Media Life Magazine is an online daily newspaper/magazine founded in 1999. It covers all aspects of the media.
I greatly appreciate Media Life‘s interest in the Adverts 250 Project. I’m excited that the project has been included among their coverage of media, past and present. Also, many thanks to Kimberly Dunbar, the Director of Public Affairs at Assumption College, for making the introduction.
The Junto “is a group blog made up of junior early Americanists—graduate students and junior faculty—dedicated to providing content of general interest to other early Americanists and those interested in early American history, as well as a forum for discussion of relevant historical and academic topics.”
Many thanks to The Junto for inviting me to discuss the Adverts 250 Project with your readers.
I am honored and delighted that bestselling authors Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott (sometimes known as Isabella Bradford) featured the Adverts 250 Project among their most recent compilation of “Breakfast Links” on their wonderful blog, Two Nerdy History Girls. You can also find them on Twitter. Who are Chase and Scott? In their own words, one of them “writes historical romance” and the other “writes historical novels” and, using a nom de plume, also “writes historical romance.”
I realize that a tenure and promotion committee might not find this as impressive as being linked by the American Antiquarian Society or the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, but I am just as excited and I believe that this is just as significant. I founded the Adverts 250 Project to be a public history and digital humanities project. I aimed to engage wide audiences, including specialists in my field, other scholars within and beyond the academy, self-proclaimed history buffs, and the general public more broadly. In comparing their own work to each other, Chase and Scott state, “There’s a big difference in how we use history.” There’s also a big difference in how I use history in my career, including a very different route to publication, compared to either of them, but the most important things are that all three of us use history and all three of us want others to be as fascinated by history as we are and to learn about the past.
As I noted above, the Adverts 250 Project is a public history project. Chase and Scott have helped to bring this project to the attention of the public, for which I am extremely grateful. The day after they included the Adverts 250 Project among their “Breakfast Links” the site received nearly four times as many visitors and nearly five times as many page views as any previous day. Their blog has directed visitors from twenty-two countries (Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, Mexico, Myanmar (Burma), the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to the Adverts 250 Project, bringing this public history project to a much broader public. (I don’t know how many people visit their blog on a daily basis, but every time they retweet an announcement that a new advertisement has been posted here — which they have already done today! — they reach more than 10,000 followers, compared to the relatively paltry 250 I have amassed during my short time on Twitter.)
Later this week students in my Public History course will be reading and discussing an essay about some of the tensions that have traditionally cropped up between historians within the academy and those who pursue history professionally beyond employment at colleges and universities, an antagonism that need not exist and that I like to think has decreased in recent years (though from my position within the academy I may have a different perspective on this than public historians do). Though I am not aware that Chase and Scott describe themselves as public historians, their novels and their blog certainly place them somewhere within the fold. Their spirit of generosity demonstrates the benefits of all who love history acting cooperatively rather than competitively.
Thank you, Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott, for your support of the Adverts 250 Project.
I mentioned in this blog’s inaugural post that the Adverts 250 Project originated on Twitter (where it still continues as part of my account, @TradeCardCarl). I have only recently been initiated in the Twitterverse, having looked at it askance for several years. Tweets seemed both ephemeral and insubstantial. What could I possibly say in 140 characters? Certainly not anything of significance! When I established my account I included “Recovering Luddite” in my short biography (since replaced with “Daily #Adverts250 Update”). I have long joked that on the spectrum of early adopter to Luddite I fell somewhere around “Printing Presses Are Cool.” (They are!)
I signed up for Twitter while participating in the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Workshop (a week-long seminar designed as a companion to the Digital Antiquarian Conference), led by Molly O’Hagan Hardy (digital humanities curator, AAS) and Thomas Augst (English, New York University). I wanted to become a bit more tech savvy, hoping to pursue digital humanities projects that would further my own research as well as design others as part of the introductory public history class that I teach every second spring semester. In my application I even suggested potential book history and advertising projects I could pursue with students. I do intend to pursue those projects eventually, but for the moment I have moved them to the back burner in favor of the Adverts 250 Project. Undergraduates from Assumption College will be joining me in this endeavor during the Spring 2016 semester. I’ll certainly have more posts about that – as well as guest contributions – in the coming months.
