October 27

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

Providence Gazette (October 27, 1770).

“WANTED immediately, Fifteen likely NEGROES.”

As it did in most issues, the Providence Gazette published on October 27, 1770, featured advertisements placed for various purposes.  Benoni Pearce and Elijah Bacon announced that they had “opened a BAKE-HOUSE.”  Joseph Russell and William Russell sought passengers and freight for a ship departing for London in early November.  Joseph Whipple offered a house to rent and a store and wharf for sale.  John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, hawked printed blanks and an almanac for 1771.  Hampton Lillibridge proclaimed that he “WANTED” to purchase enslaved women and children “immediately.”

Advertisements like the one placed by Lillibridge were not uncommon in the Providence Gazette and other newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Colonists turned to notices in the public prints to aid them in buying and selling enslaved people.  In other instances, they inserted advertisements to warn about runaways who liberated themselves from those who held them in bondage, offering descriptions to identify them and rewards to colonists who captured and returned them to their enslavers.  Even colonists who did not themselves make claims to owning enslaved people participated in the surveillance of Black people — carefully scrutinizing their bodies, clothing, and comportment — that helped to maintain the institution of slavery.

Printers played a critical role in perpetuating slavery in early America.  From New England to Georgia, they printed advertisements that were disseminated as widely as their newspapers and brokered information that did not otherwise appear in print.  In his effort to purchase enslaved women and children, Lillibridge instructed readers to contact him directly in Newport or via “the Printing-Office in Providence.”  Carter not only garnered revenues from publishing notices about enslaved people, he also facilitated sales through “enquire of the printer” advertisements.  In many instances, the buyers and sellers remained anonymous to the public, though the evidence of the slave trade was quite visible on the printed page, interspersed among other advertisements.

Such notices were a familiar sight when readers perused eighteenth-century newspapers.  Lillibridge’s advertisement for “Fifteen likely NEGROES” in the Providence Gazette may seem stark and out of place to modern readers unfamiliar with the history of slavery in Rhode Island and the rest of New England, but it was unremarkable at the time, just another element of a massive cultural and commercial infrastructure that maintained a system of bondage and exploitation.