How Pennsylvania Got an “R”

This is a guest post by Claire Dekle, Senior Book Conservator in the Conservation Division.

The influential “Join, or Die” cartoon first appeared in the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. It represented the British North American colonies as a severed snake cut into eight segments, with the New England region as its head. Benjamin Franklin published the cartoon along with an editorial urging colonial political unity in relation to conflict and negotiations with the French and the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. He was joined by others in arguing for greater unified action during the Albany Congress that convened in June, resulting in the Albany Plan of Union of July 10, 1754. The woodcut was widely reprinted. It became a popular iconic rallying cry for colonial unity leading into the American Revolution.

Detail, Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, PA) May 9, 1754. Newspaper bound volume 1274, Serial and Government Publications Division, The Library of Congress.

Detail, Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, PA) May 9, 1754. Newspaper bound volume 1274, Serial and Government Publications Division, The Library of Congress.

When a sharp-eyed researcher found that his reproduction Colonial-era flag identified the Pennsylvania colony by the abbreviation “R” rather than “P,” he knew something was wrong…and he wanted to know why. He traced the source of the image used on his flag to the Library of Congress, then contacted the Library to call attention to the historical inaccuracy and to correct it. Since the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette is part of the Historical Newspapers of the Serials Division’s U.S. Newspaper Collections, the head of the Newspaper Section asked Conservation for help in responding to the inquiry.

At first glance, the historical cartoon does seem to label the section of the snake representing Pennsylvania with an “R.” But a closer look, assisted by magnification, reveals that the leg of the “R” is not part of the cartoon. It’s not even printing ink. What it is — a tiny piece of stem or other plant matter embedded in the paper of the Gazette. Papermakers and conservators sometimes call this type of impurity an “inclusion” or “shive.” Impurities are common in eighteenth-century handmade paper, especially in paper of the quality used for newspapers. By the oddest coincidence, this inclusion was in the precise location to transform the appearance of the letter “P” to “R.”

Photomicrograph of the “P” representing Pennsylvania, scale bar = 1 mm. Photo courtesy of Claire Dekle.

Photomicrograph of the “P” representing Pennsylvania, scale bar = 1 mm.
Claire Dekle, Conservation Division, 2022.

The conservator explained that the inclusion was a fragment of a component of the paper, which had escaped being beaten into particles small enough to disappear in the fibrous papermaking mixture that was diluted and formed into sheets of paper. In the view seen through the microscope lens, the printing ink is on top of the inclusion, compelling evidence that the inclusion was part of the paper of this particular issue when the cartoon was printed onto it. The leg of the R isn’t an inaccuracy. Instead it’s part of history, and the history of the paper.

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