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.

October 28

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

Oct 28 - 10:28:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (October 28, 1768).

“A very likely, healthy Negro BOY, about 17 Years of Age, to be Sold.”

A brief advertisement in the October 28, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette advised readers of “A very likely, healthy Negro BOY, about 17 Years of Age, to be Sold.” The notice did not provide any additional information about the enslaved youth or the seller; instead, it instructed interested parties to “Enquire of the Printers.”

Readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette would not have considered such an advertisement particularly remarkable. Although they did not appear in the same numbers as in newspapers published in Boston, advertisements concerning enslaved people were inserted in New Hampshire’s only newspaper regularly. This particular advertisement was more likely to attract attention for its format rather than its content. With the exception of the masthead on the first page and the colophon on the final page, the rest of the content was organized into three columns on each page. The masthead, colophon, and this advertisement for a “Negro BOY,” however spanned all three columns. The advertisement ran across the bottom of the third page, a position that distinguished it from news and other paid notices.

Did this format make the advertisement more effective? It is impossible to say for certain, but it is also worth noting that it ran for only one week. Newspaper printers who listed their rates for advertising typically indicated a flat fee for setting the type and inserting an advertisement for three or four weeks as well as additional fees for each additional week the notice ran. Unless they struck a special deal, the printers and advertiser would have expected this advertisement for an enslaved youth to appear in at least three consecutive issues of the New-Hampshire Gazette. That it was discontinued after its initial appearance suggests that someone did indeed purchase the “healthy Negro BOY,” prompting the anonymous advertiser to cancel further insertions.

This does not conclusively demonstrate the success of the advertisement, but it does strongly suggest an active marketplace for buying and selling enslaved people in New Hampshire. At the very least, the advertisement testifies to the presence of slaves in the colony, a familiar sight both in public and in the public prints.

August 13

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

Aug 13 - 8:13:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 13, 1768).

“A handsome second-hand CHAISE.”

Colonists devised multiple ways to participate in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Many purchased new good directly from merchants and shopkeepers, but others stole the items they desired or bought stolen goods at lower prices through an informal economy that made goods more accessible. Some also acquired secondhand goods at discounted prices that made them affordable. Advertisements for auctions, especially estate sales, frequently appeared in newspapers published throughout the colonies, presenting an array of goods to consumers looking for bargains. Other advertisements, however, announced the sale of particular used items, such as notice in the August 12, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette that informed readers of a “handsome second-hand CHAISE” for sale. Interested parties were instructed to “Enquire of the Printers” for more information.

The chaise was one of the many sorts of wheeled carriages familiar to colonists. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the “exact application … varied from time to time,” but offers this general definition: “A light open carriage for one or two persons, often having a top or calash; those with four wheels resembling the phaeton, those with two the curricle; also loosely used for pleasure carts and light carriages generally.” In the absence of a more complete description in the advertisement, the flexibility of the term “chaise” encouraged prospective buyers to contact the printers for additional information.

Carriages of all sorts were markers of status, expensive to acquire and maintain. Opportunities to purchase secondhand carriages made them more affordable, but those with the means to purchase used carriages did not have to wait for private individuals to sell them. Some coachmakers, including Adino Paddock in Boston, incorporated sales of secondhand carriages into their marketing, selling those they received as trade-ins from customers who purchased new carriages. Regardless of who sold secondhand chaises and other sorts of carriages, their availability in the colonial marketplace indicates that they retained resale value after the initial sale. Colonists bought and sold used carriages long before the practice became a common aspect of the modern automobile industry.

April 10

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

Apr 10 - 4:9:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 9, 1768).

“Enquire of the Printers.”

