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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Sunday, May 21, 2023

Reporting from Rennsylvania

Yesterday at History Camp Valley Forge, the first presentation I attended was Ryan Strause’s talk about correcting the record on the Pennsylvania Gazette’s “JOIN, or DIE.” image from 1754.

Most of this talk was about Strause’s personal story of noticing a misperception that affected reproductions of Benjamin Franklin’s emblem and doggedly urging institutions to correct it.

The underlying historical story is quicker but might hold wider lessons.

Back in 1754, one copy of the Pennsylvania Gazette was printed on paper that had a speck in it. Unluckily, this speck was right next to the “P.” for Pennsylvania in the snake cartoon. That made the “P.” on that copy look on a first glance like an “R”.

Even more unluckily, that one copy of the Gazette page ended up in the collection of the Library of Congress. That institution’s image was easy to find and to reproduce, with no permission fees. And in black-and-white reproductions, the “P.” with a speck looked even more like an “R.”

By the early 21st century, if not before, the Library of Congress’s cataloguing information even said the letters along the snake were “S.C., N.C., V., M., R., N.J., N.Y., N.E.” And that of course appeared to be an authoritative source.

As a result, many modern reproductions of the cartoon, whether photographic or recreated, showed an “R” in place of a “P.”

Even though an “R” made no sense historically. Even though other surviving copies of the same printed page showed the “P.” Even though period artwork based on the 1754 Pennsylvania Gazette image showed the “P.”

Thanks for Strause’s efforts, the Library of Congress’s cataloguing information has been corrected, and the correction is presumably working its way through the culture, like a snake digesting a rodent.

For a while yet, though, we’ll still see “S.C., N.C., V., M., R., N.J., N.Y., N.E.” flags, beach towels, T-shirts, and textbook illustrations.


Don Carleton said...

Like what colony outside Rhode Island began with an "R" anyway?

And all the NE colonies are grouped together!

J. L. Bell said...

For people raised on the thirteen colonies of the 1770s, this snake from 1754 presents a lot of problems. No Delaware. No Georgia. The four New England colonies grouped as one (at least they got to be the head). In those circumstances, I can imagine someone seeing an image which seems to show a definite “R” and just throwing their hands up in the air and deciding there must be some unfathomable 1754 reason.

Anonymous said...

Delaware wasn't separated from Pennsylvania until 1776.

Ryan W Strauss said...

Spending seven years researching this little snake, brings answers to a few of these questions. Georgia was a newly formed penal colony that enacted very few pieces of legislation and had little to offer the cooperative efforts to unite “in defense against” the French and their native allies. The colonies had their own native allies. Drleware shared a governor with Pennsylvania. New England was already cooperating in many ares. Ben Franklin was hoping the rest would cooperate together. He referred to the problem as the disunited state of the colonies. Franklin later changed the slogan to Unite, or Die. The last three words of History Camp by a Park Ranger were “conquer or die”. Please search and read Geo. Washington’s address to the Continental Army on July 2, 1776. It will make you pause and be appreciative of everyone who had the foresight to create this great country and fight to the death, if that is what it took, for the cause of freedom. Many of my ancestors of the 85 identified in Berks Co. PA since the early 1700s served in the wars that firmed and preserved that freedom. Most importantly, the rattle snake, one of the earliest representations of the colonies, warned before striking and then only in defense. Have a blessed Memorial Day. PS Mt Vernon lists the address by Washington to have been delivered in August. Conquer or Die was used at least 6 times by Washington. Looks like there are more errors to correct.