What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A large and compleat Assortment of ENGLISH, INDIA, and SCOTCH GOODS.”
Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette, had more content than would fit in the standard issue on September 23, 1771. Like other newspapers published during the colonial era, an issue of the Boston-Gazette consisted of four pages. Edes and Gill printed two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folded it in half. On occasion, however, they had sufficient content to merit publishing a supplement to accompany the standard issue. They did so on September 23. Hugh Gaine, printer of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, did so as well.
Both supplements consisted of two pages. Both contained advertisements exclusively. Despite these differences, Gaine adopted a slightly different strategy in producing the supplement for his newspaper than Edes and Gill did. The standard issue of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury featured four columns per page. The supplement did as well. Gaine used a half sheet that matched the size of the standard issue; all six pages were the same size. Edes and Gill, on the other hand, did not. A standard issue of the Boston-Gazette had three columns, but only two columns for the supplement. The printers chose a smaller sheet to match the amount of content and conserve paper. They generated revenue from the advertisements in the supplement, but kept costs down in producing it.
The relative sizes of the supplements compared to the standard issues would be readily apparent when consulting originals, but not when working with digitized images. As a result of remediation, digital images become the size of the screen and change as readers zoom in and zoom out. The size of the page of a digital image is not permanent, unlike the size of the page of the original newspaper. In the process of remediation, information about originals gets lost if those creating new images do not record and make metadata accessible. In this case, modern readers consulting digitized images can deduce that Edes and Gill used a different size sheet for the supplement, but have a much more difficult time imagining the experience of eighteenth-century subscribers who received sheets of two different sizes.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“[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.
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.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“ALL the STOCK of GOODS.”
Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers ran multiple times. Compositors set the type once and then used it over and over, often moving advertisements around the page in order to make them fit with each other and the news, editorials, and other content that comprised the rest of the issue. This streamlined the production of colonial newspapers since compositors did not have to set type for every item that appeared in every issue.
When I did the initial research to select an advertisement to feature today, I decided on an entire page rather than a single advertisement. Why? The entire page consisted of advertising reprinted in its entirety from a previous issue. While compositors reused individual advertisements in practically every issue, reprinting an entire page was exceptionally unusual. I cannot recall having seen an example of this in all of the eighteenth-century newspapers I have examined over the course of nearly two decades.
Alas, on closer examination I discovered that what I thought had happened did not actually happen. An entire page of advertising was not reprinted, despite initial appearances. Here’s what did happen. Peter Timothy published a new edition of the South-Carolina Gazette on August 16, 1770. That happened to be a Thursday, his usual day for distributing a new issue. It was a standard four-page issue created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. Timothy had too much content to fit everything into those four pages, likely because he had to resort to smaller sheets than usual, so he published four-page Continuation of the South-Carolina Gazette on the same day. Issuing some sort of “supplement,” “postscript”, or “continuation” was standard practice, especially for newspapers published in the largest port cities. Prior to the American Revolution, most newspaper printers produced one issue per week, sometimes accompanied by a supplement. On rare occasions, they distributed a supplement in the middle of the week. Timothy did so in August 1770, printing a Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette on Monday, August 20, four days after the regular issue and its Continuation.
Here’s what I initially thought happened, but eventually discovered did not actually happen. The Supplement published on August 20 included an entire page of advertising reprinted from the Continuation of August 16. When I looked more closely, however, I noticed that the Supplement consisted of three pages. That was extremely unlikely. Eighteenth-century printers almost never released standard editions or supplements with an odd number of pages. Doing so meant blank pages, a waste of precious paper. I originally assumed that the reprinted page had resulted from the compositor using it as filler in order to avoid circulating a blank page when the news that merited a midweek supplement fell short of filling an entire broadsheet. In that case, the reprinted page should brought the number of pages to two or four, but not three. A supplement consisting of three pages, with the reprinted page as the second page, did not make much sense, especially since the sentence from the bottom of the first page continued at the top of the third page.
