Reevaluating source material and interpretation

APS Fellowship

It’s been a couple of weeks since I reported in with an update on my work at the APS, and what an eventful two weeks it has been. Buckle your seatbelts, folks.

Having transcribed roughly 10% of the 372 pages of the post office book, my supervisor Scott Ziegler and I realized that the transcription process was moving pretty slowly (see my last update on some of the practical issues I’ve run into while transcribing the book). Although I’m not engaging in a transcription process as detailed as would be required for bibliography or textual analysis,1 I still have to decipher lots of puzzles and figure out how to best render them in a form that can be analyzed as pure data. This is very time consuming, requiring up to an half-hour per page. At this rate, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the transcription anyway. Instead, we decided that the bulk of my remaining time on this project should be used primarily for research, interpretation, and thinking creatively about the application of data visualization techniques.

Pennsylvania Gazette (May 9, 1754)

A 1754 issue of Benjamin Franklin's newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Image in the public domain.

I have made a lot of headway on these fronts, and I’ve really enjoyed the research process. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m most interested in the human beings behind the data, and figuring out what I can about them and their lives from the postal records. I began my approach to figuring this out by identifying the most frequent Post Office users from my transcribed spreadsheet of data so far. My hypothesis was that “the regulars” would be merchants, so I dug into contemporary newspapers- local titles like the _American Weekly Mercury, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Woechentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote as well as issues of the New-York Gazette and the Boston Post-Boy, all of which are handily digitized and available through Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database.

It soon became evident that based on the information so far transcribed, my hypothesis was correct. Of the 21 most frequently occurring names of individuals, 15 were explicitly described as merchants, and several more were or had been ship captains involved in the import of goods. Two were lawyers. Having established that this tack might be fruitless in terms of uncovering anything not already known, I took a step back and reevaluated my source material, asking: what exactly can this data tell me? I came up with a short list:

  1. Most obviously! Who received mail, and where it came from, geographically
  2. Who picked up their mail, and who didn’t (The postal system at this time required payment upon receipt of a letter or package, and this is recorded in the ledger.)
  3. Who was receiving official government mail (This is the only mail that did not require postage, and is indicated as “free” or “paid” in the ledger.)
  4. The weight, and therefore number of sheets of paper, of the average postal transaction (For instance, the majority of items weighed less than 10 pennyweight, which by my math translates to just over half an ounce)
  5. The relative amount of postal interchange between Philadelphia and other cities (For instance, the amount of mail sent to and received from Boston was much more prolific than that to/from Williamsburg.)

Feeling slightly more optimistic about the utility of the data, and therefore more inspired to do creative things with it, I set about plugging the geographic coordinates of locations named in the ledger into the Google Maps API to get a sense of where the most mail seemed to be coming from. This are screenshots of my result, as a cluster map:

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So far, so good. But how else could I depict the information in the ledger book in a meaningful way? In assembling short biographical sketches of the colonial Philadelphia Post Office power users, I found references to the relative locations of their shops and homes- I say relative, because I hadn’t really ever realized that our current system of house numbers and street addresses is a product of the USPS. This ledger predates individual addresses and so locations are described as “in Second-Street opposite the Friends Meeting House.”2

Yikes, how frustrating, huh? But wait a minute… I remembered that I’d come across a 1762 map of Philadelphia annotated with the names of individual shipping wharves and important places. It would be very cool if I could demonstrate the varying locations of the shops and homes and triangulate that with the location of the Post-Office, at the time inside of Benjamin Franklin’s printing office. I wasn’t sure how to go about it, but I am lucky to be surrounded with a lot of very smart people at APS. I got to talking with one of those folks, Steve Marti, the Digital Humanities Fellow, who has been working on a series of interactive visualizations of Eastern State Penitentiary admissions records. Per his suggestions, I plan to use LeafletJS to layer the historic map on a modern one, and pinpoint the locations of shops and homes of frequent postal service users to see if physical proximity to the Post-Office may have played a role in who utilized its services.

This map-building effort will occupy the remaining few days of my fellowship, in addition to some data-tidying and writing a brief summary of my findings.

I don’t know if I’ve yet addressed the issue of silences that I ruminated on in my last post and have spent countless hours considering over the course of the fellowship. Last week, thinking about this very issue, I remembered Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s oft-misquoted statement that “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Ulrich’s call to arms was not an appeal for anarcha-feminism as commonly interpreted. Instead, it was a plea for historians to start writing about those everyday, common women whose traces are all over primary source materials but whom are often ignored in pursuit of other stories. If I can’t fill those academic silences with scholarship in a field that is not my specialty, I can at least make the primary sources that feature these overlooked historical actors more accessible, more obvious, less easy to disregard. Maybe someday someone will uncover Jubbah’s story, because this volume is now freely available. I’d feel pretty okay with that.

Total hours: 112


  1. Just in case you’re curious about “true” transcription and/or bibliography, I recommend a review of the short, practical volume An Introduction to Bibliographic & Textual Studies by William Proctor Williams and Craig S. Abbott. I personally find the process very satisfying and engaging, but it’s not appropriate for the purposes of this data set in this context!
  2. Address of Joshua Maddox, Esq., per the Pennsylvania Gazette, March 5, 1754.