May 4

GUEST CURATOR: Tyler Reid

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

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (May 4, 1772).

“Be cautious, there are many … counterfeit watches … so bad they cannot be rendered useful.”

John Simnet, a clock- and watchmaker, created this advertisement.  It displays a competitive market in 1772. Simnet emphasizes his “Term of Apprenticeship to Mr. Webster, Exchange Alley, London.”  He thought that his qualifications mattered.  He also mentioned his expertise in cleaning watches and fitting glasses. These skills mattered.  In an article about clocks and clockmakers in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, Michelle Smiley states that clockmaking “was considered an intellectual profession requiring great artisanal skill and scientific knowledge.”  In addition, “the mathematical precision and mechanical intricacy of the profession put it at a superior rank to the crafts of blacksmithing and carpentry.”  In his advertisement, Simnet had a big ego about his skill and knowledge, especially being trained in England and voyaging to the colonies.  He also complained about “counterfeit Watches … so bad they cannot be rendered useful.”  He believed that colonists should be careful when buying watches from others because they might end up receiving broken merchandise.  He wanted customers to think of him as reliable, as someone who sold only good watches that worked well.  According to his advertisements, they could trust him because of his training in England.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

When students in my classes submit their proposed advertisements for approval before moving to the research and writing phases of contributing the Adverts 250 Project, I often recognize the advertisers because I have already perused the newspapers to identify which notices belong in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  I did not simply recognize the advertiser that Tyler selected for his entry.  Instead, John Simnet has become very familiar to me over the past three years as I have traced his advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette in 1769 and 1770 and then in newspapers published in New York in the early 1770s.  I consider Simnet the most notorious of the advertisers featured on the Adverts 250 Project because he regularly disseminated negative advertisements that demeaned his competitors as much as they promoted his own skill, expertise, training, and experience.  In both Portsmouth and New York, he participated in bitter feuds with competitors in the public prints, sometimes demeaning character as well as their abilities.

Tyler was not yet familiar with Simnet when he selected this advertisement, one of several variations that Simnet published in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Journal in the spring of 1772.  He chose it because the headline for “WATCHES” caught his interest.  He wanted to learn more about clock- and watchmakers in early America.  This presented an opportunity for me to once again dovetail my teaching and my research, a pedagogical moment that could not be planned in advance when inviting students to select any advertisements they wished to feature.  They usually focus on a single advertisement, an appropriate approach for students working this intensively with primary sources for the first time.  They make all sorts of connections between their advertisements and commerce, politics, and daily life in eighteenth-century America.  Yet we have fewer opportunities to examine the advertisers and their marketing campaigns.  When Tyler chose Simnet’s advertisement from among the hundreds that he might have selected from the first week of May 1772, that gave all the students in my Revolutionary America class a chance to hear more about the clock- and watchmaker’s long history of placing cantankerous advertisements that deviated from the norms of the period.  This context better humanized Simnet, even if it did not make him particularly likeable.  Each advertisement represents a snapshot of a particular moment in the past, but I also underscored the value of examining multiple advertisements, placed over weeks or even years, as a means of constructing an even more robust understanding of the experiences of the advertisers and their world.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Lizzie Peterson

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

Postscript to the Censor (April 18, 1772).

“WOOL and TOW CARDS.”

While examining advertisements to research for this project, this one about wool and tow cards caught my eye, I wanted to learn about what “cards” and “carding” meant in early America.  According to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” women participated in “the endless work of carding, combing, spinning, reeling, doubling, dyeing, bleaching, spooling, warping, and weaving,” suggesting that “cards” and “carding” had something to do with preparing textiles, since all of the of the other verbs deal with preparing textiles or making clothes.[1]

I learned that the term “card” is not a type of card we know today like a greeting card or playing card. “Cards” and “carding” during the eighteenth century referred to the tool and process people used to spin and prepare textiles. Wool and tow are both types of fibers made into textiles. Tow comes from flax or hemp and wool is hair from animals, particularly sheep.  According to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, “The carding process is part of preparing will for spinning into yarn. Wool is brushed between two hand carders to align fibers in the same direction.”  Ulrich points out that women did this work.

