December 20

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

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Supplement to the New-York Journal (December 20, 1766).

“RUN away from their Master in New-York, two indented Servants.”

Alexander M’Cullugh was not happy when two of his indentured servants ran away. He posted an advertisement describing Joseph M’Nabb, an “English Man” who “writes a good Hand” and “is a tolerable Scholar,” and William Rankin, a “Scotch Man” who was a “Shoe-maker by Trade.” He offered rewards to anyone who “secures them, so that their Master may have them again,” ten dollars for M’Nabb, but only five for Rankin. M’Cullugh concluded his advertisement with a nota bene that made a general observation about runaway servants: “It has been remarked by several, that none elopes but Irish People, but it is evident from the above, that there are other People of as bad a Species as the Hibernians.” Such caustic comments caught my eye in the aftermath of an election that featured the worst sorts of bigotry as part of an increasingly accepted and normalized public discourse. M’Cullugh cast aspersions based on ethnicity, status, and immigration, and he did so openly, in the public prints. Historians chart change over time, but sometimes the continuities are just as significant.

Advertisements for runaway indentured servants (and for runaway convict servants, too) regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers, especially those published in the Middle Atlantic colonies. They were a standard part of the advertising pages, just as much so as advertisements for runaway slaves filled the pages of newspapers printed in the Chesapeake and the Lower South. Whether enslaved or indentured, men and women who called someone else “master” and who were exploited for their labor attempted to escape.

When teaching courses about early American history and culture, my responsibilities include examining the extent and significance of unfree labor in all of its forms. Given its unique aspects and enduring legacy, slavery receives certain emphasis, but not at the expense of indentured servitude, apprenticeship, and convict servants. That multiple forms of unfree labor existed in eighteenth-century America has created a conundrum – but also an opportunity – when working with students on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.

That project privileges the experiences of slaves, incorporating every advertisement for runaway slaves while passing over similar numbers of advertisements for runaway servants. It offers an important, but somewhat truncated, glimpse of unfree labor in early America. When I designed the project, I grappled with whether to include advertisements for runaway servants and apprentices, but ultimately decided that would make the project too diffuse and perhaps too large to tackle with students. If the project included advertisements for runaway servants, then it would also need to include advertisements for servants for sale. It was better, I reasoned, to start with the slavery advertisements as an experiment and see how that unfolded before adding other sorts of runaways to the mix. Perhaps in the future the project might expand to include all unfree laborers. Perhaps my students and I could develop an alternate project devoted to runaways of all sorts (including runaway wives).

That’s where the opportunity arises. Even as my students passed over advertisements for runaway servants when doing the research for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, they recognized that they were indeed excluding a fair number of advertisements that resembled those included in the project. Although runaway servants were not incorporated into the digital humanities projects we pursued, they made it into one-on-one and classroom discussions about colonial American society and economics throughout the semester.

December 19

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

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New-London Gazette (December 19, 1766).

“These Sermons will be immediately committed to Press, as soon as it can be known how many are subscribed for.”

Timothy Green published this advertisement to encourage “Those Gentlemen who have kindly assisted in taking in Subscriptions for Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons” to send him a list of colonists they had signed up to purchase a copy of the book once it had been printed. He also requested that others “who incline to become subscribers” inform him “as speedy therein as possible” so he could determine “what Number of Books it will be necessary to print.”

In the eighteenth century printers published many books by subscription, limiting their risk and reducing the possibility of having so many unsold copies that they could not turn a profit on a particular publication. Printers gauged interest in proposed projects through a form of advertising known as the subscription notice, which usually announced an intended publication, indicated the price, and described its content and material aspects.

While subscription notices were often printed in newspapers alongside other advertisements, this type of marketing circulated in other ways as well. Broadsides (what we would call posters today) were displayed in printer’s shops and other places. The “Gentlemen” who assisted Green may have posted subscription notice broadsides in their shops or offices. Printers sometimes sent circular letters (what we would call junk mail today) to prospective customers they suspected would have an interest in a proposed publication. Rather than write the same letter by hand multiple times, printers much more efficiently created circular letters by setting the type, printing dozens or hundreds of the same letter, and writing in the names of intended recipients in a space left blank for the salutation. By the end of the eighteenth century, subscription notices appeared on the advertising wrappers that accompanied magazines. Enterprising printers also sometimes placed subscription notices as separate inserts in magazines before distributing them to subscribers.

Modern historians use subscription notices carefully. Just because a printer issued a subscription notice did not necessarily mean that it generated enough interest to move forward with publishing the book or other proposed work. In the case of “Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons,” however, Green did take the advertised book to press in 1767. Today’s advertisement did not include the full title of Joseph Fish’s The Church of Christ a Firm and Durable House: Shown in a Number of Sermons on Matth. XVI. 18. Upon this Rock I Will Build My Church, and the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It. Apparently Green’s subscription notices played a part in inciting sufficient interest to publish “Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons.”

