GUEST CURATOR: Lindsay Hajjar
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Who is as good a cooper as any of his colour in this province.”
The word “cooper” was new to me. After doing some research I learned that it means someone who makes casks or barrels. David Waldstreicher talks about how important it was to owners that slaves had a trade because it allowed them to be more useful than just another farmhand. Being a good cooper would have been a very useful skill; it would have made this ‘HEALTHY YOUNG NEGROE MAN” more valuable, to both the seller and the new owner.
In many other advertisements goods tended to be sold by the cask or barrel. For slave owners who wanted to sell things they were producing by the barrel having a slave who was able to produce the barrels would have been desirable. It would have been a way to save money, because they would not have to pay a third party. All the owner would have to do was buy the supplies and then have the slave make the casks. Waldstreicher talks about how different slaves had different value to their owners and “A HEALTHY YOUNG NEGROE MAN” who had a trade would be a slave that would have been considered profitable.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
This advertisement, which ran for several weeks, has already been featured on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. That project, however, limits the description and analysis of each advertisement to a single tweet. At the end of the semester, the curators will write an essay about slavery in colonial America that draws from the work they have done for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project and other course material. That means that the bulk of the analysis has been delayed. It might also have the unintended consequence of guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project choosing to examine other sorts of advertisements and not including advertisements for slaves in the rotation of commercial notices they select for research and analysis. I’ve made a commitment to including advertisements that treated slaves as commodities from the very start of this project. In selecting today’s advertisement, Lindsay has further augmented that aspect of the Adverts 250 Project.
Every time that I have encountered this advertisement I have been struck by the backhanded compliment about the enslaved young man’s skill as an artisan: “as good a cooper as any of his colour in this province.” The seller worked toward two very different purposes, creating an astounding dissonance within the advertisement. To gain the best price and make the slave as attractive as possible, the seller underscored his skill as a cooper. As Lindsay notes, this would have added value for a variety of reasons. As with other advertisements for enslaved tradesmen, it also demonstrates that slaves contributed expertise and experience to the colonial economy, in addition to labor.
Yet the seller also found it necessary to qualify the remark about the skills the enslaved cooper possessed. He was not as good as any cooper in the colony but rather as good “as any of his colour.” This diminished his skill by implying that white coopers were categorically better at their trade. No matter how skilled this “HEALTHY YOUNG NEGROE MAN” may have been, the seller perpetuated a hierarchy in which the enslaved cooper was still inferior to white artisans.
 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): 244.