September 3

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

Essex Gazette (September 3, 1771).

“The Original of this Advertisement, with the Subscribers Names, which are omitted, may be seen at the Printing-Office.”

Colonial printers disseminated information via newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, and other items produced on their presses, but the printed word was not their only means of communicating with the public.  Through written correspondence or visiting printing offices, colonists gained access to information that did not appear in print.  For instance, newspaper advertisements of all sorts instructed interested parties to “enquire of the printer” for more information.  Enslavers often remained anonymous when they placed advertisements looking to sell those they held in bondage, instead stating that readers should “enquire of the printer” for particulars, but they were not alone.  Purveyors of various commodities also listed printers as intermediaries, as did colonists seeking employment and artisans seeking apprentices.  In addition to “enquire of the printer” advertisements, subscription notices listed printers as local agents collecting orders for books published in other cities.  Sometimes printers had more extensive subscription notices on display in their printing offices compared to what appeared in newspapers.

On other occasions, printers chose to withhold some information, but informed readers that they could learn more in person.  Such was the case in an advertisement that ran in the September 3, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette.  The notice declared that “the new Work-House in Salem, was broke open” on August 25 and “the Workmen’s Tools stolen and carried away.”  The “Subscribers” who placed the advertisement lamented “such Villainy [that] brings a Scandal upon the Town” and encouraged “all well-disposed Persons [to] do their utmost that Justice may take Place.”  To that end, the “Subscribers” offered a reward “to any Person or Persons, who will discover the Offenders.”  The notice concluded with a note from Samuel Hall, the printer, that stated, “The Original of this Advertisement, with the Subscribers Names, which are omitted, may be seen at the Printing-Office.”  Hall did not indicate whether the original contained more information than appeared in print, other than the names of the “Subscribers” who placed it and offered the reward, but even the omitted names revealed that readers could learn more with a visit to the printing office.  Hall also did not specify why he did not publish the names of the “Subscribers.”  Perhaps he shared his reasons with those who came to examine the original.  Whatever the case, Hall utilized multiple methods in disseminating the information in his possession.  Some of it appeared in print, but certain details he shared with the curious when they visited his printing office.

June 17

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (June 17, 1771).

“For further Particulars, enquire of Edes & Gill.”

Two short advertisements about enslaved people appeared in the June 17, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  One announced, “TO BE SOLD, A likely Negro Fellow about 15 Years of Age.”  The other declared, “A Negro Child of a good Breed, to be given away.”  The same day, two other advertisements ran in the Boston-Gazette.  “To be Sold for Want of Employ,” stated one, “A likely Negro Woman, about 33 Years old, remarkable for Honesty and a good Temper.”  The other described “a Negro Man named Dick or Richard” who liberated himself.  The clever fugitive for freedom possessed a forged pass.

Each of those advertisements testified to the presence of slavery in northern colonies in the era of the American Revolution.  As colonists debated their rights and objected to abuses perpetrated by Parliament, many continued to enslave Africans and African Americans.  They turned to the same newspapers that kept them informed about politics and current events to facilitate the buying and selling … and even giving away … of enslaved men, women, and children.  In offering a reward for the capture and return of Dick, David Edgar encouraged all readers, whether enslavers or not, to engage in surveillance of Black people to detect the fugitive seeking freedom.  Newspapers, especially advertisements, helped perpetuate slavery in early America.

Most of those advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on June 17 had another similarity:  the extent that the printer participated in the transaction.  Edgar was the only advertiser who signed his notice.  Both advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post concluded with “Enquire of the Printers.”  The one offering a “likely Negro Woman” for sale in the Boston-Gazette advised, “For further Particulars, enquire of Edes & Gill.”  In addition to being well known as printers of that newspaper, their names appeared in the colophon at the bottom of the column that featured that advertisement.  The printers of both newspapers not only generated revenues by publishing advertisements about enslaved people but also actively took part in the buying, selling, and giving away of enslaved men, women, and children.  They played the role of information brokers beyond the printed page, providing additional services to enslavers who placed and responded to advertisements.

