February 3

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

Feb 3 - 2:3:1768 Image 1 Georgia Gazette
Greyscale jpeg converted from gif. Georgia Gazette (February 3, 1768).

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Feb 3 - 2:3:1768 Image 2 Georgia Gazette
Black-and-white jpeg converted from PDF. Georgia Gazette (February 3, 1768).

“PROPOSED to be published, a PAMPHLET.”

Digital surrogates have significantly expanded the ability of scholars and the general public to access historical sources. The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would not be possible without the databases of digitized eighteenth-century newspapers created by institutions like the American Antiquarian Society and Colonial Williamsburg forming partnerships with companies like Accessible Archives and Readex. Such databases make sources available online as well as portable when downloaded for further reference. This greatly expands the questions we can ask – and answer – about the past.

Yet we must also be careful consumers of digitized sources: not all digital surrogates are created equal. Consider, for instance, these two digitized versions of the same advertisement from the final page of the February 3, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Although they contain the same content, they look rather different from each other. The first is much more legible than the second, especially to readers with less experience working with digitized sources.

Why do these two images appear so different? Although I’ve converted both to jpegs, that is not the original format of either when I downloaded them from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers. The first image represents what users see on their screen when they examine the newspaper in the database, a greyscale rendition of the page derived from a photograph of the original. It disguises the actual color and texture of the eighteenth-century newspaper, but the visual variations do make it possible for the human eye to distinguish what was printed on the page and what bled through from the other side. I acquired this image by selecting Readex’s option to “Print,” which opened a new page with instructions for printing the entire page of the newspaper (complete with a citation at the top). I then deviated from the procedure intended by Readex by instead dragging a gif image of the entire page to my desktop before cropping the advertisement and converting it into a jpeg (which I have learned through trial and error is the most efficient method for pursuing this project). Had I followed through on the instructions provided by Readex, I could have printed a copy of the greyscale image of the entire page or saved it to my computer as a PDF (which I then could have cropped and converted into a jpeg, achieving the same result but requiring a few extra clicks on my part).

The second image resulted from using a different method to download the page from Readex’s database. America’s Historical Newspapers has a very useful function that allows users to “Download Issue” as a multipage PDF (which can then be cropped and converted into jpegs, as I did to create the second image of today’s advertisement). Rather than working page by page, this saves a great deal of time when it comes to the type of research I do on this project. However, when I select the “Download Issue” function it remediates the newspaper into black-and-white images rather than greyscale. The resulting images are not nearly as legible since it is more difficult to recognize what was printed on the page, what bled through from the other side, and what represents creases, paper texture, or discolorations of the page. Although portable, such images are not as accessible as their greyscale counterparts.

This compromises some of the convenience and functionality of the “Download Issue” option. It saves time, but sometimes at the expense of legibility. When working with black-and-white PDFs of entire issues, sometimes it becomes necessary to return to online database to examine the greyscale image, negating the portability of the PDF.

As digital surrogates proliferate, their users – scholars, students, and the general public – must be aware of their variations. Each digital surrogate remediates an original document. Some result from multiple generations of remediation. In the process, the images have been altered, sometimes to a greater and sometimes to a lesser degree, so users must be wary that they are not viewing a representation exactly as they would experience seeing the original document. They must devise research strategies that allow them to effectively use the digital surrogates that provide greater access to historical sources.

Selecting Adverts: Newspapers Published this Week (250 Years Ago)

This week I would like to spend some time discussing the sources that make the Adverts 250 Project possible and my methods for selecting which advertisements to feature. Each advertisement reveals something about early American life and culture, some because they offer unique features of one kind or another and others because they are so common or formulaic that they provide a glimpse of everyday life. One of the challenges of working with some print (newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets) and manuscript (letters, diaries, journals) sources is that historical actors often considered aspects of daily life, such as their use of material culture items, so common that they did not merit comment. All too often I commiserate with fellow scholars as we wish that we could find that crucial piece of evidence, the “smoking gun,” that would tell us more about eighteenth-century attitudes and behaviors that are hidden and unknown to us today. Advertisements, however, often explicitly provide details about some of the most mundane aspects of everyday life in eighteenth-century America.

