August 6

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

Aug 6 - 8:3:1769 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (August 3, 1769).

“Two negro boys brought up to the jeweler’s trade.”

When John Paul Grimke, a jeweler, decided to “retire from business” he announced a going-out-of-business sale in the South-Carolina Gazette. He aimed to liquidate his entire “STOCK IN TRADE” via auction at his shop on Broad Street in Charleston beginning in early November of 1769 and continuing into December. Grimke provided a list of his inventory as a means of enticing prospective bidders to view his wares in advance and attend the auctions. His merchandise included “many valuable jewels of most kinds,” “silver handle table and desert knives and forks,” silver hilted swords and hangers with belts,” and “silver and Pinchbeck watches with chains.”

Grimke’s “STOCK IN TRADE” that he intended to auction also included “two negro boys brought up to the jeweler’s trade.” Each had acquired several skills. They could “make gold rings and buttons, engrave them very neatly, and do many other kinds of work.” Realizing that these claims required time and observation to verify, Grimke offered a trial period of one month before making the sale of these enslaved jewelers final.

Advertisements that presented enslaved people for sale testified to the many and varied skills they possessed. Enslaved men, women, and children did not merely perform agricultural labor on farms and plantations. They also worked in homes and workshops in both urban and rural environments. Many were highly skilled artisans who enriched those who held them in bondage not only through their involuntary labor but also through their skill and expertise. Advertisements in the South-Carolina Gazette regularly offered enslaved blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers for sale. John Matthews advertised “two or three Negro Shoemakers” who had “done all my business for nine Years past,” indicating that they had played an indispensible part in the success of his business. Grimke’s enslaved assistants may never have labored in the fields, having instead been “brought up to the jeweler’s trade.” Along with other sources, newspaper advertisements catalog the variety of occupations pursued by enslaved people in eighteenth-century America, expanding our understanding of the contributions enslaved people made to colonial commerce and society. Enslaved artisans, these advertisements demonstrate, played a vital role in the development of the colonial marketplace.

May 31

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

May 31 - 5:31:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Supplement
Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (May 31, 1768).

“Will sell two or three Negro Shoemakers.”

John Matthews, a cobbler, placed a variation of the same advertisement in all three newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina, for several weeks in the spring of 1768. In each, he announced that because he was “intending to decline Shoemaking” he wished to sell “two or three Negro Shoemakers.” These enslaved artisans already had significant experience. Matthews explained that “they have done all my business for nine Years past.” Apparently the cobbler took on the role of manager of the workshop while the “Negro Shoemakers” labored on his behalf. To further enhance their value for potential buyers, Matthews boasted that in terms of skill they “are at least equal to any Negroes of the Trade in this Province.” In so doing, he implicitly made an unfavorable comparison to white shoemakers even as he credited the abilities of the enslaved artisans who had “done all [his] business” for nearly a decade. Matthews indicated that the “eldest of them” was only twenty-two, suggesting that they had been working in his shop since their early teens.

Slaveholders in South Carolina and beyond frequently associated particular skills with the enslaved men and women they advertised for sale. Another advertisement that ran in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal in the spring of 1768, for instance, listed “sawyers, mowers, a very good caulker, a tanner, a compleat tight cooper, [and] a sawyer, squarer and rough carpenter” among “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES.” In addition, that advertisement included an enslaved woman who was “a washer, ironer and spinner.” Beyond agricultural labor, enslaved men and women possessed a variety of specialized skills. Many of them were artisans whose skills rivaled their white counterparts (even if slaveholders could not quite acknowledge such expertise). In urban centers and on plantations, slaves practiced a variety of trades. As a result, they contributed far more to colonial economies than just their labor. Slaveholders benefited from the knowledge and skill possessed the “Negro Shoemakers” and other artisans they held in bondage.

April 19

GUEST CURATOR:  Anna MacLean

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

Apr 19 - 4:19:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 19, 1768).

TO BE SOLD … A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES.”

