What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“To be sold on Tuesday the 8th of March … A Very valuable PLANTATION.”
Regular visitors to the Adverts 250 Project have likely noticed that six days of the week the project features an advertisement originally published 250 years ago that day but once a week it instead features an advertisement from 250 years ago that week. This reflects the publication schedule for newspapers in the colonial era. With the exception of the occasional supplements and extraordinary issues, printers distributed their newspapers once a week. Printers, however, chose which day of the week to publish their newspapers. Nearly half chose Monday, with a fair number also opting for Thursday or Friday. The rest selected Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, but none published their newspaper on Sunday.
That explains why the Adverts 250 Project sometimes examines an advertisement published 250 years ago that week, but only once a week. For the past two years such entries have fallen on Wednesdays because those were the days that corresponded to the dates (rather than days of the week) of publication. In other words, consider this chart:
- A date that falls on a Wednesday in 2018 fell on a Sunday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Thursday in 2018 fell on a Monday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Friday in 2018 fell on a Tuesday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Saturday in 2018 fell on a Wednesday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Sunday in 2018 fell on a Thursday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Monday in 2018 fell on a Friday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Tuesday in 2018 fell on a Saturday in 1768.
This held true for the first two months of 2018, but not after March 1. Why not? The year 1768 was a leap year. It included an extra day, February 29, that does not occur in 2018. Since February 28, 1768, fell on a Sunday, the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project conveniently treated February 28 and February 29 as a single day last week. Today is the first day that the shift caused by the leap day becomes readily apparent, especially for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project since it will no longer republish advertisements on Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays. Starting today, the revised publication chart looks like this:
- A date that falls on a Tuesday in 2018 fell on a Sunday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Wednesday in 2018 fell on a Monday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Thursday in 2018 fell on a Tuesday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Friday in 2018 fell on a Wednesday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Saturday in 2018 fell on a Thursday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Sunday in 2018 fell on a Friday in 1768.
- A date that falls on a Monday in 2018 fell on a Saturday in 1768.
This version will be accurate for the next two years. At the end of February 2020, however, it will need to be updated again. Actually, it will revert to the previous chart since 2020 will be a leap year. February 2020 will have a leap day that February 1770 did not, causing the shift to move one day in the other direction.
Both charts make it clear that the Adverts 250 Project is an On This Date project rather than an On This Day project. The analysis of the advertisements only occasionally acknowledges the day of the week that they were originally published, usually to provide context concerning eighteenth-century printing practices. This consideration of the distinction between the date and the day demonstrates yet another way that modern readers do not experience eighteenth-century newspapers in the same way as the original readers since any association with a particular day of the week has been largely removed in most instances. A unit of time that seems quite natural in 2018 – such as Sunday, March 4 through Saturday, March 10 – would have been deemed completely artificial in 1768 – Friday, March 4 through Thursday, March 10. That being said, such a week would have made perfect sense to the printers of the Connecticut Journal, the New-Hampshire Gazette, the New-London Gazette, and the South-Carolina and American General Gazette since they published their newspapers on Fridays. For almost everyone else, a week that ran Friday through Thursday would have seemed arbitrary. Most colonial newspapers included both the day and date of publication in their mastheads, but the former disappears from most citation practices. The day of publication is not imperative in creating a unique temporal identifier for specific issues of newspapers, but overlooking it completely does erase part of the experience of producing and reading newspapers in eighteenth-century America.