GUEST CURATOR: Benjamin Andonian
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WANTED immediately, a Journeyman COMPOSITER.”
This advertisement struck me because it was related to the production of the newspapers we were reading in class. This advertisement “WANTED immediately” a compositor at a newspaper. I thought it would be interesting to learn about what a compositor is and how this might increase my knowledge of early American newspapers.
The invention of movable type opened the door for a new age of printing in Europe in the 1500s. That meant new crafts and careers, including compositors. Compositors arranged the letters in advance of them being covered in ink. Historian Liz Covart describes the job expectations step by step. The compositor starts with the composition stick, placing letters in proper order. The placement of letters is done in opposite order, right to left, so they appear right side up and left to right on final edition. After a quick check to clean up errors, compositors place their work in a chase to be inked up and printed.
I found it very interesting how the printing press offered positions for compositors and others to make the newspapers we read in class and consulted for this project. Each sentence, letter, and word or punctuation mark was positioned by a compositor like the one sought in this advertisement. Seeing such a specific job and the steps involved made me think of the process today and the new jobs and careers that the internet has created, like the printing press did in early America. Lily Talavera expands on this in an article about the booming market for social media jobs. According to Talavera, “Social media has created a new category of jobs. You may have heard them as social media jobs or with other names relevant to the requested tasks. These jobs are in high demand, and many people already work full-time on social media.” Innovations in delivering news today have a similar effect on creating new kinds of jobs as an innovation like the printing press had in creating jobs for compositors in the early modern period.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
When I taught a course about Revolutionary America, 1763-1815, in Fall 2021, I once again incorporated the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. I asked each of the twenty-three students in the class to serve as guest curators for those projects. Each of them was responsible for compiling a digital archive of newspapers originally published during a particular week in 1772. Then they scoured the newspapers to identify advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children for inclusion in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. For each of those advertisements, the guest curators composed tweets that included the project’s tagline, a quotation, and a citation. For the Adverts 250 Project, each student selected one advertisement to research in greater detail, consulting at least one secondary source by an historian of early America, and then wrote an entry about what they learned and what the advertisement reveals about some aspect of commerce, politics, or daily life during the era of the American Revolution.
Ben is the first of the students from that class to have his work as a guest curator appear on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. In many ways, it is very fitting that he starts the entries researched and written for that class with one that examines an advertisement about the printing trade. We devoted a lot of time to discussing print culture, consumer culture, slavery, and their intersections during the era of the American Revolution. Compositors set the type for the newspapers, broadsides (including the Declaration of Independence), and pamphlets (such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense) that kept colonizers informed during the imperial crisis and, ultimately, encouraged them to sever their political allegiance to Great Britain. Compositors also set the type for the countless newspaper advertisements that offered enslaved people for sale or promised rewards for the capture and return of those who liberated themselves from their enslavers. Liberty and slavery appeared side by side on the pages of newspaper published during the era of the American Revolution. Compositors also set the type for advertisements for consumer goods as well as essays that critiqued consumption and editorials that advocated nonimportation agreements and promoted “domestic manufactures” as means of exerting economic pressure to achieve political ends.
I invited students to contemplate all of these developments, not only in the abstract but also taking into consideration actual people and their experiences during the era of the American Revolution. This advertisement for a “Journeyman COMPOSITER” provides a springboard for considering the many themes woven throughout the Revolutionary America class that I designed and that Ben completed. Throughout the colonies, compositors played a role in presenting news and opinions about current events to the public. They also played a role in shaping consumer culture and perpetuating slavery. Beyond their contributions to producing the printed page, compositors made decisions about their own political activities and what kind of society they wanted to emerge from the American Revolution. That being the case, Ben’s choice of an advertisement to start a new round of entries from guest curators is very fitting indeed.