August 23

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

New-London Gazette (August 23, 1771).

“THIS Country manufactured Felt Hats.”

As the end of August approached in 1771, Abiezer Smith placed an advertisement in the New-London Gazette to promote hats he made and sold at his shop in Norwich, Connecticut.  He assured prospective customers that he parted with his hats “as cheap as can be bought in the Colony” for items of similar quality.  In addition, he promised that his hats were “made in the best Manner.”  He also suggested that colonists should acquire “this Country manufactured Felt Hats,” a phrase that appeared twice in his notice, rather than the imported alternatives that many shopkeepers kept in stock.

Indeed, Smith devoted nearly half of his advertisement to encouraging retailers and consumers to support local artisans rather than choosing hats made in England.  “If Persons would but duly and properly consider the difference there really is between this County manufactured Felt Hats and those Imported from Great-Britain,” he declared, “they would doubtless conclude that they are much cheaper for the Customer than those that are Imported.”  Yet this was not merely a matter of cost.  He continued by asserting that “certainly there is in this Colony a sufficiency of Hatters to supply it’s Inhabitants with Hats.”   Smith spoke on behalf of all hatters in Connecticut.  Rather than consider other hatters in the colony to be competitors, he made common cause with them in cultivating a market for hats produced locally.  That market depended not only on the selections ultimately made by consumers but also the choices that merchants and shopkeepers made when it came to acquiring and distributing inventory.

Smith limited his arguments in favor of domestic manufactures to price, quality, and supporting the livelihoods of colonists rather than hatters on the other side of the Atlantic.  He did not make explicitly political arguments against Parliament or Great Britain, but within the past decade colonial consumers witnessed (and many supported) nonimportation agreements enacted by merchants in response to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts.  While those nonimportation agreements had expired at the time Smith placed his advertisement in the New-London Gazette, both merchants and consumers would have been familiar with that context for favoring “this Country manufactured Felt Hats” as well.  Smith allowed potential customers to draw their own conclusions about the politics of purchasing his hats, likely well aware that his advertisement echoed others that much more explicitly linked domestic manufactures and the imperial crisis in the recent past.

August 16

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-London Gazette (August 16, 1771).

“Ran away … a Negro man slave named BOSTON.”

An enslaved man known as Boston was determined to seize his liberty in the summer of 1771.  He escaped from his enslaver, Caleb Humastun of Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 1.  Just over a week later, Boston was captured in Lyme, the town where his former enslaver, Ezra Selden resided.  Perhaps he had ventured there to visit family or friends.  Perhaps he intended to encourage or assist family or friends in freeing themselves as well.  Humastun did not concern himself with such details in the advertisement he placed in the August 16 edition of the New-London Gazette.  Like every other “runaway” advertisement, it relayed events from the perspective of the enslaver rather than the enslaved.  Whatever Boston’s motivation for heading to Lyme, he ended up “hand cuff’d” upon being captured.  That, however, did not prevent him from making his escape, freeing himself a second time.

Humastun cautioned that “Whoever shall take [Boston] up … take care he don’t again escape,” but returning the enslaved man to bondage required more than merely confining him physically “in any of his Majesty’s [jails]” or elsewhere.  Colonists seeking the reward Humastun offered first had to identify and capture (again) the fugitive seeking freedom.  Humastun warned readers against allowing Boston to fool them, noting that he was “pretty talkative, flattering,” and would use those qualities to “tell any story to deceive, so as to prevent being secured.”  In other words, Boston was smart enough to convince others that he was not a runaway, though Humastun, like other enslavers who resorted to placing advertisements in the public prints, turned positive attributes into accusations when it came to describing Boston.  He had not been able to maintain order when it came to keeping Boston laboring in Waterbury, so he instead exercised what power remained to him by shaping the narrative to his own liking when he published an advertisement in the New-London Gazette.  Doing so allowed Humastun to regain some of the authority he lost when Boston liberated himself.  In the end, Humastun’s advertisement revealed more about the enslaver and his insecurities than it did about the formerly enslaved and his reasons for returning to Lyme.

March 15

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

New-London Gazette (March 15, 1771).

“PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING.”

Thomas Green and Samuel Green, printers of the Connecticut Journal in New Haven, planned to publish “A careful and strict Examination of the external Covenant, and of the Principles by which it is supported.  A REPLY To the Rev. Mr. Moses Mather’s Piece, intitled, The Visible Church on Covenant with God, further illustrated” in the spring of 1771.  Before taking the book to press, however, they sought to gauge demand in order to determine how many copies to print.  To that end, they distributed subscription notices, including “PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING” in the March 15, 1771, edition of the New-London Gazette.  The Greens requested that those interested in reserving copies become “Subscribers” by submitting their names by May 1.  In turn, the Greens guaranteed the price of the book to those who ordered copies in advance.  Other customers who purchased surplus copies risked paying higher prices.

