February 13

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

Feb 13 - 2:13:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (February 13, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD … A healthy likely Negroe Wench.”

The pages of colonial newspapers regularly featured black women, including the unnamed “healthy likely Negroe Wench” that John Lyon advertised for sale in the February 13, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. These women appeared either as commodities to be bought and sold or as fugitives who seized their own freedom in an era that white colonists debated the meaning of liberty within the British Empire.

As a result of their bondage and the complicit role the eighteenth-century press played in maintaining systems of unfree labor, black women were more likely to appear in the public prints among “the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic” than white women. News items sometimes mentioned notable women. Female shopkeepers occasionally placed advertisements, but not in proportion to their numbers in the marketplace. Widows affixed their names as executrixes and administrators to legal notices when they settled the estates of their deceased husbands. English, Irish, and other women of European origins were often the subject of advertisements for runaway indentured servants, especially in newspapers published in New York and Pennsylvania, but throughout the colonies black women – both Africans and African Americans – achieved an unsettling prominence among the paid notices inserted in newspapers. Barely a day passed in the 1760s that at least one newspaper did not feature at least one advertisement about one or more enslaved women and girls.

Those advertisements help to reconstruct the history of black women in early America, even though the advertisements provide only truncated stories. Consider the “Negroe Wench” from today’s advertisement. Even though she could “do all Kinds of House-Work” well enough that her master found “no Fault” with her efforts, Lyon decided to sell her “on Account of her breeding fast.” In other words, the unnamed woman had too many children too quickly. Yet the advertisement does not reveal anything about the woman’s relationships with others in the household or the community. Who was the father of her children? A fellow slave or a free black man? A member of the Lyon household? John Lyon himself? This advertisement quite likely chronicled a sexual relationship that was not consensual, even though the wording places the blame on the unnamed woman for “breeding fast.” What of the “two male Children” also offered for sale? Were these children the unwanted result of the woman “breeding fast”? If so, did Lyon sell them with their mother or separate the family? The advertisement hints at the experiences of an unnamed enslaved woman yet reveals precious few details. In broad strokes, it paints a picture of the experiences of countless enslaved women in early America.

October 21

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

Oct 21 - Georgia Gazette Slavery 11
Georgia Gazette (October 21, 1767).

“TO BE SOLD, A Likely Young NEGROE WNECH, Who can wash, and is very handy in a house.”

The October 21, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette included thirteen advertisements that involved enslaved men, women, and children in some way. Seven advertisers sought to sell slaves. Two offered rewards for the capture and return of runaway slaves. Another two described suspected runaways that had been captured and requested that their masters claim them. One employment notice outlined the responsibilities of an overseer who would “take charge of about 20 negroes to be employed in planting rice and provisions.” The final advertisement proposed hiring out (or renting out) a “LIKELY NEGROE GIRL,” a good seamstress, by the month or year.

Among these thirteen advertisements, five featured enslaved women and girls. Women may have been largely (but not completely) absent from the advertising pages when it came to operating businesses and promoting their entrepreneurial activities to consumers, but enslaved women and girls appeared in the pages of colonial newspapers regularly. Practically every day in the 1760s at least one newspaper published somewhere in the colonies included at least one advertisement that featured enslaved women or girls, making slavery advertisements perhaps the most voluminous source for examining women’s history printed in colonial newspapers. Although not written from the perspective of enslaved women and girls, they still reveal much about their experiences.

Some reveal more than others. One simply stated: “TO BE SOLD, A VERY FINE, STOUT, YOUNG, and HEALTHY WENCH. For particulars apply to THOMAS HAMILTON.” In addition to the enslaved seamstress who could be hired out, another short advertisement offered a “NEGROE WENCH, Who can wash, and is very handy in a house.” A real estate advertisement for a farm concluded by noting the seller also had “TWO YOUNG NEGROE WENCHES … who are very handy at any kind of house work, and are good sempstresses.” These mentions were brief, but they still aid in understanding and reconstructing the experiences of enslaved women and girls. For instance, these advertisements indicate that enslaved women and girls often engaged in domestic labor rather than working in the fields. Not all of them were drudges within the home but instead developed valuable skills.

Other advertisements told much more elaborate stories about enslaved women and girls, especially advertisements for runaways that often included physical descriptions, described clothing, commented on personality traits, and acknowledged relationships with other slaves. Sometimes they tracked known or suspected movements, speculating on which friends or relatives runaways might approach for aid. No advertisements of that sort appeared in the October 21, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette, but they had in the past and they would again. That publication, like most of its counterparts throughout the colonies, frequently ran advertisements about enslaved women and girls, advertisements of various lengths and with assorted purposes. As a result, enslaved women and girls likely appeared in colonial newspapers more often than other women. The attempts to keep them in bondage also yielded a more prominent and extensive record of their experiences in the public prints. Enslaved women could never be out of sight to anyone who read the newspaper, either in the eighteenth century or today.

October 17

GUEST CURATOR: Lindsay Hajjar

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

oct-17-10171766-new-london-gazette
New-London Gazette (October 17, 1766).

“ALSO, An able body’d hearty Wench 16 Years old (with a sucking Child.”

