Reflections from Guest Curator Jonathan Bisceglia

During my time working on the Adverts 250 Project I spent quite a lot of time trying to decipher the meaning of sometimes very vague advertisements for things as basic as lodging and as complex as slavery. I feel this taught me more about history than pretty much anything I have ever done. The reason this was so powerful and effective for me was because it was real and in most cases I could see the actual thing I was learning about and working with. These were not just some boring anecdotes in a text book or a slow documentary. They were actual advertisements in newspapers created 250 years ago. Working with this type of primary sources is something that I have never had a chance to do, which was scary at first, but once I started doing my research it became a lot easier to decipher meaning in these sources.

I cannot stress enough the meaning this project has to me. There are several different reasons why I was hesitant to even work on the project but having worked through it I feel changed in many ways. I know this sounds cliché but for me this project changed quite a bit in my life and gave me new meaning for the future.

At the beginning of the Adverts 250 Project I thought the most difficult part would be gathering the information and then composing my summary and analysis. This was not the case. This project created a revival in what was a dwindling passion for history. The hardest part of the project was coming to terms with the idea that I wanted to change my prospective future career. I had originally planned on being a high school history teacher but the Adverts 250 Project made me realize that I would not enjoy that but rather I would enjoy teaching upper-level students who can appreciate it more.

This would become the meaning that I found during the course of my week guest curating for the Adverts 250 Project. I would also say that this was also one the most rewarding parts of the project. The other was the amount of information that I learned through my time curating the project. This is not just how to look at a primary source and deduce what it is about, but actually what can be learned from every single advertisement. For instance, my advertisement from April 19, 1767, by James King was an open advertisement to try to get men who were “Genteel” to lodge at his abode. Through my years of history class, we had never even used the word genteel. Of course I had known what it meant today but this new curiosity led me to so much new knowledge about the topic and ideas about gentility in colonial and Revolutionary America that I had never had before.

As I already stated, this project really meant a lot to me. It was challenging at times, rewarding at others, but for the most part it was a fun project. I have now realized the importance of doing work like this in college. It has opened my eyes to the possibilities of the future but more importantly it has shown to me that I truly am interested in history and I want to devote my life to this sort of studying and teaching.

 

April 22

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 22 - 4:22:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (April 22, 1767).

“HAVING OPENED A SCHOOL … TEACHING READING, WRITING, and ARITHMETICK.”

I chose this advertisement because I plan on being an educator – a teacher, professor, or a public historian – so this advertisement is quite close to heart. It is important to note that this advertisement comes from a newspaper printed in the southern colonies, the Georgia Gazette. This education offered in this advertisement differs from the schooling some children in the region received. “The sons of a planter typically would be taught the basics at home,” state the curators at Stratford Hall. Discussions in “Schools in American Society,” an Education course taught by Professor Casey Handfield at Assumption College, confirmed that this was typical in southern colonies. On the other hand, in Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, E. Jennifer Monaghan argues the northern colonies had significantly more extensive schooling, including pubic schooling in New England, due to the religious focus on education dating back to the seventeenth century.

Also it should not be overlooked that the advertisement included the subjects to be taught. Due to the nature of these subjects it appears as though the school was for younger children who needed the basics but not a “genteel” education. When it came to children of the elite, according to historians at Stratford Hall, “The boys studied higher math, Greek, Latin, science, celestial navigation (navigatin[g] ships by the stars), geography, history, fencing, social etiquette, and plantation management.” In addition, “The school days for girls were somewhat different. Girls learned enough reading, writing, and arithmetic to read their Bibles and be able to record household expenses.” This distinction is important because it separates the typical roles that men and women would play in life from an early start. This is important because it gives modern historians a view of gender roles in colonial society.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Jonathan notes, John Francklin taught the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. James Whitefield, a competitor who also advertised in the Georgia Gazette, offered only a slightly more extensive curriculum. He listed Latin among the subjects taught at his school. Neither schoolmaster advertised additional subjects often promoted as “genteel education” in newspapers printed in other cities, the sorts of subjects Jonathan already listed.

