What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Henry Steerman and Jonathan Remington, TAYLORS and PARTNERS.”
The advertisement placed by Henry Steerman and Jonathan Remington, as well as all of the other advertisements on the same page of the October 14, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette, creates a bit of a mystery for modern historian who consult databases of digitized newspapers to conduct their research. These advertisements appeared on the fifth page of that issue.
Why would this be a mystery? Most newspapers published in 1767 followed a standard format: four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half. Occasionally printers issued a supplement, either two (using half a broadsheet) or four pages (using an entire additional broadsheet). Usually these supplements had their own masthead that identified them as supplements, though sometimes they were inserted in the center of the newspaper without additional identification. Due to the scarcity of paper, printers carefully filled both sides of any supplement with news items, advertisements, or both, leaving no empty space. If they did not have enough material to issue an even number of pages – four, six, or eight – they inserted notes indicating that news items would be continued in the next issue or advertisements omitted would be in the next.
The Georgia Gazette rarely issued a supplement. The layout sometimes suggested that the printer had difficulty even filling four pages. On such occasions the advertisements featured generous amounts of white space in order to occupy as much space on the page as possible. That Steerman and Remington’s advertisement, along with twenty others, appeared on the fifth page of the Georgia Gazette was out of the ordinary. What was perplexing to this historian, however, was the absence of a sixth page in the database of digitized newspapers. It would have been extraordinary for the printer not to print on both sides of the sheet, yet the sixth page seemed to be missing. Even more curious, the fifth page did not have a masthead that identified it as a supplement. Had Steerman and Remington’s advertisement actually appeared on the fifth page? Or was it on the sixth page and the fifth page, for whatever reason, was missing from the database?
These questions could not be answered merely by examining the digital surrogates. I found definitive confirmation only when I visited the American Antiquarian Society to examine the original issue of the Georgia Gazette that had been photographed and later digitized by Readex. To my surprise, the October 14, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette did indeed consist of only five pages. More accurately, it consisted of five printed pages and a blank sixth page, but this was not at all evident from the database. It did not include a photograph of the blank sixth page to provide context and a complete record for researchers.
This points to two lessons when it comes to the creation and use of digital surrogates in historical research. First, digital surrogates should be used in addition to, rather than instead of, original sources. Digital surrogates are valuable resources that have made original documents much more accessible to historians, other scholars, and the general public, but sometimes they hide elements of the past rather than reveal them. They must be consulted with caution and with knowledge of what kinds of questions to also ask about original documents in order not to be misled by digitized ones.
Second, the example of the October 14, 1767, issue of the Georgia Gazette underscores the necessity of content providers, like Readex, consulting with librarians, archivists, historians, and other scholars who are familiar with the original sources and the most likely users of digital surrogates when designing and implementing databases. To a layperson unfamiliar with eighteenth-century newspapers it seemed unnecessary, wasteful, and perhaps even confusing to include a photo of a blank page of a newspaper. To someone who works with eighteenth-century newspapers, both original and digital surrogates, every day, the absence of a blank page in the database actually created confusion that could have been avoided.
Consulting the original issue of the October 14, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette cleared up the mystery about its original format, yet another mystery remains, one that will be much harder to solve. Given the scarcity of paper, why did the printer issue an additional halfsheet printed on only one side?