Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“AGNES … is a fair straight made lusty Mulatto, and has small breasts.”
When the Virginia Gazette made its debut in the Adverts 250 Project a week ago, I opted to feature a genre of advertisements – those seeking the return of runaways – rather than a particular advertisement. Accompanied by crude woodcuts, runaway advertisements were easy to identify at a glance. I remarked how startling it seemed to see nine runaway advertisements on a single page of the Virginia Gazette. As David Waldstreicher has argued, slavery, commerce, and print culture were bound together in eighteenth-century America.
Runaway advertisements presented an alternate means of placing black bodies on display in early America, first by describing them in great detail and then by encouraging readers to carefully surveil the black men and women they encountered. In the case of Agnes (also known as Agie), this amounted to more than noticing her garments (“a striped red, white, and yellow calamanco gown, a short white linen sack, petticoat of the same, a pair of stays with fringed blue riband, a large pair of silver buckles”). It also included attention to physical features, such as “a small scar over one of her eyes.”
Yet the descriptions could sometimes be far more intimate and invasive, especially as white colonists characterized black and mulatto women’s bodies. According to today’s advertisement, Agnes was “a fair straight made lusty Mulatto, and has small breasts.” Even as the advertiser acknowledged one of the essential aspects of Agnes’ womanhood, he deprived her of the consideration and deference that would have been shown to most white women (especially middling and elite white women) when describing them in conversation or in print. Calling specific attention to the size of Agnes’ breasts served to further commodify her rather than humanize her.
N.B. Notice that this advertisement states that Agnes ran away in the middle of January, yet it was published nearly four months later in early May. I hope that she made good on her escape permanently.