December 18

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

Pennsylvania Journal (December 18, 1766).

“A likely, healthy, young Negro lad, named Adonis.”

Regular visitors know that students from my Colonial America class have actively participated in the project over the past three months, both as guest curators of the original Adverts 250 Project and as curators of a newer initiative, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. These two digital humanities and public history projects gave students opportunities to learn about consumer culture and slavery in colonial America, as well as the connections of each to commerce, culture, and politics. As curators of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, each student identified all advertisements concerning slavery published during a particular week in the fall of 1766. For their final exam, each student wrote an essay in which they used those advertisements, supplemented by other primary and secondary sources from the course, to examine the history of slavery in colonial America.

Randle Mitchell’s advertisement explicitly demonstrates the connections between the emphasis on marketing and consumer culture in the Adverts 250 Project and the focus on enslavement and commerce in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. It also incorporates aspects of slavery in colonial America that I especially wanted students to uncover and learn by working on the project and taking the course. Drawing on other advertisements, most students commented on many of the aspects of Mitchell’s advertisement that I consider significant.

At first glance, Mitchell’s advertisement appeared to be a standard commercial notice about “A Good assortment of European and India goods” recently imported. However, Mitchell added a nota bene (almost as long as the rest of the advertisement) that offered “a likely, healthy, young Negro lad, named Adonis” for sale. In the colonial marketplace, enslaved men, women, and children were just as much commodities as all the so-called “Baubles of Britain” that merchants imported and shopkeepers peddled.

Mitchell’s advertisement appeared repeatedly in both the Pennsylvania Journal and the Pennsylvania Gazette. Because most people associate slavery with the South in the decades before the Civil War, many students were astonished to discover how extensively slavery was practiced in northern colonies before the American Revolution. They deployed advertisements like this one to argue Pennsylvania, other Middle Atlantic colonies, and New England were “societies with slaves” even if they were not “slave societies” like their counterparts in the Chesapeake and Lower South.

Mitchell noted that Adonis “can attend and do any business about a gentleman’s house, or may do country business,” such as work on a farm. Just as many people associate slavery with the antebellum South, they also assume that slaves worked on plantations. The northern colonies did not develop plantation economies. Some slaves worked on farms, laboring alongside masters rather than with a gang of other slaves and an overseer. Like Adonis, others worked in domestic service, especially in urban ports in the eighteenth century. Some also learned special skills as artisans. This advertisement helps to demonstrate that slaves lived and worked in a variety of place and under a variety of circumstances during the colonial period.

I was generally pleased if students made all of these points in their final essays. I was especially impressed, however, by any who examined the reason Mitchell wanted to sell Adonis: “for no fault but want of present employ for him.” Mitchell did not have enough work to keep his young slave busy. That might have been cause to set the young man free, yet Mitchell opted instead to sell him to a new master, underscoring that the enslaved youth was a commodity and an investment. Several students commented on (and applauded) the agency demonstrated by slaves who ran away, the subject of a great many advertisements, but the most astute also noted that colonists like Mitchell also exercised agency in the choices they made (though in such cases they did not warrant any sort of applause or endorsement). Mitchell did not have to sell Adonis. Instead, he chose to sell the young man. Even in the wake of demonstrations against the Stamp Act and continued vigilance about Parliament’s attempts to “enslave” the American colonies, slaveholders like Mitchell continued to buy and sell men, women, and children.