March 24

GUEST CURATOR: Sean Duda

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

Boston Chronicle (March 23-27, 1769).

“Several BARRELS of SOAP, and a variety of European GOODS.”

In this advertisement Elias Dupee is trying to sell a few different kinds of goods, including apparel and other goods useful around the house. He points out specifically that he has several “BARRELS of SOAP” as well as “a variety of European GOODS.” This soap may have been produced in the colonies since Dupee listed it separately. This is worth noting because soap was a very large import into the colonies from Britain; the colonists preferred to import soap from overseas instead of making soap themselves. In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen talks about how this was the case. He notes, “One English traveler discovered to her surprise that in rural North Carolina women seldom bothered to produce soap. It was not a question of the availability of raw materials. Good ashes could be had at no expense. But these rural women were consumers, and they preferred to purchase Irish soap ‘at the store at a monstrous price.’”[1] That the soap that Dupee advertised may have been made in the colonies points to a shift in the colonies moving towards more self-reliance at a time that they reduced imports to resist the taxes from the Townshend Acts.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Today Sean and I have deviated slightly from the Adverts 250 Project’s methodology in order to explore an aspect of early American newspaper publication that often confuses modern readers the first time they examine eighteenth-century newspapers: the date listed in the masthead and, sometimes, at the top of each page.

Consider the Boston Chronicle. The masthead for issue 78 includes this date: “From THURSDAY, MARCH 23, to MONDAY, MARCH 27, 1769.” The top of each page included the name of the newspaper and a date, “March 23—March 27.” What does this mean? When was that issue printed and distributed to subscribers? Does that date mean that it was printed on March 23 and readers should not expect another issue until March 27? Or does that date mean that the issue was printed on March 27 and covered the period since March 23? Twenty-first-century readers cannot make a determination in a glance. Sean and his peer were confused by the dates when they first encountered them, as was I when I began working with eighteenth-century newspapers.

Examining the content of issue 78 of the Boston Chronicle reveals when it was published. In particular, the dates listed in some of the advertisements prove useful, unlike the dates attached to some of the news items. For instance, news from Philadelphia was dates March 9, news from New York March 20, and news from New London March 17. The advertisement immediately below Dupee’s auction notice, however, reported that “a likely Negroe Fellow, (named CATO)” ran away from George Watson of Plymouth on March 25. That date indicates that issue 78 could not have been published on March 23. Instead, it was published on March 27 and contained all of the news, advertising, and other content for the period since the previous issue that bore the date “From MONDAY, March 20, to THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 1769.”

This example points to an aspect of working with undergraduate guest curators that I particularly enjoy: the fresh eyes that they bring to sources that have become very familiar to me. As I mentioned above, I also questioned the dates on newspapers like the Boston Chronicle when I first began examining eighteenth-century newspapers, but I have become so accustomed to that convention that I hardly remembered it until Sean and others raised questions about what appeared to be a confusing date. Over the course of this semester, as in past semesters, I have observed undergraduate guest curators achieve greater mastery of early American history, including gaining some of the expertise of print culture specialists. They have done so via exploration of primary sources they have selected on their own rather than merely responding to readings that I have gathered for them.

In the process, Sean and I decided to depart from the methodology that dictates that the featured advertisement must have appeared in a newspaper published exactly 250 years ago today. Instead, he chose one published 250 years ago this week so we could examine how colonists thought about the dates on newspapers in addition to the goods and services advertised in those newspaper.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 79.