When I looked more closely at the images of the original page in the Continuation from August 16 and the Supplement from August 20, I noticed that not only did all of the advertisements appear in the same order but the edges of the paper and holes left from binding that had been undone were identical. These were not two separate pages. Instead, they were digital images of the same page!
I recently examined another page of a newspaper published in Charleston, South Carolina, in August 1770 that had been mistakenly included as part of another issue (and another newspaper) in the production of a database of digitized images of eighteenth-century newspapers. In both cases, the digital archive provided enough clues that I eventually realized something did not match the usual practices of eighteenth-century printers. Especially in this instance, however, the error was not readily apparent. I discovered it only because I decided to work so intensively with a particular page of the South-Carolina Gazette. Others who consulted the same digital resource, even experienced researchers, might not have noticed the discrepancy if they did not happen to be specialists in eighteenth-century print culture, particularly newspaper production.
This is an error that would not have happened when consulting the original documents. The fourth page of the Continuation would have been on the other side of the third page of the Continuation. It would not have been possible to view it as somehow appearing between the first page of the Supplement and the supposed third page of the Supplement (actually the second page on the other side of the sheet for the first page). Digital images of individual pages untether them from the rest of the issue in which they appeared. Digital archives increase access to primary sources. The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would not be possible without the several databases of digitized newspapers that remediate eighteenth-century sources for wider dissemination. Yet readers need to be savvy when they consult such databases since digital renditions, such as images of individual pages, become subject to errors not possible when consulting original documents.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week (or last week)?
“The Price of FLOUR.”
The new semester will soon begin. With it, undergraduate students will once again make contributions to the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. That work gives them experience working in digital archives. As every historian knows, the archives, including digital archives, sometimes present mysteries to be solved and problems to figure out. That is one of my favorite parts of working with undergraduates on these digital humanities projects: they develop sufficient familiarity with digital archives that they recognize inconsistencies in how information is presented and then investigate how to explain or resolve those inconsistencies.
Such is the case with the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette available via Accessible Archives. Before looking at that issue more closely, I believe that it is important to acknowledge that the inconsistencies present in the digital presentation of this newspaper are the result of the sort of human error that makes its way into any cataloging project. Yet archivists, catalogers, and others who work in the archives or contribute to the production of digital archives are not alone in introducing errors into the presentation, organization, and citation of historical sources. Historians and other scholars who rely on the careful work done by archivists make their own errors that they then have to unravel, often with the help of archivists who generously lend their own expertise. Throughout the production of the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, for instance, I gather significant numbers of digitized primary sources from multiple databases and attempt to impose order on them with consistent filename conventions. However, no matter how carefully I go about collecting and organizing these materials, I sometimes introduce mistakes through simple human error. That being the case, the examination of the South-Carolina Gazette that follows is not intended as an indictment of the work done by archivists and others in making that newspaper accessible to readers, but instead a celebration of the occasional quirkiness of the archive. This is an example of a mini-mystery easily solved and resolved, even by novice researchers who are having their first experiences in the (digitized) archive.
Accessible Archives’s digitized representation of the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette consists of nine pages. In and of itself, that should raise a red flag for anyone with rudimentary familiarity with eighteenth-century newspapers. Most consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. When printers issued supplements, some had six or eight pages, but, in general, newspapers tended to have an even number of pages. Printers did not usually leave any space blank by circulating supplements printed on only one side. So, the nine pages in the August 9 issue raises questions. Eight of those pages contained two columns, but the second page included three. Readers with greater experience working with digitized newspapers would recognize at a glance that the pages with two columns and the page with three columns were printed on sheets of different sizes; novice researchers should at least notice the difference in format. Apparently, Peter Timothy, the printer, did not have access to larger sheets for three columns per page on four pages and instead opted to print two columns per page on eight pages using smaller sheets. Even if readers are not certain of the origins of the questionable page, they can figure out that the page with three columns does not belong with the August 9 issue. Readers with more experience also note that the page with three columns has a colophon at the bottom, a feature reserved for the final page rather than the second or any other page. (Note the colophon immediately below the advertisement in the image above.) A news item in the first column includes this dateline: “CHARLES-TOWN, AUGUST 2.” This suggests that the orphan page most likely belongs with the previous edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, the issue published on August 2, 1770. Sure enough, Accessible Archives includes it as the final page of that issue.
