Carl Robert Keyes (@TradeCardCarl) is an associate professor of history at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Keyes is currently writing a book on advertising practices and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America, and in Fall 2016 he will become the director of Assumption College’s Women’s Studies Program. Keyes has previously written several guest posts for The Junto. Today, Keyes speaks with The Junto about his new digital humanities initiative, The Adverts 250 Project.
JUNTO: For those who are unfamiliar with Adverts250, can you tell us a bit about the project?
CARL ROBERT KEYES: The Adverts 250 Project explores the history of advertising in eighteenth century America by featuring a new advertisement and brief commentary every day. When possible, the advertisement was published exactly 250 years ago on that date, but since newspapers were printed only once a week in the 1760s I sometimes have to “cheat” and feature an advertisement from 250 years ago that week, but I always use the most recently published newspaper available in my college’s subscription to Early American Newspapers.
In addition, once a week I provide a longer reflection on the origins of the project and my methodology. This is intended to be a behind-the-scenes view for both fellow scholars and the general public.
JUNTO: How does Adverts250 relate to your research interests?
KEYES: Beyond the blog, I am working on a book about advertising, marketing, and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America. Adverts 250 could be considered a preview or a snapshot. The book will cover the entire eighteenth century (though with significantly more attention to the final decades, reflecting the explosion of both print and advertising that took place in the Revolutionary era). It will also examine other advertising media, including magazine wrappers, trade cards, billheads, book catalogues, broadsides, and furniture labels. I argue that Americans encountered a rich textual and visual landscape of advertising in the eighteenth century.
JUNTO: What is one of your favorite advertisements that you have featured in the project so far?
KEYES: Definitely the advertisement from January 6 from the New-York Gazette: “TO be Sold by the Maker from London, the Right Yorkshire MUFFINS, hot twice a Day; at Mrs. Lewis’s, in Broad-Street, next Door to Captain Tuder’s.” It looks like a fairly inconsequential advertisement at first glance, especially since it is so brief. I initially chose it with intentions of saying something about the convenience of being able to purchase these muffins “hot twice a Day.”
Little did I realize just how much I would learn from this advertisement. Honestly, I didn’t know exactly what “Right Yorkshire MUFFINS” were (but they were important enough for either “the Maker” or the printer to capitalize “MUFFINS”), so I turned to my favorite search engine for some help. That’s when I discovered that the muffins are now much better known as Yorkshire pudding.
This opened up a whole new world for me, and I hope that my commentary helped to open up the eighteenth century to readers in new ways. I offered a short history of Yorkshire pudding, including links to eighteenth-century cookbooks that featured recipes. I examined how the name had changed over time, including its origins as “Dripping Pudding.” I included a photo as well as a link to a more extensive history that included a modern recipe. I also contemplated how this seemingly simple advertisement evoked some of the tastes and smells that would have been common in a busy port city.
That was not the end of it for that entry. To my delight, I discovered a collectable cigarette trading card featuring a street hawker from a “Cries of London” series. “Buy My Right Yorkshire Cakes. Buy My Muffins,” the street hawker proclaimed. I loved that a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century marketing campaign dovetailed with my featured advertisement from more than a century earlier.
JUNTO: You are relatively new to digital humanities or, as you have put it, are a “recovering Luddite.” You joined Twitter within the last year and started Adverts250 on October 24. What led you to take these leaps?
KEYES: I first joined Twitter (@TradeCardCarl) when I participated in the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Workshop (and Conference) last spring. The organizers encouraged us to tweet and use the #DAW15 hashtag throughout the week. Because I am such a novice I was intimidated by many of the other participants in the workshop, scholars who have contributed to major digital humanities initiatives. Fortunately, there were some other “newbies” in the workshop. The instructors, Molly O’Hagan Hardy (digital humanities curator, AAS) and Thomas Augst (English, New York University), developed a program for scholars interested in digital humanities regardless of their previous experience or expertise. They wanted to meet us where we were and help us to develop new skills rather than offer an advanced class to an elite cohort.
That was one important influence, but the work that Juntoist Joseph M. Adelman did with his students last semester, the Stamp Act at 250 on Twitter, was also instructive and inspiring. Although Adelman acknowledges that others have devised similar assignments, the idea of real-time updates of an historical event was new to me since I had only recently joined Twitter. One day it dawned on me that Early American Newspapers offered an extensive archive of newspaper advertisements for daily updates, leading to the #Adverts250 hashtag on Twitter. In turn, Molly Hardy offered her advice: “This is a great project, but it needs a more permanent home, something less ephemeral than Twitter. You need a website.” She recommended WordPress for a beginner like me.
