J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Reading the Massachusetts Gazettes

Among the essays posted at the blog for Brandeis’s “Rethinking the Age of Revolution” seminar is Cassandra Berman’s analysis of one newspaper from 5 Mar 1770—the day of the Boston Massacre.

Berman starts by quoting Jeffrey L. Pasley’s similar exercise on a single sheet of the 17 Dec 1794 issue of Greenleaf’s New York Journal and Patriotic Register: “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.” As for the Boston paper:
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. . . .

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. . . . 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.” . . . 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.

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.
That mix and arrangement of content was typical of Boston newspapers in the decade before the Revolutionary War, as I’ll discuss in my talk at the Boston Public Library on Wednesday.

But what newspaper was Berman looking at? Unfortunately, two newspapers in pre-Revolutionary Boston used the words Massachusetts Gazette to start their titles, indicating that they shared the contract to promulgate the royal government’s proclamations (and therefore leaned toward the royal government in political controversies).

Historians have learned to distinguish those newspapers by the longer-lasting parts of their titles. The newspaper titled The Massachusetts Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser in the early 1770s, as shown here, is therefore usually called The Boston Post-Boy. And The Massachusetts Gazette: And Boston Weekly News-Letter is simply The Boston News-Letter, the oldest continuously published paper in North America.

The 5th of March was a Monday in 1770, so the Massachusetts Gazette published that day, the one Berman described, was the Post-Boy.

If you think that situation was confusing, pity historians of Virginia. That colony had three newspapers in the 1770s titled The Virginia Gazette. And they had no distinguishing subtitles. Instead, when we cite those newspapers, we have to name their printers (who changed over the years).

1 comment:

Mark said...

This is hilarious:

"..and as there is no fear of seeing this place given up again by another Treaty like that of Utrecht, we may safely congratulate our countrymen...."

Virginia Gazette (Parks), Nov. 28, 1745, p.2, upper left. This is commentary on the capture of Louisbourg. However it WAS given up just 3 years later, and as a result, acted as another instigating factor for the Revolution....