January 2

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (January 1, 1771)

“WANTED on Purchase, or Hire by the Year, A Honest, handy, young Negro Fellow.”

Thomas Green and Ebenezer Watson, the printers of the Connecticut Courant, extended best wishes to their subscribers and advertisers on January 1, 1771.  In a brief note, they proclaimed, “We wish our Customers a happy NEW-YEAR!”  On the same day, the “LAD who carried The MASSACHUSETTS SPY” delivered to subscribers a supplementary broadsheet to wish “all his kind Customers A Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!”  Throughout the week, other newspapers marked the end of 1770 and the arrival of 1771.  At the request of a reader, John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted “PSALM LVX. 2. For NEW-YEAR’s Day,” the verses having been “adapted to the Season,” in that newspaper’s final issue for 1770.  James Rivington advertised an assortment of goods as “NEW-YEARS PRESENTS” in the last issue of the New-York Journal of the year.  Every newspaper from New Hampshire to South Carolina carried at least one advertisement for almanacs for the new year.

Yet the arrival of a new year was not a cause of celebration for everyone in the colonies.  For many enslaved men and women, the new year marked the first day of hiring out, a system in which enslavers leased the labor of those they held in bondage.  Enslaved men and women who hired out earned wages, but they went directly to those who purported to be their masters.  Enslavers who thought themselves magnanimous sometimes allowed enslaved men and women to keep a portion of these earnings, but even in those instances the system perpetuated the exploitation of enslaved people.

When they hired out, enslaved men and women faced other hardships beyond the confiscation of their wages.  They usually moved to new households, sometimes in distant towns, leaving behind spouses, children, parents, siblings, other relations, and friends.  Hiring out disrupted their communities and strained their relationships, yet another reverberation of the widespread abuse and exploitation that was so common that advertisements for hiring out appeared in newspapers alongside mundane details of everyday life in eighteenth-century America.  The front page of the January 1, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for instance, carried an advertisement for a young enslaved man “WANTED on Purchase, or Hire by the Year.”  The advertiser remained anonymous, instructing anyone seeking to sell or hire out “A Honest, handy, young Negro Fellow” to “apply to the Printer.”  The identity of the advertiser, however, is not the most significant detail glossed over in this advertisement.  The notice, like so many others that ran in early American newspapers, testifies to a much more complicated story about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children in early America when considered not from the perspective of the advertiser but instead from the perspective of the subject of the advertisement and the perspectives of his family, friends, and community.  The hiring out system meant that the new year often meant anxiety, disruption. and separation, rather than celebration, for enslaved people.

October 10

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

Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 9, 1770).

“He is in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS, for whom good Wages will be given.”

In the early 1770s, Thomas fell operated a tailoring shop on Elliott Street in Charleston.  He placed advertisements in South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to advise prospective clients of the services he offered “in the genteelest Manner, and with Dispatch.”  Yet he did not run the shop alone.  In addition to extending “hearty Thanks” to his customers, he also announced that he was “in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS.”  Fell declared that “good Wages will be given” for the work undertaken by those enslaved men.

Those “good Wages,” however, did not go directly to the tailors but instead to the enslavers who hired them out by the day, week, month, or year.  As newspaper advertisements, slave narratives, and other sources demonstrate, enslavers who did not have sufficient work to occupy the time of the men and women they held in bondage instead generated a return on their investment by hiring out (or renting) them to others.  Sometimes they attempted to appear magnanimous by allowing enslaved laborers to keep a portion of those “good Wages,” but in the end it was the enslavers rather than the enslaved who derived the most significant financial benefits from such arrangements.

Colonists like Fell also gained advantages from hiring enslaved artisans, including tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers.  While Fell promised genteel garments made quickly for clients who visited his shop, he did not do all of the work himself.  He relied on the expertise and labor of enslaved tailors.  His advertisement made clear that they worked in his shop, but many other notices in the public prints certainly obscured the contributions of enslaved artisans.  Rarely did proprietors mention assistants of any sort, whether free, indentured, or enslaved.  The advertisements that crowded the pages of newspapers and supplements depicted vibrant commerce and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America, but often obscured the extent that enslaved men and women involuntarily provided their skills, knowledge, and labor.

September 18

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 18, 1770).

“He is in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS, for whom the highest Wages will be given.”

The September 18, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal included multiple advertisements offering enslaved men, women, and children for sale.  One advertisement, for instance, concerned a “Young Country-born” woman “with her first Child, two Years old.”  This young woman, “an extraordinary good Washer and Ironer,” was pregnant with another child.  Other advertisements described enslaved people who possessed a variety of skills for sale with and without members of their families.

