What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“At his House next Door to the Sign of the Three Kings in Cornhill.”
When Benjamin Adams placed an advertisement in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette to announce that “he intends to open a Public Vendue” or auction at his house, he included a landmark to help readers find the location. They could find his house “next Door to the Sign of the Three Kings in Cornhill.” That sign was one of many that helped colonial Bostonians find businesses and navigate the streets of the urban port. Similar shop signs were a familiar sight in other colonial towns and cities.
Today students in my introductory early American history class at Assumption College begin a project that seeks to identify all the shop signs listed in newspapers printed in Boston in 1769 and, eventually, locate them in relation to others on a map from the period. Although this will be an incomplete roster of the shop signs in the city 250 years ago, it will help to create a sense of an important visual aspect of a bustling urban port on the eve of the American Revolution.
We begin the project with a history lab. Instead of a lecture or discussion about assigned readings, today we will devote our time in class to a workshop that introduces students to Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. Once students have learned how to use that resource, they will work in teams to download digital copies of newspapers printed in Boston in 1769. Each team will be responsible for one newspaper. After they have acquired their newspapers, students will read through the advertisements (and, hopefully, pause to investigate some of the other content) as they search for shop signs. Each team will draw up a roster of shop signs they encounter. Later in the semester, we will plot the signs on a map from the period. I have enrolled in an introductory Geographic Information Systems class in hopes of producing a digital map based on this work.
This is very much an experiment. It may work extremely well, but it has the potential to be quite challenging, especially if we do not encounter a critical mass of shop signs in advertisements from 1769. Even if that is the case, students will enhance their research skills and information literacy. They will also learn an important lesson that historians are often confined by the sources available to us. This project is as much about the process of doing history as it is learning about the past.