December 18

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

dec-18-12181766-pennsylvania-journal
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.

Welcome, Guest Curator Nicholas Sears

Nicholas Sears is a sophomore majoring in History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  He previously attended Bridgewater State University and Regis College. One of his essays, “Narcan and the Heroin Epidemic in Massachusetts,” appeared in the seventh edition of Embracing Writing: First- and Second-Year Writing at Bridgewater State University (2015). He will be guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 27 to December 3, 2016.  He previously curated the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 6 to 12, 2016.

Welcome, Nicholas Sears!

Welcome, Guest Curator Patrick Keane

Patrick Keane is a sophomore who transferred to Assumption College from Kennebec Valley Community College, where he was an honor student. He is majoring in History and minoring in Economics. He was on the varsity soccer and tennis teams at Waterville Senior High, in Waterville, Maine. He will be guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 20 to 26, 2016. He previously curated the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 23 to 29, 2016.

Welcome, Patrick Keane!

Welcome, Guest Curator Mary Williams

Mary Williams is a senior majoring in Secondary Education and History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was inducted into Phi Alpha Theta, the History National Honor Society, in her junior year. She has previous experience with public history and digital humanities, having contributed to the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project at the American Antiquarian Society. As part of her Revolutionary America class she used T-PEN to transcribe and tag a ballad to make it more accessible to scholars and general audiences. Beyond her studies she enjoys baking and giving piano lessons. She will be guest curator of the Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 13 to 19, 2016. She previously curated the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 2 to 8, 2016.

Welcome, Mary Williams!

Welcome, Guest Curator Carolyn Crawford

Carolyn Crawford is a junior at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she is an Elementary Education and History double major. She especially enjoys learning about the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Civil War. She is an active member of several campus organizations, including the Campus Activities Board, the Human Services Club, and Bible Study. She will be guest curator of the Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 6 to 12, 2016, as well as curator of the Slavery Adverts Project during the week of November 20 to 26, 2016.

Welcome, Carolyn Crawford!

Welcome, Guest Curator Ceara Morse

Ceara Morse is a sophomore majoring in History and Secondary Education at Assumption College. From a young age she found history interesting because history is being made every day, not just in the distant past. She is fascinated by many historical periods and places, but wants to focus on U.S. History. She will be guest curator of the Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 30 to November 5, 2016.  She previously curated the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 9 to 15, 2016.

Welcome, Ceara Morse!

Welcome, Guest Curator Megan Watts

Megan Watts is a sophomore at Assumption College, where she is a History major and intends to pursue a minor in either Political Science or Women’s Studies. She has enjoyed participating in various educational programs offered at the Fairfield Museum and History Center in Fairfield, Connecticut. She plans to become a historian, believing that understanding the past leads to a better future for the world. She will be a guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 23 to 29, 2016, as well as curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 27 to December 3, 2016.

Welcome, Megan Watts!

Welcome, Guest Curator Lindsay Hajjar

Lindsay Hajjar is a junior at Assumption College, majoring in Elementary Education and History. She intends to focus on early childhood education when obtaining her master’s, but has a strong interest in Colonial and Revolutionary America. Outside the classroom, she is an active member of many different organizations on campus, including Class Assembly, Peers Advocating Wellness for Others, Human Services Club, and the Assumption College Chorale. Last spring she traveled with the Chorale to the Czech Republic and Austria. She has a passion for travel and cannot wait to explore more of the world. For now, history provides opportunities for her to see a lot of the world. She will be the guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 16 to 22, 2016, as well as guest curator for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of December 4 to 10, 2016.

Welcome, Lindsay Hajjar!

Welcome, Guest Curator Jordan Russo

Jordan Russo is a senior at Assumption College, where she is double majoring in Elementary Education and History.  Her favorite historical topics are Ancient Egypt and Ancient China. In addition to her studies, Jordan works at a daycare and is a cheerleader at Assumption College. She has also participated in the annual UMass Medicine Cancer Walk and Run for the past three years and volunteered with Working for Worcester for the last two years. She will be guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 9 to 15, 2016, as well as curator for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of November 13 to 19, 2016.

Welcome, Jordan Russo!

Welcome Back, Guest Curator Elizabeth Curley

Elizabeth Curley is a junior at Assumption College. She is an Elementary Education and History double major, with the goal of becoming a sixth grade social studies teacher. When it comes to history her favorite topics are colonial America, the American Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.  Beyond the classroom, she enjoys learning about different world cultures and cooking. You can follow her Public History Twitter account:  @WomenOfAC.  She has previous public history and digital humanities experience, including using T-PEN to transcribe and tag ballads for the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project at the American Antiquarian Society. She was previously guest curator of the Adverts 250 Project during the weeks of February 14 to 20 and March 20 to 26, 2016. She is returning for the week of October 2 to 8, as well as curating the Slavery Adverts 250 Project during the week of October 30 to November 5, 2016.

Welcome back, Elizabeth Curley!