March 19

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

Essex Gazette (March 19, 1771).

“Whoever has a Mind to purchase … by applying to the Printer hereof may know further.”

Advertisements for grocery items, an “elegant Assortment of English GOODS,” sermons in memory of George Whitefield, and real estate for sale or lease ran in the March 19, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette.  Readers were accustomed to encountering each sort of advertisement when they perused the Essex Gazette.  They were also accustomed to another kind of advertisement that offered enslaved people for sale.  In that issue, an anonymous advertiser presented a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man, of about 30 Years of Age, who understands the farming Business in all its Branches.”  The advertiser advised prospective purchasers that the enslaved man was “To be SOLD, for Want of Employ, and not for any Fault.”  In other words, he was not ill, lazy, or disorderly; his current enslaver did not have enough work to keep him occupied.  The advertiser, who also had a “House Lot” in Marblehead for sale, instructed interested parties to contact the printer for more information.

Samuel Hall was that printer.  He began printing the Essex Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts, in August 1768.  The success of that newspaper and every other newspaper published in the colonies depended on attracting both subscribers and advertisers, but it also depended on other services provided at the printing office.  Printers served as information brokers.  The newspapers they distributed accounted for only a portion of the information in their possession.  They frequently disseminated via other means, including letters and conversations in printing offices, information that did not appear in print, especially when advertisers did not include all the particulars in their notices but instead asked readers to “enquire of the printer.”  In some cases, they made introductions, putting those who made inquiries in contact with advertisers.  On other occasions, they supplied additional details.  Either way, they acted as brokers, not only brokers of information but also brokers who facilitated sales.

When Hall published an advertisement for a “House Lot in Marblehead” and a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man” that told readers they could learn more “by applying to the Printer,” he became a real estate broker and a broker in the slave trade.  Jordan E. Taylor has recently examined “enquire of the printer” advertisements published throughout the colonies and new nation in the eighteenth century, demonstrating that Hall was not alone.[1]  Taylor identified more than 2100 unique “enquire of the printer” advertisements offering enslaved people for sale.  Printers from New England to Georgia actively participated in the slave trade, both by publishing advertisements about enslaved people and by acting as a broker for “enquire of the printer” advertisements.  As Taylor argues, “Print culture was inextricable from the culture of slavery, just as print capitalism was slavery’s capitalism.”

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[1] Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer:  Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies:  An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287-323.

July 15

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

Jul 15 - 7:12:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (July 12, 1770).

“Hear of good Encouragement, by applying to the Printer at the Exchange.”

By the late 1760s, entrepreneurial colonists established and advertised “intelligence offices” in Boston and New York.  The brokers who operated those establishments provided a variety of services for their clients.  They introduced merchants and traders seeking to buy and sell commodities.  They conducted real estate transactions.  They also facilitated sales of indentured servants and enslaved people in addition to aiding employers seeking workers.  Brokers made matches in the marketplace.

Yet their occupation was not unique in that regard.  Printing offices served as intelligence offices by another name.  Throughout the eighteenth century, advertisements often concluded with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information.  Consider some of the advertisements that appeared in the July 12, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal.  One short notice offered a young enslaved woman for sale, but offered little detail beyond her age and a promise that she “can be well recommended.”  The advertisement did not identify the enslaver; instead, it concluded with the familiar refrain, “Enquire of the Printer.”  Another advertisement offered employment opportunities for men willing to migrate to Virginia.  The anonymous advertiser sought a “Sober single Man, of a good Character, who understand the Smith’s Business” and “a single Man of like Character, who understands the tending and Management of a Merchant’s Mill.” Candidates could learn more “by applying to the Printer at the Exchange.”  According to the colophon, John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, ran his office “near the Exchange, in Broad-Street.”

Printing offices were hubs for collecting and circulating information in eighteenth-century America.  Printers disseminated some information via newspapers, but advertisements in those publications often hinted at far more information that did not appear in print.  By visiting or sending notes to printers, readers could learn more about job opportunities and commodities, real estate, indentured servants, and enslaved people for sale.  Newspaper advertisements reveal how frequently printers acted as brokers as one of the many facets of their occupation.

