What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“DAVID & JOHN DEAS, HAVE JUST IMPORTED … an assortment of other goods.”
Contrary to what this short advertisement, rather plain and unremarkable in its appearance, may suggest, David and John Deas made their mark on the history of advertising thanks to the infamous broadsides (what we would call posters today) that they distributed in Charleston, South Carolina, in the decade before the American Revolution.
Not much distinguishes this advertisement for textiles, including “A LARGE supply of WHITE and COLOURED PLAINS,” from other commercial notices about imported goods that appeared in the same issue of the South Carolina Gazette. David and John Deas are much better remembered (and not just by scholars who specialize in economic history or advertising) for this broadside that circulated in Charleston and beyond nearly three years later.
This broadside measures 32 x 20 cm (12 ½ x 8 in), which would have made it a good size to post around town or pass out as a handbill. The woodcuts depicting “PRIME, HEALTHY NEGROES” and the graphic design are both crude, but exceptionally memorable, at least to modern viewers. The haunting images of Africans treated as commodities elicit emotional responses today, but that would not necessarily have been the case in the 1760s. While it would have been impossible not to notice the images on the broadside, colonial consumers would not have been shocked by advertisements treating people as commodities. Accustomed to trade cards and billheads with images more skillfully and effectively rendered, colonists likely would not taken particularly favorable notice of the artistic or aesthetic qualities of the broadside.
David and John Deas’s newspaper advertisement for textiles did not indicate any direct involvement with the slave trade, though the merchandise they stocked made them part of transatlantic networks of commerce and consumption that depended on human cargoes and the staple crops produced through the labor of enslaved men, women, and children. Still, the juxtaposition of their newspaper advertisement and their broadside offers an important reminder that advertisements often provide evidence concerning only a portion of a shopkeeper’s, merchant’s, or firm’s business enterprises. How many other advertisers who promoted general merchandise via their advertisements at one time or another imported and auctioned slaves?