In addition to the north-south divide that distinguished educational opportunities in the different colonial regions, urban culture also played a role in determining which subjects were offered (or, at least, advertised) to potential students. Schoolmasters and schoolmistresses in both Philadelphia and Charleston, both large and bustling port cities, advertised day and boarding schools where students learned a variety of advanced academic subjects as well as ancillary skills (like dancing and personal comportment) in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic.

In colonial America’s larger cities, some instructors advertised independently of any affiliation with schoolmasters and schoolmistresses whose curriculum focused on general education. For instance, French language tutors frequently advertised their services, often offering one-on-one instruction with their pupils. Dancing masters also advertised regularly in newspapers printed in larger cities. In addition to one-on-one instruction, many also ran their own academies where they tended to teach female students during one portion of the day and male students at alternate times. Some dancing masters doubled as fencing instructors, further enhancing the genteel arts their charges developed. Although some French tutors and dancing and fencing masters were itinerants, many tended to remain in the larger colonial cities for several years, presumably because they cultivated a clientele that kept them employed.

Surveying advertisements for education in newspapers printed throughout the colonies in the decade before the Revolution reveals certain disparities. From New Hampshire to Georgia, colonists used consumer culture to assert their status and identity, anxious lest their counterparts in England think they lived in provincial backwaters. While advertisements for goods demonstrate standardization of products available to purchase during this period, advertisements for services – especially education – suggest uneven opportunities. Schoolmasters and schoolmistresses everywhere taught the basics, but, not surprisingly, instructors with specialized skills most often promoted their services to potential pupils in larger cities. They relied not only on larger populations but also elites conscious of demonstrating their status and middling sorts with aspirations for social mobility. Readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette and the South-Carolina Gazette regularly encountered advertisements for education that looked much different than today’s advertisement from the Georgia Gazette.

April 21

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 21 - 4:21:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 21, 1767).

“ABOUT FORTY valuable country-born NEGROES, among whom are Boatmen, Carpenters, Sawyers.”

American slavery consisted of masters and overseers who controlled, in some cases, the manual labor of hundreds of slaves. That is the story taught in many schools. It was the story I thought I knew when I began college. However, this advertisement points to other roles among slaves, not strictly manual labor but also skilled workmanship. It states that the slaves being sold had various specialized skills that made them even more useful to prospective owners. According to Daniel C. Littlefield, “planters expected enslaved people to perform a wide range of jobs that included carpenter, cooper, boatman, cook, seamstress, and blacksmith, to mention only a few of the skilled functions required around plantations.” This shows a different way of looking at the uses of slavery in America during the eighteenth century. It shows that many slaves were more skilled than what is often taught in high school history classes.

These specialized skills led some slaves to be “hired out” to other masters. Douglas Egerton tells the story of Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith, who gained a sense of freedom when he was away from his master’s plantation. This led Gabriel to want more freedom. He planned a slave rebellion in 1800 called, now known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. A highly-skilled enslaved blacksmith plotted to overthrow the government of Virginia, but the plan was discovered. In the end, the rebellion was unsuccessful. Gabriel was executed.

This advertisement reflects a part of history largely unknown to most people, a history where slaves did more than just tend fields.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

During his week as guest curator, Jonathan has selected two advertisements that treated black men and women as commodities. In the process of examining these advertisements, he has addressed two common misconceptions about slavery in early America. Earlier in the week he demonstrated that slavery was practiced in New England and other northern colonies in the era of the American Revolution. In addition to his selected advertisement about “A Negro Woman, who understands all sorts of houshold Work,” he identified a Rhode Island census, conducted in 1774, that documented the numbers of “WHITES,” “INDIANS,” and “BLACKS” that resided in the colony. He also argued that even though relatively few slaves lived and worked in Rhode Island, the colony’s commerce was enmeshed in the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, Jonathan addresses the kinds of work done by slaves, a variety of jobs that many students find quite surprising when first introduced to this information for the first time. In the process, he has achieved a much better understanding of the diversity of experiences among enslaved men, women, and children in eighteenth-century America. Some worked as artisans on plantations, as was certainly the case with some of the carpenters and sawyers in today’s advertisement, but others worked in urban ports, sometimes as artisans and sometimes as domestic servants. Slaves in urban environments had experiences that did not necessarily replicate those of their counterparts who worked in the fields on farms and plantations. For instance, Sarah, a runaway also advertised in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on April 21, 1767, was a laundress “well known among the vessels” docked in Charleston because she so frequently “washed for the mariners.” Not all slaves were agricultural laborers in rural settings, nor were slaves exploited only for their labor. Masters also benefited from slaves’ expertise and skills, deriving significant additional value from them. As Jonathan indicates, this aspect of early American history often remains overlooked in the most rudimentary narratives of slavery in colonial and Revolutionary America.

