May 25

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

May 25 - 5:25:1770 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (May 25, 1770).

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.

July 7

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

Jul 7 - 7:7:1769 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (July 7, 1769).

“Hugh Glassford … now carries on his Business, at Glen and Gregory’s.”

Moving to a new location prompted Hugh Glassford, a leather breeches and glove maker in New Haven, to place an advertisement in the Connecticut Journal in the summer of 1769. Glassford stated that he resided with Mr. Beers for the past year, but he “now carries on his Business, at Glen and Gregory’s.” He reported that he served customers “much to their Satisfaction” at his former location, suggesting that he would offer the same quality of service at his new location. It does not appear that Glassford inserted an advertisement in the local newspaper when he first arrived in New Haven. He likely engaged customers via word of mouth. After building a clientele for his leather breeches and gloves and cultivating a reputation in the town and beyond, however, he likely considered an advertisement worth the investment. Advising the public of his new location would help Glassford retain current customers as well as encourage new ones to seek out his services.

To quickly discover if Glassford had previously advertised, I did a keyword for his last name in all 2752 issues of the Connecticut Journal, spanning dates from October 23, 1767 to December 26, 1820, available in America’s Historical Newspapers database. That search yielded zero results, but that did not surprise me since I had searched for the breeches and glove maker’s name as I read it – Glassford – rather than as optical character recognition software would interpret it – Glafsford. As a person with experience working with eighteenth-century newspapers, I possess knowledge and creativity that the software lacks. I easily recognize the long s commonly used in the eighteenth century and effortlessly translate “Glafsford” into “Glassford.” The database’s OCR does not.

Armed with that knowledge, I did a second keyword search, this time for “Glafsford.” It yielded five results, all of them for the advertisement Glassford ran in the summer of 1769. According to the keyword search, his notice appeared five times: June 30, July 7, 14, and 28, and August 25. In order to produce these results, I had to adopt a methodology that tricked the software into doing what I needed. This is a valuable lesson that I pass along to students when we work with primary sources. Beyond our usual manner of thinking, we also have to think like people from the era we are investigating and think like the tools we deploy in doing our work. For the latter, sometimes that means thinking about how a cataloger might have organized a collection of documents, but other times it means thinking about the shortcomings of optical character recognition.