What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I the Subscriber now carry on the Hatting Business.”
Witnessing the sense of accomplishment that undergraduate students experience when they work with digitized primary sources is one of my favorite parts of having them serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project when they enroll in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery in America, Public History, and Research Methods courses. Much of that sense of accomplishment comes from learning to read eighteenth-century newspapers, a more difficult task than some initially expect.
Consider this advertisement from the May 25, 1770, edition of the New-London Gazette. It is not indecipherable, but it does require some effort to read, even for those with experience working with eighteenth-century newspapers. The quality of the printing and the paper, including text bleeding through from the other side of the page, makes the advertisement more difficult to read than the crisp and clear text in books and articles students are more accustomed to reading. They discover that historians must work with primary sources of varying condition. The deviations in spelling compared to twenty-first century standards also present a minor challenge, including “Hatts” for “Hats,” “Furr” for “Fur,” and “chuse” for “choose” in this advertisement. Shifts in the meaning of words over a quarter of a millennium also allow opportunities to consider context in the process of understanding what advertisers said when they used language that now seems strange. In this advertisement, William Capron described himself as “I the Subscriber,” but he did not mean that he paid to receive the newspaper. Instead, he deployed the common eighteenth-century usage of the word “subscriber” to mean “a person who signs his or her name to a document,” in this case the advertisement itself.
Perhaps the most significant sense of achievement for many students comes from decoding the “long “s” that they initially mistake for an “f” in eighteenth-century newspapers and other primary sources. In this advertisement, Capron addressed his “former Customers, present Creditors, and the Public in general,” but to students with less experience reading such sources this phrase initially appears to say “former Cuftomers, prefent Creditors, and the Public.” “Hatting Business” looks like “Hatting Bufinefs” and “too short for spinning” looks like “too fhort for fpinning.” That Capron’s advertisement appeared in italics further compounds the difficulty for some readers. For my part, I’ve become so accustomed to the “long s” that I no longer notice it. When I began working with students on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, however, I quickly became aware that I took for granted how easily others with less experience reading eighteenth-century newspapers would adapt to the “long s.” As an instructor, I’ve learned to take more time and to make more allowances for students to become comfortable with that particular element of eighteenth-century print culture. I also reassure them that they will eventually recognize the “long s” merely as an “s.” They might not even realize when the transition happens!
Primary sources of any sort are the cornerstone of college-level history courses. In the absence of special collections and research libraries with original documents, access to digitized primary sources allows me to replicate the experience of working with materials from the eighteenth century. In the process, students get a better sense of what how historians “do” history as they encounter and overcome these and other challenges.