As I mentioned last week, the first #Adverts250 update was a whim, a bit of fun (but I am grateful that I had the foresight to include #Adverts250 as a hashtag from the start, making it possible to identify all of the entries). The first advertisement I featured garnered several “favorites” (then a star rather than the current heart icon) and retweets, some of them from friends and colleagues but others from scholars and interested members of the general public whom I did not know. I followed up with another advertisement the next day, gaining more “favorites” and retweets. I also gained new followers, which I attributed to the new series of posts about eighteenth-century advertising. It was then that two things happened: I decided to formalize the Adverts 250 Project as a daily feature of my (previously very sporadic) Twitter account and I embraced the power of Twitter.
I have long been concerned that historians at colleges and universities often engage in insular conversations among themselves and other scholars but do not always communicate more directly with the general public. This is a lament that we hear often from a variety of colleagues striving to make our work meaningful and accessible to others, so I will not rehearse all of the arguments here except to say that the digital humanities opens new doors and complements the work being done by our public history colleagues. As a methodology, digital humanities enriches our research. In providing new or alternate media or forums, digital humanities allows greater distribution of our work and invites new audiences. I quickly found this to be the case with the Adverts 250 Project in its first incarnation on Twitter. My research, previously doled out in moderate-sized chunks at conferences and public lectures or in articles and chapters, now had new audiences. I had previously dismissed Twitter for being too much of a popular culture phenomenon, but instead of nurturing such anxiety I should have realized that the mass consumption aspects of Twitter that made me disregard social media actually presented a rich opportunity for engaging multiple audiences that I long desired would take a more sustained interest in learning about the past.
I also quickly got over another prejudice: “What I have to say is too complex to express in a mere 140 characters.” While I continue to maintain that complexity and nuance – more words! – are imperative to the work we do as scholars, I have had an attitude adjustment concerning the 140 character limit on Twitter. Being succinct has never been one of my strengths, and I believe that many of us are trained to be verbose, often unnecessarily. Distilling my commentary on any eighteenth-century advertisement (explaining its context and significance) down to one or two sentences forced me to refine my thinking. What is the most important thing I want to say about this particular advertisement? What is essential for me to communicate? How can I do so for fellow eighteenth-century British Atlantic World specialists? How can I do so for other audiences? Composing a tweet intended to use an advertisement to open up the commercial, cultural, or political world of eighteenth-century colonists often turned out to be a much more difficult task than writing an entire paragraph (which is part of the reason that the Adverts 250 Project continues on Twitter as well).
I was having a great time with my daily #Adverts250 update on Twitter. Several colleagues whom I respect told me how much they were enjoying the project, but one in particular encouraged me to seek a more permanent home and a platform for reaching broader audiences. That the Adverts 250 Project has its own blog is the result of conversations with Molly O’Hagan Hardy, digital humanities curator at the American Antiquarian Society, who consistently doles out insightful and helpful advice. As I’ve already made clear, I’m a novice in the world of digital humanities, but Hardy has thoughtfully and patiently worked with me to develop both my own projects and projects for students in my undergraduate courses. I have very much appreciated the attention that she bestows on my work, but I have also witnessed her consulting on projects with scholars possessing various levels of digital humanities expertise. Her intellectual generosity is a model.
That’s where I would like to conclude this week’s behind-the-scenes look at the Adverts 250 Project. Thank you, Molly O’Hagan Hardy, for your encouragement and advice. Last week I concluded with an exclamation: “the Adverts 250 Project was born!” To continue the metaphor, you are the midwife who assisted in the delivery.
It may seem strange for the first entry for this blog to be titled “The Story So Far,” but that title recognizes that The Adverts 250 Project began elsewhere. Since October 24, 2015, it has existed exclusively as part of my Twitter feed (@TradeCardCarl for those who would like to visit and follow me there or #Adverts250 for just the featured advertisements). Good advice from friends and colleagues, however, prompted me to seek out a more permanent home for this digital humanities and public history project, one that will make the advertisements and commentary more easily accessible over time.
