What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Will sell two or three Negro Shoemakers.”
John Matthews, a cobbler, placed a variation of the same advertisement in all three newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina, for several weeks in the spring of 1768. In each, he announced that because he was “intending to decline Shoemaking” he wished to sell “two or three Negro Shoemakers.” These enslaved artisans already had significant experience. Matthews explained that “they have done all my business for nine Years past.” Apparently the cobbler took on the role of manager of the workshop while the “Negro Shoemakers” labored on his behalf. To further enhance their value for potential buyers, Matthews boasted that in terms of skill they “are at least equal to any Negroes of the Trade in this Province.” In so doing, he implicitly made an unfavorable comparison to white shoemakers even as he credited the abilities of the enslaved artisans who had “done all [his] business” for nearly a decade. Matthews indicated that the “eldest of them” was only twenty-two, suggesting that they had been working in his shop since their early teens.
Slaveholders in South Carolina and beyond frequently associated particular skills with the enslaved men and women they advertised for sale. Another advertisement that ran in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal in the spring of 1768, for instance, listed “sawyers, mowers, a very good caulker, a tanner, a compleat tight cooper, [and] a sawyer, squarer and rough carpenter” among “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES.” In addition, that advertisement included an enslaved woman who was “a washer, ironer and spinner.” Beyond agricultural labor, enslaved men and women possessed a variety of specialized skills. Many of them were artisans whose skills rivaled their white counterparts (even if slaveholders could not quite acknowledge such expertise). In urban centers and on plantations, slaves practiced a variety of trades. As a result, they contributed far more to colonial economies than just their labor. Slaveholders benefited from the knowledge and skill possessed the “Negro Shoemakers” and other artisans they held in bondage.