Slavery Advertisements Published December 19, 1766

These advertisements appeared in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago today.  Daily updates also available on Twitter:  @SlaveAdverts250.

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

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South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 19, 1766).

December 18

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

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Pennsylvania Journal (December 18, 1766).

“A likely, healthy, young Negro lad, named Adonis.”

Regular visitors know that students from my Colonial America class have actively participated in the project over the past three months, both as guest curators of the original Adverts 250 Project and as curators of a newer initiative, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. These two digital humanities and public history projects gave students opportunities to learn about consumer culture and slavery in colonial America, as well as the connections of each to commerce, culture, and politics. As curators of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, each student identified all advertisements concerning slavery published during a particular week in the fall of 1766. For their final exam, each student wrote an essay in which they used those advertisements, supplemented by other primary and secondary sources from the course, to examine the history of slavery in colonial America.

Randle Mitchell’s advertisement explicitly demonstrates the connections between the emphasis on marketing and consumer culture in the Adverts 250 Project and the focus on enslavement and commerce in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. It also incorporates aspects of slavery in colonial America that I especially wanted students to uncover and learn by working on the project and taking the course. Drawing on other advertisements, most students commented on many of the aspects of Mitchell’s advertisement that I consider significant.

At first glance, Mitchell’s advertisement appeared to be a standard commercial notice about “A Good assortment of European and India goods” recently imported. However, Mitchell added a nota bene (almost as long as the rest of the advertisement) that offered “a likely, healthy, young Negro lad, named Adonis” for sale. In the colonial marketplace, enslaved men, women, and children were just as much commodities as all the so-called “Baubles of Britain” that merchants imported and shopkeepers peddled.

Mitchell’s advertisement appeared repeatedly in both the Pennsylvania Journal and the Pennsylvania Gazette. Because most people associate slavery with the South in the decades before the Civil War, many students were astonished to discover how extensively slavery was practiced in northern colonies before the American Revolution. They deployed advertisements like this one to argue Pennsylvania, other Middle Atlantic colonies, and New England were “societies with slaves” even if they were not “slave societies” like their counterparts in the Chesapeake and Lower South.

Mitchell noted that Adonis “can attend and do any business about a gentleman’s house, or may do country business,” such as work on a farm. Just as many people associate slavery with the antebellum South, they also assume that slaves worked on plantations. The northern colonies did not develop plantation economies. Some slaves worked on farms, laboring alongside masters rather than with a gang of other slaves and an overseer. Like Adonis, others worked in domestic service, especially in urban ports in the eighteenth century. Some also learned special skills as artisans. This advertisement helps to demonstrate that slaves lived and worked in a variety of place and under a variety of circumstances during the colonial period.

I was generally pleased if students made all of these points in their final essays. I was especially impressed, however, by any who examined the reason Mitchell wanted to sell Adonis: “for no fault but want of present employ for him.” Mitchell did not have enough work to keep his young slave busy. That might have been cause to set the young man free, yet Mitchell opted instead to sell him to a new master, underscoring that the enslaved youth was a commodity and an investment. Several students commented on (and applauded) the agency demonstrated by slaves who ran away, the subject of a great many advertisements, but the most astute also noted that colonists like Mitchell also exercised agency in the choices they made (though in such cases they did not warrant any sort of applause or endorsement). Mitchell did not have to sell Adonis. Instead, he chose to sell the young man. Even in the wake of demonstrations against the Stamp Act and continued vigilance about Parliament’s attempts to “enslave” the American colonies, slaveholders like Mitchell continued to buy and sell men, women, and children.

Slavery Advertisements Published December 18, 1766

These advertisements appeared in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago today.  Daily updates also available on Twitter:  @SlaveAdverts250.

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New-York Journal (December 18, 1766).

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New-York Journal (December 18, 1766).

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Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Pennsylvania Journal (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766).

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Virginia Gazette (December 18, 1766)

December 17

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

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

The advertisement concerning the sale of negroes … was printed in the last page of this paper by mistake.”

James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, issued a retraction of one of the advertisements that appeared in the December 17 issue: “The advertisement concerning the sale of negroes, &c. belonging to the estate of Mr. William Smith, deceased, was printed in the last page of this paper by mistake.”

That advertisement by Matthew Roche, the Provost Marshal, would have looked familiar to readers of the Georgia Gazette. Dated “12 Nov. 1766,” it had appeared in previous issues in order to give interested parties sufficient advance notice that slaves, cattle, horses, and fifty acres of land that included a “handsome dwelling house, garden, tan-yard, and several other convenient buildings” would be auctioned “on Tuesday the 16th day of December, 1766.”

