February 2

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

Providence Gazette (February 2, 1771).

“[illegible] and dispatched by a Packet the next Day for Falmouth.”

Digitization makes historical sources, like eighteenth-century newspapers, more readily accessible to scholars, students, and other readers.  Yet the digitization process sometimes introduces errors or obstacles into the research process.  For databases of digitized copies of newspapers, for instance, human error introduced in generating metadata or creating cataloging infrastructures sometimes makes it difficult or impossible to identify the appropriate dates for images of historical sources.  An image of a particular page of a newspaper, for example, might be mislabeled in the metadata and then cataloged with images from pages of another issue as if it were part of that issue.  Sometimes the news, advertising, and other content printed on that page provide context for unraveling the mystery, but not always.  While rare occurrences in the databases that support the Adverts 250 Project, such errors are not unknown.  The original documents, the newspaper pages themselves, are much less likely to be separated from the rest of the corresponding pages in their issues in the archive.

Other obstacles include errors made while photographing, scanning, or other means of creating images of original sources.  Consider the third page of the February 2, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette available via America’s Historical Newspapers.  While that database consistently provides the highest quality images of eighteenth-century newspapers among the various databases consulted in the production of the Adverts 250 Project, occasionally minor irregularities do appear.  In this case, a band of faded text appears in the center of the page, making illegible portions of the articles in the first two columns and most of an advertisement in third column.  Recovering the missing portion of the articles requires consulting the original source in the archive, provided that the error was indeed introduced via remediation.  A working knowledge of eighteenth-century advertising practices, however, yields another means for discerning the contents of the advertisement.  The colophon for the Providence Gazette indicates that advertisements “are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings” and then an additional fee for each subsequent week.  Since most advertisements ran for a minimum of three weeks, the partially obscured advertisement, signed by Alexander Colden, likely appeared in other editions.

Providence Gazette (February 9, 1771).

Sure enough, the same advertisement ran on February 9 in the next issue of this weekly newspaper.  In that iteration, the entire advertisement is legible, allowing savvy readers to consult it to peruse the portions obscured in the previous issue.  Curiously, the February 9 edition features similar bands of lighter text on the first and third pages.  The band of illegible text on the third page, however, includes a few words rendered as legibly as the rest of the page.  This suggests that the problem may not have occurred in the remediation after all.  Instead, the illegible bands of text may have been the result of the printing press not making a firm impression, something that the printer managed to remedy before publishing the February 16 edition.  In that case, America’s Historical Newspapers provides a digital image that accurately replicates the original source in the archive.  Confirming this requires consulting the original newspapers.  They remain a vital source rather than rendered obsolete by digitization.

I am consulting with colleagues who work in research libraries where they have access to the Providence Gazette to find out if the originals include these illegible bands.  I will update this entry with any new information we uncover.

November 15

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

Nov 15 - 11:15:1769 JPG Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (November 15, 1769).

“STROUDS, duffils, flannels, coarse broad cloths.”

Remediation matters. A few days ago I had an opportunity to visit an introductory digital humanities class offered by WISE, the Worcester Institute for Senior Education. During my presentation, I introduced students to the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project as well as some of the databases of digitized newspapers that make those projects possible, including Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library and Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers. We discussed some of the advantages and challenges of working with digitized sources.

Nov 15 - 11:15:1769 PDF Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (November 15, 1769).

We began by acknowledging that any digital surrogate is, by definition, a remediation of an original document … and different processes of remediation have different effects. Consider Rae and Somerville’s advertisement in the November 15, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Both of these images come from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, yet they are not identical. One aspect of that database that I really appreciate is the ability to download an entire issue of a newspaper and then print a copy that I can mark in any way I like. When I view the Georgia Gazette via the database, Rae and Somerville’s advertisement looks like the first image. The variations achieved via greyscale make it relatively easy to recognize smudged ink, printing that bled through from the other side of the page, and foxing (or discoloration) of the paper. Downloading a copy to make it even more portable, however, yields a black-and-white image that does not include the same variations. As a result, the second image is more difficult to read. It is possible to download greyscale images from the database, but it requires more steps. In addition, pages must be downloaded individually rather than acquiring an entire issue at once.