How did it end up as part of the August 9 edition in the archive of digitized newspapers I downloaded and compiled for easy reference? My first thought was that I had perhaps not been careful enough in naming the digital file. As a user of the archive, had I introduced incorrect information through human error when I gathered research materials to consult at a later time? Talk to anyone who works in a research library and you will hear stories of scholars contacting them weeks, months, or even years later for more information about sources because the scholars have questions about their own inadequate notes and citations. When I consulted Accessible Archives, I discovered that their August 9 edition includes the extra page. In this case, the human error was not my own, though it certainly has been on other occasions. Somehow the digitized image of the fourth page of the August 2 edition was inserted twice in the digital archive, once in the appropriate place as the final page of the August 2 issue and once as the second page of the August 9 issue. Thanks to a variety of context clues – odd number of pages, discrepancy in the number of columns, colophon in an unexpected place, dated news items – figuring out where the page belonged was fairly straightforward for someone with extensive experience using archives of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers. Novice researchers, such as undergraduate students in my classes, would have been able to note that one of the pages in the August 9 edition did not belong, even if they did not yet understand where the page should have appeared in the digital archive. In my experience, when undergraduates spot this sort of minor idiosyncrasy in the digital archive, it enhances their confidence as researchers. Their initial confusion motivates them to figure out the problem and consult with me when they encounter something that does not accord with their expectations after their experiences working with a digital archive that is otherwise consistently organized. For me, the minor inconvenience caused by a small human error in the much more expansive digital archive is worth the teachable moment as undergraduates learn to navigate how primary sources have been cataloged and presented for consumption. Even when I’m not working with undergraduates, this sort of mini-mystery can be a pleasure to solve.
This example merits one additional comment about the difference between using the digital archive and consulting original documents in an archive. The remediation of the August 2, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette made it possible for one of the pages to inadvertently get inserted a second time as part of the issue published a week later. It would have been impossible for readers to encounter such an error when consulting the originals, though they very well could introduce their own errors when taking photographs and notes. Consulting digital archives sometimes presents its own challenges. Historians and other scholars cannot be oblivious to the good work done by archivists of various sorts or else they will not be able to recognize mysteries to be solved on those rare occasions that human error introduces discrepancies into the archive.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I the Subscriber now carry on the Hatting Business.”
Witnessing the sense of accomplishment that undergraduate students experience when they work with digitized primary sources is one of my favorite parts of having them serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project when they enroll in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery in America, Public History, and Research Methods courses. Much of that sense of accomplishment comes from learning to read eighteenth-century newspapers, a more difficult task than some initially expect.
Consider this advertisement from the May 25, 1770, edition of the New-London Gazette. It is not indecipherable, but it does require some effort to read, even for those with experience working with eighteenth-century newspapers. The quality of the printing and the paper, including text bleeding through from the other side of the page, makes the advertisement more difficult to read than the crisp and clear text in books and articles students are more accustomed to reading. They discover that historians must work with primary sources of varying condition. The deviations in spelling compared to twenty-first century standards also present a minor challenge, including “Hatts” for “Hats,” “Furr” for “Fur,” and “chuse” for “choose” in this advertisement. Shifts in the meaning of words over a quarter of a millennium also allow opportunities to consider context in the process of understanding what advertisers said when they used language that now seems strange. In this advertisement, William Capron described himself as “I the Subscriber,” but he did not mean that he paid to receive the newspaper. Instead, he deployed the common eighteenth-century usage of the word “subscriber” to mean “a person who signs his or her name to a document,” in this case the advertisement itself.
