October 25

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

Oct 25 - 10:25:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (October 25, 1769).

“Samuel Douglass, HAS JUST IMPORTED … GOODS, suitable for this and the approaching season.”

Digital technologies, including keyword searches, often streamline the process of doing history. Keyword searches of digitized newspapers, for instance, allow historians to quickly identify items relevant to their research questions. Yet keyword searches are neither infallible nor comprehensive. They often overlook material that historians could readily identify when examining documents, both original and digital surrogates, with their own eyes.

Consider this advertisement for “A Large and Compleat ASSORTMENT of EAST-INDIA and EUROPEAN GOODS” that Samuel Douglass placed in the October 25, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Note that the advertiser’s name appears in a distinctive font as a headline. That helped to distinguish Douglass’s advertisement from others. Curious about how many times Douglass deployed this strategy, I did a keyword search via Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, the database where I encountered this particular advertisement. I restricted the date to 1769 and the publication to the Georgia Gazette. I selected “Samuel Douglass” as the keyword. The search returned nine results, but did not include this particular advertisement or any other iterations of it. Realizing that optical character recognition often has difficulty with the “long S” used frequently in the eighteenth century, I ran a second keyword search for “Samuel Douglafs.” This yielded zero results.

I knew that this particular advertisement appeared in the Georgia Gazette because I previously downloaded the issue that included it from America’s Historical Newspapers, yet the database’s own keyword search overlooked it. Finding other instances, if there were any, would require systematically viewing every page of the Georgia Gazette. Digital technology certainly made copies of that newspaper originally published in 1769 more accessible, but doing a keyword search was not more efficient. In fact, when it comes to examining a newspaper page by page, accessing each page via a database of digitized images goes much more slowly than consulting the originals. In such instances, accessibility and efficiency are a trade off. Keyword searches have become a powerful tool for historians … sometimes. Depending on the questions they wish to ask, however, sometimes traditional methods yield more results … and more quickly.

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.


[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.

November 9

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

Nov 9 - 11:9:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (November 9, 1768).

“He has moved into town, in order to carry on his business as formerly.”

When he placed an advertisement in the November 9, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette, Thomas Morgan relied on readers already possessing some familiarity with the services he offered. In its entirety, his advertisement announced, “THE subscriber gives his friends and former customers notice, that he has moved into town, in order to carry on his business as formerly, and hopes to give them satisfaction when favoured with their commands. He lives at present in the house where Mr. Garratt Allan did live. THOMAS MORGAN.” He did not even mention the type of business he operated but instead expected residents of Savannah to know his occupation. Such was the nature of life in a relatively small town in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Further investigation yields two advertisements most likely published by the same Thomas Morgan, advertisements that provided more specific information about how he earned his livelihood. Two years earlier, Morgan and Jonathan Remington stated that they had formed a partnership and proposed “carrying on the TAYLOR BUSINESS.” In an advertisement in the September 24, 1766, edition of the Georgia Gazette, they requested “the continuance of the favours of their former friends and customers, and all others who may be pleased to favour them with their commands. In another advertisement, this one placed in the July 12, 1769, edition, “MORGAN and ROCHE, Taylors,” informed the public that “they have entered into copartnership to carry on the TAYLOR BUSINESS in all its branches.”

In both of these additional advertisements, Morgan and his partner advanced more robust appeals to potential customers. In 1769 Morgan and Roche pledged that “all gentlemen may depend on being served with diligence and quick dispatch.” In 1766 Morgan and Remington proclaimed that their clients “may depend on having their work made in the genteelest and most fashionable manner, with the utmost dispatch and good attendance.” While it is impossible to know who wrote the copy for each advertisement, Morgan’s partners may have had the better instincts when it came to promoting their business in the public prints. This may have been one factor that contributed to Morgan once again entering a partnership just eight months after moving into Savannah to operate a business on his own.

