April 15

GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff

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

Providence Gazette (April 15, 1769).

“A Quantity of Red and White Oak Hogshead STAVES.”

On April 15, 1769, Samuel Young put an advertisement put in the Providence Gazette to tell readers that he wanted “to purchase a Quantity of Red and White Oak Hogshead STAVES, for which he will make good Pay.” Staves are narrow pieces of wood used to make barrels. A hogshead is a barrel that holds 64 gallons. According to Jeremy M. Bell, “Barrels were the shipping containers of their time” in the eighteenth century. They held an abundance of items, including alcohol, corn, and tobacco. Today it is not very common to see barrels in stores, except maybe a Cracker Barrel, but in colonial times they were extremely common in shops, very noticeable objects for customers. Bell states that barrels were so frequently used that the British Parliament passed the first act to standardize hogsheads and their measurements in 1423. Starting with a tun barrel at 252 gallons, they made it so that each designation of volume would then be cut in half. A pipe barrel held 126 gallons. Therefore, a hogshead measured 64 gallons and a standard barrel at 32 gallons. Practically everyone involved in commerce in early America used hogsheads and barrels of other sizes.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

No advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children appeared in the April 15, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. None of the paid notices offered men and women for sale. None of them encouraged white colonists to engage in acts of surveillance in the service of capturing escaped slaves and returning them to those who held them in bondage, nor did any describe suspected runaways that had been imprisoned. Yet black bodies were not absent from the pages of the Providence Gazette or the commercial landscape in the city.

Before he announced that he sold an “Assortment of European, East and West-India GOODS” and sought “Hogshead STAVES,” Samuel Young proclaimed that he operated a store at “the Sign of the Black Boy.” Enslaved men and women had labored to produce many of the goods Young sold. Enslaved men and women would eventually handle the barrels made from the staves Young acquired. They were integrated into the networks of production, exchange, and consumption in the early modern Atlantic world. That was a fact that would have been difficult for residents of Providence to overlook, but Young’s choice of shop sign provided a stark visual reminder that black bodies had been appropriated and exploited for a variety of purposes. Enslaved men and women contributed their labor, their skills, and their expertise in the production of commodities. The image of a “Black Boy” then served as a marketing logo and a landmark that aided colonists in finding many of those commodities as they navigated the streets of Providence.

Elsewhere in the April 15 issue, the Providence Gazette disseminated news about the imperial crisis brewing as a result of the Townshend Acts and other abuses by Parliament. Some correspondents wrote about “AMERICAN Liberty,” while others defended the prerogatives of George III and Parliament. Calls for “AMERICAN Liberty,” however, extended only so far, only to white colonists. Most colonists who reduced enslaved men, women, and children to a stylized image on “the Sign of the Black Boy” did not contemplate how to evenly apply their rhetoric to all of the residents of Rhode Island and the other colonies.

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