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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Sampling the Massachusetts Spy

The Library of Congress just announced that is Chronicling America database of American newspapers has added images of the Massachusetts Spy from 1770 to 1774—the earliest papers yet included.

The agency credited the Boston Public Library with help. Presumably that was the source of the issues that have been digitized here, some of which show distinct cuts and fraying.

There are gaps in the series, especially early on. The first issue included is volume 1, number 9, followed by number 13. That makes it harder to track Isaiah Thomas’s development of the newspaper from two pages three times a week to a typical four-page weekly.

The last issue now available digitally is at the end of 1774, before the war and Thomas’s relaunch in Worcester.

Searching this site can therefore generate interesting leads for research, but it doesn’t produce comprehensive results.

On the other hand, the Chronicling America database offers some advantages, starting with the fact that it’s free and easily searchable. It’s easy to move around from one page or issue to the next, and the images are crisp.

One feature I haven’t seen elsewhere is a display of a newspaper’s front pages in chronological order. Applying that to Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy in 1774 (Chronicling America is a stickler about formal periodical titles) shows how the “Join or Die” serpent joined its masthead on 7 July.

And then slithered off the masthead two weeks later, for no reason I can see, before returning for the rest of the year. That July, one issue came out on a Friday rather than the usual Thursday, while the next said it came out on Thursday but carried the Friday date. So the shop staff may just have been struggling to keep up and forgot the snake. [ADDENDUM: See comments for the real explanation for why the July issues in this display looked so odd.]


Gene Procknow said...


A potential reason why the Spy appeared on Friday instead of the usual Thursday is that the mail may have been late. I know that many colonial and early republic papers held their editions in the event of mail delays to incorporate the latest news.


J. L. Bell said...

The unusual Friday issue of the Spy in July 1774 started its local news by referring to the incoming newspapers, though it didn’t say explicitly that late arrivals were why that issue came out a day later than usual.

However, a closer look reveals why the snake wasn’t on one of the July mastheads. That’s actually a June issue, misdated in the Library of Congress database. So the Thomas print shop was much more careful than I initially thought.