Eighteenth-century wool card. Courtesy National Museum of American History.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Colonizers knew exactly what James Longden sold when they saw his advertisement for “ALL SORTS OF WOOL and TOW CARDS” in the Postscript to the Censor in the spring of 1772.  They knew the intended purpose of wool and tow cards.  Most had probably used cards themselves or observed others using them.  Colonizers encountered wool and tow cards as they went about their daily lives.  What were once such familiar items prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, no longer remain so familiar to most people, including students in my Revolutionary America classes.  That is why I do not assign advertisements to them when they serve as guest curators but instead instruct them to choose advertisements that look interesting to them.  I especially encourage them to find advertisements that confuse them because they do not know what kinds of products were being sold.  They then have to do the detective work, the historical research, to make meaning of their advertisements.  Throughout the process, we have conversations that further enhance their understanding of the historical context.

Lizzie did an exemplary job in selecting an advertisement and doing the research to understand it, even locating a photo of an eighteenth-century wool card similar to those advertised by Longden.  This certainly enhanced discussions from class, especially our focus on how women participated in politics during the era of the American Revolution even though they could not vote or hold office.  In particular, we examined women’s roles as producers and consumers.  We discussed spinning bees as public rituals as well as less visible labor that took place within households as women made homespun garments as alternatives to imported goods.  Colonizers acknowledged that women fulfilled their patriotic duty through their everyday labors.  In addition, women participated in politics through the decisions they made as consumers, especially when nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements were in effect.  Longden offered women wool and tow cards “made in this Province,” promising that they were “as cheap, or cheaper than can be imported” as well as “equal to any in Great-Britain.”  The politics of purchasing and using wool and tow cards made by Longden, however, remained just a little bit more abstract without knowing the purpose of those items.  As a result of Lizzie’s choice of advertisement, she and her classmates gained a better understanding of both women’s domestic labor and how women participated in politics.

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[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 55, no. 1 (January 1998): 20.

March 17

GUEST CURATOR:  Matthew Holbrook

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

Essex Gazette (March 17, 1772).

“A large ASSORTMENT of Hard-Ware GOODS.”

I found that this advertisement interesting because Jacob Ashton owned a shop in Salem, Massachusetts, about 50 miles from my hometown. I connected with this advertisement because my grandfather was a carpenter who owned a small shop and sold similar materials. Jacob Ashton sold a wide variety of hardware and other goods, including nails, case knives, hammers, teaspoons and tablespoons, frying pans, knitting needles, gun powder, cinnamon, brass clocks, and just about anything in between.

In the “Meet the Carpenter” podcast from Colonial Williamsburg, master carpenter Garlin Wood explains what it was like to be a carpenter during the era of the American Revolution. In particular, he describes the differences between different woodworkers. A carpenter focused on the construction of the timber frame. A joiner used similar tools as a carpenter but focused on the finishing of the house, such as panel doors and paneling. A cabinetmaker focused on constructing furniture that belonged inside the house. Garlin describes the importance that carpenters and other woodworkers had in early America. In Colonial Williamsburg, then and now, carpenters built everything by hand and used tools such as chisels and mallets. According to Garlin, many carpenters in early America were savvy businessmen who used their trade to move into the gentry. When it comes to his work as a carpenter, he likes the idea of putting a roof over other people’s heads.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

When I invite students enrolled in my classes to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project, I am always interested in which advertisements they choose to feature and which aspects of those advertisements they choose to examine in greater detail.  I appreciate that they select advertisements that I might have otherwise overlooked, that they investigate aspects that did not initially resonate for me and, in the process, demonstrate the significance of something that I might have otherwise dismissed, and that they identify a range of sources about early American history.  As guest curators, my students are junior colleagues who help me to continue learning and asking new questions about familiar sources even as I engage in mentoring and teaching them.

