A Video Tour of a 1791 Newspaper


November 11, 2021
by Bridget Barbara Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

One of the most effective ways to immerse yourself in history is to read old newspapers—to read the goings-on of the past, written in present tense. Before the internet, television, and radio, this was the primary means of disseminating information to the masses. And so, to hold a newspaper, printed many lifetimes ago, to delve into the stories of the day, to observe the particular language used, is a rare experience one can actually share with someone from that time. You’re reading the news exactly as they would have read it. Even the most mundane notices, like objects for sale or obituaries, afford the modern reader the most pleasing tidbits of historical minutiae found almost nowhere else.

This particular newspaper of mine is the Columbia Sentinel from Boston, Massachusetts, dated May 14, 1791. That’s just fifteen years after the United States declared independence. George Washington was still president! It is indescribably fascinating to read the words of a nascent country, so I invite you to join me as I read aloud some of the highlights: everything from political discussions to satirical essays to advertisements and strange deaths.



  • For those interested in more historical newspaper articles from the Revolutionary War, I recommend Todd Andrlik’s book, “Reporting The Revolutionary War”. It is an oversize 384-page book, originally published in 2012 for $40. You can find it on abebooks.com for $7 and Amazon, as a used book, for as little as $3.

  • Duck is cotton sail cloth used to make ships sails. Or duck is now called canvas. Hop this will assist, RiK Rydant

  • I am curious what percentage of the citizens in 1791 were able to read. Public schools had not yet been established. Were daughters as well as sons attending school or just families who could afford schools?

  • Duck is a type of canvas. Thanks for the history trip. I have a number of ancestors who may have read that very paper. My 2nd gr-grandfather worked in several newspapers and owned one called Silver World in the 1870’s at Lake City, Colorado. I have been able to ready a number of editions and delight in doing so. They too were a single broadsheet of 4 printed pages, published weekly.

  • My guess for the Almanacker is Poor Richard (aka Ben Franklin) himself. This is the year after his demise on April 17, 1790.

    Triennial meetings of the Society always happened in Philadelphia, at the start. There is no Boston meeting til 1872. https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/triennial-meetings/ Gen. Henry Knox is essentially the founder of the organization and leads the meetings until Washington’s death in 1799. The first general meeting convened in Philadelphia in May 1784, and lasted two weeks. I believe the reference to the President and Vice-President is to Washington and Adams, respectively. But you can find that Thomas Mifflin would have taken over for Horatio Gates as Vice President General for the Society by this time: https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/officers-1783-present/.

  • Another collection of early American newspapers can be found in “Early American Newspapers and their printers 1715-1783” by Charles and Lois Apfelbaum, 300 pages, published by Appletree Press, Valley Stream NY, in 1980. They reproduce 50 complete newspapers, the great majority of them from the Revolutionary War period. The Apfelbaums were rare book and manuscript dealers. Unfortunately, this oversize book is rather rare and current copies are going for between $100 and $350 right now.

  • Miss Bridget,
    My vote would be for you to continue to present these “readings from scripture”. Very educational and you make it enjoyable … reminds me of my youth when the Librarian would read to us kids; the “storyteller” was at least half of the experience.
    I have a conservation question – was that the ORIGINAL newspaper? And, if so, would it have been advisable to be handling the paper with cotton gloves?

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