In this advertisement from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Edward Oats announced that he intended to sell “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES.” The slaves originally belonged to the estate of Mary Frost. This advertisement shocked me with how this group of enslaved men and women were characterized as merchandise to be purchased. In addition, the details associated with the process astounded me. Edward Oats wrote that “Twelve months credit will be given, paying interest, and giving approved security, the property not to be altered till the conditions are complied with.” This set of terms and conditions sounds comparable to buying furniture or appliances in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, I was intrigued with the advertisement because the author chose to incorporate the many skills held by individuals among this group of slaves. They included “sawyers, mowers, a very good caulker, a tanner, a compleat tight cooper, a sawyer, squarer and rough carpenter.” In the midst of my research I observed that slaves tended to be sold in parcels, or large groups, in the southern colonies more frequently than in the northern colonies. Often, the skills and talents of slaves were highlighted by newspaper advertisements as a method of attracting buyers, especially plantation owners. According to Daniel C. Littlefield in “The Varieties of Slave Labor,” eighteenth-century plantation owners “tried to maintain self-sufficiency based on the varied skills of their slaves.” Although the vast majority of African slaves were purchased specifically for agricultural work, enslaved peoples also found themselves performing a number of skilled functions to guarantee overall efficiency on plantations.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Although Edward Oats and the readers of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal had no way of knowing it, within a decade April 19 would become one of the most important days in American history. Seven years after the publication of this advertisement armed hostilities broke out between colonists and Britain at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, initiating a new phase in the imperial crisis and eventually resulting in the Declaration of Independence and a war that lasted the better part of a decade.

Americans continue to commemorate April 19 today.  In Massachusetts it is known as Patriots’ Day, a state holiday observed on the Monday that falls closest to April 19.  The Boston Marathon takes place on Patriots’ Day.  This year residents of Massachusetts received an extension on filing their taxes until Tuesday, April 17 because the traditional tax day, April 15, fell on a Sunday, followed by Patriots’ Day on Monday. Beyond Massachusetts, Americans have been celebrating the 243rd anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride and the battles at Concord and Lexington, though historians have turned to social media and other public history platforms to offer more complete and nuanced portraits of events than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow etched in popular memory in the poem he composed about the “midnight message of Paul Revere” in 1860.

In the midst of these commemorations of liberty and resistance to British oppression, Anna has chosen an advertisement that reminds us that freedom had varied meanings to different people in early America.  Edward Oats had seen the Stamp Act enacted and repealed, only to be replaced by the Declaratory Act and the Townshend Act.  If he read the newspaper in which he advertised “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES,” he had been exposed to news from throughout the colonies about efforts to resist Parliament by consuming goods produced in the colonies rather than imported from England.  He would have also encountered the series of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” outlining the limits of Parliament’s authority.

Even as white Americans grappled with these political issues, they bought and sold enslaved men, women, and children, often acknowledging the skills they possessed yet obstinately refusing to acknowledge their humanity.  These “SLAVES” and “wenches,” however, had their own ideas about liberty.  As other advertisements in newspapers throughout the colonies indicate, many slaves seized their freedom by running away from the masters who held them in bondage.  As we once again celebrate the milestones of April 19, this advertisement for “A PARCEL of valuable SLAVES” reminds us to take a broad view of the revolutionary era in order to tell a more complete story of the American past.

July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 4, 1767).

“RAN away … a Negro Man named Caesar.

Today citizens of the United States commemorate the 241st anniversary of their independence. To mark that occasion, I have selected an advertisement that tells the story of one man’s efforts to secure his own freedom during the era of the imperial crisis that gave way to the Revolution.

Caesar (almost certainly not the name bestowed on him by his parents) was “a Negro Man” enslaved to Ebenezer Sweet in North Kingston, Rhode Island. Near the beginning of June 1767, he ran away from his master. Nearly a month later he still had not been captured and returned, despite the generous reward advertised in the Providence Gazette.

Why did Sweet offer “Eight Dollars, and all reasonable Charges” (in other words, any expenses incurred in capturing and transporting the fugitive) for this particular slave? In part, he likely wished to recover some of the consumer goods Caesar carried away with him, including “a Pair of Silver Shoe Buckles” and “almost a new Beaverrit Hat.” Beyond those items, Caesar was an especially valuable slave because of the skills he possessed. Not only could he read and write, he was also a skilled artisan. Sweet acknowledged that Caesar was “by Trade a Blacksmith,” although he “principally follows Anchor-making.” This constellation of skills would have made Caesar particularly valuable to Sweet, especially since he could have hired out his services for much more than a common laborer.