That was the case when working with Matt on this entry.  In his absence, I would have chosen a different advertisement in the Essex Gazette, one in which Abraham Cornish offered a guarantee on the fishhooks he made in Boston and pledged to provide two new hooks for each one found defective.  In his role as guest curator, however, Matt determined which advertisement he wanted to examine … and then demonstrated why his choice was just as sound as the one I would have made.  If I had chosen to analyze Ashton’s advertisement for “Hard-Ware GOODS,” I would have focused primarily on the range of choices he offered to consumers and the low prices that he promised.  Matt, inspired by his grandfather, instead opted to examine the kinds of work undertaken by the customers who purchased many of the items listed in Ashton’s advertisement.  He identified the various roles of woodworkers in early America, outlining the contributions of carpenters, joiners, and cabinetmakers.  To do so, he sought information from a public historian who interprets the past through re-creating the experiences of eighteenth-century carpenters at Colonial Williamsburg.  In working on a digital humanities project for his college course about the era of the American Revolution, Matt consulted the expertise of a public historian, demonstrating that no one kind of historian has a monopoly on knowledge about the past.  Matt’s experience as a guest curator, the many ways in which his contribution enhances the Adverts 250 Project, underscores why I believe it is so important to incorporate my own research and digital humanities projects into the classes I teach.

February 28

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

Connecticut Journal (February 28, 1772).

“Advertisements.”

Among the many primary sources that I incorporate into my classes about early American history, eighteenth-century newspapers are among my favorites.  Despite the decline of print editions of newspapers in the internet age, students still have expectations about what a newspaper looks like and how it should be organized.  Working with eighteenth-century newspapers gives us many opportunities to identify change over time.

We consult digitized copies of newspapers via several databases.  Students quickly discover that colonial printers distributed new editions only once a week, not daily.  Printers chose which day of the week to publish their own newspapers, most of them opting for Mondays or Thursdays, but none of them published newspapers on Sundays.  The Sunday edition celebrated today did not exist in early America.

Moving beyond the calendar of publication to the newspapers themselves, students learn that the standard issue for most newspapers consisted of only four pages produced by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  On occasion, some printers also distributed supplements or extraordinaries, but for the most part subscribers received only four pages of news and other content each week.

Upon examining the contents, students express surprise over the organization and lack of headlines for most news articles.  In modern newspapers, advertisements usually do not appear on the front page, but that was common practice in eighteenth-century newspapers.  Consider the February 28 edition of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy.  Immediately below the masthead, a header for “Advertisements” announced what sort of content appeared in that column.

The header itself was relatively unique; running advertisements on the first page was not.  Indeed, some printers filled the entire front page with advertising.  The production process played a role in that decision.  In order to create a four-page issue out of a single broadsheet, printers first printed the front and back pages on one side of the sheet.  After the ink dried, they printed the second and third pages on the other side of the sheet.  They saved the second and third pages for the most current news.  That meant they first printed advertisements, many of them with type already set because they ran in previous issues.

In the eighteenth century, readers knew to open their newspapers to the second and third pages to find the most current news.  Doing so seems quite foreign and counterintuitive to students accustomed to the appearance and organization of print editions of newspapers in the twenty-first century.  Discovering this on their own provides valuable opportunities to critically engage with primary sources, examining not only their format but also the production process and how readers engaged with newspapers as material texts.

February 13

GUEST CURATOR: Dillon Escandon

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (February 13, 1772).

“BOOKS … which have just been received in the Paoli, Capt, Cazneau.”

This advertisement struck me particularly because I have always been curious about what kinds of books people read during the era of the American Revolution. Henry Knox listed books of divinity, surgery, sea books, and bibles. The source of the books also caught my attention. Many of the books were recently shipped in the Paoli by Captain Cazneau.

