March 1

GUEST CURATOR: Chloe Amour

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

Georgia Gazette (March 1, 1769).

“He is branded on the breast IW in small letters.”

In this particular advertisement for a runaway slave, the vivid description suggests the desperation to find him. Including a reward made the search that much more enticing. A key detail in the advertisement states the slave, named Bristol, was “Angola born.” He was brought to the West Indies, then eventually to Georgia. This implies the slave has been sold multiple times. Coming from the West Indies with a brand also became a telltale sign he had previous masters. In addition, Bristol speaks “pretty good English,” which implies he had been enslaved long enough to learn the language. With the demand for slave labor and the revenue it produced, masters circulated their slaves for profit. The amount of information and detail provided in the advertisement allows for readers to reconstruct the story of Bristol.

The brand on Bristol’s breast, “IW in small letters,” helped to identify him. Betty Wood examines the practice of branding enslaved people: “If they had not been branded before leaving Africa, then there was a good chance that it would happen to them upon their arrival in America.”[1] Branding, using a “red-hot iron,” was a common technique to leave an imprint upon the bodies of slaves. Typically, the brand was stamped on the chest, shoulder, or cheek. The act of branding by slave owners made a bold statement; it displayed complete ownership and possession of the slave. The visual image of a brand made a statement, to deny the humanity of people of African origin. To put branding in perspective, this type of treatment was used on animals, such as cattle and horses, to keep track of them if they became lost. Similar to the runaway slave Bristol, the origins of other enslaved people could be traced through the symbol branded upon their body.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

By the time George McIntosh’s advertisement concerning Bristol ran in the March 1, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette, the runaway had been absent for nearly seven weeks. McIntosh reported that Bristol “WENT AWAY” on January 13. Also by early March the advertisement would have been familiar to colonists who regularly read the Georgia Gazette. Dated “17th January, 1769,” it appeared in its sixth consecutive issue. McIntosh apparently submitted it to the printing office too late for inclusion in the January 18 edition, but starting on January 25 the advertisement appeared every week. By then, Bristol had been “AWAY” from McIntosh’s plantation for nearly two weeks. In the several weeks since, he continued to make good on his escape. Perhaps he had learned from a previous failed attempt and crafted a better plan. McIntosh stated that Bristol had been “taken up once before” in the area of Sunbury and Midway.

The longevity of McIntosh’s advertisement describing a man who had escaped from bondage was hardly unique, at least not compared to other advertisements that described runaways and offered rewards for their capture and return. Some ran for as long as six months before being discontinued. When such advertisements disappeared from the pages of the Georgia Gazette after so long, it most likely indicated that slaveholders decided not to make further investments in alerting the public about the runaways. After seeing the same advertisements for months, readers were probably well aware of the descriptions of the runaways and the circumstances of their escapes.

In contrast to the constant republishing of runaway advertisements, other sorts of paid notices usually ran for a much more limited time. Advertisements for consumer goods and services, for example, typically ran for three or four weeks. Merchants and shopkeepers did not make the same investment in notifying the public about their wares as slaveholders made in their attempts to reclaim their human property. Advertisements for runaway slaves were an important revenue stream for the Georgia Gazette not only because colonists placed so many of them but also because those advertisements ran for so much longer than any others.

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[1] Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 28.

July 12

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

Jul 12 - 7:9:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (July 9, 1767).

“Ready for Sale, BY Jolley Allen.”

Regular readers of the Massachusetts Gazette may have been surprised when they glimpsed this notice for Jolley Allen’s “Shop about Midway between the Governor’s and the Town-House, and almost Opposite the Heart and Crown in Cornhill, BOSTON.” Allen regularly advertised in the Massachusetts Gazette. He also regularly advertised in the city’s other three newspapers, so the advertisements itself would not have caused surprise. No, that would have resulted from the design of the advertisement. It did not feature a border comprised of printing ornaments, a distinctive aspect of Allen’s advertising that had practically become his trademark in all of his notices, regardless of which newspaper published them. Allen had developed a consistent visual appearance for his advertisements, making them instantly recognizable. This advertisement, however, looked like so many others on the page. It lacked the most significant element that previously set Allen’s notices apart from others.

Perhaps the printer made an error. Perhaps a new compositor now worked in the shop and set the type without realizing that Jolley’s advertisement was supposed to have a decorative border. After all, the shopkeeper seems to have consistently negotiated with the printers of all four of Boston’s newspapers to include that adornment. Perhaps he forgot to underscore this request when he submitted the copy for this advertisement.

Yet later in the week, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy all carried Allen’s newest advertisement. None of them enclosed his list of “English and India Goods” within any sort of border. While it was possible that one printing office overlooked this particular request, it seems unlikely that all four made the same mistake. Apparently Allen had not renewed his instructions concerning the graphic design of his advertisement. Why did he abandon a practice that made his advertisements so easily identifiable to readers and potential customers? Why did he eliminate the most innovative aspect of his advertising?   Even as eighteenth-century advertisers experimented with early forms of branding, they did not consistently adopt new methods, not realizing the value of cementing unique images of their business endeavors in the minds of consumers.