Perhaps the most significant sense of achievement for many students comes from decoding the “long “s” that they initially mistake for an “f” in eighteenth-century newspapers and other primary sources. In this advertisement, Capron addressed his “former Customers, present Creditors, and the Public in general,” but to students with less experience reading such sources this phrase initially appears to say “former Cuftomers, prefent Creditors, and the Public.” “Hatting Business” looks like “Hatting Bufinefs” and “too short for spinning” looks like “too fhort for fpinning.” That Capron’s advertisement appeared in italics further compounds the difficulty for some readers. For my part, I’ve become so accustomed to the “long s” that I no longer notice it. When I began working with students on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, however, I quickly became aware that I took for granted how easily others with less experience reading eighteenth-century newspapers would adapt to the “long s.” As an instructor, I’ve learned to take more time and to make more allowances for students to become comfortable with that particular element of eighteenth-century print culture. I also reassure them that they will eventually recognize the “long s” merely as an “s.” They might not even realize when the transition happens!
Primary sources of any sort are the cornerstone of college-level history courses. In the absence of special collections and research libraries with original documents, access to digitized primary sources allows me to replicate the experience of working with materials from the eighteenth century. In the process, students get a better sense of what how historians “do” history as they encounter and overcome these and other challenges.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“LOST … A GREEN SILK UMBRELLA.”
An advertisement offering a reward for the return of a lost ‘GREEN SILK UMBRELLA” appeared in the April 18, 1770, edition of the Georgia Gazette. It ran at the bottom of the first column of the second page. Unfortunately, a portion of the advertisement is missing from the digital image available via Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database.
Yet consulting another digital resource, Clarence: Newspaper Holdings of the American Antiquarian Society, makes clear that Readex faithfully captured an image of the April 18 edition in its extant status in the archive. According to the American Antiquarian Society, “Clarence is named in honor of Clarence S. Brigham (1877-1963), a man pivotal in the building of the AAS newspaper collection. Brigham began his service to AAS in 1980 as its librarian and retired in 1959 as its director.” Brigham is well known among scholars of early American print culture for his monumental History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (1947).
The Clarence database appropriately provides detailed information about the newspapers in the collections at AAS. It does not, however, provide digital images. The AAS and Readex partnered to create America’s Historical Newspapers. Although Readex also worked with other research libraries to produce its database, the calendars in Clarence and America’s Historical Newspapers indicate that the digital images in the latter come from original sources at the AAS. Although Brigham’s bibliography reports that the Georgia Gazette continued publication until 1776, the AAS has issues only through May 23, 1770. Compare the calendar from Clarence to the calendar from America’s Historical Newspapers. They match, indicating that the images of the Georgia Gazette in Readex’s database did indeed come from the originals in the collections at the AAS. For further confirmation, note the status of the issues at the AAS. Those denoted with a blue box are “whole” according to the legend, while those denoted with a red box are “damaged.” All of the digital images missing the bottom of the page in America’s Historical Newspapers correspond to damaged newspapers at the AAS.
Close examination of the digital images on their own suggest that they are accurate renderings of the originals in the archive, but working back and forth between the two digital resources confirms that is the case and tells a more complete story of the sources available to historians and other scholars.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“GEORGE COOKE, & Co. Have imported … [illegible].”
The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project are made possible by databases of eighteenth-century newspapers that have been digitized in order to make them more accessible to scholars and other readers. Such databases have revolutionized the work done by historians, allowing them to ask – and answer – questions that would have been impractical or impossible to consider just a couple of decades ago. Various tools, including keyword searches that rely on optical character recognition, allow historians to streamline their research methods as they efficiently identify sources that otherwise would have been overlooked.