I wanted to learn more about the people mentioned in this advertisement, Henry Knox and Captain Cazneau. I learned that Henry Knox lived in Boston and worked as a bookseller before joining the Continental Army and participating in the siege of Boston. He ultimately became a member of George Washington’s cabinet as the first Secretary of War for the United States.  I did not locate as much information about Captain Cazneau.  In my research, I found a letter from June 8, 1780, written by Thomas Digges to John Adams that mentioned a “Capt. Cazneau” and a voyage to Ireland during the American Revolution.  Cazneau delivered “four Louis D’ors” to Digges to pay one of Adams’s debts.  I did not find out as much about his role in the American Revolution as I did about Henry Knox.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

I often tell my students that being an historian is similar to being a detective.  Reconstructing the past requires searching for clues in a variety of places, both primary sources and secondary sources.  Especially when consulting primary sources, historians sift through many, many items to determine which provide helpful clues and which do not.  It is a laborious and time-consuming process.  In the end, we do not always uncover all the clues that we want or need to offer a complete explanation of what happened.

Dillon had that experience in his effort to learn more about the people mentioned in the advertisement he selected.  When he embarked on his research, he consulted both primary sources and secondary sources, distinguishing his approach from the work undertaken by most students in my Revolutionary America class working on their own contributions to the Adverts 250 Project.  Working with eighteenth-century newspapers gave them an opportunity to consult primary sources from the era of the American Revolution.  After selecting their advertisements, each student needed to identify at least one additional source that helped them provide historical context as they explained what we might learn about the past from newspaper advertisements.  In most instances, students chose secondary sources to aid in analyzing their advertisements.  That presented many opportunities for discussing what constituted authoritative and reliable sources.

When Dillon went in search of primary sources, his research prompted a different conversation about the challenges of “doing” history.  He found a reference in a letter to John Adams to a “Capt. Cazneau” that might have been the same “Captain Cazneau” in Henry Knox’s advertisement published nearly a decade earlier.  Dillon identified a tantalizing clue, but one that requires much more research and consulting many more documents than the scope of the project assigned to him for my Revolutionary America class.  In this instance, I did not expect him to tell a complete story about Cazneau’s life and career.  Instead, I considered it valuable for him to have the experience of doing some of that detective work required of historians in order to gain greater appreciation for the research, writing, and revising that goes into crafting the narratives in secondary sources we read and discussed throughout the semester.

February 4

GUEST CURATOR: Alex Devolve

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

Connecticut Courant (February 4, 1772).

“Wanted Immediately, a number of settlers, to remove and settle … in New Hampshire.”

I have chosen an advertisement about settling a town called Relham in New Hampshire. The reason I chose this advertisement is because the idea of settling and expanding within and outside of the colonial borders was not only part of colonial dreams in the eighteenth century, but was similar to Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century.

According to the Office of the Historian of the Foreign Service Institute of the United States Department of State, “The settlement of the lands west of the Appalachians brought inevitable tension and conflict between settlers and indigenous peoples” during the years prior to the American Revolution. Colonists’ hopes for expansion seemed to end after the French and Indian War due to the Proclamation Line of 1763, put in place in response to Pontiac’s Rebellion. This move was one of many that sent colonists into a rebellious state.  They believed they were deprived of lands promised to them and that many had died for in the French and Indian War. The colonists’ felt their own interests were not being recognized by Britain. Even in places already settled by colonists, such as New Hampshire, they wanted their own land and opportunities.

This advertisement made me think about how important land was to colonists … and how their desire to create settlements had an impact on the events of the American Revolution and long after, impacting millions of lives.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

When they enter my Revolutionary America class, most students attribute the cause of the Revolution to “taxation without representation” and events like the Boston Massacre.  That gives us a chance to discuss how that narrative tells an incomplete story, one that largely leaves out Indigenous peoples and the territories that Britain gained in the Seven Years War.  As Alex notes, many colonizers, including land speculators, had their sights on territory previously claimed by the French.  Neither the British government nor the colonizers, however, took into account the wishes of Indigenous peoples who already inhabited the region.  That prompted an uprising, Pontiac’s War.  Pontiac and his Indigenous allies captured most British forts in the Great Lakes, but not key outposts like Detroit.  The uprising ultimately collapsed, but it convinced the British to establish the Proclamation Line in hopes that forbidding westward expansion would prevent further turmoil in the region.  Colonizers promptly ignored the Proclamation Line, except to add it to a list of grievances that spurred them to declare independence.

