GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be SOLD … before Mr. Anthony Hay’s door, in Williamsburg … TWENTY LIKELY VIRGINIA BORN SLAVES.”
Since slaves were being sold outside of Anthony Hay’s door, I wondered if he was a prominent figure in Virginia in the 1760s. I learned that Hay was a Scottish immigrant and owned one of the largest cabinetmaking shops in Williamsburg. According to the historians at Colonial Williamsburg, he primarily sold to the middle class and above, catering to their “modern tastes.” These people bought elegant furniture made by Hay and other artisans to show off their status or convey the importance of an event. His shop made the ceremonial chair for the Virginia governor, but his most beautiful works were elaborate tea and china tables designed to impress guests. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, about one-third of stylish furniture was imported from England, but as the colonies used commerce and consumption as acts of resistance in the years before the American Revolution, Virginians bought more and more domestically made furniture. Today, Williamsburg has a reconstructed cabinet shop located where Hay’s business used to reside. It is open to the public to learn more about the history of cabinetmaking.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
For today’s entry, Sam selected an advertisement also included among those from the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. That companion project to the Adverts 250 Project seeks to demonstrate the ubiquity of advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children in eighteenth-century newspapers. From New England to Georgia, slavery was an everyday part of life. Enslaved people lived and labored throughout the colonies. They were also visible in the public prints, the subjects of advertisements that offered men, women, and children for sale or encouraged white colonists to participate in a culture of surveillance of black bodies in order to recognize their descriptions and claim awards for capturing those who attempted to escape from bondage.
This advertisement for “TWENTY LIKELY VIRGINIA BORN SLAVES” demonstrates another aspect of the ubiquity of slavery in eighteenth-century America: the venues where enslaved men, women, and children were sold. W. Mitchell planned to conduct this sale “before Mr. Anthony Hay’s door, in Williamsburg.” Anyone who traversed the street where Hay kept his shop was exposed to this sale, whether or not they wished to engage in a transaction, whether or not they wished to observe. Just as white colonists regularly encountered enslaved men, women, and children, they also regularly glimpsed the buying and selling of them since such business was not restricted to auction houses or other venues specifically for that purpose.
Another advertisement published in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette on the same day described a “SCHEME for disposing of … LANDS, HOUSES, and SLAVES” through a lottery. The “Prizes” included several enslaved men, women, and children. Although some were described as parents and children or sister and brothers, the trustees who organized the lottery as a means of settling an estate listed each of them as separate prizes. Almost certainly they would be separated from each other at the time of the drawing. The entire process was just as callous and casual as the sale held in the street “before Mr. Anthony Hay’s door.” The advertisements made these sales all the more visible. Quite likely far more readers became aware of them from the advertisements in the public prints than colonists viewed them when they occurred.