What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Mary, Wife of me the Subscriber, has refused my Bed and Board.”
In addition to advertisements for “CHOICE INDICO,” printed blanks, the London Coffeehouse in New London, and “Mens and Womens Shoes, Slippers, [and] Boots,” the paid notices in the April 28, 1770 edition of the Providence Gazette included two that testified to disorder. Those advertisements described the transgressions of their subjects while simultaneously revealing that the advertisers who placed them proved unable to properly exercise their authority.
In the first, John Stewart alerted readers that his wife, Mary, “has refused my Bed and Board, and in many other respects behaved herself very indecently.” Stewart did not provide further details about those incidents; to do so would have embarrassed him and damaged his reputation even more than placing an advertisement that deployed formulaic language about a wife who did not exercise proper deference to her husband. Stewart may very well have preferred not to make his marital discord even more widely known in the public prints, but he needed a mechanism to prevent his recalcitrant wife from incurring debts on his account.
In the other, John McClister described “a Negroe Man, named SAM” who made his escape at the beginning of the month. McClister warned that “All Masters of Vessels are forbid to carry [Sam] off.” He also offered a reward to “Whoever takes up said Negroe, and secures him, so that his Master may have him again.” Sam apparently disagreed that McClister was indeed his master. In an age when colonists regularly denounced their figurative enslavement by Parliament, Sam refused to allow McClister to hold him in literal bondage any longer.
Both Mary Stewart and Sam deviated from the attitudes and behavior expected of them due to their subordinate status in colonial society. As a woman and an enslaved man, respectively, they were expected to submit to the men who claimed dominion over them. Yet Mary and Sam had other ideas. John Stewart and Jon McClister cast them as the offenders in advertisements in the Providence Gazette, yet those notices did not reflect well on the advertisers either. Stewart and McClister attempted to regain their authority, but in doing so they first had to publicly acknowledge that they had not been able to maintain it.