April 21

GUEST CURATOR: Trevor Delp

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 21 - 4:21:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 21, 1766)

“A sprightly, active Negro Woman about 24 Years of Age.”

This advertisement offered an African American woman in her early twenties who could fulfill the duties of “House Business.” Initially this advertisement shocked me, because at the top a sloop (one-masted sailboat) was for sale, yet just beneath that a woman was for sale. The normality of this pairing seems completely unfathomable to me. To read an advertisement for a ship that then immediately jumped to selling a woman seems absurd. To dehumanize someone to the point of equating her to a ship is a hard concept for modern readers to grasp. To most readers of the time, however, this would not have been so disconcerting.

There is a common misconception in the United States that the northern colonies were free of slavery. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, it was not until 1771 that the “Massachusetts Colonial assembly passes a resolution calling for the end of the importation of African slaves into the colony. Governor Thomas Hutchinson refuses the measure.” During the late eighteenth century in the north there were early attempts to eradicate slavery, but they were not always generally supported. According to an article written by Nicholas Boston and Jennifer Hallam, “By 1804, all Northern states had voted to abolish the institution of slavery within their borders. In most of these states, however, abolition was not immediate.” Boston and Hallam go on to explain that it took until the first half of the nineteenth century for many African Americans in the North to achieve status as free people.

In the late eighteenth century slaves began achieving their freedom in Massachusetts through judicial law. In the case of Quock Walker, Walker sued for his freedom after being beaten by a man claiming to be his master after his then-deceased master had promised him his freedom. In 1781, the court found that Walker was indeed free under the state constitution, making it evident that the Massachusetts court system now viewed slaves equal in the eyes of the law. When this advertisement was posted in 1766, slavery in Massachusetts was just starting to become scrutinized and a judicial debate. In the years following, advertisements like this one would become less and less popular up until the North’s complete abolition of slavery during the nineteenth century.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

I agree with Trevor. It is jarring to see a sloop and an enslaved woman offered together in the same advertisement, both of them items for sale from an eighteenth-century perspective. While I believe that Trevor tells the more important story in making and elaborating on that observation, this advertisement also offers an opportunity to examine the manner in which colonists used print and thought about the placement of advertisements in newspapers.

Today we usually expect advertisements to have a single purpose or, at the very least, for all the elements to tie together in some cohesive way. In the eighteenth century, however, advertisers bought a certain amount of space – often a “square” or multiple squares – and inserted whatever information they wished to bring to public attention. Sometimes the separate parts of a square were related; other times they were not. Earlier this week, for instance, Trevor examined an advertisement in which a shopkeeper first issued a call that he wanted to purchase “POT-ASH” before launching a lengthier promotion of the goods he sold. In today’s advertisement, the sloop and the enslaved woman were only tenuously linked: they were both “items” for sale by the same auctioneer.

That auctioneer happened to be one of the printers of the Boston Evening-Post. It’s telling that even those who produced the newspaper did not see any need to divide up the announcements of these sales. In general, an assortment of advertisements with varying purposes appeared mixed together and undifferentiated in colonial newspapers. Neither printers nor readers expected any system of classification that placed similar advertisements together on the page.

Trevor was shocked by the advertisement as it appears above. We discussed his reaction during a meeting in my office before he wrote about it. Earlier this week he submitted a draft of today’s entry, which I approved with some minor revisions. It was not until this morning, however, when I examined the entire issue of the Boston Evening-Post in order to gain more context in preparation of writing my own commentary that I discovered that today’s advertisement was actually a portion of a longer advertisement, but the database had divided it in half. (Given the format of the advertisement, it’s understandable why that happened.) The entire advertisement also included a “Public Vendue” for seventy bolts of damaged fabric. For me, this makes the advertisement Trevor chose even more stark: an enslaved woman appeared last in an advertisement for a ship and damaged goods being sold so the insurers could recoup some of their losses.

Apr 21 - Entire Advert
Boston Evening-Post (April 21, 1766).

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