May 9

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

May 9 - 5:9:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 9, 1767).

“Assortment of English and India GOODS, at his Shop at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY.”

Jonathan Russell ran a shop “at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY; on the West Side of the Great-Bridge, in PROVIDENCE.” As I compiled today’s entries for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project I debated whether Russell’s advertisement should be included. Two other notices in the same issue of the Providence Gazette explicitly sold slaves, “A Negro Woman, who understands all sorts of houshold Work” and “A Likely, healthy Negro Boy … fit for either Town of Country,” but Russell’s advertisement did not promote the sale of slaves.

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project casts a wide net when it comes to including notices that mention slaves. Most of the advertisements fall into three main categories: slaves for sale, runaway slaves, and captured slaves. Enslaved men, women, and children, however sometimes found themselves the subjects of other sorts of advertising. Rather than sell slaves, some masters preferred to hire them out. Others mentioned the role slaves played in commercial ventures, such as Lewis Johnson’s help wanted notice seeking “AN OVERSEER who understands the BUSINESS of STAVEMAKING, to take charge of a few negroes employed in that way” in the Georgia Gazette (May 6, 1767). Some provided evidence of the presence of enslaved people in everyday life in the colonies, such as Robert Murray’s notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette (May 8, 1767) offering to return a “PLAIN gold RING” upon the owner “paying for this advertisement, and giving something to the negro who found it.”

Russell’s advertisement for “his Shop at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY,” however, does not refer to an actual person or to any humans treated as commodities that he attempted to sell. Yet “the Sign of the BLACK-BOY” drew meaning from the context of transatlantic commerce that included the slave trade and the production of “indigo, rum, melasses, sugar, rice,” and other goods produced by enslaved men, women, and children and transported to Russell’s and other shops throughout the Atlantic world. Slaves lived and toiled in Providence. Many merchants from the city and other ports in Rhode Island made their livings, at least in part, by participating in the slave trade. In his own fashion, Jonathan Russell also exploited black bodies for his own benefit when he adopted “the sign of the BLACK-BOY” as the device to mark his location and identify his commercial enterprises. Accordingly, I have included his advertisement in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.

March 4

GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney

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

mar-4-341767-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (March 4, 1767).

“Five Pounds Sterling Reward. RUN AWAY … NEGROE MAN, named DAVID.”

This advertisement for a runaway slave named David provides a brief description of his appearance, including special features like the holes in his ears and the blanket, hat, and pair of “cheque trowsers, and an old cheque shirt” he took when he escaped. Slaves’ appearance was crucial to advertisements seeking their capture because clothing was one of the most important means of identifying people in the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Runaway slaves attempted to disguise themselves through altering or changing their clothes when possible.

Charmaine A. Nelson recently discussed the use of clothing in runaway slave advertisements. The amount of control slaves had over their appearance varied, and while David may not have had much choice in the clothes he possessed he still could have attempted to change his appearance after escaping his master. Nelson draws attention to David Waldstreicher’s arguments regarding the importance of describing slaves’ appearance and clothing in runaway advertisements, along with “trades or skills, linguistic ability or usage, and ethnic or racial identity.” Nelson also focuses on the case of a runaway woman named Cash, whose description included clothes she owned and that she presumably produced.

It’s depressing to realize that at a time when ideas of liberty and democracy were taking root in the American consciousness, people were also callously trampling on other humans’ attempts to gain freedom and prosperity.

For more information see “Cash’s Bundle: Fugitive Slave Advertisements, Clothing, and Self-Care” at The Junto.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Thomas Lee’s notice offering a reward for David included all four of the most common types of descriptions in runaway advertisements identified by David Waldstreicher.[1] Sam has already investigated the clothing David took with him. Lee also implicitly remarked on David’s trade or skills when he mentioned that the enslaved man fled “from the subscriber’s brick-yard.” He explicitly incorporated linguistic ability (“can speak no English”) and ethnic identity (“of the Gambia country”). This notice was one of nineteen runaway advertisements printed in newspapers throughout the colonies during the week of February 26 through March 4, 1767. Most deployed some or all of these common means of describing runaways.

