March 29

GUEST CURATOR: Sean Duda

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

Georgia Gazette (March 29, 1769).

“RUN AWAY … A NEGRO FELLOW, named ABRAM.”

This advertisement contains the description of a runaway slave named Abram, including what he was wearing and distinguishing marks, and a reward for returning him. In running away, Abram participated in an his own act of resistance during a time of growing tensions between the British and the colonists. Unsurprisingly, many slaves were always looking for ways to become free. Noticing this sentiment, the governor of Virginia issued Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation on November 7, 1775. This proclamation offered freedom to slaves that belonged to people that were supporting or taking part in the war against the British, so long as they took up arms with the British against their masters. Many slaves took up this offer; according to Maya Jasanoff in Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, approximately 20,000 slaves joined up with the British. As for the Americans, many people who owned slaves had reservations against arming those that they had held in bondage. Jasanoff says only around 5,000 slaves fought for the colonists.[1] According to Ray Raphael, “Some who fought for the patriots were sent back into slavery at war’s end. … Patriot leaders in the South offered enslaved people as bounties to entice white recruits.”[2] It is not hard to see that slaves may have thought that their best shot at freedom would have been with the British instead of the colonists, who were not above using them as currency to entice more people to join their cause.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

At a glance, the pages of the Georgia Gazette may appear rather static to modern eyes. Like most other colonial printers, James Johnston filled his newspaper with dense text and very few visual images. Yet careful attention to the issues published in early 1769 reveals variations in organization and typography that suggest Johnston and others who worked in his printing office experimented with how they presented the news and other content in the Georgia Gazette.

The March 29, 1769, edition, for instance, included another advertisement with the advertiser’s name in large gothic font, replicating an innovative visual element adopted by other advertisers in recent weeks. This time, John Johnston called on prospective customers to purchase bread.

Johnston also distributed advertisements throughout the entire issue, an organizational strategy repeated from other recent issues. Paid notices, along with the usual colophon, filled both columns of the last page. Every other page featured at least one advertisement. Two appeared at the bottom of the second column on the first page. Another, Johnston’s advertisement, ran at the top of the second column on the second page. Perhaps those on the first page served, in part, as filler to complete the column. Even so, Johnston made a choice not to continue with news coverage. The first item on the next page, news from Corsica, would have fit in the remaining space on the first page if Johnston had wished to continue with news rather than switch to advertising. Similarly, it would be difficult to argue that Johnston’s advertisement on the second page appeared there solely to neatly complete a column. Its position at the top of the column forced Johnston to continue the last item on the page, a moral tale, on the following page.

The advertisement about Abram making his escape ran in the first column on the third page, immediately following the conclusion of the moral tale. News from Savannah, including the usual lists from the customs house, appeared below it. Advertisements completed the column and the rest of the page. On the third page, Johnston switched between paid notices and other content multiple times rather than grouping all of the advertisements together. Readers holding open the newspaper to peruse the second and third pages encountered a hodgepodge of content, with advertisements in three of the four columns.

Some colonial printers chose to reserve advertising for the final pages of their newspapers, inserting paid notices only after all other content appeared. That was often Johnston’s strategy when he had only enough advertising to fill the last page. On occasions that he had more than would fit on the final page, however, he experimented with interspersing advertisements among news and other content throughout the rest of the issue. This strategy likely increased the chances readers noticed some of those advertisements since they were not consigned to space reserved solely for paid notices. Anyone seeking just the news had to make more effort to distinguish among the various types of content in the Georgia Gazette when Johnston spread out the advertisements.

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[1] Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Penguin, 2011), 361.

[2] Ray Raphael, Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past, rev. ed. (New York: New Press, 2014), 216.

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