What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Coarse shoes for Negroes.”
From fabrics to foodstuffs to decorative housewares, James McCall sold an array of merchandise at “Messrs. LLOYD and NEYLE’s store in Broad-street” in Charleston. He carried clothing items intended for a variety of customers. For instance, his advertisement distinguished between “men’s buck gloves” and “women’s white unglazed kid gloves and mitts, with flowered backs.”
McCall made even greater distinctions among his assortment of shoes for all sorts of colonists: “women and girls leather and black callimanco shoes and pumps, men and boys shoes and pumps, coarse shoes for Negroes, a great choice of childrens black leather and Morocco shoes and pumps.” This short catalog of shoes and their intended wearers underscores that not everyone who eventually wore clothing sold by McCall qualified as customers in their own right. The slaves who donned the “coarse shoes for Negroes” never visited the store or made their own selections. They put consumer goods to use, but they did not participate in obtaining them. They did not engage in the processes of imagining alternatives and making choices about which shoes and other clothing items to acquire and wear.
Advertisements for consumer goods targeted broad swaths of the colonial population, but they also excluded or did not envision direct participation by enslaved men, women, and children. In addition to McCall’s “coarse shoes for Negroes,” advertisers in South Carolina and other colonies with significant slave populations frequently announced that they sold “NEGRO CLOTH” (as did Atkins and Weston in the same issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal that carried McCall’s advertisement). Slaveholders purchased negro cloth, a coarse material, to outfit their slaves, even as they selected among almost innumerable textiles of higher quality for their own apparel.
In publishing an extensive list of shoes he stocked, McCall marketed fashion to prospective customers, but not when it came to “coarse shoes for Negroes.” In that case, McCall merely advertised provisions. The “coarse shoes for Negroes” would have more appropriately appeared in other parts of the advertisement, along with “flour in barrels” or the half dozen different kinds of nails. “Negroes” certainly used some of the clothing items McCall imported and sold, but they did not qualify as customers. Their participation in the consumer culture was circumscribed by their status as slaves.