June 7

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

Jun 7 - 6:7:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (June 7, 1769).

SOLOMON SOLOMONS … A fmall Affortment of JEWELERY.”

Earlier this week NPR commentator Cokie Roberts caused quite a hullabaloo when she suggested that historians had significantly inflated the frequency of advertisements for abortion providers that appeared in nineteenth-century newspapers. Roberts stated, “There are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of nineteenth-century newspapers and couldn’t find them.”[1] Historians quickly responded via Twitter, with Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, a specialist in the history of medicine, public health, and the law, in the forefront with a tweet thread that corrected the record.

In addition to addressing content, historians representing various other fields within the discipline addressed the flaws in Roberts’s methodology. Roberts, a pundit rather than a trained historian, apparently did not realize that the absence of results generated by keyword searches does not mean that the historical evidence was not there. Like many of my colleagues, I pointed out two relevant issues. Both are so fundamental that I discuss them with undergraduate students in introductory and upper-level history courses on the first day that we begin working with databases of historical newspapers.

First, keyword searches have many shortcomings, especially because OCR (optical character recognition) is so imperfect. I explain to my students that computers are often, for lack of a better word, stupid. They do not always recognize or make sense of visual images (photographs or digital scans of historical sources) as effectively as people do. Computer software lacks the necessary creativity and flexibility. This is especially true when working with eighteenth-century printed sources that use the long “s” that looks like an “f” to twenty-first-century eyes. What human readers recognize as “Assortment,” for instance, looks like “Affortment” via OCR. (See Solomon Solomons’s advertisement from the June 7, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette.) Yet the long “s” is not the only pitfall for OCR. If the original printed words were not clear or subsequent remediation (photographs, microfilm, digital scans) was poorly done, then OCR has no chance of decoding the words on the page.

Second, when doing historical research it is necessary to think like the people from the period, especially to use the words they would have used rather than impose modern terminology. Context matters. Roberts, lacking an historian’s understanding of the period she investigated, apparently did not choose her keywords carefully or appropriately. When I train my undergraduate students to serve as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, I underscore that they must look for words beyond just “slave” (and that they have to examine every advertisement because keyword searches will exclude MANY advertisements that belong in the project). In addition to “slave,” they must also keep their eyes open for “negro,” “mulatto,” and “wench,” some of the words most often used to describe enslaved men, women, and children even when the word “slave” did not appear in an advertisement.

To demonstrate the shortcomings of keyword searches, I like to provide a practical example of an advertisement that I know exists yet a keyword search will not produce. Consider an advertisement from the June 7, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. I previously downloaded the entire issue via Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. I know that it contains an advertisement for jewelry placed by Solomon Solomons. Say that I want to know the extent of Solomons’s advertising campaign in 1769. Doing a keyword search with his last name would be a good place to start. To make the search as efficient as possible, I set several parameters. I limit the date under consideration to 1769. I restrict the newspapers to be searched to the Georgia Gazette. Then I enter “Solomons” as the keyword. This yields only two results: Solomons’s advertisement when it appeared in the May 24 and May 31 editions, but not the June 7 edition. This certainly tells me more about the frequency that Solomons advertised, but it did not yield an advertisement that I already knew existed! The digitized image of the advertisement is fairly clear (especially compared to many others), yet it appears that just enough ink bled through from the other side of the page to trick the OCR into overlooking this advertisement when doing a keyword search for “Solomons.”

This particular instance is not as “fraught,” to invoke Roberts’s term, as advertisements placed by abortion providers in the nineteenth century, but it is a practical example of how technology cannot substitute for historical expertise and appropriate methodologies for conducting research with primary sources. As many other historians have done in recent days, I encourage reporters and pundits to call on trained historians rather than make misleading assertions based on incomplete understandings of the past and shoddy research methods.

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[1] This quotation comes from Thompson’s tweet thread. NPR has updated the original audio and transcript to excise Robert’s incorrect and misleading assertions.

April 20

GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff

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

Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 20, 1769).

LOST … A Stone Sleeve Button with a red Cypher set in Gold.”

