What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A likely healthy Negroe … to dispose of.”
Shopkeeper Magdalen Devine occasionally advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette in the late 1760s. She usually promoted “A LARGE assortment of dry GOODS,” as she did in the September 28, 1769, edition. Her advertisements were notable because they sometimes included a woodcut that depicted some of her wares, two rolls of fabric and two swatches unfurled to display the patterns. Devine relied on images rather than an extensive list of merchandise to communicate the choices available at her shop. Woodcuts commissioned by merchants and shopkeepers were relatively rare in early American newspaper advertisements. Devine was one of an exceptionally small number of women who deployed visual images in her marketing.
Yet Devine sought to accomplish more than just selling dry goods in some of her advertisements. The notice she ran in late September 1769 included a nota bene seemingly unrelated to her merchandise: “She has a likely healthy Negroe wench, about 18 years old, to dispose of, having no cause to part with her but want of employment.” Although most eighteenth-century readers would have found nothing notable about attempting to sell both textiles and an enslaved woman in a single advertisement, modern readers might find this notice particularly striking for the casual manner in which Devine treated another woman as a commodity.
Furthermore, the advertisement testifies to the presence of enslaved men and women in urban ports like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston during the era of the American Revolution. Throughout the colonies and throughout the Atlantic world, consumer culture and enslavement were inextricably linked. Commerce depended on the transatlantic slave trade as well as the skills and involuntary labor of enslaved men, women, and children. The advertisements for consumer goods that filled eighteenth-century newspapers, many of them listing dozens of items offered for sale, usually did not make direct reference to slavery, but colonists had access to those wares, the “LARGE assortment of dry GOODS” advertised by merchants and shopkeepers like Devine,” thanks to networks of exchange that included the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved labor, and the profits from both as an integral component. It was practically impossible to be either a retailer or a consumer in the eighteenth century without perpetuating slavery, directly or indirectly. More readily than most others, Devine’s advertisement makes clear that was the case.