August 17

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Pennsylvania Packet (August 17, 1772).

“He came on redemption, and was disappointed in meeting his expected friend.”

James Gordon found himself in an unanticipated situation when he migrated from Londonderry to Philadelphia in the summer of 1772.  The “WRITING-MASTER AND ACCOMPTANT” declared that he “came on redemption, and was disappointed in meeting his expected friend.”  In other words, he did not pay his passage in advance, nor did he sign an indenture and agree to work for a set number of years in exchange for transportation across the Atlantic.  Instead, Gordon became a redemptioner.  Compared to indentured servants who signed contracts that outlined their commitments in advance of departing European ports, redemptioners were “redeemed” by colonizers who paid their passage upon arrival.  Many redemptioners arranged in advance for family and friends to redeem them.  Others, however, sailed without knowing who might redeem them, sold into indentured servitude after crossing the Atlantic.  That system was especially popular with German-speaking migrants.  Newspapers published in Philadelphia ran the greatest numbers of advertisements offering redemptioners for sale.

Gordon apparently thought that a friend would redeem him when he arrived in Philadelphia, though the friend may not have been aware of that arrangement.  Whatever the circumstances, he placed an advertisement seeking a patron to redeem him by paying for his passage and hiring him “as a Clerk or Schoolmaster.”  Gordon expressed his willingness to work for “any Gentleman, Merchant, Farmer, or other, in any part of the province of Pennsylvania, or New-Jersey.”  If no one who wanted to hire him as a clerk or schoolmaster were to “pay his redemption,” he could be redeemed by someone who had him do other kinds of work that Gordon likely would have found much less agreeable.

To avoid that possibility, Gordon added a nota bene in which he attempted to promote the qualities that made him a good schoolmaster and clerk while simultaneously not scaring off prospective employers by overselling himself.  Perhaps most importantly, he wanted to impress them with his honesty.  “As the generality of advertisers are pleased to embellish their abilities with the most exalted encomiums,” he declared, “the above Gordon, as to that point inclines to be silent, only, that by his behaviour, method of teaching, (or clerkmanship) and assiduity, flatters himself of meriting the kind approbation of any employer.”  Gordon hoped that his advertisement would convince someone would hire him as a schoolmaster or clerk.  Otherwise, he faced the prospects of the owner or captain of the vessel that carried him across the ocean would allow others to “pay his redemption” and employ him as they saw fit.  Gordon may have thought that he had a deal in place when he left Londonderry, but redemption turned out to be a gamble for the writing master and clerk.

August 16

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

Aug 16 - 8:16:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 16, 1769).

“Would be glad to be employed in keeping of books.”

Elizabeth Bedon’s advertisement proposing to open a boarding school in Savannah “for the education of young ladies” ran for the third and final time in the August 16, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Immediately below it appeared an employment advertisement inserted by George Bedon: “The subscriber being regularly bred to the mercantile business, would be glad to be employed in keeping of books, drawing out accounts, &c. Those who are pleased to employ him may depend upon the greatest correctness and dispatch.” That advertisement also made its third and final appearance on August 16, each time running in combination with Elizabeth’s advertisement.

George’s notice did not indicate where prospective employers could contact him. Given that Savannah was a small port, he may have considered listing such information unnecessary. After all, other advertisers did not always list their locations. In the same issue, Thomas Hamilton offered a “SMALL NEAT TENEMENT” for rent and Inglis and Hall hawked “superfine Philadelphia Flour.” Neither notice included a location, the advertisers expecting that they were familiar enough figures that interested parties would know where to find them.

That Elizabeth and George simultaneously placed advertisements seeking employment, however, suggests that they may have been new to Savannah and intended for the advertisements to serve as a form of introduction to their new neighbors. In that case, George likely meant for his advertisement to piggyback on Elizabeth’s, which concluded by advising “those who intend to intrust their children under her care to favour her with a line, directed to be left at Capt. Langford’s.” She apparently considered the captain a prominent enough figure in the community not to require additional information about his place of residence. George likely anticipated that subscribers and others engaged in sufficiently close reading of the advertisements that prospective employers would be able to deduce his location.

Even when they ran for multiple weeks, the order of advertisements in colonial newspapers shifted from issue to issue. Compositors moved them according to length in order to make all of the contents fit on the page. At only four lines, George’s advertisement would have been relatively easy to insert anywhere that a column fell just shy of being complete. That it consistently remained with Elizabeth’s advertisement suggests both that they purchased the two as a package and that the compositor exercised special care in making sure that they were not separated during the duration of their run in the Georgia Gazette.

December 3

Guest Curator: Nicholas Sears

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

dec-3-1231766-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (December 3, 1766).

“A YOUNG MAN that can write a good hand.”

This employment advertisement sought an assistant or clerk to “copy distinctly” in the “Secretary’s-Office” in Georgia. When I saw this advertisement I was curious to know exactly where a young man would have received the education necessary to know how to write. According to Robert A. Peterson in “Education in Colonial America, children could learn this skill at home or in schools. Before public schools, parents taught their children how to read and write, but only if they knew how.

Peterson also discusses other ways colonists were educated: at church, from voluntary associations such as library companies and philosophical societies, circulating libraries, apprenticeships. Many colonists turned to their church where they could learn through sermons. Pastors would at times speak for hours on end. Families followed sermons closely, took mental notes, and discussed the sermon together on a Sunday afternoon. Adults had the advantage of going to a library or a philosophical society. For example, Peterson discusses the society called “The Literary Republic.” This society, where artisans, tradesmen, and common laborers met to discuss “logic, jurisprudence, religion, science, and moral philosophy,” opened in 1764 in Philadelphia.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

This employment advertisement stands in stark contrast to the ten advertisements for slaves that appeared in the same issue of the Georgia Gazette. A young man with sufficient education to “write a good hand” and “copy distinctly” had an opportunity to work for the colonial government in the “Secretary’s-Office.” Even for a youth of humble origins, this might have been a stepping stone that enhanced his possibilities for social mobility through meeting and working under the direction of the better sorts in colonial Georgia.

The slaves advertised in the Georgia Gazette did not have the same opportunities for social mobility, thought they were certainly mobile in other ways. Of the ten advertisements featuring slaves in that issue, four described runaway slaves and five announced captured slaves who had been “Brought to the Workhouse” until such time that their masters could retrieve them. The final advertisement promoted the sale of “A FAMILY of NEGROES, consisting of a valuable house wench and five well grown boys and girls, country born.” Almost certainly none of them had been taught to read or “write a good hand” or “copy distinctly.”

Indeed, none of those advertisements indicated that any of the slaves possessed even basic literacy, though several pointed out that one runaway or another “speaks very little English” or could not speak English well enough “so as to be understood.” On occasions when advertisements did associate literacy with slaves they usually attributed nefarious purposes to slaves’ ability to read or write, such as warning against passes that had been altered.

The employment advertisement offering employment in the “Secretary’s-Office” to a qualified young man opened up a variety of possibilities and opportunities for at least one colonist. A great many more advertisements, however, thwarted opportunities that slaves had seized for themselves. Masters used the power of print in attempts to return slaves to situations in which their opportunities would be further circumscribed. Side by side, the employment advertisement and the slavery advertisement demonstrate two very different sets of possibilities open to colonists in Georgia in the decade before the American Revolution.