This short advertisement from the April 9, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazetteoffered several books for sale.  Interested readers were advised to “Enquire of the Printers” to learn more about the conditions of the sale. Sarah Goddard and John Carter, publishers of the Providence Gazette, may have placed the advertisement.  After all, many colonial printers simultaneously sold books and stationery at their shops.  However, this advertisement more likely promoted books from a private library. For various reasons, colonists interested in selling used goods often placed anonymous notices in newspapers, instructing potential buyers to “Enquire of the Printers.”  As a result, printing offices became clearinghouses for disseminating information, not only in print but also via letters and conversations. Newspaper printers also served as brokers who made introductions between buyers and sellers when the latter did not wish to disclose their identity to the general public.

That Goddard and Carter placed this advertisement seems especially unlikely considering that they more explicitly marketed their wares and services elsewhere in the same issue. The colophon consistently invited readers to purchase subscriptions and advertisements as well as commission “all Manner of PRINTING WORK.”  In another short advertisement, Goddard and Carter forthrightly stated, “BLANKS of all Kinds sold by the Printers hereof.”  In contrast, “Enquire of the Printers” did not assume the same level of responsibility for an anticipated sale.  Furthermore, the majority of the books listed in the advertisement were medical texts, suggesting that they came from the library or estate of a reader who had specific interests.

That being the case, the fees that some advertisers paid to place their notices in newspapers apparently covered more than setting the type and the amount of space occupied in the publication for a series of weeks.  Advertisers who asked readers to “Enquire of the Printers” expected to receive additional services; they relied on printers to expend additional time and energy in facilitating transactions with potential buyers.  For their part, printers absorbed this as the cost of doing business.  The revenues generated from advertisements justified any additional labor required when they published “Enquire of the Printer” notices in their newspapers.

January 12

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

Jan 12 - 1:12:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (January 12, 1768).

“For further particulars enquire of the Printer.”

Charles Crouch received so many advertisements for the January 12, 1768, issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal that he simultaneously published a two-page supplement devoted exclusively to advertising. Between the standard issue and the supplement, subscribers received six total pages of content, though four entire pages – two-thirds of the entire issue – consisted of paid notices. This advertisement for a “Collection of BOOKS” to be sold “very cheap” appeared among the other advertisements, but it may or may not have been a paid notice. Readers interested in the books were instructed to “enquire of the Printer” for further information. Who placed this advertisement?

Many colonial printers supplemented their revenues by acting as booksellers; they peddled both titles they printed and, especially, imported books. Crouch may have inserted this advertisement in his own newspaper, though the collection of books could have been a private library offered for sale by someone who preferred to remain anonymous in the public prints. After all, the list included several novels that critics sometimes claimed entertained rather than edified readers. The owner may not have wished to publicize reading habits that some considered lowbrow and chose instead to have the printer act as broker in selling the books.

The placement of the advertisement also suggests that may have been the case. Crouch boldly promoted an almanac he published and sold in an advertisement that appeared as the first item in the first column on the first page of the issue, making it impossible for readers to overlook. He included his name and the location of his printing office “in Elliott-street, the Corner of Gadsden’s Alley.” The notice concerning the “Collection of BOOKS” for sale, on the other hand, appeared near the bottom of the middle column on the third page. Printers often gave their own advertisements privileged places in their newspapers. Given that Crouch was not shy about deploying that strategy elsewhere in the issue increases the possibility that he was not hawking the books in this notice but instead facilitated an introduction between seller and prospective buyers.

Eighteenth-century advertisements often included instructions to “enquire of the Printer” for additional information. Printing offices served as brokerages and clearinghouses for information that did not appear in print, allowing colonists to initiate sales in newspaper advertisements while also remaining anonymous. They harnessed the power of the press without sacrificing their privacy when they resorted to directing others to “enquire of the Printer.”

November 26

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

Nov 26 - 11:26:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (November 26, 1767).

“Enquire of the Printer.”

In the late fall of 1767, an anonymous colonist placed a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette announcing that he “WANTED 6 very good Saddle Horses.” Anyone who could provide pacers who met the specifications in the advertisement was requested to “Enquire of the Printer.”