April 20

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 20 - 4:20:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (April 20, 1767).

“A Large & beautiful assortment of Silks.”

Silk imports were common during the eighteenth century. According to Linda Baumgarten, Curator of Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, “Many Virginia women favored gowns made of lustring, a crisp, light silk.” This is noteworthy because Jane Eustis ran a shop – and sold an “assortment of Silks” – in Boston and advertised in the Boston Gazette. This shows the far reach of the silk trade in eighteenth-century America. In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen presents the idea of standardization of consumer culture, seen here with the silks.[1]

Some people bought silks as a way to denote social status. In addition, much of the clothing worn in the American colonies was typically not light. In the warmer months this could cause many issues regarding the heat. Baumgarten notes, “One Virginia woman related in her diary that she did not bother to get dressed immediately on a particularly ‘sulterry’ day; she remained ‘up stairs in only shift and petticoat till after Tea.” This is fascinating because of the stark difference compared to modern ideas of modesty and appropriate ways to dress in the heat.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Jane Eustis advertised “Silks, Cap Laces, and a great Variety of other Goods.” Although she did not provide an extensive list of those “other Goods,” her advertisement concluded with a promise that “The Particulars of which will be in our next.” Why was Eustis’s advertisement truncated?

Perhaps Eustis had not had time to compile a list of “The Particulars.” Other advertisers, including William Fisher, indicated that their wares had “just arrived from LONDON” on the same vessel that carried Eustis’s merchandise. Instead of listing the goods, most offered some sort of variation of “A Fresh Assortment of English GOODS.” John Symmes, a goldsmith, did insert a short list, but his was very specialized merchandise of the sort that he might have placed detailed orders or may have otherwise known or anticipated in advance exactly what associates in London had shipped. Shopkeepers who carried general merchandise, like Eustis and Fisher, may not have known all “The Particulars” of what had been dispatched to them by contacts in London until they unpacked the crates and barrels. An initial advertisement for a “great Variety” of goods at least informed prospective customers that they carried new merchandise.

Alternately, Eustis may have submitted a longer advertisement to Edes and Gill, only to have the printers run out of space to print it in its entirety. While possible, that seems less likely given that Eustis’s advertisement appeared on the same page as another that extended more than a column. If Edes and Gill were rationing space, why not abbreviate Frederick William Geyer’s extensive list to free up room for at least some of Eustis’s “Particulars”? Even if the printers did not wish to displace Geyer, a regular advertiser, they could have shortened lengthy list advertisements placed by other shopkeepers. In addition, they also issued a two-page supplement with even more advertising for the week. This also suggests that Eustis had not yet generated the copy for “The Particulars” that were supposed to appear in the next issue.

A week later, no advertisement by Jane Eustis appeared in the Boston-Gazette. Two weeks later, that newspaper ran a new advertisement, though it lacked “The Particulars” that had been promised: “Just Imported in Capt. Skillings, and to be sold by Jane Eustis By Wholesale and Retail, at her Shop the North Side of the Town-House, A great Variety of India and English Goods.” By then Eustis certainly had a chance to compile a list of her new inventory. She may have decided that a shorter advertisement was sufficient for her purposes. She may have determined that a longer advertisement exceeded her budget and decided against it. Whatever the circumstances, her initial advertisement presented a bit of a mystery. It would be fascinating to know more about the factors that influenced Eustis’s decisions about advertising her wares.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 73-104.

April 19

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 19 - 4:19:1767 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (April 17, 1767).

“A Genteel Lodging and Boarding for a single Gentleman, Enquire in Tradd-street, of JAMES KING.”

