What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“WANTED on Purchase, or Hire by the Year, A Honest, handy, young Negro Fellow.”
Thomas Green and Ebenezer Watson, the printers of the Connecticut Courant, extended best wishes to their subscribers and advertisers on January 1, 1771. In a brief note, they proclaimed, “We wish our Customers a happy NEW-YEAR!” On the same day, the “LAD who carried The MASSACHUSETTS SPY” delivered to subscribers a supplementary broadsheet to wish “all his kind Customers A Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!” Throughout the week, other newspapers marked the end of 1770 and the arrival of 1771. At the request of a reader, John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted “PSALM LVX. 2. For NEW-YEAR’s Day,” the verses having been “adapted to the Season,” in that newspaper’s final issue for 1770. James Rivington advertised an assortment of goods as “NEW-YEARS PRESENTS” in the last issue of the New-York Journal of the year. Every newspaper from New Hampshire to South Carolina carried at least one advertisement for almanacs for the new year.
Yet the arrival of a new year was not a cause of celebration for everyone in the colonies. For many enslaved men and women, the new year marked the first day of hiring out, a system in which enslavers leased the labor of those they held in bondage. Enslaved men and women who hired out earned wages, but they went directly to those who purported to be their masters. Enslavers who thought themselves magnanimous sometimes allowed enslaved men and women to keep a portion of these earnings, but even in those instances the system perpetuated the exploitation of enslaved people.
When they hired out, enslaved men and women faced other hardships beyond the confiscation of their wages. They usually moved to new households, sometimes in distant towns, leaving behind spouses, children, parents, siblings, other relations, and friends. Hiring out disrupted their communities and strained their relationships, yet another reverberation of the widespread abuse and exploitation that was so common that advertisements for hiring out appeared in newspapers alongside mundane details of everyday life in eighteenth-century America. The front page of the January 1, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for instance, carried an advertisement for a young enslaved man “WANTED on Purchase, or Hire by the Year.” The advertiser remained anonymous, instructing anyone seeking to sell or hire out “A Honest, handy, young Negro Fellow” to “apply to the Printer.” The identity of the advertiser, however, is not the most significant detail glossed over in this advertisement. The notice, like so many others that ran in early American newspapers, testifies to a much more complicated story about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children in early America when considered not from the perspective of the advertiser but instead from the perspective of the subject of the advertisement and the perspectives of his family, friends, and community. The hiring out system meant that the new year often meant anxiety, disruption. and separation, rather than celebration, for enslaved people.