Yet buying and selling enslaved people was not the only means of distributing and exploiting their labor in the public prints.  Several “for hire” advertisements also ran in that issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  Rather than purchase enslaved people outright, colonists frequently “hired” or rented their services from their enslavers.  In so doing, they acquired the labor they needed but without making as much of an investment.  One advertisement proclaimed, “WANTED ON HIRE, A Sprightly NEGRO BOY, who has been used to wait on a Gentlemen, and attend at Table.”  The advertiser did not sign the notice but instead instructed that anyone looking to hire out an enslaved servant should “Enquire of the Printer” for more information.  John Savage placed a similar advertisement, though he stated that he wanted an enslaved man “who was handy about a House” and an enslaved woman who was a good domestic servant “ON HIRE, OR TO PURCHASE.”  Thomas Fell, a tailor, informed the public that he was “in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS, for whom the highest Wages will be given.”  Those wages, however, did not go to the enslaved tailors.  Instead, their enslavers collected the wages.  If they wanted to feel magnanimous, the enslavers could dole out a portion of those wages to the enslaved tailors who did the work.  Doing so might salve their consciences, yet the tailors remained enslaved and exploited.

This system of hiring out enslaved workers for short periods – days, weeks, months, or a year – supplemented the slave trade in early America.  In the colonial and revolutionary eras, it occurred throughout the colonies.  It later continued into the nineteenth century in all areas that did not abolish slavery.  Gabriel, the enslaved man executed for organizing a failed uprising in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, hired out as a blacksmith.  Frederick Douglass hired out as a caulker in shipyards in Baltimore in the early nineteenth century.  Newspaper advertisements help to tell the stories of many other enslaved men and women who were hired out in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

August 17

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

Aug 17 - 8:17:1769 Massachusetts Gazette Draper
Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (August 17, 1769).
“A Negro Woman that can do Household Work, to let out by the Year.”

In the era of the American Revolution, enslavement of Africans and African Americans was not confined to the southern colonies. As newspaper advertisements and other sources from the period demonstrate, enslaved men, women, and children lived and labored throughout the colonies that eventually became the United States, from New England to Georgia. Consider this advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman that can do Household Work” that ran in the August 17, 1769, edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. It testifies to the presence of enslaved people in Boston and its environs. It also reveals that the market for enslaved labor was more complex than buying and selling. The advertiser sought a domestic servant “let out by the Year.” In other words, the family did not wish to purchase and permanently acquire an enslaved woman; instead, they wished to rent her services for a year, a practice known as hiring out. Not only were enslaved people deemed commodities by colonists, their labor was also a commodity to be traded in the marketplace.

The conscribed freedom of “a Negro Woman [who] can do Household Work ” stood in stark contrast to the other contents of the newspaper, at least to anyone who cared to take notice. The front page carried news about the ongoing nonimportation agreement, an act of economic resistance to Parliament imposing taxes on paper, glass, lead, tea, and paint in the Townshend Acts. Henry Bass’s advertisement for “American Grindstones … esteemed vastly superior to those from Great-Britain” ran once again. A news article noted that the Sons of Liberty had celebrated their anniversary, gathering first at the “Liberty-Tree” to drink fourteen toasts and then adjourning to “Mr. Robinson’s at the Sign of Liberty-Tree in Dorchester.” By 1769, the Liberty Tree had become a familiar symbol in Boston. The bulk of the news concerned participation in the nonimportation agreement that “some Persons who had heretofore refused to join in the Agreement for Non-Importation appeared and signed the same.” Another indicated that the “Committee of Inspection” would soon make a report about those violated the agreement. Yet another outlined the political stakes of the boycott, noting that those who selfishly did not abide by it exhibited “a total Disregard to the Liberty and Welfare of their County.”

The concept of liberty appeared repeatedly in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette in August 1769, in juxtaposition with an advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman that can do Household Work.” Colonists encountered symbols of liberty as they traversed the streets of Boston, just as they encountered enslaved men, women, and children denied their own liberty. Yet so few acknowledged the contradiction in 1769. Enslaved people, however, were all too aware of it. Any “Negro Woman [who] can do Household Work” likely had her own ideas about the meaning of liberty, informed by her own experiences, her treatment in the marketplace, and the discourse swirling around her in the era of the imperial crisis that led to the American Revolution.