Starting our examination of the era of the American Revolution with the outcome of the Seven Years War and the repercussions of Pontiac’s War makes sense chronologically, but, more significantly, it also introduces settler colonialism as an important theme for understanding the founding of the nation.  As we consider events from 1763 to 1815 – before, during, and after the Revolution – we assess the extent that European colonizers and, later, American citizens sought to displace Indigenous Americans.  This requires broadening the geographic scope of traditional narratives of the American Revolution.  We do not focus solely on events in the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast. To aid in that endeavor, we work our way through Tiya Miles’s The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.  Miles tells the story of Detroit and the Great Lakes between 1760 and 1815, allowing us to move back and forth between the coast and the interior.  She carefully recovers and incorporates the experiences of Indigenous people, enslaved and free, and Black people, enslaved and free, as well as French and English colonizers and American citizens.  As my students and I discuss the political philosophy and the grievances against the king in the Declaration of Independence or the events that caused the War of 1812, often considered a second war for independence, we take into account settler colonialism within the thirteen colonies that became a new nation and in territories coveted and claimed by those colonizers and that nation.

Alex selected an advertisement that contributed to those discussions.  Settler colonialism continued within the colonies in the early 1770s as colonizers responded to advertisements about “remarkable rich” land, moving from Connecticut to what would have been considered a frontier in New Hampshire.  This advertisement in the Connecticut Courantproclaimed that “inhabitants are removing fast from this and the other colonies” to settle towns and possess land in territory already claimed by colonies.  Examining settler colonialism during the era of the American Revolution helps us achieve a better understanding of the past than we achieve if we just retell the familiar story of “taxation without representation” and the Boston Massacre.

August 12

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week (or last week)?

Aug 12 - 8:2:1770 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (August 2, 1770).

“The Price of FLOUR.”

The new semester will soon begin.  With it, undergraduate students will once again make contributions to the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  That work gives them experience working in digital archives.  As every historian knows, the archives, including digital archives, sometimes present mysteries to be solved and problems to figure out.  That is one of my favorite parts of working with undergraduates on these digital humanities projects:  they develop sufficient familiarity with digital archives that they recognize inconsistencies in how information is presented and then investigate how to explain or resolve those inconsistencies.

Such is the case with the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette available via Accessible Archives.  Before looking at that issue more closely, I believe that it is important to acknowledge that the inconsistencies present in the digital presentation of this newspaper are the result of the sort of human error that makes its way into any cataloging project.  Yet archivists, catalogers, and others who work in the archives or contribute to the production of digital archives are not alone in introducing errors into the presentation, organization, and citation of historical sources.  Historians and other scholars who rely on the careful work done by archivists make their own errors that they then have to unravel, often with the help of archivists who generously lend their own expertise.  Throughout the production of the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, for instance, I gather significant numbers of digitized primary sources from multiple databases and attempt to impose order on them with consistent filename conventions.  However, no matter how carefully I go about collecting and organizing these materials, I sometimes introduce mistakes through simple human error.  That being the case, the examination of the South-Carolina Gazette that follows is not intended as an indictment of the work done by archivists and others in making that newspaper accessible to readers, but instead a celebration of the occasional quirkiness of the archive.  This is an example of a mini-mystery easily solved and resolved, even by novice researchers who are having their first experiences in the (digitized) archive.

Accessible Archives’s digitized representation of the August 9, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette consists of nine pages.  In and of itself, that should raise a red flag for anyone with rudimentary familiarity with eighteenth-century newspapers.  Most consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  When printers issued supplements, some had six or eight pages, but, in general, newspapers tended to have an even number of pages.  Printers did not usually leave any space blank by circulating supplements printed on only one side.  So, the nine pages in the August 9 issue raises questions.  Eight of those pages contained two columns, but the second page included three.  Readers with greater experience working with digitized newspapers would recognize at a glance that the pages with two columns and the page with three columns were printed on sheets of different sizes; novice researchers should at least notice the difference in format.  Apparently, Peter Timothy, the printer, did not have access to larger sheets for three columns per page on four pages and instead opted to print two columns per page on eight pages using smaller sheets.  Even if readers are not certain of the origins of the questionable page, they can figure out that the page with three columns does not belong with the August 9 issue.  Readers with more experience also note that the page with three columns has a colophon at the bottom, a feature reserved for the final page rather than the second or any other page.  (Note the colophon immediately below the advertisement in the image above.)  A news item in the first column includes this dateline:  “CHARLES-TOWN, AUGUST 2.”  This suggests that the orphan page most likely belongs with the previous edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, the issue published on August 2, 1770.  Sure enough, Accessible Archives includes it as the final page of that issue.

