What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away … a Negro Man named GLASGOW.”
Near the end of April 1770, Dover, an enslaved man, liberated himself from Nathaniel Sperry of New Haven. As the anniversary of Dover making his escape approached, Sperry turned to the public prints to seek assistance in capturing Dover and returning him to bondage. To that end, he placed an advertisement in which he described Dover and offered a reward in the Connecticut Journal. On the night of May 7, 1771, another enslaved man, Glasgow, liberated himself from John Treat of Milford. On the same night, “a Negro Man named ABEL” liberated himself from Gideon Platt, Jr., also of Milford. Abel and Glasgow may have worked together to outsmart their enslavers and increase their chances of successfully escaping from their enslavers. Platt and Treat placed separate advertisements in the Connecticut Journal, perhaps unaware of any possible connection until their notices appeared one after the other in the May 10, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Journal.
All three advertisements ran for three consecutive weeks, but their format shifted during that time. On May 10, all three appeared in a single column on the final page. The following week, however, the printers had more content than space, so they improvised by placing the advertisement about Abel in the left column on the second page and the advertisements about Dover and Glasgow in the right margin on the third page. Since the type had already been set for these advertisements, the printers simply divided them into several columns that ran perpendicular to the other text on the page. Doing so conserved time and effort while also making using of available space since the printers had to make only one small revision, placing the town and date on the same line as John Treat’s name. For the final appearance in the May 24 edition, all three advertisements returned to the regular columns, each of them reconstituted to their original format (save for the minor change to Treat’s advertisement about Glasgow).
Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Gazette, minimized the amount of effort required to run the advertisements about Abel, Dover, and Glasgow for three consecutive weeks. They adopted a common strategy of printing in the margins, a practice that tended to their own interests as entrepreneurs seeking to maximize revenues while reducing expenses. In the process, they demonstrated their commitment to serving their customers by publishing notices submitted to their printing office, including notices about enslaved people who liberated themselves. The Greens could have delayed publication of the advertisements about Abel, Dover, and Glasgow by a week, as other printers sometimes did when they had more content than space. Instead, the Greens invested additional effort in publishing descriptions of the men, even as they conserved their own resources. Reconfiguring the advertisements twice, even if not starting over on setting type each time, testified to their willingness to give customers access to the power of the press as a means of encouraging surveillance of Black people with the intention of capturing of enslaved people who liberated themselves.