October 4

GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Curley

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

Providence Gazette (October 4, 1766).

“To be sold at Public Vendue … One Joseph Hart!

This advertisement announced “One Joseph Hart” would be sold into servitude for three years as punishment for stealing “sundry goods from Mr. Obadiah Sprague.” After an auction at the Providence jail, Hart would give up a few years of his life to someone else to work off his crimes as a convict servant. The second half of the advertisement included a brief physical description and a description of the crimes that he committed. This way that the person who purchased and brought him into their service would know what type of person that they were bringing into their home. This also allowed them to see what type of jobs he would be able to do. Since he was “a stout able-bodied active man,”,Hart would have been able to do or assist with any job that his future master bought him for.   These possible jobs could have ranged from blacksmith to carpentry to farming.

The court systems in colonial America had varied punishments.   Today some of them would seem cruel, but then they were commonplace consequences. According to James A. Cox in “Bilboes, Brands, and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments,” sometimes criminals had an ear nailed to the pillory, were dragged along from the stern of a boat, or branded on the hand for stealing, as well as many other punishments that today would be considered cruel and inhumane. As we see with Joseph Hart, another common form of “paying” for crimes was through a form of indentured servitude.   Vengeance and humiliation were the background idea for many of these punishments. The public and the punished would remember and hopefully not do it again. In colonial America, the factor of shame was added because punishments took place in public so that anyone could see.   In addition, placing an advertisement in the newspaper was a very public way to shame Hart and his family, as was the public auction for someone to “buy” his time. Becoming a convict servant would have been embarrassing, but Hart may have seen it as a preferred way to avoid bodily harm as punishment.



In selecting this notice about a “Public Vendue” to auction off “One Joseph Hart” as a convict servant for a period of three years, Elizabeth chose an advertisement that looks quite different from most featured by the Adverts 250 Project. I briefly contemplated asking her to choose a different advertisement, one that more explicitly demonstrated how entrepreneurs used advertising to incite demand and fuel the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. However, I would not have dissuaded her from selecting advertisements in which people were treated as commodities. Quite the contrary, I have encouraged all the guest curators to grapple with advertisements that sought to buy and sell indentured servants and enslaved men, women, and children. This announcement about an auction for a convict servant – a punishment doled out by the Superior Court as punishment for the crimes Joseph Hart committed – further demonstrates how easily and casually people could be bought and sold in eighteenth-century America, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, race, or color of their skin.

That was reason enough to approve this advertisement when Elizabeth presented it, but the nature of Hart’s crime confirmed that this advertisement merited inclusion in the Adverts 250 Project. What crime had Hart committed that prompted the Superior Court to order that he be “sold at Public Vendue” in order to “satisfy the damages and costs of his prosecution and conviction?” Hart was guilty of “stealing sundry goods from Mr. Obadiah Sprague.” Not all colonists participated in the consumer revolution in the same manner. They certainly did not have the same access to the myriad of goods produced and exchanged throughout the Atlantic world. Other advertisements that appeared in the same issue of the Providence Gazette encouraged potential customers to visit local shops and purchase an assortment of products, many of them imported from faraway places. Many colonists, however, did not have the resources to shop in those establishments. Many purchased used goods at auctions or estate sales, but others participated in an informal economy that included trading stolen goods. It appears that Joseph Hart was eager to get his hands on “sundry goods,” stealing them rather than buying them. In the end, Hart was offered for sale himself.

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