Yet Caesar had other ideas. The advertisement does not indicate how well he could read. Perhaps he was literate enough to read the Providence Gazette and other newspapers that reported on recent efforts by Parliament to “enslave” the colonies by charging stamp duties and quartering troops. Even if he did not read the newspapers, he likely overheard discussions and witnessed protests against Parliament’s schemes. Like many other slaves in the 1760s through the 1780s, Caesar could have applied the rhetoric of liberty to his own situation and sought to change it by taking action on his own.

Yet the imperial crisis and the Revolution were not absolutely necessary for Caesar or any other slaves to chafe at their subjugation. They did not need colonists to teach them the value of freedom. Advertisements for runaways populated the pages of colonial newspapers long before the rupture with Great Britain as thousands of enslaved men and women determined on their own that they wanted more than to be held in bondage.

As celebrations of Independence Day take place, remember that the founding generation consisted of many, many more people than just the prominent political and military leaders whose names have been memorialized for nearly a quarter millennium. “A Negro Man named Caesar” was also a member of the founding generation. Using the means available to him, he waged his own campaign for freedom and liberty.

April 21

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 21 - 4:21:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 21, 1767).

“ABOUT FORTY valuable country-born NEGROES, among whom are Boatmen, Carpenters, Sawyers.”

American slavery consisted of masters and overseers who controlled, in some cases, the manual labor of hundreds of slaves. That is the story taught in many schools. It was the story I thought I knew when I began college. However, this advertisement points to other roles among slaves, not strictly manual labor but also skilled workmanship. It states that the slaves being sold had various specialized skills that made them even more useful to prospective owners. According to Daniel C. Littlefield, “planters expected enslaved people to perform a wide range of jobs that included carpenter, cooper, boatman, cook, seamstress, and blacksmith, to mention only a few of the skilled functions required around plantations.” This shows a different way of looking at the uses of slavery in America during the eighteenth century. It shows that many slaves were more skilled than what is often taught in high school history classes.

These specialized skills led some slaves to be “hired out” to other masters. Douglas Egerton tells the story of Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith, who gained a sense of freedom when he was away from his master’s plantation. This led Gabriel to want more freedom. He planned a slave rebellion in 1800 called, now known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. A highly-skilled enslaved blacksmith plotted to overthrow the government of Virginia, but the plan was discovered. In the end, the rebellion was unsuccessful. Gabriel was executed.

This advertisement reflects a part of history largely unknown to most people, a history where slaves did more than just tend fields.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

During his week as guest curator, Jonathan has selected two advertisements that treated black men and women as commodities. In the process of examining these advertisements, he has addressed two common misconceptions about slavery in early America. Earlier in the week he demonstrated that slavery was practiced in New England and other northern colonies in the era of the American Revolution. In addition to his selected advertisement about “A Negro Woman, who understands all sorts of houshold Work,” he identified a Rhode Island census, conducted in 1774, that documented the numbers of “WHITES,” “INDIANS,” and “BLACKS” that resided in the colony. He also argued that even though relatively few slaves lived and worked in Rhode Island, the colony’s commerce was enmeshed in the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, Jonathan addresses the kinds of work done by slaves, a variety of jobs that many students find quite surprising when first introduced to this information for the first time. In the process, he has achieved a much better understanding of the diversity of experiences among enslaved men, women, and children in eighteenth-century America. Some worked as artisans on plantations, as was certainly the case with some of the carpenters and sawyers in today’s advertisement, but others worked in urban ports, sometimes as artisans and sometimes as domestic servants. Slaves in urban environments had experiences that did not necessarily replicate those of their counterparts who worked in the fields on farms and plantations. For instance, Sarah, a runaway also advertised in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on April 21, 1767, was a laundress “well known among the vessels” docked in Charleston because she so frequently “washed for the mariners.” Not all slaves were agricultural laborers in rural settings, nor were slaves exploited only for their labor. Masters also benefited from slaves’ expertise and skills, deriving significant additional value from them. As Jonathan indicates, this aspect of early American history often remains overlooked in the most rudimentary narratives of slavery in colonial and Revolutionary America.

October 22

GUEST CURATOR: Lindsay Hajjar

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

oct-22-10221766-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (October 22, 1766).

“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.[1] 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.

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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.

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[1] 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.