June 15

GUEST CURATOR: Joseph Vanacore

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

Newport Mercury (June 15, 1772).

“A SLOOP of 84 tons, with all her stores.”

I found Abraham Barker’s advertisement in the June 15, 1772, issue of the Newport Mercury very interesting. The shipbuilding industry was extremely important to the colonies and played a significant role in the economy of the New England—in this case, Rhode Island specifically. Ships were essential to the survival of the colonies in countless ways. The shipbuilding industry was a lucrative portion of the economy, while simultaneously supporting the lumber industry. Ships were used for transportation of people and goods, fishing, communication, and naval and coastal defense, as well as many other purposes. With a strong shipbuilding tradition, the colonies were able to encourage and achieve a strong mercantile tradition.

Barker’s advertisement told of the robust shipping industry of Newport, Rhode Island, as well as the surrounding towns, including Tiverton. The ports of Rhode Island were a valuable location for colonial commerce as well as arriving merchants from Britain, providing a hub of trade for the region. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island also played a major in the transatlantic slave trade, for a time accounting for the home ports of approximately 20% of all slave trading ships in continental North America. Rhode Island’s well-suited harbors and prime location between the ports of Boston and New York allowed the colony’s shipping and shipbuilding industries to flourish.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

There are many pedagogical benefits to inviting students in my courses to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  They gain experience working with primary sources, pursuing independent research that incorporates both primary and secondary sources, identifying the significance of the advertisements they select, crafting an argument, writing, and revising.  Throughout the entire process, they understand that they do not have an audience of one, the professor, as is the case with most assignments, but instead are making contributions to a digital humanities project consulted by fellow students, scholars, and the general public.

I ask students to select their advertisements but not to conduct too much research until I approve those advertisements for inclusion in the project.  I wish to make sure that their advertisements fit within the general themes of the Adverts 250 Project.  I also steer students away from any advertisements I suspect will be too difficult to research.  In general, I recommend that these novice researchers choose advertisements that focus on a commodity or a service that helps to tell a story about commerce, politics, or everyday life in eighteenth-century America.

In previous semesters, students have often struggled when working with advertisements offering ships for sale, usually because they focused too much on the descriptions of particular ships.  As a result, I initially told Joe that I was not certain that Abraham Barker’s advertisement about a sloop for sale was the best choice for this project, but I was open to learning more about why he selected it and what he hoped to accomplish before rejecting it and instructing him to find another advertisement.  Joe then explained that he was not interested solely in this particular vessel but instead wanted to learn more about shipbuilding and shipping in New England, especially Rhode Island.  Even before he commenced his research, he had ideas about the bigger picture, the larger significance of this advertisement, rather than getting bogged down in the details in the notice.

After that conversation with Joe, I enthusiastically approved the advertisement.  I was even more pleased with the work Joe did for the Adverts 250 Project when he submitted a draft that incorporated Rhode Island’s prominence in the transatlantic slave trade, building on one of the central themes of a course that grappled with the tension between liberty and slavery during the era of the American Revolution.  I doubt that I would have selected Barker’s advertisement to feature today, which makes me all the more pleased with the entry inspired by it that Joe has crafted.  That underscored another aspect of students serving as guest curators that I especially enjoy.  We work together as colleagues rather than only as teacher and student.  Their ideas and contributions matter in our shared endeavor.

December 6

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

Pennsylvania Journal (December 6, 1770).

“FOR NEWRY, The SHIP SALLY, WILLIAM KEITH, Master.”

Readers of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, and, especially, the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal did not have to walk along the docks and wharves on the Delaware River to glimpse the ships that transported people and goods to and from Philadelphia.  Instead, they saw visual representations of the bustling coastal and transatlantic trade depicted in newspaper advertisements.  Consider the woodcuts that adorned advertisements for freight and passage that appeared in those newspapers in the first week of December 1770.

The Pennsylvania Chronicle featured the fewest such advertisements, only three, but the first item in the first column of the first page, immediately below the masthead, incorporated a woodcut of a vessel at sea into a notice about the Elizabeth and Mary departing for Barbados, Grenada, and Jamaica.  The Pennsylvania Gazette, in turn, included eleven images of ships at sea, listing destinations such as Belfast, Dublin, Newry, and Londonderry in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland, and Barbados and Granada in the West Indies.  Ten of those advertisements ran one after the other, filling almost an entire column on the final page of the December 6 edition.

The Pennsylvania Journal had the greatest number of advertisements with depictions of trading vessels, a total of sixteen.  Fourteen of them ran consecutively, filling half of the final page.  Some also appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on the same day, but others did not.  The map of commerce depicted in the pages of the Pennsylvania Journal was the most extensive, including Charleston, South Carolina, on the mainland; Barbados, Granada, and Jamaica in the West Indies; Cork, Dublin, Newry, and Londonderry in Ireland; and Bristol and London in England.

The pages of Philadelphia’s newspapers testified to the port city’s participation in a bustling network of commerce that crisscrossed the Atlantic.  Readers encountered that story not only in text but also in images that depicted fleets of ships that visited the busy port.  The array of woodcuts depicting ships that accompanied advertisements for passengers and freight often made the pages of newspapers appear as busy as the Delaware River and the wharves that lined it.