August 22

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

Aug 22 - 8:16:20:1770South-Carolina Gazette Supplement
Note the holes on the right, left when removing a binding. Those holes are an important clue for correctly dating this page from an eighteenth-century newspaper. Continuation of the South-Carolina Gazette (August 16, 1770).

“ALL the STOCK of GOODS.”

Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers ran multiple times.  Compositors set the type once and then used it over and over, often moving advertisements around the page in order to make them fit with each other and the news, editorials, and other content that comprised the rest of the issue.  This streamlined the production of colonial newspapers since compositors did not have to set type for every item that appeared in every issue.

When I did the initial research to select an advertisement to feature today, I decided on an entire page rather than a single advertisement.  Why?  The entire page consisted of advertising reprinted in its entirety from a previous issue.  While compositors reused individual advertisements in practically every issue, reprinting an entire page was exceptionally unusual.  I cannot recall having seen an example of this in all of the eighteenth-century newspapers I have examined over the course of nearly two decades.

Alas, on closer examination I discovered that what I thought had happened did not actually happen.  An entire page of advertising was not reprinted, despite initial appearances.  Here’s what did happen.  Peter Timothy published a new edition of the South-Carolina Gazette on August 16, 1770.  That happened to be a Thursday, his usual day for distributing a new issue.  It was a standard four-page issue created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  Timothy had too much content to fit everything into those four pages, likely because he had to resort to smaller sheets than usual, so he published four-page Continuation of the South-Carolina Gazette on the same day.  Issuing some sort of “supplement,” “postscript”, or “continuation” was standard practice, especially for newspapers published in the largest port cities.  Prior to the American Revolution, most newspaper printers produced one issue per week, sometimes accompanied by a supplement.  On rare occasions, they distributed a supplement in the middle of the week.  Timothy did so in August 1770, printing a Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette on Monday, August 20, four days after the regular issue and its Continuation.

Here’s what I initially thought happened, but eventually discovered did not actually happen.  The Supplement published on August 20 included an entire page of advertising reprinted from the Continuation of August 16.  When I looked more closely, however, I noticed that the Supplement consisted of three pages.  That was extremely unlikely.  Eighteenth-century printers almost never released standard editions or supplements with an odd number of pages.  Doing so meant blank pages, a waste of precious paper.  I originally assumed that the reprinted page had resulted from the compositor using it as filler in order to avoid circulating a blank page when the news that merited a midweek supplement fell short of filling an entire broadsheet.  In that case, the reprinted page should brought the number of pages to two or four, but not three.  A supplement consisting of three pages, with the reprinted page as the second page, did not make much sense, especially since the sentence from the bottom of the first page continued at the top of the third page.

When I looked more closely at the images of the original page in the Continuation from August 16 and the Supplement from August 20, I noticed that not only did all of the advertisements appear in the same order but the edges of the paper and holes left from binding that had been undone were identical.  These were not two separate pages.  Instead, they were digital images of the same page!

I recently examined another page of a newspaper published in Charleston, South Carolina, in August 1770 that had been mistakenly included as part of another issue (and another newspaper) in the production of a database of digitized images of eighteenth-century newspapers.  In both cases, the digital archive provided enough clues that I eventually realized something did not match the usual practices of eighteenth-century printers.  Especially in this instance, however, the error was not readily apparent.  I discovered it only because I decided to work so intensively with a particular page of the South-Carolina Gazette.  Others who consulted the same digital resource, even experienced researchers, might not have noticed the discrepancy if they did not happen to be specialists in eighteenth-century print culture, particularly newspaper production.

This is an error that would not have happened when consulting the original documents.  The fourth page of the Continuation would have been on the other side of the third page of the Continuation.  It would not have been possible to view it as somehow appearing between the first page of the Supplement and the supposed third page of the Supplement (actually the second page on the other side of the sheet for the first page).  Digital images of individual pages untether them from the rest of the issue in which they appeared.  Digital archives increase access to primary sources.  The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would not be possible without the several databases of digitized newspapers that remediate eighteenth-century sources for wider dissemination.  Yet readers need to be savvy when they consult such databases since digital renditions, such as images of individual pages, become subject to errors not possible when consulting original documents.

Aug 20 1770 - South-Carolina Gazette Supplement Page 2
This page mistakenly appears as the second page of the Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette (August 20, 1770) in Accessible Archives’s collection of South Carolina Newspapers.  It also correctly appears as the fourth page of the Continuation of the South-Carolina Gazette (August 16, 1770).

August 12

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week (or last week)?

Aug 12 - 8:2:1770 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (August 2, 1770).

“The Price of FLOUR.”

The new semester will soon begin.  With it, undergraduate students will once again make contributions to the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  That work gives them experience working in digital archives.  As every historian knows, the archives, including digital archives, sometimes present mysteries to be solved and problems to figure out.  That is one of my favorite parts of working with undergraduates on these digital humanities projects:  they develop sufficient familiarity with digital archives that they recognize inconsistencies in how information is presented and then investigate how to explain or resolve those inconsistencies.

