GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
I chose this advertisement because I didn’t know what indigo was or how it was used. After some research, I learned that it is a plant used in making blue dyes.
According to James Bitler, “plants of the genus Indigofera, known as indigo, provided a stronger, richer blue and replaced woad blue in Western Europe.” As a result, American colonists learned to cultivate a commodity considered superior to what was produced in Europe.
South Carolina and Georgia became major exporters of indigo in the mid eighteenth century. In 1744, a woman who grew up in Charleston, Eliza Lucas (who became Eliza Lewis Pinckney that same year), shipped six pounds of indigo to Great Britain, introducing the use of indigo from South Carolina to the country. As a result, the indigo business expanded in both South Carolina and Georgia. Bitler notes that exports expanded from Lucas’ six pounds in 1744 to five thousand pounds in 1745. Once the British government became aware of the profit the indigo business had to offer, they placed a bounty on indigo to encourage more production. As a result, South Carolina and Georgia greatly increased their indigo exports, greatly increasing their profit.
I found this advertisement interesting because I did not realize the importance of indigo as an export during the colonial and revolutionary periods. I was surprised to learn that the exportation of indigo was a major business in South Carolina and Georgia.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
John Adams’ stark advertisement for “Choice Indigo, TO BE SOLD … At his Shop at the Sign of the State House” belies the role that a female entrepreneur played in turning indigo into a staple crop in South Carolina and Georgia. Historians of consumer culture have long noted that advertisements for tobacco, rum, and, especially, sugar disguise the means of production, although colonists certainly realized that these commodities they desired and enjoyed so much were inextricably linked to the unfree labor of slaves on distant plantations. Advertisements for indigo conceal both the role of slaves in its production and the contributions of a young woman, Elizabeth (Eliza) Lucas Pinckney, in transforming indigo into a viable and profitable colonial export.
Born in Antiqua in the British West Indies in 1722, Lucas was raised on one of her family’s sugarcane plantations, though she also attended a boarding school in London for a portion of her youth. In 1738, Colonel Lucas moved his family to South Carolina, though he was unable to join them at that time. At the age of sixteen, she oversaw Wappoo Plantation in her father’s absence. She assumed the role of head of household and overseer of the family’s plantation when her mother died shortly after arriving in South Carolina.
Lucas’ letters indicate that she especially enjoyed studying botany when in London, making it no surprise that she experimented with growing ginger, cotton, and alfalfa before turning to indigo. In the process of cultivating and improving strains of the indigo plant, she incorporated the knowledge and skills of enslaved Africans who had previous experience growing the crop in the West Indies and Africa.
As Shannon has noted above, the quantity of indigo production and exports exploded in South Carolina and Georgia after Lucas’ successful efforts in 1744 and her willingness to share her seeds and methods with other planters. As far as staple crops went, indigo was second only to rice in South Carolina. It became a major part of the colonial economy, enriching many planters. In the period before the American Revolution, indigo accounted for one-third of the total value of South Carolina’s exports.
John Adams’ advertisement does not even hint at the role Eliza Lucas Pinckney played in shaping the colonial economy or the reverberations her work throughout transatlantic networks of trade. With a little bit of effort, however, economic history and women’s history merge to create a richer narrative of American history.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s letters and other papers have been digitized. For a trial subscription, visit The Digital Editions of Eliza Lucas Pinckney & Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1739-1830.