What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BETWEEN the sixth and seventh day, / MARY NOWLAND ran away.”
Advertisements for runaway servants and slaves regularly appeared in the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette in the 1760s. The June 22, 1769, edition, for instance, featured several such advertisements. To distinguish his notice from others, Abraham Emmit opted for a format other than the usual dense block of text that provided a description. Instead, he published a poem about Mary Nowland, deploying a style intended to encourage readers to give the advertisement more than a cursory glance and, as a result, better remember how to recognize this particular runaway. In addition, the novelty of his poem imbued his advertisement with greater entertainment value, further contributing to the likelihood that readers would take note.
Among the rhyming couplets, Emmit provided a physical description of Nowland. Although in verse, it simultaneously described and denigrated the runaway servant. She had “Brown hair, red face, short nose, thick lips” and was “large and round from neck to hips.” Indeed, the aggrieved Emmit suggested that Nowland was so chubby that it affected her movement – “Short, thick, and clumsy, in her jog” – so much so that he compared her to a “fatten’d hog.” Like many other advertisements for servants, this one reported Nowland’s origins as a means of helping readers identify her. Emmit did not, however, simply state that Nowland had been born in Ireland. Instead, he mentioned that she was “The same religion with the Pope” and “Upon her tongue she wears a brogue,” expecting readers to reach the conclusion that Nowland was an Irish Catholic. In presenting this puzzle, albeit not a particularly difficult one, Emmit encouraged greater participation by readers from their first encounter with the text than most runaway advertisements expected of them. This notice did not merely charge readers with reporting or capturing a runaway if they happened to spot her; it invited them first to engage with the printed page much more actively than they would have when perusing other advertisements concerning runaways.
The clever Emmit did not merely sign his verse. He incorporated his own name into the final couplet, promising a reward of forty shillings to anyone who delivered Nowland to him: for any reader “Who brings her home I will give them it, / Your humble servant, ABRAHAM EMMIT.” These last lines were just as stilted as the rest of the poem, but composing a piece of great literature had not been Emmit’s purpose. Given how many notices about runaway servants and other advertisements ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, he sought a means to differentiate his advertisement and draw greater attention from readers. The format of the poem alone, compared to dense paragraphs of text in other advertisements, separated it from others on the page, encouraging readers to have a closer look. Emmit speculated that once they discovered the novelty he had composed that they would pay more attention to his description of the runaway Nowland. Providing this simple entertainment increased the chances that someone would recognize Nowland and either return her to Emmit’s household or send word of her whereabouts.