Textual Indicators in the The Christian Recorder Ads

Slavery and the Civil War took a massive toll on African American families, who were often separated and scattered with little means to reunite.  After Emancipation in 1862, many people tried to track down lost relatives by placing Information Wanted ads in African American newspapers such as the Christian RecorderOur Digital History class transcribed a collection of these ads from papers published Dec, 1863 to Jun, 1869 and created a database with this material.  The Information Wanted ads generally ran for one issue, unless the advertiser paid for additional printings in a series of papers.  The ads vary in detail and length, and I saw a set of three questions rise from the collection as I worked with the database: Who was placing the ads? Where were they from? What were they saying? By filtering the textual information in the gathered data set, I saw some trends emerge in the numbers that answer these questions and supply supporting evidence for the state of African American literacy, particularly in the North.  The language in the original ads and the ads themselves may also demonstrate a reaction to major events that unfolded during Reconstruction.


To present my analysis for my first two questions, I decided visualization tools would work best for demonstrating the data. I first uploaded the Excel spreadsheet to Google Fusion Tables and using the filters in this tool to sort the data, I was able to see some emerging trends. I attempted to generate some demographic charts in this tool without much success. To accomplish the visualizations, I uploaded the data to a different free tool, Online Chart Tool, which easily generated the graphs I required. For my third question regarding the language of the advertisements, I selected three sample sets of transcribed texts from the Information Wanted ads, gathered from Accessible Archives, to run further analysis, using Voyant Tools.  I learned the following:

Who was placing the ads and where were they from?

Advertiser Gender

As shown, in our data set only a slight majority of the people posting the ads was male. This relatively even proportion is surprising, given, as Eric Gardner states, “If we omitted the large group of soldier-subscribers and those remaining unidentified, we could posit that the average Recorder subscriber was a married black man in his early 40s living in the Northeast, with significant church ties and children, and likely in the working class even if he held property.”  However, in his analysis of who the subscribers to the Christian Recorder were [1], Gardner also acknowledges that, “Men are somewhat overrepresented, partly because of the difficulty of tracing women’s name changes that accompanied marriages and partly because of other forms of gender bias in nineteenth-century record-keeping…. The number of subscribers represented diverse kinds of readers (and reading) and cannot be assumed to represent the totality of readers, given what we know about reading aloud and other text-sharing practices of the era.”  Readers may not necessarily have been subscribers, thus the advertisers of these Information Wanted ads may not have been subscribers either.  However, these men and women took an active role in supporting the Recorder by selecting it as the publication resource for their advertisement. The Recorder was produced in Philadelphia and had a high subscription rate in the surrounding area. The relative gender balance of those placing Information Wanted ads may have some connection to the location from which most of the ads were requested.

advertisers by state

Almost a third of the searches in our data set came from Pennsylvania, and of the advertisements with addresses provided, 105 of them were located in Philadelphia. Over two-thirds of the advertisers were located in northern free states.  As in other cities in the North at this time, African American literacy rates were significantly higher than in rural areas or in southern states. Given the strong presence of Quakers in Southeastern PA and their well-established tradition of schooling based on the principle of educating all people regardless of color or gender, more African Americans, including women, in this region were likely have been literate for generations and possess some financial means to place an ad in the newspaper.  Gardner states, “Recorder subscribers and black reading public crossed class boundaries much more than previous scholars thought.” I suggest that this data shows that readers of the Recorder also frequently crossed assumed gender boundaries as well. To conclude, the majority of the advertisers were African American men and women located in free states, most of whom possessed a basic or higher level of education.

So what did the texts of these ads demonstrate about the advertisers?

Considering the vast changes to African American rights in the 1860’s, in this questions I specifically was thinking about how the frequency of ads placed and the textual language of the ads might have changed over span of the data set. I needed to explore the data beyond what the spreadsheet showed, so I elected to transcribe sample sets of the actual ads. Based on when they were printed, I selected three sets of 20 Information Wanted ads from the data our class gathered and copied and pasted the text from Accessible Archives into a Word document, where I pooled the ads into each corpus, early, middle, and late, for analysis.

