April 15

GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff

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

Providence Gazette (April 15, 1769).

“A Quantity of Red and White Oak Hogshead STAVES.”

On April 15, 1769, Samuel Young put an advertisement put in the Providence Gazette to tell readers that he wanted “to purchase a Quantity of Red and White Oak Hogshead STAVES, for which he will make good Pay.” Staves are narrow pieces of wood used to make barrels. A hogshead is a barrel that holds 64 gallons. According to Jeremy M. Bell, “Barrels were the shipping containers of their time” in the eighteenth century. They held an abundance of items, including alcohol, corn, and tobacco. Today it is not very common to see barrels in stores, except maybe a Cracker Barrel, but in colonial times they were extremely common in shops, very noticeable objects for customers. Bell states that barrels were so frequently used that the British Parliament passed the first act to standardize hogsheads and their measurements in 1423. Starting with a tun barrel at 252 gallons, they made it so that each designation of volume would then be cut in half. A pipe barrel held 126 gallons. Therefore, a hogshead measured 64 gallons and a standard barrel at 32 gallons. Practically everyone involved in commerce in early America used hogsheads and barrels of other sizes.



No advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children appeared in the April 15, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. None of the paid notices offered men and women for sale. None of them encouraged white colonists to engage in acts of surveillance in the service of capturing escaped slaves and returning them to those who held them in bondage, nor did any describe suspected runaways that had been imprisoned. Yet black bodies were not absent from the pages of the Providence Gazette or the commercial landscape in the city.

Before he announced that he sold an “Assortment of European, East and West-India GOODS” and sought “Hogshead STAVES,” Samuel Young proclaimed that he operated a store at “the Sign of the Black Boy.” Enslaved men and women had labored to produce many of the goods Young sold. Enslaved men and women would eventually handle the barrels made from the staves Young acquired. They were integrated into the networks of production, exchange, and consumption in the early modern Atlantic world. That was a fact that would have been difficult for residents of Providence to overlook, but Young’s choice of shop sign provided a stark visual reminder that black bodies had been appropriated and exploited for a variety of purposes. Enslaved men and women contributed their labor, their skills, and their expertise in the production of commodities. The image of a “Black Boy” then served as a marketing logo and a landmark that aided colonists in finding many of those commodities as they navigated the streets of Providence.

Elsewhere in the April 15 issue, the Providence Gazette disseminated news about the imperial crisis brewing as a result of the Townshend Acts and other abuses by Parliament. Some correspondents wrote about “AMERICAN Liberty,” while others defended the prerogatives of George III and Parliament. Calls for “AMERICAN Liberty,” however, extended only so far, only to white colonists. Most colonists who reduced enslaved men, women, and children to a stylized image on “the Sign of the Black Boy” did not contemplate how to evenly apply their rhetoric to all of the residents of Rhode Island and the other colonies.

March 16


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

New-York Journal (March 16, 1769).

“NEW-YORK distill’d rum … by the hogshead or barrel.”

This advertisement features “NEW-YORK distill’d rum,” a few other kinds of alcohol, and various other goods offered for sale. The different kinds of alcohol included white wine and “cordials of the best quality.” Some of the terminology used in this advertisement was new to me, such as words like “hogshead” and “cordial.” A hogshead is a unit of measurement used for beer and wine and was equivalent to about 64 gallons. Jeremy Bell states, “A hogshead is a unit of measurement used more commonly in colonial times than today. And why is that? The easy answer is that the average person today does very little with barrels.” However, this unit of measurement is still sometimes used today, even though it is not as familiar to most people as it was in the eighteenth century. This advertisement helps to show how the English language has evolved over the past two and a half centuries.



Luke raises an interesting point about how readily colonial consumers recognized units of measurement that are largely unfamiliar today. Advertisements in colonial newspapers regularly offered commodities by the firkin, tierce, hogshead, and pipe. Such denominations would send most modern readers to a dictionary or some sort of online encyclopedia to find out how much they contained, but colonists who saw Manuel Myers’s advertisement in the New-York Journal knew how much rum a hogshead held … more or less.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hogshead as “a large cask, esp. for storing liquids; spec. one of definite capacity, varying according to the commodity held.” It further elaborates that the quantity sufficient to fill a hogshead varied “over time and according to locality and commodity.” As Luke indicates, a hogshead held 64 gallons in the eighteenth century.