JUNTO: Any words of advice for your fellow “recovering Luddites” who may be considering joining Twitter or starting their own digital humanities projects?
KEYES: I’ve always considered “just get out there and do it” to be trite and unhelpful advice, but I’m going to offer it here. I initially found Twitter very disorienting and avoided it as a result, but learning to “read” and use Twitter is not all that different from learning to read an eighteenth-century ledger or use a database like Early American newspapers. It takes a little practice, but when you become more familiar with its various elements all of a sudden it just clicks into place.
I also recommend starting with small projects. There’s no way I could conjure up some of the projects the more experienced members of the Digital Antiquarian Workshop are pursuing, but the Adverts 250 Project is something I can handle, and I’m hoping it prepares me for other projects in the future.
JUNTO: How have Twitter and Adverts250 led you to engage with new audiences? How have these new audiences and these new mediums led you to think differently about your research?
KEYES: Most of my work has had a relatively narrow audience in the past: fellow participants at conferences or other scholars of early America who happen to read the same journals out of professional interest. Those methods of disseminating my work have been valuable and they have garnered productive conversations, but they tend to be both infrequent and intense. Posting a daily update and brief analysis on Twitter and a blog, on the other hand, has allowed for shorter, yet equally helpful, conversations, with others in the academy, with independent scholars, and with interested members of the general public.
That’s been great because other scholars are not the only audience I am hoping to attract. I want to provide analysis and commentary that is engaging for people who use history who don’t happen to be teachers or professors, and I would like it to be accessible for non-historians. I certainly want to do more than just post an image of an advertisement that happened to be published on this date 250 years ago. I want to say more than “isn’t that nifty?” I aim to comment on each advertisement in such a way that general audiences understand and appreciate its significance, rather than engage in an esoteric conversation solely with other early Americanists. This has prompted me to ask how I might write differently for a blog than for a journal or conference.
JUNTO: I’m curious about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into Adverts250. How do you select which advertisements to feature? Do you draft the tweets and blog posts in batches, or do you draft new installments one at a time? How do you balance your work on the project with your other research and teaching obligations?
KEYES: I have three guiding principles for selecting advertisements. First, as I already mentioned, it should be an advertisement published on that date or as soon before that date as possible. Second, it should be an advertisement not previously featured. Finally, there needs to be at least one aspect of the advertisement that makes it noteworthy in some way. That could range from making a particular kind of appeal to consumers to promoting goods or services that I want to explore in more detail to the format and what it suggests about the role printers played in shaping eighteenth-century advertising. Whenever possible, I also attempt to move around geographically and avoid featuring one newspaper to the exclusion of others.
I’m at a liberal arts college, a teaching school with a 4-3 load, which often does not leave a lot of time for research and writing during the academic year. Working on this project offers an opportunity to be a productive scholar as well as an engaged teacher on a daily basis. Even if it’s only 150 words for that day’s featured advertisement, at least I accomplish some writing.
This means that even though I tend to select one or two weeks of advertisements at one time, I generally prefer to write the commentary about them one at a time rather than in batches. (On the other hand, I have a honeymoon coming up in July. I’ll definitely be writing in batches in advance of that!) I like to have the blog post done at least a day in advance, but I never do the accompanying Twitter post until the day the advertisement is featured. I like the sense of spontaneity when I’m distilling the commentary down to 140 characters, plus that gives me another chance to engage each advertisement and perhaps see something new.
JUNTO: What is your vision for the future of Adverts250?
KEYES: Adverts 250 will be featuring some guest contributions in the near future (and I’m happy to hear from others who would like to become a guest contributor). I’d also like to more regularly feature other forms of eighteenth-century advertisements.
I am currently teaching an introductory public history course. Starting January 31, my students will take turns curating Adverts 250, each for a week. I’m excited about the possibilities this opens up for working on writing and research skills, and I’m hoping that this is a way to approach those essential skills that students will enjoy and perhaps even consider fun. We’ve had an in-class workshop to learn how to use the Early American Newspapers database, accessible via the campus library’s website. Students are also learning about publication practices as they map out which newspapers were published on which days during the week they are curating.
Once they’ve developed their research skills, students will choose which seven advertisements they wish to feature. They’ll also write a brief analysis (125-150 words) explaining the significance of each advertisement and why they chose it. I’ll have one-on-one meetings with each student to suggest revisions before posting their work. In addition, I’ll continue to write my own commentary about each advertisement.
I hope that this not only gets at the collaborative nature of doing public history work, but also provides new insights by having contributors with differing levels of expertise and knowledge about the eighteenth century. I realize that I make assumptions and take things for granted because I have become so familiar with the eighteenth century, so I am hoping that my students will make interesting observations and raise some astute questions.