January 4

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

Jan 4 1770 - 1:4:1770 New-York Chronicle
New-York Chronicle (January 4, 1770).

“To be SOLD … A Healthy likely Negro.”

When the new year began in 1770, colonists in New York had access to four newspapers printed in their bustling port city. Hugh Gaine published the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury on Mondays, the same day that James Parker circulated the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy. On Thursdays, John Holt distributed the New-York Journal. Commencing in May 1769, Alexander Robertson and James Robertson released a new issue of the New-York Chronicle on Thursdays. All four newspapers carried advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children, who comprised a significant portion of the population. According to the New-York Historical Society, “As many as 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were enslaved Africans. … Almost every businessman in 18th-century New York had a stake, at one time or another, in the traffic of human beings.” Gaine, Parker, Holt, and the Robertsons certainly had a stake, generating revenue from advertisements offering enslaved people for sale and from notices describing those who escaped, the advertisers hoping that colonists would recognize, capture, and return “runaways” for a reward.

This advertisement seeking to sell a “Healthy likely Negro Wench, about Thirteen Years of Age,” appeared in the January 4, 1770, edition of the New-York Chronicle. As in so many other advertisements of this type, the seller did not include their name but instead instructed interested parties to “enquire of the Printers.” When they acted as information brokers in response to such enquiries, the Robertsons and other printers became even more enmeshed in the slave trade.

Yet the Robertsons ceased offering such services, not necessarily out of any moral compunction but instead because the New-York Chronicle closed down. The January 4 edition is the last known issue and, quite probably, the last issue of that newspaper. The newspaper did not survive an entire year, but the printers still managed to play a role in facilitating the slave trade in the colony. This advertisement offering a thirteen-year-old girl for sale ran on the final page of the January 4 edition. The New-York Chronicle helped to perpetuate slavery until the newspaper’s very end. New Yorkers then had one less place to insert advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children, but the disappearance of the New-York Chronicle likely made little difference in that regard. Three other newspapers continued to publish those advertisements, further embroiling colonial printers in maintaining and bolstering the slave trade. Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury tended to carry the most advertisements concerning enslaved people, but the others published them as well. As the 1770s dawned in New York, none of the city’s newspaper printers refused such advertisements and the fees associated with them.

October 11

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

Oct 11 - 10:11:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (October 11, 1769).

“WANTED, AN APPRENTICE … Enquire of the printer.”

Printing offices served as information hubs in eighteenth-century America. Publishing newspapers depended on gathering all sorts of information to print and circulate. To aid in that endeavor, printers often called on colonists to keep them apprised of news to insert in their publications. James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, made such overtures in every issue; the colophon on the final page noted that “Letters of Intelligence … are taken in” at the printing office. Johnston selected from among the “Letters of Intelligence” submitted for his consideration, but also liberally reprinted material from newspapers published in other colonies, a common practice in the eighteenth century. Most editions of the Georgia Gazette also included shipping news compiled by the customs house in Savannah, a listing of vessels “ENTERED INWARDS,” “ENTERED OUTWARDS,” and “CLEARED.” Advertisements comprised a significant portion of the content of the Georgia Gazette, delivering all sorts of information via legal notices, announcements, notices warning about enslaved men and women who escaped, and lists of consumers goods and commodities for sale.

Yet not all the information received in the printing office circulated in print. Johnston, like other printers, intentionally held some information in reserve at the request of those who supplied it. That made “Enquire of the printer” a common phrase that concluded many advertisements. One that ran in the October 11, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette briefly stated, “WANTED, AN APPRENTICE to the BARBER and P[ER]UKE MAKING BUSINESS. Enquire of the Printer.” Two other advertisements in that issue, both of them seeking overseers on plantations, also instructed interested parties to “Enquire of the printer” to learn more, including the identity of the prospective employers. Advertisers did not pay only for printers to set type and provide space in their newspapers; the fees printers charged for advertising sometimes included other services, including fielding inquiries from readers who desired more information. Printers oversaw multiple means of disseminating information to colonists, often making information readily available in print but sometimes serving as gatekeepers who dispersed certain information much more sparingly. “Enquire of the printer” advertisements demonstrate that information that flowed out of printing offices did not always take the form of print.

