GUEST CURATOR: Thomas Ross
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The handsomest Horse in America.”
This advertisement describes “The famous Bellsize Arabian,” a horse considered “the handsomest Horse in America.” During the eighteenth century, horse racing was a popular sport throughout the colonies. According to Mehmet Samuk, “horse racing was separated by strong lines of class and race.” In 1674, a court in Virginia fined a tailor who planned a race because horse racing was supposed to be “exclusive to only rich gentlemen.” Even though that was the official position of the court, horse racing became popular among the general public in almost every colony by the time of the American Revolution.
Rich gentlemen were not the only people who participated in the races. It was not uncommon for the owners of the horses to employ enslaved people, free black people, and poor white people as jockeys. Samuk states that “African Americans eventually emerged as some of the most talented and experienced trainers of racing horses,” another contribution to American commerce and culture beyond working on plantations.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
In addition to the prestige associated with racing horses, some colonizers also sought to earn money by breeding horses with notable pedigrees. They placed newspaper advertisements offering stallions to “cover” mares. Such was the case with Amos Mansfield of Danvers, Massachusetts, and an Arabian horse named Bellsize Arabian (or Belsize Arabian, according to the list of “Historic Sires” compiled by Thoroughbred Heritage). Mansfield placed an advertisement in the May 12, 1772, edition of the Essex Gazette to inform readers that the horse “will cover this Season.”
To incite interest, Mansfield detailed Belsize Arabian’s pedigree. “He is a Son of the famous Horse called Moresah,” Mansfield declared, “and his Mother is of the best Race that the great Sultan or Emperor Muley Abalah ever had.” He further explained that Belsize Arabian was “both by Sire and Mother of the best Blood and true Araback Race in all Barbary.” By 1772, the horse already had a reputation for “covering” mares, first in England and then in New England. Even if prospective clients were not familiar with all the details in the horse’s pedigree, Mansfield likely expected that the connection to the Sultan of Morocco would resonate with them. For just “a Guinea a Colt,” colonizers could have Belsize Arabian “cover” their mares.
Mansfield attempted to increase the chances that readers would take note of his advertisement by including an image of a horse. The woodcut did not depict Belsize Arabian in particular. Instead, the printer provided a generic image that could have adorned any advertisement about horses. Nonetheless, it was the only image that accompanied an advertisement in that issue of the Essex Gazette, almost certainly drawing eyes to the pedigree that Mansfield considered so important. Some customers who engaged the services of Belsize Arabian might have been interested in racing horses, but other may have been content with displaying the offspring of “the handsomest Horse in America.”