To some extent, the production of digital surrogates for primary sources has democratized the research process, making historical documents more widely accessible. Historians and other scholars no longer need to visit libraries, archives, and historical societies to gain access to original sources. Instead, they can access many of them (including eighteenth-century newspapers) from anywhere they have a reliable internet connection. This democratization of access to digital surrogates is sometimes limited by access to financial resources. Consider the databases consulted for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Colonial Williamsburg makes its database of eighteenth-century newspapers published in Virginia freely available to the public. Accessible Archives and Readex, however, have different business models for South Carolina Newspapers and America’s Historical Newspapers, respectively. Both are available only by subscription. Some institutions can afford access to those databases; others cannot. I am fortunate that my college has a subscription to America’s Historical Newspapers. I am also fortunate that Accessible Archives has an individual subscription option at a reasonable price. It provides limited access compared to an institutional subscription, but it is sufficient for my purposes and the projects I have designed.
Even though scholars and other users benefit from these databases, they also learn that accessibility does not necessarily mean legibility. In some instances, the original sources have been damaged, but in many others poor photography or other shortcomings of the remediation process produce digital surrogates that are accessible but not legible. Consider George Cooke and Company’s advertisement from the front page of the December 13, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Some of it is legible; other portions are not. An experienced reader can carefully work through much of the advertisement, filling in the gaps by considering both context and prior knowledge of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements for consumer goods. Inexperienced readers would not derive nearly as much information from this advertisement, nor would keyword searches that rely on optical character recognition reach the same conclusions as a human reader.
Digitization has forever changed historical research methods, but digital surrogates do not replace original sources. Digital surrogates come with their own set of limitations that scholars must take into consideration. They make sources more accessible – sometimes. Both subscription fees and illegible remediations of original sources limit the usefulness of digital surrogates.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Brought to the Work-house, A NEGROE FELLOW, middle aged.”
This advertisement caught my attention because it is an advertisement about runaway slaves. After doing further research on runaway slaves, I discovered that advertisements like this were very common during this period. Advertisements similar to this one were used to recapture slaves and indentured servants. They listed specific physical characteristics, such as height and clothing. The abundance of slavery advertisements is why the Slavery Adverts 250 Project also exists. Slavery was such an important part of society and the colonists’ economy at this time that slavery advertisements were abundant in many eighteenth-century newspapers.
Sadly, according to Tom Costa, advertisements sometimes did not need to be posted because many slave owners would recapture their slaves within one to two weeks of their escape. Costa also states that many slave owners would only put out advertisements if the runaway was seen as valuable. Unfortunately, advertisements such as these often made it nearly impossible for slaves to escape to freedom.
Many slavery advertisements, spanning several decades, have been digitized and made available for the public to view in the Virginia Gazette. The Virginia Gazette is the only colonial and revolutionary-era newspaper that has been digitized and made available to the general public, providing the ability to view many advertisements similar to this one from the colonial and revolutionary eras. Also, other slavery advertisements are easy to view via the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. This project also provides the public with hundreds of slavery advertisements from 250 years ago, emphasizing how commonplace slavery advertisements were. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project includes slavery advertisements published in newspapers throughout all of the colonies.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
As the guest curators from my Revolutionary America class and I work on this project together, we have many opportunities to discuss methodology, primary and secondary sources, and the availability of digitized documents to scholars and the general public. In the process, my students gain a better understanding of both the past and how historians pursue their work.
From now until the end of the semester, visitors to the Adverts 250 Project may notice that each student incorporates at least one advertisement concerning slavery into her or his week serving as guest curator. This complements the work that each will conduct when curating the companion Slavery Adverts 250 Project during a different week, giving each an opportunity to examine at least one slavery advertisement in greater detail.
Today, Shannon offers important observations about the accessibility of eighteenth-century newspapers, including the advertisements for slaves that prominently appeared in them. To complete their work on both the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, students consult several databases of digitized newspapers as they draw material from the nearly two dozen published in the colonies in 1767. They complete most of their research using Readex’s Early American Newspapers, available via databases linked on the campus library’s website. That particular subscription, however, does not include all of the eighteenth-century newspapers Readex has digitized. When students visit the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society they have access to Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, which includes all of the newspapers available via Early American Newspapers as well as the Pennsylvania Gazette (perhaps the most important eighteenth-century American newspaper) and both versions of the Virginia Gazette published in 1767 (one by Purdie and Dixon and one by Rind). Students must also visit the American Antiquarian Society to access three newspapers printed in Charleston, South Carolina, via Accessible Archives.
