February 21

What do newspaper advertisements published 250 years ago today tell us about the era of the American Revolution?

Pennsylvania Journal (February 21, 1771).


“RUN-AWAY … a Negro Boy named SAY.”

Like every other newspaper printer in colonial America, William Bradford and Thomas Bradford published advertisements about enslaved people.  The pages of the Pennsylvania Journal contained advertisements offering enslaved men, women, and children for sale as well as notices that described enslaved people who liberated themselves and offered rewards for their capture and return to their enslavers.  The Bradfords generated revenues from both kinds of advertisements.  In the process, they facilitated the buying and selling of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Their newspaper became part of a larger infrastructure of surveillance of Black people, encouraging readers to scrutinize the physical features, clothing, and comportment of every Black person they encountered in order to determine if they matched the descriptions in the advertisements.

Simultaneously, the Bradfords published news about politics and current events that informed readers about colonial grievances and shaped public opinion about the abuses perpetrated by Parliament.  In addition, advertisements underscored concerns about the erosion of traditional English liberties in the colonies when they underscored the political dimensions of participating in the marketplace.  Purveyors of goods encouraged consumers to support “domestic manufactures” by purchasing goods produced in the colonies as alternatives to imported items.  News, editorials, and many advertisements all supported the patriot cause.

Those rumblings for liberty, however, stood in stark contrast to advertisements that perpetuated the widespread enslavement of Black men, women, and children.  The two ideologies did not appear in separate portions of the Pennsylvania Journal or any other newspaper.  Instead, they ran side by side.  Readers who did not spot the juxtaposition chose not to do so.  Consider, for instance, two advertisements in the February 21, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal.  The Bradfords advertised “LIBERTY.  A POEM” available at their printing office.  Their advertisement appeared next to a notice about “a Negro Boy named SAY,” a chimneysweeper born in the colonies.  Isaac Coats offered a reward to whoever “secures [Say] so that his Master may have him again.”  For his part, Say seized the liberty that so animated the conversations of those who attempted to keep him in bondage.

That was not the first time that the Bradfords placed advertisements about liberty and slavery in such revealing proximity to each other.  Three months earlier, they advertised the same poem and placed an advertisement offering a young man and woman for sale immediately below it.  “LIBERTY” in capital letters and a larger font appeared right above the words “To be sold by JOHN BAYARD, A Healthy active young NEGRO MAN, likewise a NEGRO WENCH.”  This paradox of liberty and slavery was present at the founding of the nation, not only in the ideas expressed by the founding generation but also plainly visible among the advertisements in the public prints.

July 26

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

Jul 26 - 7:26:1770 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (July 26, 1770).



On July 26, 1770, at least thirty-one advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children appeared in newspapers published throughout the thirteen colonies that declared independence from Great Britain later in the decade.  Those advertisements ran in newspapers in every region of colonial America, not just the southern colonies with the largest populations of enslaved people.  In New England, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury carried such advertisements, as did the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal in the Middle Atlantic.  In the Chesapeake, the Maryland Gazette and Rind’s Virginia Gazette ran more of these advertisements.  Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette almost certainly did as well, but the July 26, 1770, edition has not been digitized for consultation by scholars and other readers.

In the Lower South, the South-Carolina Gazette also circulated advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children, including one that offered a “NEGRO CARPENTER” and a “young NEGRO WENCH” for sale.  That advertisement ran immediately below an advertisement for “LIBERTY. A POEM. Dedicated to the SONS OF LIBERTY in SOUTH-CAROLINA” offered for sale in the printing offices where Peter Timothy published the South-Carolina Gazette and Charles Crouch published the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, another newspaper that regularly distributed advertisements offering enslaved people for sale or offering rewards for the capture of enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away from colonists who attempted to hold them in bondage.

As the Slavery Adverts 250 Project demonstrates, advertisements about enslaved people were ubiquitous in newspapers printed throughout the colonies.  The same newspapers that carried those advertisements also documented the events and debates of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution.  As printers shaped public discourse about how Parliament abused the colonies, they simultaneously profited from publishing advertisements that perpetuated the enslavement of Africans and African Americans.  David Waldstreicher offered an overview in “Reading the Runaways:  Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic” in 1999.[1]  In 2020, Jordan E. Taylor provides a much more extensive examination in “Enquire of the Printer:  Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807.”[2]  Colonial printers facilitated the slave trade and played an integral role in the surveillance of Black bodies in eighteenth-century America.

