A few days ago a country gentleman, at a coffee-house, having a news-paper in his hand, said to another who sat next to him. “I have been looking some time to see what the M—y are about about, but I cannot find where those articles are put, not being used to the London papers.” To which the other answered, “Look among the robberies.”
I’ve been spending the week at the Library Company, working on Philadelphia newspapers for my single-year project. There are always lots of things to say about using newspapers as sources, but two things have been weighing on me this trip.
First of all, the organization of “news” in these papers replicates the double-consciousness that Bailyn and Clive famously argued was the peculiar burden and benefit of the provincial, whether that provincial was located in Scotland or North America.
What I mean is that the “local” components of newspapers in both Edinburgh and Philadelphia (meaning advertisements, political news, and the usual calendar of anniversaries and celebrations are distinctly subordinate to the London news, which includes the comings and goings of royalty and the royal family, the ups and downs of the ministry, military and especially naval operations, and even the internal divisions of the opposition. (In the year that I’ve been following, I was curious about how much space was devoted to the internal jealousies of the Whig grandees or even among Wilkes and his rivals at the Society for the Bill of Rights.)
The other side to this is the relatively small space given over to local events, at least in the period I’m looking. When London news seems to dry up, the papers seem to contain mostly advertisements (which of course have their own appeal and interest to the historically minded).
The other property of these papers that’s really impressed me is the complete fragmentation of the temporal horizon of these papers. For one thing, the Philadelphia papers seem to consistently operate with a 3-4 month lag time in relation to their London news.
The putative issue date of any Philadelphia paper acts only as a convenience, whereas the reports contained therein refer to a multitude of observations, “intelligences,” “reports,” letters and extracts of letters, from correspondents from all over the world: Ancona, Constantinople, Lisbon, the Hague, Bridge-town, and so forth. These reports contain a baffling mixture of more or less up-to-date reports, but everyone seems able to make allowances for the distance traveled and the difficulties of transmission. One interesting gesture of verification found in these items is to inform the reader of the names of the Ship and Captain that carried the news, along with the date.
All this is probably old hat to the historians who work with these sources all the time, but I’ve been interested in elaborating concretely on arguments like Benedict Anderson about the temporalizations made possible by print distribution on an imperial scale. It’s tempting to say that it made possible a certain kind of simultaneity never before seen, as provincial cultures tried to emulate metropolitan fashion, dress, customs, etc., largely by using information like the newspapers to “keep up” with the changes happening offshore. But the condition of being a provincial is to experience those changes as taking place elsewhere, while the changes happening around one go largely unnoticed.