As Shannon notes, it is not necessary to visit a research library or have remote access to their digital resources to examine the Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg has made these sources available to the general public via their Digital Library, which also includes manuscripts, research reports, and York County estate inventories. This collection of newspapers includes several publications (or continuations of publications with new printers) all published under the title Virginia Gazette: Parks (1736-1740, 1745-1746), Hunter (1751-1757, 1759, 1761), Royle (1762, 1763, 1765), Purdie and Dixon (1766-1774), Rind (1766-1774), Pinkney (1774-1776), Dixon and Hunter (1775-1778), Purdie (1775-1778), Clarkson and Davis (1779-1780), and Dixon and Nicholson (1779-1780).
The Adverts 250 Project includes a daily digest of all slavery advertisements published 250 years ago that day. The citations for advertisements from the Virginia Gazette always includes a link that takes readers to Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, directly to the correct page of the newspaper so readers can examine each advertisement in its original context. Each advertisement tells an important story of human bondage, but they tell even richer and more complete stories when not disembodied from the other advertisements, news items, and other content that accompanied them. It’s not possible for the Adverts 250 Project or the Slavery Adverts 250 Project to provide that kind of access to every eighteenth-century newspaper. Colonial Williamsburg offers unique access to the Virginia Gazette to all readers, not just those associated with colleges and universities or major research institutions.
The American Antiquarian Society sponsors a robust series of Public Programs each fall and spring. I was especially interested in the most recent entry, last week’s “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems” by Paul Lewis (English, Boston College), because it originated as a class project that relied significantly on digital humanities resources. Lewis was joined for the evening by Harrison Kent and Alexandra Mitropoulos, former students who worked on the project as undergraduates.
The title for the evening’s event came from the recently published The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820 (University Press of New England, 2016), an anthology of mostly anonymous poems published in literary magazines in the era of the Early Republic. The book, however, was not the original goal of the advanced undergraduate seminar that located and identified the poems; instead, it evolved out of an exhibition, “Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History.” Lewis and his students originally sought to examine “poems so bad they were delightfully amateurish” that still managed to make their way into print in the decades immediately after the Revolution and ratification of the Constitution, but their research took them in new directions as they discovered a treasure trove of forgotten and overlooked poetry that was good, interesting, and told local stories.
Lewis, Kent, and Mitropoulos explained that 427 magazines were published in the United States during the early national period. Most magazines incorporated at least some poetry as a standard feature, but many did so quite extensively. More than 30,000 poems appeared in those magazines. Lewis and his students were especially interested in Massachusetts (and primarily Boston, the center of magazine publication in the commonwealth during the period), combing through 59 magazines to identify and examine over 4500 poems.
This is a project that would not have been possible even a decade ago, at least not as a collaborative research project in an upper-level undergraduate seminar. It relied on intense archival work – digital archival work using the American Periodical Series and similar resources. The American Periodical Series includes digitized images of magazines printed from the colonial period to the turn of the twentieth century. Gathering digital surrogates for the original magazines together in one place eliminates several of the obstacles that researchers in earlier generations faced. Images of each page are readily available, making it unnecessary to travel to distant libraries and historical institutions. In effect, digital sources bring the archives to researchers, including students who otherwise would not have such extensive access to primary sources. (This assumes that an educational institution has the funds to purchase a subscription to the American Periodical Series and similar databases of early American primary sources. Many smaller colleges and universities do not, but that digital divide is a topic for another time. Still, I want to be clear that although digitized sources make new projects and pedagogy possible, unequal access means digitization is not a panacea.)