Those activities occurred within the same pages of newspapers that ran articles and editorials … and advertisements for consumers goods … that advocated “LIBERTY” for white colonists.  Sometimes advertisements about enslaved people and editorials about liberty appeared on different pages, but considering that most newspapers of the era consisted of only four pages (or six when they included a supplement) they were always within close proximity.  Such was the case for an advertisement for a “Likely young Negro Girl” that ran in the supplement that accompanied the March 26, 1768, edition of the New-York Journal.  The supplement also included letters from “A TRUE PATRIOT” and “POPULUS” that warned that Parliament actively eroded American liberties.  In other instances, as Taylor demonstrates, advertisements about enslaved people ran next to articles and editorials that demanded liberty for white colonists.  Sometimes advertisements delivered the news, such as a notice about a “new Non-Importation Agreement” that ran immediately above an advertisement offering an enslaved man and woman for sale in the January 25, edition of the New-York Journal.

Other times, advertisements about consumer goods and commerce played slavery and liberty in stark juxtaposition.  Consider an advertisement for a “Likely Negro LAD,” a skilled cooper, that ran immediately above Nathaniel Frazier’s advertisement for “a very good assortment of Fall and Winter GOODS” in the October 3, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, Massachusetts.  Frazier assured prospective customers and the entire community that he acquired those goods prior to the nonimportation agreement adopted to protest the duties on certain imported goods imposed by the Townshend Acts.  Frazier offered white colonists an opportunity to defend American liberties and practice politics via their choices about consumption at the same time that an “Enquire of the Printer” advertisement reduced an enslaved cooper to a commodity to be traded in the marketplace.

The paradox of liberty and enslavement was vividly apparent in the advertisements that ran in the South-Carolina Gazette 250 years ago today.  In a single glance, readers encountered an invitation to purchase an ode to “LIBERTY” dedicated to the Sons of Liberty and a notice that perpetuated the enslavement of a Black carpenter and a young Black woman who possessed several domestic skills.  This example provides a particularly stark demonstration of unevenly applied ideologies of liberty in the era of the American Revolution and the founding of the nation.  Eighteenth-century readers regularly encountered such contradictions in the contents of newspapers.


[1] David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 243–272.

[2] Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer:  Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies:  An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020):  287-323.

July 8

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

Jul 8 - 7:5:1770 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (July 5, 1770).


Current events were not confined to the news and editorials in colonial newspapers published during the era of the American Revolution.  Consider the July 5, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette.  Multiple advertisements addressed the tensions between Parliament and the colonies in one way or another.  In his advertisement for “a tolerable Assortment of Goods,” but only those that did not violate the nonimportation agreement adopted in protest of the duties imposed on certain goods by the Townshend Acts.  He maintained “a constant Supply of such Articles as the Resolutions of the Inhabitants of this Province will admit of.”  Ann Mathewes and Benjamin Mathewes did not abide by the nonimportation agreement; as a result, they found themselves the subject of a lengthy advertisement that documented their transgressions and cautioned “against having any commercial Dealings whatever” with them until they brought themselves back into compliance with the resolutions.  Until then, “their Actions must declare them to be obstinate and inveterate Enemies to their Country, and unworthy of the least Confidence or Esteem.”

In contrast, another advertisement celebrated those colonists who defended the rights of the colonies.  T. Powell published and sold “LIBERTY. A POEM” by Rusticus, likely a reprint of a poem published in Philadelphia two years earlier (which I will confirm once libraries and archives open to researchers once again).  Powell dedicated this edition to “the SONS OF LIBERTY in SOUTH-CAROLINA,” honoring those who had organized and enforced the boycott of British goods.  Peter Timothy, printer of the South-Carolina Gazette, printed the poem on Powell’s behalf and sold it at his printing office, but it was also available at the office where Charles Crouch printed the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  Timothy and Crouch competed with each other for subscribers and advertisers, but they promoted a common cause in selling “LIBERTY.  A POEM” and influencing colonists to consider the politics of the moment at every possible opportunity.  For readers of the South-Carolina Gazette who did not purchase their own copies, the advertisement alone resonated with meaning as they connected it to the other contents of the newspaper.  Those readers who did acquire copies brought the poem into their homes to further imbibe the sentiments it expressed.  Either way, this advertisement and others encouraged colonists to consider how consumption and commerce, the purpose of so many advertisements, intersected with politics and current events.