In addition to seeking subscribers in New Haven, the Greens attempted to incite demand in other towns.  Timothy Green, printer of the New-London Gazette, not only inserted the “PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING” in his newspaper but likely also served as a local agent who collected subscriptions and sent the list to the printing office in New Haven.  The Greens devoted most of subscription notice to the lengthy title of the book and a list of its contents, demonstrating to prospective subscribers the various theological arguments presented by Joseph Bellamy.  They also listed the price, one shilling and four pence, contingent on how many pages were in the book.  They anticipated printing on twelve sheets, but would adjust the price higher or lower if they used more or less paper.  The Greens also established a timeline for receiving subscriptions and printing the book, stating that subscribers and local agents should contact them by May 1 so “it may be known how many Books shall be ready for the Subscribers at the next Commencement in New-Haven.”  The Greens planned to distribute the book at the same time as graduates of Yale College gathered.

Colonial printers often relied on networks of booksellers, local agents, and fellow printers in the marketing and distribution of books they printed.  Two other notices in the same edition of the New-London Gazette concluded with such lists.  One, another subscription notice, listed seven local agents in seven towns in Connecticut.  The other, an advertisement for a book already published, named eleven local agents in seven towns as well as a postrider who served several of those places.  Subscription notices and local agents played a vital role in determining the viability of proposed books in eighteenth-century America.

February 15

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

New-London Gazette (February 15, 1771).

“Wanted, a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work.”

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project seeks to identify, remediate, and republish every advertisement about enslaved men, women, and children originally published in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago each day.  The number of advertisements included in the project varies from day to day depending on which newspapers happened to have been published 250 years ago that day.  For instance, yesterday the Slavery Adverts 250 Project featured sixty-one advertisements that ran in eight newspapers on February 14, 1771.  Today the project republishes only one advertisement, a notice seeking “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work,” that ran in the February 15, 1771, edition of the New-London Gazette.

That advertisement tells a story just as important to understanding the history of enslavement in America as the dozens of advertisements from other newspapers the previous day.  Most people would not be surprised to learn that the vast majority of advertisements from February 14 ran in the Maryland Gazette, South-Carolina and American General Gazette, South-Carolina Gazette, Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, and William Rind’s Virginia Gazette.  That some of the advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, the New-York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Journal, newspapers published in colonies less often associated with slavery, likely comes as a greater surprise to many people.

The same goes for the advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” in the New-London Gazette.  In the colonial and revolutionary eras, slavery was part of the everyday life and commerce throughout the colonies, including New England and the Middle Colonies.  Readers expected to encounter advertisements about buying and selling enslaved people when they perused newspapers, including colonists in Connecticut who read the newspaper printed in New London.  They also expected to read notices describing enslaved people who liberated themselves, advertisements that encouraged all readers to engage in surveillance of Black people in hopes of identifying so-called runaways and claiming rewards for participating in capturing and returning them to bondage.  The advertisement in the New-London Gazette instructed anyone with more information about “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” to “Enquire of the Printer.”  Timothy Green, printer of the New-London Gazette, facilitated the slave trade in print and by conversing and corresponding with enslavers.  Publishing such advertisements also generated revenues for his newspaper.

A solitary advertisement about an enslaved woman appeared in the colonial press 250 years ago today, but that does not diminish its significance.  It was one of thousands disseminated in colonial newspapers in 1771, each of them perpetuating slavery and generating revenues for printers.  While the majority ran in newspapers published in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, a significant minority appeared in newspapers in New England and the Middle Colonies.  No eighteenth-century would have been surprised to see an advertisement for “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” in the New-London Gazette.

January 11

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

New-London Gazette (January 11, 1771).

To be Sold by Garret Noel, at New-York … and at the Printing-Office in N. London.”

Timothy Green, printer of the New-London Gazette, augmented revenues by selling books, pamphlets, and almanacs in addition to newspaper subscriptions and advertising.  Two advertisements in the January 11, 1771, edition of the New-London Gazette promoted items available at his printing office, “Ames’s Almanack” and “A Review Of the Military Operations in NORT[H]-AMERICA.”  Much of the advertisement for the latter consisted of the extensive subtitle that summarized the contents of the book.  It covered a portion of the conflict now known by several names, including the French and Indian War, the Seven Years War, and the Great War for Empire, “From the Commencement of the FrenchHostilities on the Frontiers of Virginia, in 1753, to the Surrender of Oswego, on the 14th of August 1756.”  That narrative was “Interspersed with various Observations, Characters, and Anecdotes, necessary to give Light into the Conduct of American Transactions in general; and more especially into the political Management of Affairs in New-York.”