This advertisement started with the sale of a twenty-nine-year old slave, described as “strong and healthy.” The seller then indicated where he was born and that he has skills in farming. Next, he stated he was selling a “Wench” who was sixteen years old. By calling her a wench he degraded her status as a woman even further. In this case, a female slave was held at even lower regard than a male slave, perhaps because of the fact that when she had a child it took away from her ability to do work. The girl being sold was “able-bodied” and could “do all Sorts of House Work,” but was being sold because of “her breeding.” The words “breeding” and “wench” show the seller’s opinion about women, especially enslaved women, as well as an assumption that because she was a women and a slave she should be good at housework because that was what she was born to do.

In “Work, Pregnancy, and Infant Mortality among Southern Slaves,” John Campbell talks about how in the South slave owners placed value not on the gender of slaves but rather their age and physical condition. Campbell also points out that both male and female slaves were “harvesting equal proportions of cotton,” showing that in the South it did not matter to the slave owners the gender of the slave as long as they were capable of doing the work.[1] However, this advertisement was printed in the northern colony of Connecticut during an earlier period; the seller’s tone was different. It changed, becoming more aggressive and angry when going from depicting the man to the girl being sold. It is as if the seller was annoyed that she had a child that was now going to be a burden on him and he had to sell them because the child would be a distraction to her. He was not willing to make the long-term investment in the child, showing that Northern slave owners in the colonial period were not as ambivalent about their slaves’ genders as Southern slave owners were in the nineteenth century. In his advertisement the seller said the young woman came “with a sucking child.” He seemed upset with the fact that she had a child and that the child was nothing but an inconvenience, because the child was still breastfeeding. Female slaves could be looked at as beneficial because they had the ability to produce more slaves for their owners but that could also be a shortcoming because when they were pregnant and while the child was dependent mothers were not able to work to the same capacity.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

I appreciate how Lindsay compares the sentiments expressed in today’s advertisement to the attitudes adopted by slaveholders in another region during another period, underscoring that there was not a monolithic experience of slavery in America. Instead, different people (both enslaved and free) faced very different circumstances depending on the period and place in which they lived.

Another notice that appeared on the same page of the New-London Gazette further complicates today’s advertisement. “We are told,” an anonymous narrator (perhaps the printer) proclaimed, “that the Negro Wench advertised for Sale in this Paper, has had Three living Children, tho’ she is only 16 Years old. — A rare Instance of Prollfickness!” (Presumably the last word was supposed to be “prolificness.”) As Lindsay noted, the seller wished to be rid of this young woman solely because of her “breeding” and the inconveniences that it caused. The other notice, however, seemed to celebrate the young enslaved woman’s ability to produce children, promoting her fecundity as a selling point for potential buyers.

oct-17-10171766-puff-piece-new-london-gazette
New-London Gazette (October 17, 1766).

Who was responsible for the announcement that the sixteen-year-old “hearty Wench” already had three children? Was this an advertisement – a puff piece – placed by the current owner of the young woman in hopes of generating interest and making a sale? Or did the printer insert it of his own volition, as a point of interest he hoped would inform and entertain readers? The placement on the page makes it difficult to reach any particular conclusion. The notice appeared among the advertisements included in that issue of the New-London Gazette, but it appears at the bottom of the column immediately to the left of the column in which the advertisement for the “hearty Wench” was printed. It may have been positioned to prime readers to consider purchasing the young woman, but it also could have been intended as amusing filler when news and advertising did not completely fill the column. Either way, it now provides disheartening evidence concerning the levels of degradation one enslaved woman experienced at the hands of her captor and his community.

When Lindsay first presented this advertisement for my approval, I thought I might contemplate whether it suggested a family was being separated. When I examined it in the context of the rest of the issue, however, I discovered a much more revolting situation.

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[1] John Campbell, “Work, Pregnancy, and Infant Mortality among Southern Slaves,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 14, no. 4 (Spring 1984): 797.

August 6

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

Aug 6 - 8:6:1766 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 6, 1766).

“TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL.”

It would have been impossible to overlook Donald Mackay’s description of Maria, an enslaved young woman: “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL.” Each of the adjectives suggested that Maria was attractive, a young woman that most masters and others would have found desirable, a young woman who most likely would have become increasingly alluring as she continued to mature.

In the absence of any sort of visual image (not even a crude woodcut), Mackay put a black body on display by asking readers to imagine Maria’s appearance and inviting them to scrutinize every black woman they encountered to determine if they might be the runaway Maria.

This advertisement also hints at the treatment that Maria may have already experienced or that she was likely to experience at some point. White men had unfettered access to enslaved women throughout early American history, from the colonial period through the antebellum era and the Civil War. Writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent nearly a century after this advertisement was published, Harriet Jacobs published a slave narrative in which she documented the constant threat of sexual absue she faced as a slave in North Carolina in the early nineteenth century. Various other sources – slave narratives, letters, ledgers, and journals, written by both black and white authors – confirm the sexual violence perpetrated against black women under slavery. Some do so explicitly.

Others, like this advertisement, raise the possibility with more subtlety, asking observers to read between the lines.

A multitude of circumstances probably influenced Maria’s decision to run away, but her vulnerability to sexual abuse was likely one of them. Donald Mackay did not elaborate on all the reasons that he wanted this “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL” captured and returned, but eighteenth-century readers would have been aware of what was unwritten. This advertisement was about more than recovering a piece of human property who could work in the fields or do domestic labor in the household.

Advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children allow us to reconstruct portions of their lives when we read against the grain and interrogate the implications of what white authors have written.