In Which Bibliography of Early American Newspapers Is Too Much of a Good Thing

Bibliographers of early American newspapers, rejoice! You’re going to love the details in this post. Others may not be as enthusiastic about comparing which newspapers are accessible via which archives. If you’re in that camp, I invite you to skip to the final two paragraphs where I sum up why the (excessive) details are important.

Last week I concluded my post on the incompleteness of the digital archive by promising to explore varying levels of access to Early American Newspapers and how that shapes the scope of this project. To get started at that, I’d like to offer a census of the advertisements featured from January 1-30, the period before my students assumed their duties as guest curators.

The first thirty advertisements for 2016 (1766) came from:

  • 7 advertisements: Massachusetts Gazette (Boston)
  • 7 advertisements: New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)
  • 4 advertisements: Newport Mercury
  • 3 advertisements: New-York Gazette
  • 3 advertisements: New-London Gazette
  • 2 advertisements: Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • 1 advertisement: Boston Evening-Post
  • 1 advertisement: Boston Gazette
  • 1 advertisement: Boston Post-Boy
  • 1 advertisement: New-York Mercury
Feb 5 - New-York Gazette Masthead 2:3:1766
Masthead for the New-York Gazette (February 3, 1766).

As I’ve previously explained, my first priority is to choose an advertisement published on that date 250 years earlier or, in the case of dates on which no newspaper was published, an advertisement from a newspaper printed as close to that date as possible (but before that date: it must come from a newspaper that would have been available to readers somewhere in colonial America 250 years earlier). My secondary consideration is to move around geographically as much as possible. Given these guiding principles, I still contend that I have achieved appropriate coverage based on the resources available to me, namely my college’s access to Early American Newspapers.

That turns out, however, to be a limiting factor that has significantly influenced the shape and scope of this project so far. What do I mean? It turns out that varying levels of access to Early America Newspapers are available. For a variety of reasons, access to Early American Newspapers is not consistent from institution to institution.

Let’s say that I want to continue to pursue this project exclusively from my chair in my office and my couch in my living room. As a resident of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, I qualify for a digital library card that allows me to access a variety of electronic resources via the Boston Public Library’s website. (Thank you, Boston Public Library!) When I access Early American Newspapers via the BPL’s website I have access to one additional and very important newspaper: the Pennsylvania Gazette (previously published by Benjamin Franklin, but undertaken by the partnership of David Hall and William Sellers throughout most of 1766 and the next several years).

Otherwise the two institutions provide identical access: the Pennsylvania Gazette is the only additional newspaper available via the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources.

For the sake of simplicity (too late, I know…), let’s consider all the newspapers published at some point in 1766 available through my college library’s access to Early American Newspapers and via the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources.

New Hampshire

  • New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)

Massachusetts

  • Boston Evening-Post
  • Boston Gazette
  • Boston News-Letter
  • Boston Post-Boy

Rhode Island

  • Newport Mercury
  • Providence Gazette

Connecticut

  • Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New London)

New York

  • New-York Gazette
  • New-York Journal
  • New-York Mercury

Pennsylvania

  • Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) [Boston Public Library only]
  • Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote (Philadelphia)

Georgia

  • Georgia Gazette (Savannah)

Accessing Early American Newspapers via my college library’s databases, this amounts to 14 newspapers from 9 cities in 7 colonies. New England, the Middle Atlantic, and the Lower South are all represented, but the Chesapeake is missing. The Boston Public Library’s access yields similar numbers: 15 newspapers from 9 cities in 7 colonies, covering the same regions.

Feb 5 - Newport Mercury Masthead 2:3:1766
Masthead for the Newport Mercury (February 3, 1766).

As I mentioned last week, Edward Connery Lathem’s Chronological Tables of American Newspapers indicates that 28 newspapers were published in 15 cities in 11 colonies at some point in 1766. With the addition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources get closer to a complete archive, but that gain is not nearly as significant as what happens when consulting the access available in the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society, which has partnered with Readex in making eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers digitally accessible. (Thank you, American Antiquarian Society! Thank you, Readex!) Here are the newspapers printed in 1766 I am able to access via Early American Newspapers in the reading room at the AAS. The six not accessible via my college library or the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources are listed in bold.

