What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Whoever has a Mind to purchase … by applying to the Printer hereof may know further.”
Advertisements for grocery items, an “elegant Assortment of English GOODS,” sermons in memory of George Whitefield, and real estate for sale or lease ran in the March 19, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette. Readers were accustomed to encountering each sort of advertisement when they perused the Essex Gazette. They were also accustomed to another kind of advertisement that offered enslaved people for sale. In that issue, an anonymous advertiser presented a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man, of about 30 Years of Age, who understands the farming Business in all its Branches.” The advertiser advised prospective purchasers that the enslaved man was “To be SOLD, for Want of Employ, and not for any Fault.” In other words, he was not ill, lazy, or disorderly; his current enslaver did not have enough work to keep him occupied. The advertiser, who also had a “House Lot” in Marblehead for sale, instructed interested parties to contact the printer for more information.
Samuel Hall was that printer. He began printing the Essex Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts, in August 1768. The success of that newspaper and every other newspaper published in the colonies depended on attracting both subscribers and advertisers, but it also depended on other services provided at the printing office. Printers served as information brokers. The newspapers they distributed accounted for only a portion of the information in their possession. They frequently disseminated via other means, including letters and conversations in printing offices, information that did not appear in print, especially when advertisers did not include all the particulars in their notices but instead asked readers to “enquire of the printer.” In some cases, they made introductions, putting those who made inquiries in contact with advertisers. On other occasions, they supplied additional details. Either way, they acted as brokers, not only brokers of information but also brokers who facilitated sales.
When Hall published an advertisement for a “House Lot in Marblehead” and a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man” that told readers they could learn more “by applying to the Printer,” he became a real estate broker and a broker in the slave trade. Jordan E. Taylor has recently examined “enquire of the printer” advertisements published throughout the colonies and new nation in the eighteenth century, demonstrating that Hall was not alone. Taylor identified more than 2100 unique “enquire of the printer” advertisements offering enslaved people for sale. Printers from New England to Georgia actively participated in the slave trade, both by publishing advertisements about enslaved people and by acting as a broker for “enquire of the printer” advertisements. As Taylor argues, “Print culture was inextricable from the culture of slavery, just as print capitalism was slavery’s capitalism.”
 Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287-323.