In his excellent essay “Reading the Republic: Newspapers in Early America,” historian Jeffrey L. Pasley – an upcoming guest in our seminar – engages in a curious exercise. In order to contextualize the political and social world of the Early Republic, Pasley examines a single sheet of a 1794 newspaper, the December 17 edition of Greenleaf’s New York Journal and Patriotic Register. In explaining the significance of this single sheet, Pasley writes, “Newspapers were so central an institution in the Founders’ world that it is possible to see almost the whole of their republic in this one example.” While this newspaper does provide substantial insight into the politics and government of the Early Republic, Pasley suggests that it is in some ways even more useful as a tool for social historians – allowing tantalizing glimpses into quotidian transactions, ordinary lives, and encounters significant because they were, at the time, relatively unremarkable.
Inspired by these findings, I decided to engage in a similar exercise. How might a sheet of newspaper printed during the period of the American Revolution reveal what was “ordinary” about this rather extraordinary time? In what ways does a newspaper give access to lives less documented? And for the purposes of our Sawyer Seminar, how can one single sheet of newspaper help us to more fully understand the Age of Revolution?
On the evening of March 5, 1770, as the incidents that came to be known as the Boston Massacre were unfolding on King Street, the Massachusetts Gazette found its way to readers throughout the city. The front page contained news from London, important for connecting colonists to political events in England. On page two was a report from Virginia, of a ship captain named Ferguson who was recently imprisoned “for the murder of three of his crew, and a Negro boy of his own, at sea.” Page three contained a proclamation by Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts colony. Each of these items was likely of interest to Bostonians, and can certainly tell us much about their social and political world. Yet what of the Gazette’s fourth and final page? Like today, eighteenth-century newspapers reserved the most pressing matters for the front page; the back, by contrast, was for advertisements and stories of a less urgent nature. But advertisements were certainly important; as a vital aspect of commerce, they alerted potential buyers of goods, services, and even people for sale. And as Pasley points out, “we can learn a great deal about the society that produced [newspapers]” through advertisements – what people bought, sold, valued, and desired.
What, then, was for sale on the night of the Massacre? William Dennie offered “Jamaica sugars of the very first Quality, perhaps superior to any ever brought to this Market” – revealing Boston’s commercial interest in Caribbean sugar production, and Bostonians’ vested interest in Atlantic slavery. Timothy Kelley advertised his services as a “hair cutter and peruke maker” and boasted qualifications of “many years experience in the most eminent shops in London.” Kelley offered perukes – highly styled wigs – that were as fashionable and as “genteel as can be had from thence.” Kelley’s ad suggests that the Homespun Movement could coexist with a yen for fashion, and even a desire for the latest styles from Britain. And an unnamed “young woman” advertised “a good breast of milk,” hoping to “go into a Family in town to Suckle a Child” – indicating that women on the eve of revolution sought employment through breastfeeding, and opening up an interesting line of inquiry regarding women’s labor during a period in which their lives were greatly circumscribed. Taken together, these brief advertisements provide a complex view of commerce and culture in the Revolutionary period, commenting on race, labor, gender, and transatlantic connections in a manner far different from the reports featured in the newspaper’s earlier pages.
In addition, the final page of the March 5, 1770 issue of the Massachusetts Gazette contained two letters, neither of which was concerned with commercial activity, but instead with the recent appearance of a comet in the night sky. One letter described the comet in great detail, noting the remarkable length of its tail and its very close approach to the sun – and overall, hailing the comet’s appearance as a great moment of scientific interest. The other letter framed the comet’s appearance in religious terms, as evidence of a God who had been offended by his earthly subjects. Though its author could not have had the Massacre in mind as he was writing, one must wonder what Bostonians thought on the evening of March 5 as they read these lines: “How you have griev’d your SOVEREIGN, quickly tell, lest angry justice, hurls you into hell!”
Neither the advertisements nor the reactions to the comet comment explicitly on political events. Yet as Jeffrey Pasley points out, a single sheet of newspaper can provide invaluable insight into the social and cultural contexts from which political events emerge. As I continue to think about the Age of Revolution during the course of our Sawyer Seminar, I hope to extend this method of thinking to other geographic and political contexts. That is, to keep considering how the “ordinary” – selling sugar, seeking employment, advertising a haircut, pondering the evening sky – influences, and is influenced by, the “extraordinary” – in this case, revolution.