What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
Working extensively with primary sources is one of the benefits of serving as a guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Before I incorporated these projects into my upper-level courses on early American history, I provided students with representative advertisements that I had carefully selected to demonstrate particular aspects of consumer culture or the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children. For instance, a shopkeeper’s advertisement listing dozens or hundreds of items for sale suggested the many choices available to customers during the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Another advertisement describing the skills possessed by enslaved men and women made the point that they worked as coopers, blacksmiths, midwifes, and laundresses, to name just a few examples. An advertisement describing someone who escaped and offering a reward for their capture testified to acts of resistance by enslaved men and women.
In delivering these selected examples to students, I distributed either transcripts reprinted in modern textbooks and course readers or copies drawn from my own exploration of eighteenth-century newspapers made available via databases produced by Accessible Archives, Colonial Williamsburg, and Readex. For the latter, the legibility of the digitized editions played a role as I selected advertisements. If we only had time in class to examine a few representative advertisements, then I wanted those primary sources to be as easy to read as possible.
The idea of a few representative advertisements, however, no longer applies when students assume their responsibilities as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. They are tasked with examining digital copies of every extant newspaper originally published during a particular week in the 1760s. This means that they encounter an archive of newspapers that are not nearly as perfect as the representative examples that I would otherwise distribute in class. Some copies were damaged in the eighteenth century; others deteriorated over time. This page of the Virginia Gazette shows signs of water damage, making portions illegible. The empty space below “POETS CORNER” resulted from someone clipping the poem, removing both the verse and whatever content was on the other side of the page from the original newspaper and any subsequent remediated copies, whether microfilm or digital surrogates.
Sometimes the process of remediation from the original newspaper to microfilm to digital image to a hard copy that comes off the printer in my office alters the legibility of a document. It does not matter if an original newspaper is in perfect condition if poor photography produced an unusable image. The process of moving between PDF and JPG files also alters the appearance of these digital surrogates for primary sources. The same is true for digital images and hard copies produced on the office printer. Even when I supply students with hard copies of all the newspapers for their week as guest curator I recommend that they work back and forth between those hard copies and the digital ones they have compiled. The digital versions are often more legible. They can also be enlarged to gain a better view of a newspaper page that has been condensed to a standard sheet of 8.5×11 office paper.
In working with digital surrogates for dozens of eighteenth-century newspapers drawn from various databases, undergraduate guest curators experience some of the challenges that historians regularly face when they work with primary sources. The process of “doing” history becomes even more complicated, messy, and nuanced as they grapple with both the sources as material items (or digital representations of material items) and the ideas contained within those sources. Guest curators must engage in problem solving that they would not do if I simply handed them perfectly legible copies of representative advertisements from eighteenth-century newspapers. They must take on greater responsibilities as they develop their critical thinking skills and gain experience interpreting the past.