as a far more reliable drink than water or milk. I learned a lot about how colonial life varied depending on one’s economic and social standing, from transportation in single seat private carriages for the elites to a relaxing drink at work for a poor laborer. The newspaper advertisements were interesting gateways to examine colonial life and culture, from a period when the American identity had yet to form, in spite, or perhaps, because of emerging tensions between colonists and the British.

For my research I mostly focused on sources available through a simple google search because the work was going to be featured on a blog page, admittedly one that goes through a somewhat extensive research review and editing process, and as such should have been easily accessible for readers. It was also much easier to scour through google for related articles and information on the newspaper advertisements and products or related subjects than going through a college database and having to narrow down the search results. Although because of this it was a little more difficult to find creditable sources of information, although I suppose that’s where the editing and reviewing process with Prof. Keyes came in to either give a go ahead or provide alternative options. It was nice being able to send in an analysis of my research and get suggestions for improvement or new articles to explore and incorporate. I would have to say that it made the experience less stressful than I thought it was going to be.

All in all, I would have to say that this has been a bit of an eye-opening experience for me as a historian. I have seen how useful it is to have other historians available to assist and guide one’s research and writing, something that has also been a part of special topics courses and the capstone research seminar. I have utilized newspapers, and advertisements, in a way I had never considered before, due to either a lack of interest or the lack of relevance with regards to my previous classes. It’s been difficult at times trying to juggle constantly working on this project with other assignments from both the main coursework and my other classes, but as with any project or essay, seeing the final result is a pretty cathartic experience. I got to learn more about a period of history that I had been sorely lacking in knowledge and appreciation of up until this point, and as an American and a student I am grateful for this experience.

Reflections from Guest Curator Shannon Holleran

When the Adverts 250 Project was first assigned and I discovered I would be the first guest curator, I felt very intimidated and overwhelmed by the responsibility I was being tasked with. Luckily, once I started to explore the digitized newspapers and select my advertisements, the project became fun and much less overwhelming. As my week as guest curator is coming to an end, I realize I have acquired a greater knowledge of colonial and revolutionary-era America as well as many new techniques for reading and analyzing sources. During this experience, I have faced many challenges along the way; however, the result has been extremely rewarding.

The first step in this process was to select seven advertisements from eighteenth century newspapers, made available online. This was one of my favorite parts of the project because while I was selecting the advertisements I wanted to post about, I was able to see countless colonial and revolutionary-era newspapers and advertisements. I found this to be so fascinating because I could see how much newspapers and advertisements have changed over time. During the eighteenth century, newspapers were a major form of communication for the colonists; however, in today’s society, we often rely on social media as a main form of communication and advertising.

Once I had selected my seven advertisements, I was then tasked with finding other sources (primary, secondary, digital) to tie in with my post. This was one of the most challenging parts of the project for me. I found myself having a difficult time finding reliable, historically accurate sources for the time period I was posting about. I also faced problems with paraphrasing some of my sources and putting them into my own words. I found this challenging because the sources I used were filled with so many interesting facts; however, Professor Keyes gave me extremely helpful tips to avoid simply repeating what my sources had already said. Through this process of tying in other sources, I was able to acquire much more information about the colonies in the eighteenth century.

This digital humanities project helped me expand my knowledge about everyday life and commerce in colonial America. After seeing and analyzing many different advertisements, it was clear that the colonists’ society and economy had become completely Anglicized. It was interesting for me to see how many of the advertisements were about English goods. Many of the advertisements I worked with, specifically my indigo advertisements, revealed how Great Britain would exploit the colonies for their natural resources. The colonies, in return, would import a wide variety of British goods. This helped the economy in colonial America to flourish. Many advertisements revealed the colonists’ rapidly growing economy and the effects this had on society.

