April 18

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (April 20, 1769).
“[illegible]”

Working extensively with primary sources is one of the benefits of serving as a guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Before I incorporated these projects into my upper-level courses on early American history, I provided students with representative advertisements that I had carefully selected to demonstrate particular aspects of consumer culture or the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children. For instance, a shopkeeper’s advertisement listing dozens or hundreds of items for sale suggested the many choices available to customers during the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Another advertisement describing the skills possessed by enslaved men and women made the point that they worked as coopers, blacksmiths, midwifes, and laundresses, to name just a few examples. An advertisement describing someone who escaped and offering a reward for their capture testified to acts of resistance by enslaved men and women.

In delivering these selected examples to students, I distributed either transcripts reprinted in modern textbooks and course readers or copies drawn from my own exploration of eighteenth-century newspapers made available via databases produced by Accessible Archives, Colonial Williamsburg, and Readex. For the latter, the legibility of the digitized editions played a role as I selected advertisements. If we only had time in class to examine a few representative advertisements, then I wanted those primary sources to be as easy to read as possible.

The idea of a few representative advertisements, however, no longer applies when students assume their responsibilities as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. They are tasked with examining digital copies of every extant newspaper originally published during a particular week in the 1760s. This means that they encounter an archive of newspapers that are not nearly as perfect as the representative examples that I would otherwise distribute in class. Some copies were damaged in the eighteenth century; others deteriorated over time. This page of the Virginia Gazette shows signs of water damage, making portions illegible. The empty space below “POETS CORNER” resulted from someone clipping the poem, removing both the verse and whatever content was on the other side of the page from the original newspaper and any subsequent remediated copies, whether microfilm or digital surrogates.

Sometimes the process of remediation from the original newspaper to microfilm to digital image to a hard copy that comes off the printer in my office alters the legibility of a document. It does not matter if an original newspaper is in perfect condition if poor photography produced an unusable image. The process of moving between PDF and JPG files also alters the appearance of these digital surrogates for primary sources. The same is true for digital images and hard copies produced on the office printer. Even when I supply students with hard copies of all the newspapers for their week as guest curator I recommend that they work back and forth between those hard copies and the digital ones they have compiled. The digital versions are often more legible. They can also be enlarged to gain a better view of a newspaper page that has been condensed to a standard sheet of 8.5×11 office paper.

In working with digital surrogates for dozens of eighteenth-century newspapers drawn from various databases, undergraduate guest curators experience some of the challenges that historians regularly face when they work with primary sources. The process of “doing” history becomes even more complicated, messy, and nuanced as they grapple with both the sources as material items (or digital representations of material items) and the ideas contained within those sources. Guest curators must engage in problem solving that they would not do if I simply handed them perfectly legible copies of representative advertisements from eighteenth-century newspapers. They must take on greater responsibilities as they develop their critical thinking skills and gain experience interpreting the past.

February 25

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran

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

feb-25-2251767-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (February 25, 1767).

“Brought to the Work-house, A NEGROE FELLOW, middle aged.”

This advertisement caught my attention because it is an advertisement about runaway slaves. After doing further research on runaway slaves, I discovered that advertisements like this were very common during this period. Advertisements similar to this one were used to recapture slaves and indentured servants. They listed specific physical characteristics, such as height and clothing. The abundance of slavery advertisements is why the Slavery Adverts 250 Project also exists. Slavery was such an important part of society and the colonists’ economy at this time that slavery advertisements were abundant in many eighteenth-century newspapers.

Sadly, according to Tom Costa, advertisements sometimes did not need to be posted because many slave owners would recapture their slaves within one to two weeks of their escape. Costa also states that many slave owners would only put out advertisements if the runaway was seen as valuable. Unfortunately, advertisements such as these often made it nearly impossible for slaves to escape to freedom.

Many slavery advertisements, spanning several decades, have been digitized and made available for the public to view in the Virginia Gazette. The Virginia Gazette is the only colonial and revolutionary-era newspaper that has been digitized and made available to the general public, providing the ability to view many advertisements similar to this one from the colonial and revolutionary eras. Also, other slavery advertisements are easy to view via the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. This project also provides the public with hundreds of slavery advertisements from 250 years ago, emphasizing how commonplace slavery advertisements were. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project includes slavery advertisements published in newspapers throughout all of the colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As the guest curators from my Revolutionary America class and I work on this project together, we have many opportunities to discuss methodology, primary and secondary sources, and the availability of digitized documents to scholars and the general public. In the process, my students gain a better understanding of both the past and how historians pursue their work.

From now until the end of the semester, visitors to the Adverts 250 Project may notice that each student incorporates at least one advertisement concerning slavery into her or his week serving as guest curator. This complements the work that each will conduct when curating the companion Slavery Adverts 250 Project during a different week, giving each an opportunity to examine at least one slavery advertisement in greater detail.

Today, Shannon offers important observations about the accessibility of eighteenth-century newspapers, including the advertisements for slaves that prominently appeared in them. To complete their work on both the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, students consult several databases of digitized newspapers as they draw material from the nearly two dozen published in the colonies in 1767. They complete most of their research using Readex’s Early American Newspapers, available via databases linked on the campus library’s website. That particular subscription, however, does not include all of the eighteenth-century newspapers Readex has digitized. When students visit the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society they have access to Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, which includes all of the newspapers available via Early American Newspapers as well as the Pennsylvania Gazette (perhaps the most important eighteenth-century American newspaper) and both versions of the Virginia Gazette published in 1767 (one by Purdie and Dixon and one by Rind). Students must also visit the American Antiquarian Society to access three newspapers printed in Charleston, South Carolina, via Accessible Archives.

As Shannon notes, it is not necessary to visit a research library or have remote access to their digital resources to examine the Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg has made these sources available to the general public via their Digital Library, which also includes manuscripts, research reports, and York County estate inventories. This collection of newspapers includes several publications (or continuations of publications with new printers) all published under the title Virginia Gazette: Parks (1736-1740, 1745-1746), Hunter (1751-1757, 1759, 1761), Royle (1762, 1763, 1765), Purdie and Dixon (1766-1774), Rind (1766-1774), Pinkney (1774-1776), Dixon and Hunter (1775-1778), Purdie (1775-1778), Clarkson and Davis (1779-1780), and Dixon and Nicholson (1779-1780).

The Adverts 250 Project includes a daily digest of all slavery advertisements published 250 years ago that day. The citations for advertisements from the Virginia Gazette always includes a link that takes readers to Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, directly to the correct page of the newspaper so readers can examine each advertisement in its original context. Each advertisement tells an important story of human bondage, but they tell even richer and more complete stories when not disembodied from the other advertisements, news items, and other content that accompanied them. It’s not possible for the Adverts 250 Project or the Slavery Adverts 250 Project to provide that kind of access to every eighteenth-century newspaper. Colonial Williamsburg offers unique access to the Virginia Gazette to all readers, not just those associated with colleges and universities or major research institutions.