GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Biscelgia
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A few Hogsheads of Choice old Rum.”
This advertisement from the New Hampshire Gazette appears straightforward about what Thomas Bell was trying to sell. However, there is more to this advertisement when examining the vernacular more closely, specifically the word “Hogsheads.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “A large cask, esp. for storing liquids; spec.one of a definite capacity, varying according to the commodity held.” This keys into the fact that Thomas Bell sold large quantities of rum. Rum was prevalent in the colonies because the ingredients, particularly molasses, were easy to acquire because of the triangular trade that connected New England to sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
The sale of alcohol in these large quantities gives insight into consumption trends of the larger population. According to Ed Crews, a public historian at Colonial Williamsburg, “Rum was king of the colonies before the Revolutionary War. … By 1770, the colonies had more than 140 rum distilleries, making about 4.8 million gallons annually. That was on top of the 3.78 million gallons imported each year. Production was concentrated in the Northeast.” Identifying that production was concentrated in New England and the Middle Atlantic is important because it tells the larger story of slavery in America. The molasses needed for rum was produced in the Caribbean by the work of slaves. Rum could not have been distilled in mainland North America if it had not been for the struggles of enslaved men and women in the Caribbean.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Today the Adverts 250 Project republishes fourteen advertisements that originally appeared in colonial newspapers 250 years ago today: Thomas Bell’s advertisement for “Choice old Rum” that Jonathan examines above and thirteen advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children that have been incorporated into the daily digest for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. The South-Carolina and American General Gazette published all thirteen of the notices offering slaves for sale or warning about runaway slaves.
A cursory glance at these advertisements does not necessarily reveal the connections between Bell’s notice from the New-Hampshire Gazetteand the series from one of Charleston’s three newspapers. Further examination of all of the newspapers published 250 years ago today might initially reaffirm first impressions about enslavement in southern colonies and freedom in New England. Two other newspapers, the Connecticut Journal and the New-London Gazette, were also published on April 8, 1768. Like the New-Hampshire Gazette, neither of them happened to include any advertisements concerning slaves. Considered solely in this context, the distribution of newspaper advertisements suggests a striking regional different between New England and the Lower South.
Yet the contents of newspapers published on a single day do not tell the entire story of colonial American culture and commerce. Widening the scope a little – to just newspapers published 250 years ago this week – forces us to confront advertisements for slaves from other newspapers printed in New England as well as even more from the Middle Atlantic. Widening the scope even more – to all newspapers from 1768 – reveals that colonists placed and read advertisements for slaves in the Connecticut Journal, the New-Hampshire Gazette, and the New-London Gazette, even if they appeared in lesser numbers or frequency than in other newspapers.
This broader view of newspapers and advertisements from 1768 illustrates that that the commerce and culture of colonial New England was not devoid of enslavement. That being said, Jonathan demonstrates that it is not necessary to identify advertisements for slaves to use eighteenth-century advertisements to examine the region’s relationship to slavery. Instead, advertisements for a popular commodity like rum testify to New England’s participation in networks of exchange that depended on slavery. Making this connection requires looking beyond the commodity advertised for consumption to also see the process of production and commerce that made “Choice old Rum” available to consumers in New England and throughout the colonies.