New Hampshire

  • New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)

Massachusetts

  • Boston Evening-Post
  • Boston Gazette
  • Boston News-Letter
  • Boston Post-Boy

Rhode Island

  • Newport Mercury
  • Providence Gazette

Connecticut

  • Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New Haven)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New London)

New York

  • New-York Gazette
  • New-York Journal
  • New-York Mercury

Pennsylvania

  • Germantowner Zeitung (Germantown)
  • Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia)
  • Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia)
  • Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote (Philadelphia)

Maryland

  • Maryland Gazette (Annapolis)

Virginia

  • Virginia Gazette [Hunter] (Williamsburg)
  • Virginia Gazette [Rind] (Williamsburg)

Georgia

  • Georgia Gazette (Savannah)

[In addition, it is possible to access five newspapers printed in 1766 in Britain’s colonies in the West Indies: the Antiqua Gazette, the Barbados Mercury, the Kingston Journal (Jamaica), the Royal Grenada Gazette, and the St. Christopher’s Gazette (Saint Kitts).]

Among the colonies that eventually became the United States, this amounts to 21 newspapers published in 13 cities in 9 colonies. Both of the Chesapeake colonies are included, leaving the Lower South the least represented. This is especially unfortunate given that Charleston, South Carolina, was one of the largest cities in colonial America (and a major port for the transatlantic slave trade). Advertisements for runaway slaves as well as notices about buying and selling enslaved men, women, and children appeared frequently in other newspapers, including those published in northern colonies, but the absence of newspapers from Charleston will continue to skew the kinds of advertisements available for inclusion in this project.

Feb 5 - Pennsylvania Gazette Masthead 1:30:1766
Masthead for the Pennsylvania Gazette (January 30, 1766).

Of the 28 newspapers Lathem indicates were published at some point in 1766, these seven cannot be accessed via Early American Newspapers at the AAS.

New Hampshire

  • Portsmouth Mercury (last known September 29)

New York

  • New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy

Pennsylvania

  • [Germantown] Wahre und Wahrscheinliche Begebenheiten (only known February 24)

North Carolina

  • [Wilmington] North-Carolina Gazette (last known February 26)

South Carolina

  • [Charleston] South-Carolina and American General Gazette
  • [Charleston] South-Carolina Gazette (resumed June 2)
  • [Charleston] South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal

Given that several of these newspapers either had short runs or were not consistently published throughout 1766, the digital archive of newspapers from that year that can be accessed at the American Antiquarian Society seems remarkably complete (with the unfortunate exception of newspapers from South Carolina). Imagine the scope of this project made possible when pursuing it at the AAS!

Feb 5 - New-Hampshire Gazette Masthead 1:31:1766
Masthead for the New-Hampshire Gazette (January 31, 1766).

I’ve gathered a lot of data to make this point: the scope and possibilities of this project are contingent on varying levels of access to the various titles in Early American Newspapers. To this point I have incorporated only advertisements from newspapers I can access via my college library. My students who are acting as guest curators throughout much of this semester, however, are accessing Early American Newspapers via the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources. I wanted to give them more possibilities by including the Pennsylvania Gazette, but I also wanted them to be able to pursue this project from their dorm rooms or wherever they happen to have an Internet connection. For ten weeks the scope and coverage of the project will shift. Eventually, when I return to selecting advertisements myself, I will digitally access newspapers from the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society. This project will take on new contours. New England and the Middle Atlantic will no longer be privileged in the same ways. Instead, the Adverts 250 Project will achieve more even coverage.

Digitization is wonderful. I am grateful for the efforts of so many individuals and institutions for making it possible to access electronically so many early American newspapers and other sources. Yet researchers and our audiences need to be aware of the constraints on the sources we consult. As I argued last week, we have not (yet) achieved a complete digital archive. In turn, that fact shapes the work we do and the conclusions we are able to reach.