How did it end up as part of the August 9 edition in the archive of digitized newspapers I downloaded and compiled for easy reference?  My first thought was that I had perhaps not been careful enough in naming the digital file.  As a user of the archive, had I introduced incorrect information through human error when I gathered research materials to consult at a later time?  Talk to anyone who works in a research library and you will hear stories of scholars contacting them weeks, months, or even years later for more information about sources because the scholars have questions about their own inadequate notes and citations.  When I consulted Accessible Archives, I discovered that their August 9 edition includes the extra page.  In this case, the human error was not my own, though it certainly has been on other occasions.  Somehow the digitized image of the fourth page of the August 2 edition was inserted twice in the digital archive, once in the appropriate place as the final page of the August 2 issue and once as the second page of the August 9 issue.  Thanks to a variety of context clues – odd number of pages, discrepancy in the number of columns, colophon in an unexpected place, dated news items – figuring out where the page belonged was fairly straightforward for someone with extensive experience using archives of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers.  Novice researchers, such as undergraduate students in my classes, would have been able to note that one of the pages in the August 9 edition did not belong, even if they did not yet understand where the page should have appeared in the digital archive.  In my experience, when undergraduates spot this sort of minor idiosyncrasy in the digital archive, it enhances their confidence as researchers.  Their initial confusion motivates them to figure out the problem and consult with me when they encounter something that does not accord with their expectations after their experiences working with a digital archive that is otherwise consistently organized.  For me, the minor inconvenience caused by a small human error in the much more expansive digital archive is worth the teachable moment as undergraduates learn to navigate how primary sources have been cataloged and presented for consumption.  Even when I’m not working with undergraduates, this sort of mini-mystery can be a pleasure to solve.

This example merits one additional comment about the difference between using the digital archive and consulting original documents in an archive.  The remediation of the August 2, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette made it possible for one of the pages to inadvertently get inserted a second time as part of the issue published a week later.  It would have been impossible for readers to encounter such an error when consulting the originals, though they very well could introduce their own errors when taking photographs and notes.  Consulting digital archives sometimes presents its own challenges.  Historians and other scholars cannot be oblivious to the good work done by archivists of various sorts or else they will not be able to recognize mysteries to be solved on those rare occasions that human error introduces discrepancies into the archive.

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.

May 8

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

May 8 - 5:8:1770 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (May 8, 1770).

“Negro Boy … can work in the Iron Works, both at Blooming and at Refining.”

Advertisements concerning several enslaved men and women ran in the Essex Gazette and the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on May 8, 1770.  A notice in the latter offered for sale a “NEGRO FELLOW who is a good Sawyer and Caulker.”  On the same page, another advertisement sought to sell an enslaved woman who “is a very good Sempstress.”  In the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, Massachusetts, an advertisement for a “Negro Boy, 20 Years old,” indicated that the young man “can work in the Iron Works, both at Blooming and at Refining.”  These enslaved people each possessed specialized skills beyond agricultural labor and domestic service.  Advertisements that described enslaved men and women published in newspapers from New England to Georgia testified to the range of skills they acquired and the many contributions they made to commercial life and economic development in the colonies.

