April 22

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Providence Gazette (April 22, 1769).

“Wanted, a Quantity of good Pot-Ash.”

The word “Pot-Ash” caught my attention as I was looking at this advertisement, since I had never heard of it. After doing some research, I learned from a journal article by Henry Paynter that potash is a type of potassium carbonate that was made from the ashes of trees and plants during the eighteenth century. Home potash production was encouraged during the American Revolution, since it could be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder. For more day-to-day life, it was used to make goods such as soap and glass, to dye fabrics, and for baking. Potash soap was very popular in England during the middle of the eighteenth century. Similar to South Carolina indigo compared to indigo from French and Spanish colonies, Great Britain imported potash produced in the American colonies rather than Russia because of its cheaper price, sacrificing quality to save money. As the colonial potash industry matured, production shifted north in order to utilize trees more favorable for making potash. Unfortunately, this process led to mass amounts of forests being cleared by the late eighteenth century, and Americans had to find other ways to produce the money-making potash.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Like many other colonial newspapers, the masthead of the Providence Gazette proclaimed that it “Contain[ed] the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic.” Although the printer, John Carter, and many readers may have considered news items the most significant of those “Advices,” advertisements also kept colonists informed of events and commerce by providing details not necessarily available elsewhere in the newspaper. On occasion, Carter did not have sufficient space to publish all of the “Advices,” whether classified as news or paid notices. The April 22, 1769, edition included a brief note to that effect: “Sundry Articles of Intelligence composed for the Day’s Paper, and a few Advertisements, omitted for Want of Room, shall be in our next.”

Even though some advertisements did not make it into the April 22 issue, Joseph Russell and William Russell were well represented in its pages. News comprised the first two pages, a portion of the third, and most of the fourth. Overall, advertising accounted for slightly less than an entire page. Yet the Russells managed to have two advertisements included among the contents, the notice concerning potash on the final page and another promoting “Barrel Pork,” pepper, indigo, and other commodities on the third page. Both would have been familiar to regular readers of the Providence Gazette, having appeared the previous week and in earlier issues. As a result, these “Advices” may have seemed less pressing than the information in other advertisements or the “Sundry Articles of Intelligence” already composed but omitted until the following week.

Carter may have granted preferential treatment to the Russells precisely because they were such prolific advertisers. They advertised often, sometimes placing multiple advertisements in a single issue. They also tended to insert lengthy advertisements, especially when they listed dozens or hundreds of items they imported and sold at their shop. Carter relied on revenues from advertising to make the Providence Gazette a viable enterprise. In the colophon, every week he called on readers to submit both subscriptions and advertisements to the printing office. Given that the Russells did so regularly advertise in the pages of his newspaper, Carter may have prioritized their advertisements over others when running low on space, even though the “Advices” provided by the Russells had already become familiar in Providence and beyond over the course of several weeks.

February 11

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

feb-11-georgia-gazette-slavery-2
Georgia Gazette (February 11, 1767).

“RUN AWAY … NEGROE GIRL, named MARIA, about 15 years of age.”

This advertisement about a “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL, named MARIA” who ran away from her master would have been very familiar to readers of the Georgia Gazette. Dated August 5, 1766, it first appeared in the August 6, 1766, issue. It then appeared in almost every issue published for the next six months; the February 11, 1767, issue marked half a year that Donald Mackay inserted this runaway notice in the newspaper published in Savannah.

The longevity of this advertisement may be interpreted in more than one way. It might testify to the value that Mackay placed on Maria or how intensely he chafed for her return. As I noted when I first examined this advertisement last August, the physical description of Maria suggested that Mackay valued the “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGRO GIRL” for more than just her capacity to labor in the household or the fields. The expenses incurred by placing an advertisement for her return almost every week for six months (plus an award and reimbursement for “al reasonable charges” associated with Maria’s capture and transport) indicated that Mackay was willing to make a significant investment in reclaiming his human property. Maria’s potential resale value possibly more than justified such expenses.

That line of reasoning, however, assumes that Mackay instructed James Johnston, printer of the Georgia Gazette, to insert this advertisement each week and that he agreed to pay for each appearance. Like other newspapers published in smaller cities, such as the Providence Gazette, the [Portsmouth] New-Hampshire Gazette, and the [Hartford] Connecticut Courant, the Georgia Gazette featured significantly fewer advertisements than newspapers in the major urban ports. That the advertisement for the runaway Maria consistently appeared for six months may have been a function of the printer seeking to fill the pages with any sort of content, especially considering how many other advertisements in the Georgia Gazette ran for extended periods, often much longer than similar notices in newspapers published elsewhere.

Perhaps the real story combines elements of these two possibilities. Maybe Donald Mackay was so eager to have Maria returned and James Johnston was so eager to fill the columns in his newspaper that they worked out a payment schedule that included discounted rates. Whatever the circumstances, the frequency that this and other advertisements appeared in the Georgia Gazette raises suspicions that not all notices were indeed paid notices.