I plan to continue a daily update, here and on Twitter, featuring both an advertisement published in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago and brief commentary. This blog will make possible additional content, including periodic reflections on pursuing this project. I am interested in exploring advertising and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America, but I would also like to discuss the process of conducting the research and making it available to other audiences. Innumerable interesting and informative advertisements were published in American newspapers and other media during the eighteenth century, but only a fraction of them are available to be featured as part of this project. My supplementary posts will explore the sources currently available, noting how archiving and digitization processes have sometimes limited access even while opening it to a greater degree than at any time in the past.
In the future I also plan to feature contributions from guests, especially undergraduates enrolled in my Public History, Colonial America, and Revolutionary America courses at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I have a lot I want to accomplish. Eighteenth-century advertisements have so many stories to tell about the people and culture of early America. I have also generated my own stories throughout the research process. The first story I would like to share gives credit to those who have inspired me and reveals the genesis of this project.
This project began as a whim. I had no idea what it might become when I featured the first advertisement.
During the first two months of the Fall 2015 semester I had been following The Stamp Act at 250 (@KillingStamp), a group project for Joseph M. Adelman’s History 304 – American Revolution course at Framingham State University. As Adelman noted in his instructions to his students, “This summer and fall marks the 250th anniversary of the protests against the Stamp Act, one of the first major acts of resistance during the imperial crisis that resulted in the American Revolution. During this project, the entire class will jointly produce a Twitter feed to commemorate the protests.”
Using primary sources previously digitized and made available online, especially America’s Historical Newspapers (offered by Readex), Adelman’s students tweeted the debates and protests against the Stamp Act in real time, but 250 years later. Throughout the fall, followers “witnessed” how events in the colonies unfolded as colonists became increasingly discontent with the imminent implementation of the Stamp Act.
I was relatively new to Twitter at the time, having first established an account a few months earlier when I participated in the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Conference and Workshop. I figured that if I was going to learn that much about digital humanities and their public history applications that I should at least have a Twitter handle. Still, I found Twitter to be an acquired taste. I did not tweet much until I began the Adverts 250 Project.
Inspired in part by the work being done by Adelman’s students, one Saturday afternoon I decided to tweet an image of an advertisement that had appeared in a colonial newspaper exactly 250 years ago that day. I chose an advertisement from “Wm Murray At the Sign of General WOLFE” for several reasons. Its typography was interesting, with “William” shortened to “Wm” and in a much larger font than anything else in the advertisement, as well as “WOLFE” in all capitals. The shop’s location “At the Sign of General WOLFE” evoked visual images of the streets of eighteenth-century Boston. Murray made some (but not all) of the standard appeals in eighteenth-century advertising when he noted that he stocked “AN Assortment of English Goods … which he will sell cheaper than can be had at any other Shop in Town.” In the midst of the consumer revolution, he offered potential customers a choice of many goods at low prices.
He also made an appeal to patriotism and a sense of belonging in the nation. Here context was especially important. I have previously published work on advertising’s role in creating an American identity during the era of the American Revolution and into the early nineteenth century. That work, however, has focused almost exclusively on American patriotism as distinctive and intentionally separate from former connections to the British Empire. In 1765, however, that rupture had not yet occurred. For colonists, a sense of patriotism and nationhood was imbedded in their identity as part of the British Empire. Major General James Wolfe, a British army officer, was remembered chiefly for his victory over the French during the Battle of Quebec in 1759. Wounded during the battle, Wolfe died on the Plains of Abraham outside the walled city, making him a hero and martyr for the British Empire in the wake of Britain’s decisive victory in this battle and its repercussions. French forces in North America came under increasing pressure. Eventually the French were ejected from North America at the conclusion of the war.
I understood why Murray chose “the Sign of General WOLFE” at first glance, but the day after I tweeted the advertisement I realized that perhaps it needed a little more explanation for others less familiar with the history of the Atlantic World in the eighteenth century. Twitter does not allow for such extensive commentary, but I was able to provide an overview in 140 characters: “Invoking hero of British Empire to market imported English goods: such shop signs replaced with symbols of American patriotism in 1780s.”
An image of an advertisement accompanied by brief commentary: the Adverts 250 Project was born!