That’s right: December 16, the day before the issue was dated and distributed for public consumption. Johnston did not publish the retraction because the sale had been canceled but instead because it truly had been printed “by mistake,” a mistake made in the office of the printer.

That Johnston overlooked this advertisement, not noticing that the new issue included an outdated advertisement until after the broadsheet had already been printed on one side, raises some interesting questions about advertisements that ran for more than a few weeks. Did advertisers contract and pay to have those advertisements repeatedly inserted? Or, did some advertisements serve as filler, published gratis, when printers lacked other content?

Johnston may have been distracted with filling the final page with advertisements already set in type; that would explain how he overlooked the date of the auction of William Smith’s estate. The same issue included other advertisements that ran for months (not just for weeks): Donald Mackay’s advertisement for a runaway slave (dated “5th August, 1766”) and the sale of Baillie’s Island by the executors of Colonel Kenneth Baillie (first published in November 1766 and repeated well into 1767). Mackay and Baillie’s executors may very well have arranged for their advertisements to appear so many times.

If they did not, however, that suggests that printers sometimes used advertisements for their own purposes in constructing complete issues of their newspapers. While it may be tempting to argue that some advertisers repeated their notices frequently because they believed in the power of advertising (or, in the case of Mackay, because he really wanted to retrieve Maria, “a TALL SLIM LIKELY NEGROE GIRL”), it is also important to question whether the advertisers themselves were indeed responsible for how frequently their notices appeared.

Summary of Slavery Advertisements Published December 11-17, 1766

These tables indicate how many advertisements for slaves appeared in colonial American newspapers during the week of December 11-17, 1766.

Note:  These tables are as comprehensive as currently digitized sources permit, but they may not be an exhaustive account.  They includes all newspapers that have been digitized and made available via Accessible Archives, Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, and Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers.  There are several reasons some newspapers may not have been consulted:

  • Issues that are no longer extant;
  • Issues that are extant but have not yet been digitized; and
  • Newspapers published in a language other than English (including the Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote).

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Slavery Advertisements Published December 11-17, 1766:  By Date

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Slavery Advertisements Published December 11-17, 1766:  By Region

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Slavery Advertisements Published December 17, 1766

These advertisements appeared in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago today.  Daily updates also available on Twitter:  @SlaveAdverts250.

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

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Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

December 16

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

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South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (December 16, 1766).

“Sucking Nipples, which has been the Means of raising many an Infant.”

Thomas You, a “WORKING GOLD-SMITH, SILVER-SMITH, JEWELLER and ENGRAVER,” made and sold a variety of items that men in his occupation commonly listed in their newspaper advertisements, including shoe buckles, punch bowls, coffeepots, teapots, and silverware. He also offered a device rarely mentioned by other smiths: “sucking Nipples, which has been the Means of raising many an infant.” You did not offer explanations or justifications of any of his other merchandise, which suggests that he felt the “sucking Nipples” merited additional promotion. After all, most colonists considered breastfeeding the best and most effective means of nourishing infants.

Indeed, You’s advertisement for “sucking Nipples” put him in competition with women who offered their services as wet nurses. Very few employment advertisements concerning women appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers, either by women seeking jobs or by employers interested in hiring women. When employment advertisements involving women were inserted in newspapers, they most often fell in two categories: domestic servants and wet nurses. One such advertisement appeared on the previous page of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal: “A Woman, with a good young Breast of Milk, who has lately lost her Child, would be willing to take one to suckle. Her character will bear the strictest examination. Apply to the Printer.”

You’s “sucking Nipples” provided conveniences that hiring a wet nurse did not, especially eliminating exposing infants to women from outside the household. That the woman who advertised her services as a wet nurse found it necessary to state that “Her character will bear the strictest examination” demonstrates that she understood the concern potential employers might have when it came to putting their infants in such close contact with strangers. In England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Fred Weinberg notes, “[m]any people believed that a wet nurse might transmit ‘her evil passions and vicious inclinations’ to the infant through her milk.”[1] Even if such fears had faded in the English colonies by the 1760s, “sucking Nipples” still had several advantages over wet nurses. They were likely less expensive, available upon immediate demand once purchased, and did not introduce an outsider into the household.

By underscoring that “sucking Nipples” had been “the Means of raising many an Infant” You simultaneously sought to expand the market for a product he sold while competing with one of the few occupations for women that regularly appeared in newspaper advertisements.

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[1] Fred Weinberg, “Infant Feeding through the Ages,” Canadian Family Physician 39 (September 1993): 2016.