Such is the case with the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette available via Accessible Archives.  Before looking at that issue more closely, I believe that it is important to acknowledge that the inconsistencies present in the digital presentation of this newspaper are the result of the sort of human error that makes its way into any cataloging project.  Yet archivists, catalogers, and others who work in the archives or contribute to the production of digital archives are not alone in introducing errors into the presentation, organization, and citation of historical sources.  Historians and other scholars who rely on the careful work done by archivists make their own errors that they then have to unravel, often with the help of archivists who generously lend their own expertise.  Throughout the production of the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, for instance, I gather significant numbers of digitized primary sources from multiple databases and attempt to impose order on them with consistent filename conventions.  However, no matter how carefully I go about collecting and organizing these materials, I sometimes introduce mistakes through simple human error.  That being the case, the examination of the South-Carolina Gazette that follows is not intended as an indictment of the work done by archivists and others in making that newspaper accessible to readers, but instead a celebration of the occasional quirkiness of the archive.  This is an example of a mini-mystery easily solved and resolved, even by novice researchers who are having their first experiences in the (digitized) archive.

Accessible Archives’s digitized representation of the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette consists of nine pages.  In and of itself, that should raise a red flag for anyone with rudimentary familiarity with eighteenth-century newspapers.  Most consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  When printers issued supplements, some had six or eight pages, but, in general, newspapers tended to have an even number of pages.  Printers did not usually leave any space blank by circulating supplements printed on only one side.  So, the nine pages in the August 9 issue raises questions.  Eight of those pages contained two columns, but the second page included three.  Readers with greater experience working with digitized newspapers would recognize at a glance that the pages with two columns and the page with three columns were printed on sheets of different sizes; novice researchers should at least notice the difference in format.  Apparently, Peter Timothy, the printer, did not have access to larger sheets for three columns per page on four pages and instead opted to print two columns per page on eight pages using smaller sheets.  Even if readers are not certain of the origins of the questionable page, they can figure out that the page with three columns does not belong with the August 9 issue.  Readers with more experience also note that the page with three columns has a colophon at the bottom, a feature reserved for the final page rather than the second or any other page.  (Note the colophon immediately below the advertisement in the image above.)  A news item in the first column includes this dateline:  “CHARLES-TOWN, AUGUST 2.”  This suggests that the orphan page most likely belongs with the previous edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, the issue published on August 2, 1770.  Sure enough, Accessible Archives includes it as the final page of that issue.

How did it end up as part of the August 9 edition in the archive of digitized newspapers I downloaded and compiled for easy reference?  My first thought was that I had perhaps not been careful enough in naming the digital file.  As a user of the archive, had I introduced incorrect information through human error when I gathered research materials to consult at a later time?  Talk to anyone who works in a research library and you will hear stories of scholars contacting them weeks, months, or even years later for more information about sources because the scholars have questions about their own inadequate notes and citations.  When I consulted Accessible Archives, I discovered that their August 9 edition includes the extra page.  In this case, the human error was not my own, though it certainly has been on other occasions.  Somehow the digitized image of the fourth page of the August 2 edition was inserted twice in the digital archive, once in the appropriate place as the final page of the August 2 issue and once as the second page of the August 9 issue.  Thanks to a variety of context clues – odd number of pages, discrepancy in the number of columns, colophon in an unexpected place, dated news items – figuring out where the page belonged was fairly straightforward for someone with extensive experience using archives of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers.  Novice researchers, such as undergraduate students in my classes, would have been able to note that one of the pages in the August 9 edition did not belong, even if they did not yet understand where the page should have appeared in the digital archive.  In my experience, when undergraduates spot this sort of minor idiosyncrasy in the digital archive, it enhances their confidence as researchers.  Their initial confusion motivates them to figure out the problem and consult with me when they encounter something that does not accord with their expectations after their experiences working with a digital archive that is otherwise consistently organized.  For me, the minor inconvenience caused by a small human error in the much more expansive digital archive is worth the teachable moment as undergraduates learn to navigate how primary sources have been cataloged and presented for consumption.  Even when I’m not working with undergraduates, this sort of mini-mystery can be a pleasure to solve.

This example merits one additional comment about the difference between using the digital archive and consulting original documents in an archive.  The remediation of the August 2, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette made it possible for one of the pages to inadvertently get inserted a second time as part of the issue published a week later.  It would have been impossible for readers to encounter such an error when consulting the originals, though they very well could introduce their own errors when taking photographs and notes.  Consulting digital archives sometimes presents its own challenges.  Historians and other scholars cannot be oblivious to the good work done by archivists of various sorts or else they will not be able to recognize mysteries to be solved on those rare occasions that human error introduces discrepancies into the archive.