What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the Black Boy and Butt in Cornhill.”
In an advertisement in the September 13, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Jonathan Williams informed readers that he sold “Choice Pesada, Malaga, Madeira, Tenerife or Vidonia, and other WINES.” He also stocked “Good Barbadoes RUM” and “good empty Casks for Cyder.” To aid prospective customers in finding his storehouse, Williams listed his location as “At the Black Boy and Butt in Cornhill.” A sign depicting a Black child and a barrel adorned his place of business.
Black people, many of them enslaved, were present in Boston during the era of the American Revolution. Living and working in the bustling port city, Black people were physically present. Elsewhere in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, another advertisement offered a “likely Negro Woman, about 20 Years old” for sale. The enslaver remained anonymous, as was often the case, instead directing interested parties to “Enquire at [Richard] Draper’s Printing Office.” Another advertisement described a “NEGRO MAN, calls himself Jeffry,” who had been “Taken up” on suspicion of having escaped from his enslaver. In addition to living and working in Boston, Black people also endeavored to liberate themselves, though they had been doing that long before the era of the American Revolution.
As Williams’s sign testifies, Black people were also present in the iconography on display in Boston, just as they were in other port cities In New England and other regions. (See a short and unsurely incomplete list below.) The “Black Boy and Butt” represented Williams’s commercial interests. He transformed the Black body into a logo for his business, a further exploitation of the enslaved people responsible for producing many of the commodities he marketed. The “Good Barbadoes RUM” he promoted came from a colony notorious for both the size of its enslaved population and the harsh conditions under which they involuntarily labored to produce sugarcane desired for sweetening tea and necessary for distilling rum. Williams may not have been an enslaver himself, but his business depended on enslaved people twice over, first through production and then through the visual representation that distinguished his storehouse from other buildings on Cornhill Street. Williams’s customers encountered a visible reminder that their consumption habits were enmeshed in networks of trade that integrated slavery as a vital component every time they visited his storehouse and saw the “Black Boy and Butt.”