The first group of ads represents early ad text from December 1863- July 1865. The second group of middle ads is gathered from January 1866 to March 1866.  It should be noted that the time span for this group is significantly shorter than the first group, as the frequency of ads placed had more than tripled.  The last group of 20 ads is from the end of the data set, covering February to June of 1869.  I looked at the frequency trends for certain key words across the three groups and created the word cloud representations featured below. For all three text groups I filtered out generic stop words, plus one additional omnipresent term, “information.” I also considered blocking the word whereabouts, which is predominant in all three groups, but the term did not occur in every ad in the data set. Additionally, it suggests an ongoing specific desire to know location in addition to state of health and well-being, so I included it in the textual analysis.

The total number of words in my sample groups did not differ much: the first group had a total of 1389, the second had a sum of 1404 words, and the last group has the fewest words, 1244. The key terms I chose to consider across all three groups were sold, left, and taken. I selected these terms based on the prevailing reasons for family separation (if provided in the ads) according to the entire database, as represented here:

Reason for Separation

The transcriptions for the earlier ads feature a much higher occurrence, 13 times, of the word left, in comparison with the other two groups of ads. The word sold appears 3 times and taken appears once in the first group of 20.  In thinking about the connotation of each term, left is more vague and hints a possible reluctance to divulge too much information regarding movement of current or former slaves, even after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was not initially well received by many governing bodies. Slavery was still legal at the time these ads were printed, and the war was not officially over until April, 1865. Also, the prevalence of the terms years (12 times) also suggests that these separations in the early ads were not recent occurrences.

Text analysis cloud for 20 ads spanning from December 1863 to July 1865

Text analysis cloud for 20 ads spanning from December 1863 to July 1865

Full access to the tools and the corpus of the first 20 ads can be found here.

The middle 20 sample is drawn from ads printed 1866, which saw the greatest number of searches in the entire data set. Why might this be? 1865 and 1866 marked significant changes in law and social policy.  The 13th Amendment was enacted in January 1865, and over the course of that year, the number of searches in the Christian Recorder jumped from 13 to 111.  The federal government was also in the process of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which became law in early April. In 1866, the number of ads more than doubled from 1865’s total, peaking 250 individual searches. During the transcription process, I noticed that the March 1866 issues of the Recorder featured more than twice as many Information Wanted ads compared to the other issues used in the other two data sets. This spike in advertisements coincides with the overturning of President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the civil rights bill by two-thirds majority in Congress.

Years bar

In the sample set from 1866, shown below, the word taken appears once. Sold appears 5 times, which is a slight increase. However, Left is used only twice and does not appear on the word cloud.  Another term used in reference to slavery, belonged is used 4 times.  These occurrences suggest that the advertisers in 1866 were becoming more open about specific details in regards to the people they were searching for.  In this middle set of texts, confidence and hope for recovery and reunion seemed to be increasing.

mid 20

Text analysis cloud for 20 ads placed during 1866, the peak year for searches.

Full access to the tools and the corpus of the middle 20 ads can be found here:

The last 20 ads marks significant increases in key terms: sold appears 10 times, taken appears 4 times, and left is used twice -in conjunction with military service.  In the last group, requests for ministers to read the ad for their congregations increases, with the word ministers appearing 9 times and congregations occurring 5 times.  Another prominent word of note in this cloud, address, saw a steady rise in use from just twice in the early group, to 7 times in the middle group, and 13 times in the late group of ads.  This may indicate that African Americans were better able to settle at an established address as the decade wore on, suggesting that the quality of life and social standings were on the rise for African Americans in the North during Reconstruction.

Text analysis of the last 20 ads from our data set, spanning February to June of 1869.

Text analysis of the last 20 ads from our data set, spanning February to June of 1869.

Full access to the tools and the corpus of the last 20 ads can be found here.

To conclude, the Information Wanted ads in the Christian Recorder supply valuable indicators of the progress of African American life during the decade of emancipation. The texts of these ads form an unusual collection of individually authored voices reaching out across a broad geographic region, and they resonate with personal experiences of the abolition of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction.  The Christian Recorder was not the only African American publication to print Information Wanted ads, so this can be viewed as a representative example of a larger movement toward literacy and autonomy for blacks in the United States.

 Cited Resources:

[1] Eric Gardner. “Remembered (Black) Readers: Subscribers to the Christian Recorder, 1864–1865.” American Literary History 23, no. 2 (2011): 229-259. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed July 31, 2014).





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