This means that even though digital surrogates make eighteenth-century newspapers much more accessible beyond research libraries and historical societies, readers have very different experiences working with the various versions of digitized documents. Remediation does not necessarily mean producing exact replications of original sources. Instead, technologies alter images, some more than others. Scholars and others who consult digitized sources must take into account the challenges involved in reading those documents and alter their methodologies accordingly, especially when given access to multiple remediations of the same sources.

April 23

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Georgia Gazette (April 26, 1769).

“Brought to the Work House, a TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW … says his name is Michael.”

This advertisement for an enslaved African named Michael who attempted to escape and had been captured and “Brought to the Work House.” In other similar advertisements, as well as runaway slave advertisements, only the first names of the slaves were usually listed. Although there have been claims made that slaves did not have last names until after they were emancipated following the Civil War, research done on the naming of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves suggests that many did, in fact, have last names (“Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families”).[1] In analyzing records of slaves beginning in the late eighteenth century, historians and other scholars found that these surnames allowed slaves to maintain family connections. Even if they were separated, which was more usual than not, slaves had a way to preserve family ties. One of the most prominent families on Jefferson’s plantation, the Hemings, can be connected to Monticello for over five generations because of their shared last name. It was also common for enslaved people to name children after themselves or relatives. Their offspring then chose to continue to preserve this attachment to their families left behind after being sold by sharing a last name or giving their own children the names of their siblings, parents, or other relatives. Enslaved people placed emphasis on family values and found ways to stay connected, no matter when they were separated.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In a recent entry I discussed the challenges of working with remediated sources rather than the original documents. While all historians face these sorts of challenges, they offer particularly valuable lessons in problem solving to the undergraduates who serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Those students “do” history in ways that are new to them when they consult multiple versions of the same primary sources, discovering that all remediation is not equal.

Compare this black-and-white image to the greyscale image of the same advertisement above. Georgia Gazette (April 26, 1769).

Consider two images of today’s advertisement concerning Michael, “A TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW” who had been captured and “Brought to the Work-house” in Savannah after attempting to make his escape from his enslavers. Both images come from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, a database that guest curators become very adept at navigating. The processes used to download the images, one originally as a gif file and the other originally as a pdf file (and both converted to jpg files to post here), resulted in one image easier to read than the other. The shades of grey in the gif file distinguished which text had been printed on the page and what had bled through from the other side, unlike the black and white image from the pdf file.

The interface for America’s Historical Newspapers has been designed such that it is much more efficient to download pdf files. Acquiring gif files would be much more time consuming, both for me as a scholar who works on this project every day and for undergraduates who make contributions as guest curators over shorter durations. Once students have acquired digital copies of the newspapers for their week as guest curator, we print copies that they may use however they wish, such as marking them up and clipping items. These black-and-white images printed on 8.5×11 office paper can be quite difficult to read, depending on the remediation process. Poorly preserved primary sources, poor photography, and conversion from one kind of digital file to another all contribute to making some digital surrogates less legible than the originals. Although students often find it most convenient and efficient to work with the hard copies we have generated, I encourage them to work back and forth between digital copies and hard copies when they encounter text that is not clearly legible. I do the same, often discovering that the digital copy becomes more legible as I manipulate it, sometimes zooming in and sometimes consulting the greyscale gif image.

This process underscores to students that when they examine a hard copy of a digitized image of a newspaper from the eighteenth century that they are working with a particular manifestation of that source, one that has been altered through repeated remediation over the years. Doing the work of an historian requires not only consulting primary sources but also learning and developing strategies for working with those sources effectively.

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[1] Editor’s note: “Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families” has been widely cited online. It has also appeared in the citations for at least one scholarly monograph, Sharon Block’s Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America. At the time of publication for this entry, however, the article is not available on Monticello’s website. The link currently takes visitors to Monticello’s home page. Hopefully “Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families” will be restored soon.

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.