Lewis and his students were able to consult the 59 magazines printed in Massachusetts in the early national period relatively easily, though the project was still labor intensive even with the digital resources. As they identified and sifted through more than 4500 poems they decided to focus on poetry that revealed life in early Boston. Doing so required learning about publication and republication practices of the era. For instance, in efforts to fill their pages editors often inserted material copied directly from British periodicals in the absence of international copyright laws. Lewis and his students discarded those poems. They also discovered that editors frequently issued invitations to readers to submit their own poetry, invitations that anonymous poets eagerly accepted. Since magazine distribution was relatively limited during the period – most circulated primarily within the city of publication – these poems often revealed much about local culture in Boston. (Lewis suggested that other teams of scholars and students could pursue similar projects in Philadelphia, New York, and other urban centers.) In addition to inviting readers to submit original poetry, editors also solicited poems in response to other poems, creating conversations among readers from issue to issue. The anonymous poets often learned whether their work had been accepted or rejected in the pages of the magazines themselves; rather than communicating privately with these “citizen poets,” editors created a feature, “Acknowledgments to Correspondents,” in which they praised or disparaged the poems submitted to them.
Who were these citizen poets? Lewis and his students explored the democratizing effects of publishing poetry by anonymous authors in the literary magazines of the Early Republic. Although most of the authors cannot be identified definitively, many were surely women. Quite possibly some were non-whites. Anonymous publication allows – then and now – for imaginative readings of the identity of those citizen poets since their gender, race, and class remained hidden. The “citizen” in citizen poet accordingly refers to anybody who chose to participate in the conversations and debates pursued in verse rather than the more narrow confines of who was eligible to vote in the early national period. Poetry elicited broad civic participation as a variety of readers made contributions to public discourses. For instance, provocatively misogynistic poems generated responses. Lewis and his students documented poems and “anti-poems” that responded to each other over the course of several issues. Many poems expressed the hopes and anxieties of various Boston residents as they contemplated their role in early American society, including a poem about a young seamstress preparing for her marriage. She hoped that her husband would sometimes “let me wear the breeches.” Whether written by a woman or not, this poem indicates that everyday Bostonians grappled with the social roles and political rights of women in the era of the Early Republic.
Lewis and his students underscored that these forgotten poems reveal lively, open, and engaged interactions among readers. They offer glimpses of everyday life – relationships between men and women, labor and occupations, politics, family life, entertainment and pleasures – that might seem foreign to modern readers. In that regard, the poems in The Citizen Poets of Boston are a valuable resource for scholars, teachers, and students. However, I am just as interested in the process: the methodology that made that anthology possible. Using digitized sources to pursue such an extensive project helped to make possible a model of professor-student collaborative work that fulfilled some of the best ideals of scholars incorporating their own research into the classroom to create richer educational experiences. The digital revolution helps to make possible a greater array of “hands-on humanities” projects that engage both scholars and students and ultimately yield significant results.
In recent weeks I’ve spilled a fair amount of ink considering how both methodology and access shape the Adverts 250 Project. I’ve demonstrated three different levels of access to newspapers printed in 1766 included in Early American Newspapers: 14 via my college’s library, 15 via the Boston Public Library’s electronic resources (including the extremely significant addition of the Pennsylvania Gazette) and 21 via the digital resources available in the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society (which has access to all the titles in Early American Newspapers because the AAS and Readex are partners in the endeavor).
I’ve also demonstrated how my methodology for selecting advertisements (each must come from that date or a newspaper published most immediately before that date in cases of no newspapers printed on a particular date) has caused certain newspapers to receive disproportionate coverage due to most newspapers being published at the beginning of the week and relatively few at the end.
I’ve made promises that when my Public History students’ tenure as guest curators comes to an end that I will resort to the resources available in the AAS’s reading room as a means of featuring a greater number of publications and achieving more extended geographic reach.
However unintentionally, I may have implied that accessing Early American Newspapers at the American Antiquarian Society means that I am working from a complete archive of publications from 1766. There are several reasons why this assumption is not completely accurate. The project will be migrating toward the best possible digital access, but that is not the same as complete access to every newspaper in an archive. Today I’d like to examine how closely the most extensive access to Early American Newspapers mirrors what is available in the stacks at the AAS.