In the November 26 edition, a “Servant Man that will do any Sort of laborious Business in a Family” informed readers that he “WANTS Employ.” He did not provide any additional information about his background or previous experience, but instead stated that “He may be heard of by enquiring at Draper’s Printing Office.”

In the same issue, a slaveholder offered a short description of “A Likely healthy Negro Fellow” who was “TO BE SOLD.” The enslaved man had previously labored as a domestic servant and had cared for a horse, but he was “very capable of learning any other Business.” Anyone interested in acquiring the slave needed to “Enquire ay Draper’s Printing-Office.”

Another colonist sought tenants for “a handsome Dwelling-House … near LIBERTY TREE” in the south end of Boston. The advertisement did not include any other particulars, except for instructions to “Enquire of the Printer” if interested.

Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements frequently advised readers to “Enquire of the Printer.” As a result, printing offices became places where colonists converged to exchange information, not just locations where printers compiled “the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestick” (as some mastheads asserted) in newspapers before distributing them to readers near and far. Even as coffeehouses became increasingly popular places to conduct business, printing offices provided an alternate venue. In some instances printers may have done little more than make introductions between advertisers and readers (a service likely provided free of charge to those who purchased advertising space), but that still placed them at the center of networks for exchanging information. Printers served as gatekeepers of information, exercising their own prerogatives in choosing which news, letters, and other items to publish in newspapers as well as withholding certain details relevant to paid notices at the request of advertisers. Their fellow colonists, just like the news, flowed into as well as out of their printing offices.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 18 - 4:18:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 18, 1767).

“A Negro Woman who understands all Sorts of houshold Work.”

I chose this advertisement because slavery in northern colonies and states is often overlooked when discussing slavery in American history. For the most part, slavery and the slave trade in the southern colonies get more attention. However, slavery was not only used in the northern colonies (see the census from 1774) but Rhode Island was also a hub for the slave trade. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, “Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but also entered with gusto into the trade.” Rhode Islanders gained so many profits from slavery that “[b]y the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.” Voyages like these not only kept the institution of slavery going but encouraged it. I found this advertisement quite surprising, learning that slavery was so important so close to home.

Apr 18 - Census
Rhode Island Census for 1774 (Newport: Solomon Southwick, 1774).  Courtesy John Carter Brown Library.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Recovering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children can be an extremely difficult task. Historians consult many different kinds of sources in their efforts to reconstruct the experiences of slaves, including advertisements like the one Jonathan selected to feature today. That advertisement offers frustratingly few details, but it does reveal the presence of an enslaved woman in Rhode Island. It includes her approximate age and suggests the type of labor she performed for her master, “all Sorts of houshold Work.” The advertisement does not, however, include the enslaved woman’s name nor the name of the slaveholder who wished to sell her. The conditions of the sale were camouflaged by instructions to interested parties: “For further Particulars enquire at the Printing-Office.” This advertisement appeared immediately below another one that revealed the presence of slavery in Rhode Island but advanced few details: “TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years old, fit for either Town or Country, having been used to Farming Business.” It also concluded with instructions to “enquire at the Printing-Office in Providence.” Such advertisements aid historians in making generalizations about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, even in the absence of enough evidence to sketch more complete biographies.

On the other hand, other sorts of advertisements for slaves tell much more complete stories about their subjects. Advertisements for runaways frequently incorporated extensive descriptions of enslaved men, women, and children, from their physical appearance to their clothing to any goods they carried off. They elaborated on their ethnicity and the languages they spoke. They specified any special skills runaways possessed or trades they practiced. They revealed relationships within slave communities and among others, black and white, that might attempt to aid runaways. In some cases, they even told stories of previous attempts to abscond. Although written by white masters attempting to regain their human property, some scholars consider advertisements for runaways to be the first slave narratives. It would be difficult to deny the agency exhibited by slaves who chose to flee from those who kept them in bondage.