This is the entire advertisement from the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. However, this is why I picked it. Although only fourteen words, this advertisement poses a lot of questions, the most important being the usage of the word “genteel.” What did “genteel” mean in eighteenth-century America?

The Oxford English Dictionary states that genteel means “Belonging to or included among the gentry; of a rank above the commonalty.” Other definitions similarly state “Appropriate to persons of quality,” “characteristic of persons of quality,” and “suited to the station of a gentleman or gentlewoman.” When describing dwellings, food, meals, and hospitality – like the “Lodging and Boarding” in this advertisement – “genteel” means “Stylish, fashionably elegant or sumptuous.” This is important because it suggests that King advertised to someone who was looking for accommodations appropriate for his social ranking or perhaps even hoping to move up in status.

“Genteel” also referred to how people acted in addition to describing consumer goods and “Lodging and Boarding.” The Oxford English Dictionary also includes these definitions: “Having the habits characteristic of superior station” and “Of behavior: courteous, polite, obliging.” According to Cathy Hellier at Colonial Williamsburg, “Not only how something was said, but when it was said, were reflective of the social positions of the speakers.” This advertisement, regardless of its short length, shows the importance placed on social status in colonial and Revolutionary America.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Inviting undergraduates to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project opens up a variety of opportunities, not only for the students but also for me as an instructor and a scholar. Through their own efforts on the project, students often convince me to look at familiar material in new ways.

Take today’s featured advertisement. When Jonathan submitted it to me for consideration I told him that I would approve it because it fit within the parameters of the project and adhered to its methodology, but I also suggested that it seemed a bit sparse, especially compared to many of the more substantial advertisements that appeared in the same issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Although I approved King’s advertisement for “Lodging and Boarding,” I recommended that Jonathan consider alternatives and let him know that he could switch to another advertisement if he experienced too much difficulty examining this one. Jonathan assured me that he would find something interesting and significant to say about King’s advertisement. I was both curious and anxious when he began independently pursuing his research and writing the first draft of today’s entry. I had no idea how he might approach what appeared to be such a simple advertisement.

I was pleasantly surprised when Jonathan submitted his initial analysis of the advertisement. In focusing on a single word, “genteel,” he opened a portal to investigating eighteenth-century understandings of status, personal comportment, and social mobility. He originally relied solely on Cathy Hellier’s article, but I suggested that if he really wanted to understand the meaning of “genteel” in the eighteenth century that he also needed to incorporate the OED’s treatment of the word. This was a new source for Jonathan, at least as far as conducting historical research was concerned. In the following draft, he included one of the entries from the OED. Working together, we fleshed out his revised entry and better harnessed the OED’s extensive treatment of “genteel” to introduce readers to the many shades of meaning associated with the word in early America.

This was a learning experience for me as much as it was for Jonathan. I spend so much time examining eighteenth-century sources that the word “genteel” did not even register with me when I initially reviewed today’s advertisement. As a student interested but not immersed in early American history, on the other hand, Jonathan did not take “genteel” for granted. By training different eyes on the same advertisement, he raised important questions about an advertisement that turned out not to be as simple as I initially thought. In so doing, he implicitly made an argument that I regularly advance: advertisements that appear to be little more than notices often turn out to have layers of meaning and significance when examined more closely.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 18 - 4:18:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 18, 1767).

“A Negro Woman who understands all Sorts of houshold Work.”

I chose this advertisement because slavery in northern colonies and states is often overlooked when discussing slavery in American history. For the most part, slavery and the slave trade in the southern colonies get more attention. However, slavery was not only used in the northern colonies (see the census from 1774) but Rhode Island was also a hub for the slave trade. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, “Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but also entered with gusto into the trade.” Rhode Islanders gained so many profits from slavery that “[b]y the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.” Voyages like these not only kept the institution of slavery going but encouraged it. I found this advertisement quite surprising, learning that slavery was so important so close to home.