Recall that I previously identified these newspapers printed at some point in 1766 (from Edward Connery Lathem’s Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820) that are not available via even the AAS’s most extensive access to Early American Newspapers.
Portsmouth Mercury (last known September 29)
New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy
[Germantown] Wahre und Wahrscheinliche Begebenheiten (only known February 24)
[Wilmington] North-Carolina Gazette (last known February 26)
[Charleston] South-Carolina and American General Gazette
[Charleston] South-Carolina Gazette (suspended starting October 31, 1765; resumed June 2, 1766)
[Charleston] South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
I consulted the AAS’s online catalog and, especially, Clarence to find out if the AAS collections included these newspapers. (Clarence – named for Clarence Brigham, librarian (1908-1930) and director (1930-1959) of the AAS and author of the two-volume History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 – is a database that indicates which specific issues of early American newspapers are in the AAS collections, replicating and updating portions of Brigham’s monumental bibliography.) Here’s what I discovered:
Portsmouth Mercury: scattered issues from 1766.
New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy: weekly issues and occasional supplements through October 9.
Wahre und Wahrscheinliche Begebenheiten: photostat copy of only known issue (as indicated in the catalog record; Clarence does not specify this detail).
North-Carolina Gazette: AAS does not possess any issues.
South-Carolina and American General Gazette: scattered issues from 1768 through 1778, but none from 1766.
South-Carolina Gazette: one damaged issue from 1766 along with scattered issues from 1737, 1740, 1760, 1763, 1767, 1768, 1770, 1772, and 1774.
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal: scattered issues from 1766 as well as scattered issues from 1768 through 1775.
Based on these findings, it appears that digital access to newspapers printed in 1766 via Early American Newspapers very nearly replicates the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society. For the most part, the AAS possesses only scattered issues of the titles not included in Early American Newspapers. This is a major achievement that allows researchers to view the contents of these publications while also preserving the originals.
For the purposes of this project, a digital archive that nearly completely replicates the newspaper holdings of the AAS (at least, those printed in 1766) also streamlines the research process. Having compiled a calendar of which newspapers were printed on which dates in 1766, I can quickly scan the relevant issues when selecting an advertisement to feature on any given date. I imagine that the reading room staff at the AAS also appreciates that I am not repeatedly requesting large bound volumes of eighteenth-century newspapers that they then have to page, process, deliver to me, and later return to their designated places in the closed stacks.
On the other hand, for other sorts of projects, the research process goes much more smoothly and efficiently when I can quickly – but carefully – flip through the pages of a bound volume of newspapers, scanning for particular content. To preserve the originals, scrolling through microfilm copies serves the same purpose. When it’s necessary to examine a large number of issues published sequentially, digital access via Early American Newspapers can be slow and cumbersome by comparison. That’s not a criticism but rather recognition that digital surrogates are not always the best format for conducting research. (On the flip side, the ability to do keyword searches in Early American Newspapers can streamline the research process significantly. I’ll write more about the virtues and imperfections of keyword searching digitized newspapers some other time.)
I noted above that in the coming months this project will migrate to the best possible digital access, but that is not the same as complete access to every newspaper in an archive (although in this case it is really close). Next week I will consider the difference between access to every newspaper in an archive and access to every newspaper printed. Once again, these distinctions may seem merely academic at first glance, but I continue to maintain that researchers must be aware of the scope and limitations of their resources and we have an obligation to others who read our work to share that information.
As I consider these issues, I keep returning to two of the main arguments presented by Kenneth Carpenter (Harvard Libraries, retired) and Michael Winship (English, University of Texas – Austin) in their keynote address at the Digital Antiquarian Conference last May: (1) digital sources should be consulted as complements to, rather than replacements for, original sources and (2) be conscious of the metadata that provides the foundation for digitized sources so you know how closely digital surrogates replicate original documents.