Today we often use the word “barrel” to refer to a cask of any size, adopting the name that denoted a specific quantity in the British Atlantic world during the early modern period. A barrel held thirty-two gallons or half of a hogshead. Colonists adeptly doubled or halved the volume contained in casks when they considered the relative amounts held by firkins (8 gallons), kilderkins (16 gallons), barrels (32 gallons), hogsheads (64 gallons), pipes (128 gallons), and tuns (256 gallons). Other casks held quantities that did not follow this progression. A tierce, for instance, held approximately 42 gallons or one-third of a pipe.

Colonists spoke a language of consumption that may seem unfamiliar to most modern readers. Just as they recognized the distinctions between textiles in other advertisements in the New-York Journal – lutestrings, cambricks, taffaties – they also understood the relative quantities held in the hogsheads and barrels of rum advertised by Myers. For colonists, it hardly required a second thought to realize that hogsheads were larger than barrels. These words have not disappeared from the English language, but they have faded over time.

November 11

GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 11, 1766).

“WEST-INDIA Rum in Hogsheads, Muscovado Sugar in Hogsheads and Barrels.”

In this advertisement, two colonial merchants, Edward Blake and John Savage, promoted the arrival and sale of various products including rum, sugar, salt and flour. I was fascinated by this advertisement because I did not have any idea what the terms “Hogsheads” or “Barrels” meant.

According to Russ Rowlett, “Larger volumes of liquids were carried in barrels, hogshead, or other containers whose size in gallons tended to vary with the commodity, with wine unites being different from beer and ale units or other units of liquids.” In general, a hogshead was a relatively large and wide cylinder cask that contained sixty-four gallons.. Barrels were relatively shorter and wider, containing thirty-two gallons, half the volume of a hogshead.. Casks like hogshead and barrels were easier to stack and maneuver than boxes and crates as they were shipped from one place to another. Additionally, they were designed to keep various liquids from becoming spoiled. According to Natasha Hoover, a cask made to transport liquids “must be made from a hard wood, such as oak, wrapped tightly with metal bands and is usually waterproofed in some way, either with brewers’ pitch or wax.” By doing this, bacteria and pests were not likely to get on the inside and spoil the liquid that was in the container.



Carolyn and her peers enrolled in my Colonial America class recently worked through a primary source exercise involving customs and shipping records from the 1740s. To make sense of the documents, they familiarized themselves with some of the common weights and measures used in the eighteenth century, a system that seemed strange and confusing to modern eyes. (This exercise also involved more math than some expected to encounter in history class, a good reminder that several subdisciplines, including economic history, require quantitative skills as well as the ability to engage in qualitative interpretation of texts.) I appreciate the way that Carolyn applied her curiosity from that classroom exercise to learning more about the weights and measures included in the advertisement she selected for today.

In her research, Carolyn turned up a very useful reference page, “What is a Hogshead? Barrels and Measurement in Colonial America.” On that page, Natasha Hoover explains that “a tun was standardized at 256 gallons” in the English colonies in the seventeenth century. Furthermore, the modern ton “is actually how much a tun of water weighs, so the two are related.”

We tend to think of all casks as being some sort of barrel today, but, as Carolyn points out, a barrel was a specific designation in the colonial period. Units like firkin, kilderkin, hogshead, and pipe are no longer regularly used in everyday life, but colonists recognized each and would have noted the relative volume contained in each without much thought. Once familiar with the system, that would have been easy because each successive unit doubled the volume of its predecessor.

Firkin = 8 gallons

Kilderkin = 16 gallons

Barrel = 32 gallons

Hogshead = 64 gallons

Pipe = 128 gallons

Tun = 256 gallons

This system was not as complicated as the unfamiliar names might suggest, but just to keep things interesting the puncheon was also a popular measurement. A puncheon contained one-third of a tun – eighty-five gallons – which meant it contained more than a hogshead but less than a pipe.

I have invited my students to serve as guest curators with the intention that they learn something about colonial commerce and life from each advertisement they select. I am often surprised and pleased by what attracts their attention. My first instinct would have been to examine the commodities contained in the hogsheads and barrels listed in this advertisement. Although Carolyn went in a much different direction, she investigated an important aspect of the world in which colonists lived.