What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be sold … by Freelove Saunders.”
In October 1768, Freelove Saunders inserted an advertisement for imported textiles, adornments, and other goods in four consecutive issues of the Newport Mercury. Commencing on October 10, the advertisement last appeared on October 31. It moved from page to page, initially appearing on the third page, then in a privileged place as the first item in the first column on the first page, and ultimately on the final page for its last two insertions. The headline, “Freelove Saunders” in a larger font with generous white space surrounding it, makes the advertisement easy to spot when looking for it in particular … at least to the human eye.
Recent technological developments have revolutionized historical research. The Adverts 250 Project, for instance, is possible due to the digitization of eighteenth-century newspapers by Accessible Archives, Colonial Williamsburg, and Readex. Colonial Williamsburg photographed and digitized newspapers from its own collections, but Accessible Archives and Readex partnered with research libraries in their efforts to make historical sources more widely accessible (by creating a product, it should be acknowledged, to market and sell to scholars, educators, and their institutions). In addition to images of primary sources, many databases also feature other tools, including the ability to search texts for keywords.
Such searches, however, must be deployed carefully. Say that in examining the October 10, 1768, edition of the Newport Mercury I encounter the advertisement placed by Freelove Saunders 250 years ago and that I want to know more about its publication history. I have sufficient information to pursue a keyword search in Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. Limiting the year to 1768 and the newspapers to the Newport Mercury, I choose “Freelove” as the only search term. The results return only the insertion in the October 24 issue. The search returns the same results when substituting “Saunders” for the keyword. Choosing the phrase “Freelove Saunders” instead yields zero instances of the advertisement. These results run counter to the historical record, something I already know because examining the advertisement in the digitized October 10 edition first prompted me to conduct the subsequent searches. Page-by-page examination of all issues of the Newport Mercury published in October and November 1768 reveals that Freelove Saunders did insert the same advertisement for four consecutive weeks before discontinuing it.
OCR (optical character recognition) oftentimes streamlines the research process. Using it can be much more efficient than skimming through either original or digitized copies of primary sources. Yet OCR is also fallible, though in different ways than the naked human eye. From long experience working on the Adverts 250 Project and using digitized sources for other research endeavors, I have learned that OCR often overlooks text that I already know exists because I have a hard copy sitting right next to the computer. Sometimes this is merely frustrating, but it can also skew the results of an inquiry. Scholars must use OCR keyword searches cautiously. Such searches often lead to sources of interest, but they do not definitively identify all relevant sources. When an OCR keyword search does not yield any results that does not necessarily mean that there was nothing to find. Scholars should supplement such searches with other methods. Relying on keyword searches alone would have resulted in evidence of Freelove Saunders’s participation in the colonial marketplace becoming less rather than more visible in the historical record.