What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away … an Apprentice Lad.”
In December 1769, David Smith turned to the Providence Gazette when his apprentice, Eliazer Peck, “a Shoemaker by Trade,” departed without his permission. After Peck had been away for a week and Smith determined that he was unlikely to return of his own accord, he placed an advertisement that described the apprentice and offered a reward to anyone who “takes up and secures the said Apprentice, so as his Master may have him again.” Smith also advised that “All masters of Vessels are forbid to carry him off.” He did not want the delinquent apprentice further removing himself from his authority by sailing to another colony or elsewhere in the Atlantic world.
To aid in identifying the apprentice, Smith described both is physical features and the clothes he wore. He asked readers of the Providence Gazette to keep their eyes open for “a short thick-set Lad, round-shouldered, … full-faced.” Readers might also recognize his “brownish Coat, a short double-breasted Jacket, [and] blue knit Breeches.” If he did not acquire different garments, Peck could alter his appearance slightly by changing shirts; he took with him “two striped and one white Shirt.” To further aid in recognizing the apprentice, Smith gave his approximate age, “about 19 Years,” and hinted at his personality, noting he “has a Humour in his Eyes.”
Smith’s advertisement followed the same pattern as so many others that appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers throughout the colonies. That genre of notices described unfree laborers of various sorts: apprentices, indentured servants, convict servants, and enslaved men, women, and children. Such advertisements used the public prints as a mechanism of surveillance, encouraging colonists to closely examine people they encountered to determine if they matched the descriptions published in the most recent newspapers. These advertisements allowed those who already possessed greater authority and resources to exercise even more power by recruiting an entire community to aid them in capturing and returning runaway servants and apprentices and enslaved people who seized their own liberty by escaping from those who held them in bondage.
When they purchased advertising space in newspapers, colonists deployed the power of the press for various purposes. Some promoted the expansion of consumer culture by encouraging readers to acquire goods and services. Others posted legal notices for settling accounts with the estates of deceased colonists. Some offered employment opportunities. A good many utilized newspapers, the most widely circulated form of media of the period, to engage in surveillance of others, appealing to readers to carefully scrutinize their fellow colonists to detect and return runaways.