From the clothes that David wore to his height to the “large hole in each year,” Lee provided means for identifying the fugitive slave according to his physical features, but doing so required surveillance by readers of the Georgia Gazette. In order for runaway advertisements to be effective, colonists needed to scrutinize black bodies – carefully, actively, and constantly. Using text rather than images, runaway advertisements put the bodies of Africans and African Americans on display in the pages of newspapers, but this effect was not limited to print. Such advertisements demanded that readers take special notice of any and all black people they encountered, especially any not previously familiar to them. Such advertisements required close inspection of black bodies as readers compared published descriptions to the flesh-and-blood people who stood before them. As a result, runaway advertisements targeted specific individuals, but they potentially affected all black people subject to being sized up by readers on the lookout for fugitives.

Readers of the Georgia Gazette grappled with only one runaway advertisement in the March 4, 1767, issue. However, other runaway advertisements had appeared recently in previous issues, including one for Maria that ran for six months. Such descriptions would have become very familiar to readers who encountered them week after week. Often multiple runaway advertisements appeared in any given issue of the Georgia Gazette. As a result, readers could mentally conjure up an assortment of mental images of various runaways whenever they encountered unfamiliar Africans and African Americans. Print furthered the display and examination of black bodies in colonial and Revolutionary America.

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[1] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 248.

December 12

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

dec-12-12121766-south-carolina-and-american-general-gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 12, 1766).

“RAN AWAY … NERO … many scars about his head.”

Woodcuts frequently accompanied advertisements offering slaves for sale or warning about runaway slaves. As a result, images of Africans and African Americans appeared in newspapers regularly, in contrast to white colonists who were rarely illustrated with visual images. These woodcuts did not depict particular enslaved men, women, or children. Instead, they were stock devices used interchangeably, erasing the individuality of any of the slaves they purported to represent. Significantly, images of black bodies appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers at all because Africans and African Americans were marketed as commodities, just as the multitude of woodcuts depicting ships represented imported goods.

Last week I discovered that I have access to digitized copies of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, a newspaper not previously incorporated into the Adverts 250 Project. As a result, today I chose to feature an advertisement from that newspaper rather than one either of the other two published 250 years ago today. Both the New-London Gazette and, especially, the New-Hampshire Gazette have contributed a good number of advertisements to this project over the past year. Featuring an advertisement from the South-Carolina and American General Gazette not only increases the number of newspaper included in this project, it also further augments the geographic scope of the project, bringing the number of newspapers printed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1766 that have since been digitized to three. This rivals Boston with four, New York with three, and Philadelphia with two.

As I perused the December 12, 1766, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to make my selection for today, I was drawn to this runaway slave advertisement because of the woodcut. This is not the first time that I have examined a woodcut depicting a slave, but this one had an interesting aspect that was not part of similar woodcuts in other newspapers. The torso of the escaped slave was emblazoned with a capital “R,” presumably for “runaway.” The imaginary slave’s body was marked, almost as if it had been branded, while the actual slave – Nero, a sawyer and woodcutter – was also marked with “many scars about his head.” Advertisements for runaway slaves usually included some sort of physical description that allowed readers to scrutinize the black bodies they encountered beyond the pages of the newspaper. Those descriptions often included marks that had been inflicted upon them by masters and overseers. Nero’s scars may have derived from African cultural traditions or they may have been the result of his labors as a sawyer and woodcutter, but it was just as likely that they were indications of punishment and mistreatment. The real Nero was not marked with a capital “R,” but his body may have born other evidence of his enslavement.

April 26

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

Apr 26 - 4:25:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 25, 1766).

“RUN away from his Master … a NEGRO Man named Neptune.”

John Moody placed this advertisement when “a NEGRO Man named Neptune” – almost certainly not the name bestowed on him by his parents when he was born – ran away. This advertisement stands in stark contrast to the one featured yesterday, though both came from the same issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Yesterday’s “ADVERTISEMENT Extraordinary” encouraged readers to put on all kinds of displays upon receiving word that the Stamp Act had been repealed. This advertisement, however, asserted that black bodies should be on display and encouraged readers to take note of any “NEGRO Man” they encountered. Black bodies were figuratively on display in the crude woodcut that could have been any enslaved man. Black bodies were literally on display – scrutinized closely – any time readers attempted to assess if a black man fit the description in the advertisement. “Neptune” could change his clothing, but the fugitive could not disguise certain physical characteristics: “lost two of his Toes, and can’t move his Under Jaw.” Determining if a black man fit this description could require sustained observation; these are not attributes that would necessarily be noticed at a glance. While many colonial Americans engaged in public spectacles to celebrate the end of the Stamp Act, “Neptune” likely did all he could to avoid becoming a public spectacle, but today’s advertisement encouraged colonial Americans to think of all black bodies as some sort of public spectacle to be observed and scrutinized.