Although historians of early America have long known this, misconceptions of enslaved men and women working solely in the fields and in plantation houses have deep roots in the popular imagination … and in the education many students receive before enrolling in college-level history courses.  Such misconceptions have proven stubbornly difficult to dislodge.  When I invite students to work as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project in my various courses, they most frequently express surprise at two aspects of slavery in early America:  that it was a common practice throughout the colonies rather than confined to southern colonies and that enslaved people had far more occupations than agricultural labor.  Yet the misconceptions are so ingrained that even after being introduced to evidence to the contrary, some students continue to resort to those misconceptions as their default understanding of the experiences of enslaved people.  Correcting this is an iterative process.  Students have to be exposed to this information multiple times.  Sometimes I have to ask them if they would like to reformulate statements they make in class or in written work in order to take into account the evidence they have examined in advertisements and other primary sources, gently nudging them to embrace what they have learned and disregard their prior misconceptions.  Working as guest curators on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project facilitates the process of reimagining early America and learning about the many and varied experiences of enslaved people rather than relying on misconceptions that circulate in popular culture.  As guest curators, students encounter advertisement after advertisement describing enslaved people as artisans or otherwise highlighting their specialized skills.  That evidence is much harder to overlook than if I presented them with a couple of representative advertisements.  Similarly, scrolling through the Slavery Adverts 250 Project feed and seeing advertisement after advertisement is intended to have the same effect for both students and the general public.  Advertisement after advertisement in that feed mentions the skills possessed by enslaved men and women, making it difficult to maintain assumptions to the contrary.

April 25

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (April 24, 1769).

“CHOICE CHOCOLATE … Cocoa manufactured for Gentlemen in the best Manner.”

When most people read the word “chocolate,” they probably pictures a Hershey’s chocolate bar. However, chocolate to the typical eighteenth-century colonist was a kind of frothy drink made from cocoa beans. According to Rodney Snyder, the chocolate drink originated in Mesoamerica, its first contact with Europeans being traced back to one of Christopher Columbus’s voyages in 1502. Chocolate was mentioned in a colonial newspaper for the first time in 1705, and it quickly became a colonial staple, since it was affordable and could be consumed by people from any class. Around the time of the printing of this newspaper, the colonies were importing over 320 tons of cocoa beans. So readily available was chocolate that it was actually given out as rations to soldiers in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Colonists commonly drank chocolate in coffeehouses, a place where they met to discuss politics, current events, and anything else.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

When Sam first consulted with me about this advertisement via email, I had a little difficulty finding it in the Boston-Gazette. She told me that it was on the third page, yet it is actually on the second page of the supplement. Sam did not, however, make an error. Instead, she reported the information available to her as a result of a design flaw for one of the databases of digitized newspapers that make the Adverts 250 Project possible.

I regularly sing praises for America’s Historical Newspapers. That database makes my research possible. It also allows me to bring my research into the classroom in meaningful ways, especially when I invite students to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Beyond those projects, America’s Historical Newspapers is a valuable resource for examining primary sources in class, allowing me to present digital surrogates with much more context than modern editions in course readers allow.

That being said, I have learned from experience that the database does have a flaw in the manner that it incorporates supplements. Consider the April 24, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette. It consists of the standard four-page issue and a two-page supplement. Ideally, the database would present the standard issue first and then the supplement. However, when viewing this issue online the first page of the supplement appears first, then the first page of the standard issue, then the second page of the supplement, followed by the second, third, and fourth pages of the standard issue. The pages appear in the same order when downloading a PDF of the entire issue. For issues with four-page supplements, the pages are interspersed back and forth between the supplement and the standard issue. I have learned to collate the pages in the correct order when I print them out to mark them up.

Guest curators with less experience working with eighteenth-century newspapers, digitized primary sources, and, especially this idiosyncrasy, do not always realize that the pages presented online and in the PDF appear out of order … nor should they expect that the pages appear in any order other than first to last. When Sam consulted her digital copy of the Boston-Gazette for April 24, John Goldsmith’s advertisement for “CHOICE CHOCOLATE” appeared at the bottom of the third page in the document, hence her notation that I could find it there. I consulted a hard copy that I had collated into the proper order, which led me to a different page and created confusion. In the end, this yielded a teachable moment about how historians must continuously assess their sources, not just the contents but also the format and the media employed to make them available to us.