On April 20, 1769, the Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter contained this advertisement for a lost “Stone Sleeve Button with a red Cypher set in Gold, and with a gold Chain.” I was interested in this piece of jewelry. According to Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee, “Although carelessness, loss by theft, and general wear and tear have taken a heavy toll on colonial jewelry so that comparatively small amount is still extant, portraits of well-to-do citizens and their families from Puritan-founded New England to South Carolina and newspaper advertisements of colonial goldsmiths show that jewelry of all sorts was in high favor. In fact, it was a natural accessory to the elaborate satin and brocaded costumes affected by both men and women of substance and social standing.” Who made the jewelry that colonists owned? “Some of this jewelry was imported; much was made by the various gold and silversmiths of the colonies.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

For the purposes of this project, Matt selected an especially interesting source to support his analysis of today’s featured advertisement. In a “Flashback” article published online in March 2009, Collectors Weekly republished Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee’s two-part series on “Colonial Americans and Their Jewelry” originally published in the March and April 1941 issues of American Collector magazine. As the twenty-first-century editors explain, “This article discusses the various types of fine jewelry that was popular among 18th-century Americans, using advertisements written by jewelers and notices written by Americans who had lost previous pieces as examples.” The advertisements for the lost “Stone Sleeve Button with a red Cypher set in Gold, and with a gold Chain” falls in the latter category. Matt selected an article that demonstrates how multiple advertisements can provide a revealing overview of the history of a particular product in early America when considered collectively.

That article also references other sorts of advertisements from eighteenth-century newspapers. Ormsbee declares that items created and sold by jewelers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths were “evidently as tempting to the ‘have-nots’ of that time as [they are] today, for news items about robberies were fairly numerous.” He then tells the story of a Boston goldsmith who inserted an advertisement in the March 21, 1765, edition of the Boston News-Letter to list the jewelry stolen from his shop and offer a reward. The Boston-Gazette later reported that the thief had been caught and punished with “40 stripes at the public Whipping Post,” but did not indicate whether the goldsmith recovered his merchandise. Although the anonymous colonist who placed today’s featured advertisement described the jewelry as “LOST” rather than stolen, he or she did worry that anyone who found it might attempt to sell it rather than return it to its rightful owner. “If offer’d to Sale,” the advertiser pleaded, “it is desired it may be stop’d.” In other words, confiscate the jewelry and inform the printer to contact the advertiser that the lost jewelry had been recovered.

Ormsbee’s two-part series about eighteenth-century advertisements for jewelry is a lively read that includes images of both jewelry and portraits of colonists wearing their precious possessions. Alas, the article does not include images of the advertisements, privileging images of material culture over the print culture that provides important context for understanding the significance of jewelry in colonial American commerce and culture.

March 4

GUEST CURATOR:  Trevor Delp

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

Mar 4 - 3:3:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (March 3, 1766).

“Making or mending any Kind of Diamond or enameled Work.”

Charles Oliver Bruff’s advertisement offers a wide variety of popular jewelry to be made and mended. Jewelry made between 1714 and 1847 comes from the Georgian Era. It is important to note that jewelry was not made the same way it is today. According to the International Gem Society, the process was far more labor-intensive. Gold and metal ingots needed to be rolled into thin sheets before they could be formed into the popular styles of the time.

Bruff chose to market a variety of popular merchandise, but one that is specifically interesting is pinchbeck buckles. Pinchbeck was a material commonly used that looks like gold but is much more affordable. Oliver’s choice to advertise this along with more expensive jewelry is interesting because it shows that he was trying to appeal to people of many different economic backgrounds. Jewelry was primarily a luxury of the elite society, but Oliver’s advertisement alludes to the inclusion of customers from other economic statuses.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Of all the possible items in Bruff’s advertisement that Trevor chose to investigate, he selected pinchbeck buckles. That, in turn, led me to a fascinating discovery when I clicked the hyperlink to a dictionary definition of “pinchbeck” that he included to accompany his commentary for today. The first entry refers explicitly to “the Jewellery Way” (as Bruff put it): “an alloy of copper and zinc used especially to imitate gold in jewelry.”

A second entry, however, indicates that “pinchbeck” could also mean “something counterfeit or spurious.” It seems unlikely that Bruff intended to suggest that his buckles should be considered inferior in any way, but colonial consumers would have known that pinchbeck buckles were made of something other than gold (especially since Bruff promised to sell them “cheap by the dozen”).

A variety of scholars – including those who study consumer culture, material culture, manners, and reputation – have argued that assessing the dress and comportment of others became a cultural preoccupation in the eighteenth century. Especially as greater numbers of people of diverse statuses possessed an increasing array of goods as the consumer revolution progressed, colonists attempted to distinguish the truly genteel from those who merely simulated gentility. Colonists carefully observed each other to see if inner character matched an individual’s outward appearance.

In that context, pinchbeck buckles potentially presented a bit of a conundrum. What did it say about someone who wore accoutrements that looked like gold all while knowing that the appearance of the more costly metal misrepresented the true nature of the alloy that was actually used? Could that be interpreted as a reflection on one’s own character? Social mobility was fraught with such dilemmas in the eighteenth century.