This is a project that began in my living room. Thanks to ongoing projects to photograph and digitize eighteenth-century newspapers, I am able to continue this project anywhere I have access to the Internet. To date, I have not consulted original newspapers (except to get a better quality image to accompany the link on The Octo), relying instead on the digital surrogates made available via a Readex database, “America’s Historical Newspapers.” At my request, my campus library purchased a subscription, which I use in both my own research and the classes I teach. This makes it possible for me – and my students – to access primary sources that certainly were not readily available just a couple of decades ago. There’s no need to go to an archive that houses the originals or a major research library that possesses microfilm copies. In a future post I will reflect on the benefits of both those methods. I am not trying to suggest that digital surrogates are superior to other formats. Rather, I want to acknowledge how new technologies and digital humanities projects have made this particular public history project possible.

To choose advertisements to feature I first need to identify which newspapers printed in 1766 are included in my library’s subscription to “America’s Historical Newspapers.” This amounts to fifteen newspapers from seven colonies:

New Hampshire

  • New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)

Massachusetts

  • Boston Evening-Post
  • Boston Gazette
  • Boston News-Letter
  • Boston Post-Boy

Rhode Island

  • Newport Mercury
  • Providence Gazette

Connecticut

  • Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New London)

New York

  • New-York Gazette
  • New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy
  • New-York Journal
  • New-York Mercury

Pennsylvania

  • Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote (Philadelphia)

Georgia

  • Georgia Gazette (Savannah)
Jan 15 - Masthead for 1:13:1766 New-York Mercury
Masthead for New-York Mercury (January 13, 1766)

In choosing advertisements for the past week, not all of these newspapers were viable options. The Georgia Gazette, for instance, had been suspended near the end of 1765. It did not resume publication until the third week of May 1766. Other newspapers were in a similar situation, though it is worth mentioning that even if a newspaper was in operation during this period in 1766 that does not guarantee that any copies are still extant. And, even if a copy does survive, it may not have been photographed or digitized and made available in “America’s Historical Newspapers.” Such resources are often built around the collections from a particular historical society, research library, or other institution. As a result, digital surrogates available in many databases are limited to what is physically part of the collections at the institution where the project originated. This is changing over time as those overseeing a variety of digital humanities projects seek to fill in gaps and provide more comprehensive coverage, but it remains a limiting factor that anybody pursuing research using eighteenth-century sources should take into consideration.

Similarly, consumers of their research – whether fellow scholars, self-proclaimed history buffs, or general audiences – should also be aware that many of the resources that have facilitated research over the past couple of decades are not exhaustive. Impressive, yes, but a variety of factors have determined what is actually available to modern researchers: factors that range from which documents survive from the eighteenth century to decisions made by librarians and curators in cataloging and preserving those items to practical and financial considerations of project managers and their corporate partners in the process of designing and executing databases and other projects. For the Adverts 250 Project, this means that I have relatively easy access to many eighteenth-century newspapers, but certainly not every newspaper published in 1766, nor even every newspaper from that year that happens to survive.

Another factor influences which advertisements I select to feature. I confess that I do not speak or read German. Unfortunately, the Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote will not be a regular part of this project. As a result, I acknowledge that I am overlooking the particular experiences of a sizable number of settlers in Pennsylvania and other Middle Atlantic colonies.

In the end, I had access to ten newspapers from five colonies as I selected advertisements to feature this past week.

New Hampshire

  • New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth)

Massachusetts

  • Boston Evening-Post
  • Boston Gazette
  • Boston News-Letter
  • Boston Post-Boy

Rhode Island

  • Newport Mercury

Connecticut

  • Connecticut Courant (Hartford)
  • Connecticut Gazette (New London)

New York

  • New-York Gazette
  • New-York Mercury
Jan 15 - Masthead for 1:13:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Masthead for Boston Evening-Post (January 13, 1766)

While this may seem like copious sources at first glance, those who regularly work with eighteenth-century newspapers realize that this is deceptive because newspapers were not published daily in colonial America. New issues were never printed on Sundays. Indeed, each of these titles appeared only once a week. So, a list that initially suggests seventy issues (or sixty, if discounting Sundays) based on modern publication practices actually yields merely ten issues. This is certainly sufficient for this project, but I believe it is important context for readers, for the consumers of my work, especially those who do not have as much familiarity with eighteenth-century newspapers.

For my extended commentary essay next week, I will explain how I chart each issue on a calendar to gain a sense of which newspapers were being published where in the colonies on any given day of the week in 1766. Centuries after these newspapers were printed, the timing of their publications exerts significant impact on the contours of the Adverts 250 Project.