Apr 18 - Census
Rhode Island Census for 1774 (Newport: Solomon Southwick, 1774).  Courtesy John Carter Brown Library.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Recovering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children can be an extremely difficult task. Historians consult many different kinds of sources in their efforts to reconstruct the experiences of slaves, including advertisements like the one Jonathan selected to feature today. That advertisement offers frustratingly few details, but it does reveal the presence of an enslaved woman in Rhode Island. It includes her approximate age and suggests the type of labor she performed for her master, “all Sorts of houshold Work.” The advertisement does not, however, include the enslaved woman’s name nor the name of the slaveholder who wished to sell her. The conditions of the sale were camouflaged by instructions to interested parties: “For further Particulars enquire at the Printing-Office.” This advertisement appeared immediately below another one that revealed the presence of slavery in Rhode Island but advanced few details: “TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years old, fit for either Town or Country, having been used to Farming Business.” It also concluded with instructions to “enquire at the Printing-Office in Providence.” Such advertisements aid historians in making generalizations about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, even in the absence of enough evidence to sketch more complete biographies.

On the other hand, other sorts of advertisements for slaves tell much more complete stories about their subjects. Advertisements for runaways frequently incorporated extensive descriptions of enslaved men, women, and children, from their physical appearance to their clothing to any goods they carried off. They elaborated on their ethnicity and the languages they spoke. They specified any special skills runaways possessed or trades they practiced. They revealed relationships within slave communities and among others, black and white, that might attempt to aid runaways. In some cases, they even told stories of previous attempts to abscond. Although written by white masters attempting to regain their human property, some scholars consider advertisements for runaways to be the first slave narratives. It would be difficult to deny the agency exhibited by slaves who chose to flee from those who kept them in bondage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 17

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 17 - 4:17:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 17, 1767).

“BEST London BOHEA TEA”

In this advertisement Henry Appleton promoted “BEST London BOHEA TEA.” According to Rachel Conroy at the Museum of Wales, “In the eighteenth century tea-drinking was a highly fashionable activity for the wealthy upper classes.” The idea that a drink initially denoted the elite is not surprising due to the exotic nature of the beverage. Tea was transported from China to England and then to the colonies, a notably long haul. Conroy also states “The most common tea was Bohea, a type of black tea.”

In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen indicates that tea drinking eventually became popular among a wide variety of social classes. As the eighteenth century progressed, more social classes also began to consume the beverage. To further demonstrate consumption across the classes, Breen brings up the political ramifications of the tea being sold. It became a major “bone of contention” for the colonists because of the new importation taxes on the product as part of the Townsend Acts in 1767. This led to one of the largest boycotts throughout the thirteen colonies and eventually to the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor. This advertisement examplifies how this product was sold far and wide in the colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In addition to tea, Henry Appleton sold a variety of grocery items and “West India Good[s]” at “his Shop next Door to Robert Traill” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Although he marketed the tea most vigorously – listing it first, describing it as “BEST,” and inserting a nota bene promising that “The above Tea is warranted of the best kind” – Appleton also sold “Loaf Sugar.” Consumers used sugar for many purposes. Sweetening tea was one of them, making it natural that the shopkeeper advertised the two together.

Jonathan mentions the political controversies that coalesced around tea in the decade before the Revolution. Colonists objected to new taxes and enforcement mechanisms, decrying their loss of liberty at the hands of Parliament. More than any other commodity, historians use tea to tell a powerful story of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution. In recent years many scholars have widened the scope of that story, effectively linking tea to other commodities associated with it, especially the “Loaf Sugar” that Appleton simultaneously peddled.

Consumers in colonial New Hampshire were fairly far removed from slavery practiced on the same scale as in the Chesapeake, Lower South, and Caribbean. A relatively small number of slaves lived in their towns (including “A likely Negro GIRL” offered for sale in an advertisement in the column to the right of Appleton’s notice), but the economy of colonial New Hampshire did not rely on the cultivation of staple crops on plantations, cultivation made possible by the productive labor of slaves.

Even though that was the case, colonists in New Hampshire were bound up in the system of slavery through commerce and their choices as consumers. The sugar they used to sweeten the tea they coveted resulted from the involuntary labor of enslaved men and women on faraway plantations. The social rituals that emanated from purchasing tea and ancillary goods, such as elaborate tea sets, rested on a foundation of enslaved labor in the cultivation of sugar. Even as Americans clamored for liberty in the face of Parliament meddling in colonial commerce, their consumer choices maintained an economic system that denied liberty to enslaved men and women who produced some of their most valued commodities.