August 5

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

Aug 5 - 8:5:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 5, 1769).

“Enquire of the Printer.”

Like other printing offices throughout the colonies, John Carter’s printing office at the “Sign of Shakespear’s Head” in Providence was a hub for circulating information. Carter printed the Providence Gazette, distributing information to residents of the city, the colony, and beyond. To that end, he participated in exchange networks with other printers, sending and receiving newspapers and reprinting liberally from one publication to another. The August 5, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, for instance, included items “From the BOSTON EVENING-POST” and “From the Massachusetts Gazette” as well as other items almost certainly reprinted from other newspapers.

Yet Carter did not rely solely on other newspapers to provide the content he needed to fill the pages of the Providence Gazette. The colophon at the bottom of the final page of every issue advised readers that “Articles and Letters of Intelligence, &c. are received for this Paper” at the printing office. One item in the August 5 edition was an “Extract of a letter from Kennet, in Chester county,” Pennsylvania. Several such extracts came from London: “Extract of a letter from London,” “Extract of another letter from London,” and “Extract of another letter, by the last vessel, from a merchant in London to a merchant in Boston.” Carter depended on merchants, captains, and others to provide news to print in the Providence Gazette.

Yet not all of the information that found its way to the printing office circulated in print. Consider an employment advertisement placed by “A PERSON that understands the DISTILLING Business, in all its Branches.” Like so many other eighteenth-century advertisements, it withheld information in favor of instructing interested parties to “Enquire of the Printer.” The advertiser who paid to have this notice inserted in the Providence Gazette purchased more than the time and labor required to set the type and the space that it occupied on the page. This transaction also included an ongoing obligation on behalf of the printer to respond to inquiries, both written messages and visitors to the printing office. Carter acted as a gatekeeper for information, choosing which items to publish in the newspaper and doling out additional information to supplement what appeared in print. His printing office must have been a busy place considering the number of people, letters, and newspapers that passed through it.

June 10

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

Jun 10 - 6:10:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 10, 1769).

“TO BE SOLD, (At a Distance from the Town of Providence only).”

Among the advertisements in the June 10, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, an unnamed colonist offered to sell an enslaved youth. The advertisement did not provide many details except that the “young NEGROE WOMAN” was approximately fifteen years old and had been “born in the Country” rather than surviving the middle passage from Africa. The advertiser claimed that the enslaved youth was “capable of any Work suited to her Age,” but did not specify any particular skills that she possessed. Interested parties were instructed to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information.

None of that deviated from typical advertisements that offered enslaved men, women, and children for sale in the 1760s. The advertisement, however, did include one unusual element. It specified an exception concerning the terms of sale, stating that the seller intended to deal with buyers “At a Distance from the Town of Providence only.” The advertisement did not elaborate on the reason. This suggested a deliberate effort to separate the young woman from someone else. It hints at a story that most likely will never be recovered.

“Enquire of the Printer” advertisements truncated the information provided to readers, but they also truncated the miniature biographies of enslaved men, women, and children contained in those advertisements. Filtered through the perspective of a slaveholder, the advertisement obscures what may have been one of the most significant relationships in the young woman’s life at the time. Perhaps the advertiser considered it necessary to sell her “At a Distance” in order to effectively separate her from family members who exercised too much influence over her. Perhaps friends encouraged her to engage in acts of resistance and the seller hoped that sending her away would correct such insubordination. Perhaps she had embarked on a new romance that made her difficult to manage. Perhaps she frequently participated in altercations with the advertiser or a member of the advertiser’s family. Perhaps she had been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted by a member of the household and selling her “At a Distance” was a strategy intended to make it easier for members of the household to overcome the rifts in their relationships with each other that had resulted. What might this young woman have recorded had she written her own narrative rather than having her experiences voiced, mostly in the formulaic language of advertisements of the period, by an unnamed slaveholder? The advertisement insinuates so much more while denying the young woman her own voice and concealing her story from readers past and present.

