November 18

GUEST CURATOR: Mary Williams

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

nov-18-11181766-south-carolina-gazette-and-country-journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 18, 1766).

“Coarse Shoes for Negroes.”

In this advertisement published in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Godfrey and Gadsden offered an assortment of goods from Bristol, England. For this entry, I decided to focus on the listing for “coarse Shoes for Negroes.”

My first question about this listing was why Godfrey & Gadsden chose the word “coarse” to describe shoes for slaves. I quickly discovered in my research that “coarse” was a very common description in advertisements for not only slave shoes, but for jackets, shirts, pants, and blankets, all created specifically for slaves. In Slavery in Alabama, James Benson Sellers writes, “The slave’s clothing was usually of a coarse quality, suitable for long, hard wear, as well as for protection against the weather.”[1] Slave shoes and clothes were created to stand the test of time, not for fashion or comfort. In “Fashion and Appearance: Men’s Clothing,” Travis Jacquess writes, “Slave shoes were notoriously uncomfortable and made of materials such as cardboard, thin leather, and wooden soles.”[2]

This listing also advertises “Men’s neat Shoes” for sale. Seeing the two items, “Men’s neat Shoes” and “coarse Shoes for Negroes” directly next to each other reminds us of how class distinctions could be presented through fashion in colonial America.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Mary and her peers began the semester by reading T.H. Breen’s groundbreaking article, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776.”[3] In addition to providing an overview of early American economic history, Breen explains the importance of examining consumer culture in colonial America. In so doing, he provides a foundation on which to build for students preparing to contribute to the Adverts 250 Project.

In “Empire of Goods,” subsequent articles, and, eventually, a book (The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence), Breen argues that colonists experienced a standardization of consumer culture throughout the eighteenth century. He claims that colonists from New England to Georgia had access to the same consumer goods imported from England and other faraway places. Even though colonists lived quite a distance from each other, they participated in the same marketplace because merchants and shopkeepers made available the same goods for them to purchase. As a result, consumers throughout the colonies had a common experience that united them culturally, thus facilitating subsequent political unity in the face of abuses by Parliament.

Breen relies on newspaper advertisements to make this argument. As my students and I have pursued the Adverts 250 Project over the past year we have seen for ourselves that, by and large, the same imported goods were indeed advertised in newspapers from throughout the colonies. However, there has been one notable exception: “coarse Shoes for Negroes” and similar descriptions of the same product. Especially as we have simultaneously constructed a parallel project, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, that requires scanning all newspaper advertisements for words like “slave,” “negro,” and “mulatto,” we have noticed that advertisements for shoes for slaves appeared exclusively in newspapers published in the Chesapeake and Lower South, regions that by the 1760s were slave societies rather than societies with slaves. In the absence of large populations of enslaved men, women, and children, merchants and shopkeepers in New England and the Middle Atlantic did not tend to advertise “coarse Shoes for Negroes,” even if they may have stocked and sold them.

As a result, we have concluded that Breen offers a convincing argument about the standardization of consumer culture in eighteenth-century America, but with at least one important caveat. Whether they owned slaves or not, colonists in the Chesapeake and Lower South were exposed regularly to advertisements for shoes and clothing explicitly associated with slaves in stark contrast to the apparel marketed for white consumers. Slavery caused some regional differences in consumer culture to creep into newspaper advertising.

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[1] James Sellers, Slavery in Alabama (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1950), 99.

[2] Travis Jacquess, “Fashion and Appearance: Men’s Clothing” in The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, ed, Merril D. Smith (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2015), 284.

[3] T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1986): 467-499.

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