What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“From the CAPE-FEAR MERCURY.”
Rather than examine an advertisement published in an American newspaper 250 years ago, I am devoting this entry to consideration of the many advertisements that will never appear in the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project because copies of the newspapers in which they appear have not been preserved.
Such is the case for the Cape-Fear Mercury, printed by Adam Boyd in Wilmington, North Carolina, from 1769 through 1775. John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, reprinted news from the June 5, 1771, edition of the Cape-Fear Mercury on July 6. No copies of that issue or any others published in 1771 or 1772 survive, according to Edward Connery Lathem’s Chronological Table of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. Sporadic issues from the rest of the newspaper’s run combined with letters in the Colonial Records of North Carolina allowed Clarence Brigham to piece together a publication history for his monumental History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. Similarly, Lathem reports “no copies extant” for the Georgia Gazette for 1771 and “few numbers known (usually less than 25% of those issued)” for 1772 and 1773. James Johnston printed the Georgia Gazette in Savannah from 1763 through 1776. America’s Historical Newspapers includes digitized copies from the first issue published on April 7, 1763, through May 23, 1770, but no later issues.
That so few issues of the Cape-Fear Mercury and the Georgia Gazette survive today shapes the Adverts 250 Projectand, especially, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. In selecting advertisements promoting consumer goods and services, as well as those placed for a variety of other purposes, I attempt to draw from newspapers published throughout the colonies. In his work on the consumer revolution in eighteenth-century America, T.H. Breen has argued that consumers experienced a standardization of both tastes and choices throughout the colonies. Participation in consumer culture in Boston, for instance, closely resembled participation in consumer culture in Charleston. The contents of newspaper advertisements, Breen asserts, did not much vary from place to place. The Adverts 250 Project draws from two dozen newspapers published in 1771 and subsequently digitized for greater access by scholars and other readers. The advertisements in those newspapers attest to Breen’s characterizations of the marketplace. Still, it would be nice to include advertisements from Georgia and North Carolina alongside those from the newspapers published in South Carolina.
This gap has a much more significant impact on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project and its mission to chronicle the role of newspaper advertising in perpetuating slavery in the era of the American Revolution. From September 2016 through May 2020, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project incorporated advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children that ran in the Georgia Gazette. Those advertisements often accounted for a sizable portion of all paid notices that appeared in the Georgia Gazette and funded the production and circulation of the news in that colony. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project has never included advertisements from North Carolina newspapers since none from the period under consideration survive. In terms of advertisements about enslaved people, the pages of the Cape-Fear Mercurypresumably resembled the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette, the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, and the Georgia Gazette. That those newspapers and advertisements are missing from the Slavery Adverts 250 Project skews the results and the intended reckoning with the role the early American press played in perpetuating slavery by considerably undercounting advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children published in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Given how many advertisements offering rewards for the capture and return of enslaved people who liberated themselves ran in other newspapers, this also means that many stories of Black resistance in the Cape-Fear Mercury and the Georgia Gazette remain obscured.
John Carter selected highlights from the Cape-Fear Mercury to reprint in the Providence Gazette, only a small portion of the news and none of the advertising from that publication. The eighteenth-century newspapers that have been preserved in research libraries and historical societies and then digitized for greater access collectively comprise a vast archive, but it is an incomplete archive shaped by countless decisions made by printers, archivists, librarian, collectors, and others over the course of more than two centuries. In addition to asking what eighteenth-century newspapers tell us about the founding of the nation we also need to interrogate what might be missing as a result of those decisions.