When considered collectively, these advertisements tell a more complete story of Morgan’s business endeavors. Digitization of eighteenth-century newspapers has made telling that story much more viable. Formerly, identifying these advertisements would have required traveling to an archive that possessed the original issues of the Georgia Gazette or a research library that had the newspaper on microfilm, followed by hours of paging through each issue and skimming for Morgan’s name. Thanks to digitization, however, a keyword search efficiently identified advertisements placed Morgan. In Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database, I limited a search to the Georgia Gazette, set the dates for 1760 through 1775, and selected “Thomas Morgan” as the keyword. This yielded twenty-two results, many of them advertisements for runaway slaves. The others, however, elaborated on Morgan’s business activities as a tailor. An inquiry that formerly would have taken hours in an archive or research library took only minutes with a keyword search of digitized primary sources.

October 10

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

Oct 10 - 10:10:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (October 10, 1768).

“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.

August 26

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

Aug 26 - 8:26:1767 Photo Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 26, 1767).

“INGLIS and HALL have just imported …”

Inglis and Hall were among the most frequent advertisers of consumer goods in the Georgia Gazette in 1767. Their multiple advertisements, however, remain hidden when relying on certain technologies, especially keyword searches in online databases, to uncover them.

Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database makes the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project possible. In many ways, it is an invaluable resource, but no database is perfect. Current technologies, as cutting edge as they may be compared to previous methods of conducting historical research, sometimes constrain or skew the process. In some instances, for example, keyword searches of newspapers uncover far fewer results than examining individual issues page by page, column by column, in chronological order. Inglis and Hall’s advertisement makes for an interesting case study.

As part of the research process for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, I download a copy of every American newspaper published 250 years ago that day. This already requires a clarification: I only download those that have been digitized. Some are not yet available in digital format for online consultation; others have not survived into the twenty-first century and will never be available for consultation, neither original copies nor digital surrogates.

The most efficient way to download this material from America’s Historical Newspapers involves downloading an entire issue all at once. This process results in a multipage PDF of the newspaper. It transforms the digital photo seen in the online database into a format that can sometimes be more difficult to read. Note how the photo of Inglis and Hall’s advertisement above differs from the PDF rendering below. It is possible to download photos of individual pages. Given that most newspapers were four pages, but many were six when they included an advertising supplement, this method would take at least four times as long. For the purposes of this project, it is not practical to download photos rather than PDFs of the newspapers.

Aug 26 - 8:26:1767 PDF Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 26, 1767).

Next I print hard copies of every page of every newspaper so I can mark on them and more easily consult them than if they remained strictly in digital format. Despite the comparatively poor visual quality of the PDF version, once I have printed hard copies I can work back and forth between the PDF and the more clear (but not always crisp) photos in the database when necessary.

In the case of Inglis and Hall’s advertisement, I can make out what it says in the PDF version, but I consider the photo easier to read (and more attractive and accessible for readers of the Adverts 250 Project). Still, I have to work at decoding the advertisement. Given that this takes me some effort, imagine how confusing it must be for OCR software. In fact, OCR cannot accurately read Inglis and Hall’s advertisement, not even the slightly clearer photo.

I assumed that would be the case. To test my suspicions I ran a keyword search for Inglis and Hall, limiting the year to 1767. The database turned up only two instances of Inglis and Hall advertising in the Georgia Gazette in 1767. One appeared in the January 21 issue. The database also flagged an earlier iteration of today’s advertisement in the August 19 issue, one that was much easier to read. The keyword search did not, however, identify the August 26 advertisement, yet I knew it existed because I had a hard copy originally drawn from the database sitting next to my computer. I also knew from experience reading the Georgia Gazette that Inglis and Hall advertised more than twice in 1767.

Aug 26 - 8:19:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 19, 1767).

This means that there are certain questions that keyword searches cannot address given current technological constraints. For instance: How frequently did Inglis and Hall advertise in the 1760s? Determining the answer to that question requires an older method of research, examining the newspaper page by page. The online database certainly facilitates that process, eliminating the need to consult original copies of the Georgia Gazette in archives, yet the keyword search does not always eliminate portions of the research process it was intended to streamline. Researchers cannot depend on keyword searches to be exhaustive.

As an historian, I regularly consult original copies of newspapers at the American Antiquarian Society and other archives, microfilms of newspapers, digital surrogates in databases like Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, and hard copies that I have generated from my own photos and the materials available via databases. Each of these formats is unique and has its virtues, as well as its shortcomings. None of them replaces the others. Instead, historians must recognize the limitations and devise strategies for effectively and efficiently utilizing the various resources available to them.