Although at times this project was challenging, it was extremely rewarding in the end to see my work published on the Adverts 250 Project website. It was very exciting to see the entries I had worked so hard on be seen by the public. This was the first time I was involved in a project that was published for the general public to see. I was, of course, very worried at first about people viewing my work; however, it was a very neat experience to be a part of. As a history major, I always love learning new things about our nation’s history and gaining new experiences, such as working with digitized resources and having the opportunity to visit the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. I am thankful I was given the opportunity to work on such an interesting project. I am looking forward to curating the Slavery Adverts 250 Project and once again having the opportunity to work with these eighteenth-century newspapers.

Happy Birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

Isaiah Thomas, patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, was born on January 30 (January 19 Old Style) in 1749.  It’s quite an historical coincidence that the three most significant printers in eighteenth-century America — Benjamin Franklin, Isaiah Thomas, and Mathew Carey — were all born in January.

Isaiah Thomas (January 30, 1739 – April 4, 1831).

The Adverts 250 Project is possible in large part due to Thomas’s efforts to collect as much early American printed material as he could, originally to write his monumental History of Printing in America.  The newspapers, broadsides, books, almanacs, pamphlets, and other items he gathered in the process eventually became the initial collections of the American Antiquarian Society.  That institution’s ongoing mission to acquire at least one copy of every American imprint through 1876 has yielded an impressive collection of eighteenth-century advertising materials, including newspapers, magazine wrappers, trade cards, billheads, watch papers, book catalogs, subscription notices, broadsides, and a variety of other items.  Exploring the history of advertising in early America — indeed, exploring any topic related to the history, culture, and literature of early America at all — has been facilitated for more than two centuries by the vision of Isaiah Thomas and the dedication of the curators and other specialists at the American Antiquarian Society over the years.

Thomas’s connections to early American advertising were not limited to collecting and preserving the items created on American presses during the colonial, Revolutionary, and early national periods.  Like Mathew Carey, he was at the hub of a network he cultivated for distributing newspapers, books, and other printed goods — including advertising to stimulate demand for those items.  Sometimes this advertising was intended for dissemination to the general public (such as book catalogs and subscription notices), but other times it amounted to trade advertising (such as circular letters and exchange catalogs intended only for fellow printers, publishers, and booksellers).

Thomas also experimented with advertising on wrappers that accompanied his Worcester Magazine, though he acknowledged to subscribers that these wrappers were ancillary to the publication:  “The two outer leaves of each number are only a cover to the others, and when the volume is bound may be thrown aside, as not being a part of the Work.”[1]

Jan 30 - Worcerster Magazine April 1786
Detail of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Second Week of April, 1786).

Thomas’s patriotic commitment to freedom of the press played a significant role in his decision to develop advertising wrappers.  As Thomas relays in his History of Printing in America, he discontinued printing his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, after the state legislature passed a law that “laid a duty of two-thirds of a penny on newspapers, and a penny on almanacs, which were to be stamped.”  Such a move met with strong protest since it was too reminiscent of the Stamp Act imposed by the British two decades earlier, prompting the legislature to repeal it before it went into effect.  On its heels, however, “another act was passed, which imposed a duty on all advertisements inserted in the newspapers” printed in Massachusetts.  Thomas vehemently rejected this law as “an improper restraint on the press. He, therefore, discontinued the Spy during the period that this act was in force, which was two years. But he published as a substitute a periodical work, entitled ‘The Worcester Weekly Magazine,’ in octavo.”[2] This weekly magazine lasted for two years; Thomas discontinued it and once again began printing the Spy after the legislature repealed the objectionable act.

Jan 30 - Advertising Wrapper - Worcester Magazine - 4th week May 1786
Third Page of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Fourth Week of May, 1786).

Isaiah Thomas was not interested in advertising for its own sake to the same extent as Mathew Carey, but his political concerns did help to shape the landscape of early American advertising.  Furthermore, his vision for collecting American printed material preserved a variety of advertising media for later generations to admire, analyze, ponder, and enjoy.  Happy 268th birthday, Isaiah Thomas!


[1] Isaiah Thomas, “To the CUSTOMERS for the WORCESTER MAGAZINE,” Worcester Magazine, wrapper, second week of April, 1786.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers, vol. 2 (Worcester, MA: Isaac Sturtevant, 1810), 267-268.