May 22

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

“Enquire of the Printers.”

May 22 - 5:22:1769 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (May 22, 1769).

On May 22, 1769, readers of the Boston Evening-Post encountered an advertisement offering an enslaved youth for sale: “TO BE SOLD, A fine healthy Negro Boy, 17 Years old, brought up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of the Printers.” On the same day, a nearly identical advertisement ran in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette: “TO BE SOLD, A fine healthy Negro Boy, 17 Years old, bro’t up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of Edes and Gill.” The Massachusetts Gazette, published the same day, also carried that advertisement: “TO BE SOLD, A fine likely Negro Boy, 17 Years old, bro’t up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Inquire of Green & Russell.”

May 22 - 5:22:1769 Boston-Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (May 22, 1769).

Except for variations in the spelling of “brought” (or “bro’t”), the copy in all three notices was identical until the final sentence that advised interested parties to “Enquire of the Printers” for more information. These advertisements and many others like them made T. and J. Fleet, Edes and Gill, and Green and Russell active participants in the slave trade. Printing advertisements for the purposes of buying and selling enslaved men, women and children or capturing those who escaped from bondage already made printers complicit in the perpetuation of slavery, but these “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements demonstrated even more active involvement as purveyors of people, not merely as conduits for disseminating information.

May 22 - 5:22:1769 Boston Post-Boy
Massachusetts Gazette [Green and Russell] (May 22, 1769).
Compared to newspapers published in the Chesapeake and Lower South, far fewer advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children ran in newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic, but they were not absent. Printers in Boston devoted less space in their newspapers to these advertisements, but the frequency of “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements suggests that the Fleets, Edes and Gill, and Green and Russell invested time in facilitating these transactions beyond what was required for receiving the copy and setting the type. In effect, they served as brokers, even if they never described or advertised their services in that manner.

November 15

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

Nov 15 - 11:15:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 15, 1768).

“WANTS a Place in a Store, either in Town or Country, a YOUNG MAN who can be well recommended.”

Advertisements for consumer goods and services, along with paid notices inserted for other purposes, filled the pages of eighteenth-century newspapers. Some colonists who placed advertisements did so in hopes of finding employment with the purveyors of consumer goods and services, seeking places to earn their own livelihoods in an expanding marketplace. At the same time that the consumer revolution presented many opportunities for entrepreneurship for shopkeepers, merchants, artisans, and other producers of goods, it also created employment opportunities for men and women who assisted retailers in making their wares available to customers.

Consider, for example, an advertisement that ran in the November 15, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Quite briefly, it announced, “WANTS a Place in a Store, either in Town or Country, a YOUNG MAN who can be well recommended. Enquire of the Printer.” The previous day a similar advertisement appeared in the Boston-Gazette: “A Young Woman that understands keeping a Shop of English Goods, wants such an Employ. Any Person having Occasion for such a one, may know further by enquiring of Edes and Gill.” Both advertisements were published in newspapers that ran numerous advertisements for vast arrays of consumer goods for sale at local shops and stores.

In each instance the prospective employee requested that interested parties “Enquire of the Printer.” They provided little information about themselves beyond initial assurances that they were suited for the positions they sought. The young man asserted that he “can be well recommended” for the job. While this may have referred to endorsements from others, it may also have meant that he could make a case for himself based on his character and experience. The young woman stated that she “understands keeping a Shop of English Goods,” suggesting that she had previous experience.

Not surprisingly, both placed short advertisements, minimizing their expenses as they sought work. Both depended on a local printing office as a place of exchanging information. Printers did more than disseminate newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides; they also served as information brokers beyond the printed page. In that capacity, they facilitated not only the sale of consumer goods but also the hiring of men and women who waited on customers and otherwise assisted in the operation of shops and stores.