February 9

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

Providence Gazette (February 9, 1771).

“HIS Majesty’s Post-Master General … has been pleased to add a fifth Packet-Boat to the Station between Falmouth and New-York.”

In January and February 1771, an advertisement that ran in newspapers published in several colonies informed colonists of an improvement to the communications infrastructure that connected them to Britain.  The postmaster general added “a fifth Packet-Boat to the Station between Falmouth and New-York” for the purpose of “better facilitating … Correspondence between Great-Britain and America.”  The advertisement gave notice that the mail “will be closed at the Post-Office in New-York … on the first Tuesday in every Month” and then “dispatched by a Packet the next Day for Falmouth.”

Dated “New-York, Jan. 22, 1771,” this advertisement appeared in the January 28 edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  The notice next ran in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal on January 31.  (It may have been in the January 24 edition of the New-York Journal; a page is missing from the digitized copy.)  The advertisement soon found its way into the Providence Gazette on February 2 and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on February 4.  By then, it ran in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury a second time, though it did not run in every newspaper more than once.  The advertisement next appeared in the Maryland Gazette on February 7 and the New-Hampshire Gazette on February 8.  Additional newspapers in Boston carried it on February 11, including the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette.  The Essex Gazette ran the notice on February 12, as did Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette and Rind’s Virginia Gazette on February 14.  It made a surprising late appearance in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on February 18 (though it may have been in that newspaper on February 4, an issue not available via the databases of digitized newspapers).  Unfortunately, several issues of newspapers published in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia in the ensuing weeks have not survived, making it impossible to determine when or if readers in those colonies encountered the same advertisement.

Throughout the Middle Colonies, New England, and the Chesapeake, however, colonists had access to the notice within a matter of weeks.  It did not appear in every newspaper, but it did run in newspapers in the major newspapers published in the largest port cities as well as several minor newspapers in smaller towns.  Although formatting shifted from one newspaper to another, the copy remained the same.  In each case, the first appearance of the advertisement benefited from a privileged place on the page, often positioned immediately after news items and before other advertisements.  That likely increased the chances that readers uninterested in perusing the advertisements would at least see the notice about the additional packet boat that transported mail across the Atlantic.  Its placement allowed it to operate as both news and advertisement.  Newspapers, one vital component of colonial communications networks, kept readers informed about improvements to the postal system, another important component.

February 2

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

Providence Gazette (February 2, 1771).

“[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.

Providence Gazette (February 9, 1771).

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.