Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WANTED, A NEGRO BOY … apply to the Printer.”
Two issues. It took only two issues for John Dunlap, the printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, to become a slave broker. Dunlap published the inaugural issue of his newspaper on October 28, 1771. It overflowed with advertising. So many advertisers submitted notices to the printing office that Dunlap published a two-page supplement and inserted a note that other advertisements arrived too late for publication that week but would appear in the next edition. Most advertisements in that first issue promoted consumer goods and services.
The following week, however, Dunlap ran another sort of advertisement that regularly appeared in newspapers from New England to Georgia: a notice in which an unnamed advertiser sought to purchase an enslaved person. “WANTED,” the advertisement proclaimed, “A NEGRO BOY, from fourteen to twenty years of age, that can be well recommended.” In running that advertisement, John Dunlap and the Pennsylvania Packet helped to perpetuate slavery and the slave trade. Yet Dunlap did more than provide space in his newspaper in exchange for advertising fees that made his new publication a viable venture. The advertisement instructed that “Any person who has such to dispose of, may hear of a Purchaser by applying to the Printer.” Dunlap brokered the sale by supplying additional information to readers who responded to the advertisement.
That was a common practice throughout the eighteenth century. In “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Jordan E. Taylor analyzes a “dataset of more than 2,100 unique eighteenth-century North American ‘enquire of the printer’ newspaper slave advertisements appearing from 1704 through 1807.” Most of those advertisements ran for multiple weeks, making them even more ubiquitous before the eyes of readers and profitable for printers. Dunlap, then, was not an outlier among printers during the era of the American Revolution. Instead, he very quickly adopted a widespread practice. Not exclusively a broker of information, the printer also served as a broker of enslaved men, women, and children.
 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): 290.