First published in London in 1757, the Review of the Military Operations in North America was reprinted in New England in 1758 and, again, in New York in 1770.  Alexander Robertson and James Robertson printed the more recent edition that Green sold.  The advertisement in the New-London Gazette provided an overview of the network of printers and booksellers throughout the colonies who cooperated in distributing the book to consumers, listing eight individuals or partnerships in eight towns from Boston to Charleston.  Other advertisements for books printed in the colonies sometimes included similar lists, creating the impression of a community of readers that extended far beyond the local market.  Residents of New London who obtained copies at Green’s printing office joined readers who acquired theirs from Garret Noel’s bookshop in New York or from “Mr. Stephens, at the Coffee-House” in Charleston.  Printers and publishers often could not generate sufficient demand to justify producing American editions for local markets, so they strove to create regional or continental markets via networks of agents and associates as well as subscription notices and newspaper advertisements disseminated widely.

November 9

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

New-London Gazette (November 9, 1770).

“Said Negro was seen on board Capt. John Rogers’s Sloop.”

When Pompey, an enslaved man, liberated himself by running away in the fall of 1770, Aaron Waitt enlisted the power of the press in his efforts to capture him.  Waitt initially placed advertisements in his local newspaper, the Essex Gazette, to alert residents of Salem, Massachusetts, and the surrounding area that Pompey had departed without his permission.  He provided a description, noting in particular that Pompey was about twenty-three years old, had a scar on his forehead, and wore a dark coat.

The advertisements in the Essex Gazette did not produce the results that Waitt desired, in large part because Pompey understood that mobility was one of the best strategies for freeing himself.  According to advertisements that Waitt subsequently placed in the New-London Gazette, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, and the Providence Gazette, Pompey boarded “John Roger’s Sloop,” the Free Mason, “at East-Greenwich, in the Colony of Rhode Island” on October 18 and then sailed to New York.  Pompey apparently tried to place himself out of reach of his enslaver, but that only prompted Waitt to broaden the scope of his advertising to newspapers in other colonies.  When he did so, he added details to aid readers in identifying Pompey.  Waitt noted the enslaved man’s height and reported that he was “a Leather-Dresser by Trade” who “speaks good English.

Waitt’s advertisements in several newspapers published in New England and New York contributed to a culture of surveillance of Black men already in place in the colonies.  Advertisements for enslaved people who liberated themselves amounted to an eighteenth-century version of racial profiling, encouraging readers far and wide to scrutinize Black people when they encountered them.  Waitt and others asked colonists to carefully observe the bodies, clothing, and comportment of Black men and women to determine whether they matched the descriptions published in newspapers.  In the case of Waitt and Pompey, such efforts were not confined to one locality or media market but instead extended across an entire region as the enslaver inserted advertisements in multiple newspapers.

September 21

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

New-London Gazette (September 21, 1770).

“The Paper will then be one of the cheapest of its Size, printed in America.”

Newspaper printers collected two revenue streams: subscriptions and advertising.  Most did not, however, frequently note in print how much they charged for either subscriptions or advertising.  A few inserted such information in the colophon on the final page of each issue, but even those printers tended to list the prices for one or the other but not both.  Timothy Green, the printer of the New-London Gazette, was among those printers who did not regularly publish his prices for either subscriptions or advertising.  In a notice in the September 21, 1770, edition, however, he informed readers that he was raising the price for subscriptions.

Following an “Enlargement” of the New-London Gazette to a larger sheet, Green determined that “the Labour and Expence of Paper is so greatly Augmented” that he could not continue to operate the newspaper at the current rates except at “a manifest Loss.”  Accordingly, he planned to raise the price by eight pence per year, bringing the total to six shillings and eight pence.  This represented an increase of eleven percent, yet Green presented it as “so small that it’s presumed no one will think much of allowing it.”  To further convince current subscribers and future customers that they should not think much of the new price, Green explained that the New-London Gazette would still be “one of the cheapest of its Size, printed in America.”  Compared to other newspapers, the New-London Gazette was still a bargain at a total of eighty pence per year.  Still, Green realized that not all subscribers would be satisfied with this explanation.  He pledged that “Some further Improvements will shortly be made in the Paper,” though he did not offer any particulars.  He concluded by pledging “the greatest Care constantly taken to render” the New-London Gazette “beneficial to the Customers.”

Apparently Green did not consider it necessary to raise his rates for advertising to help defray the expenses of acquiring larger sheets and setting more type for the enlarged New-London Gazette.  Even if he at least listed his current rates, that would have revealed the relative prices for subscriptions and advertising.  Still, notices like this one help to reconstruct some of the expenses incurred by readers who subscribed to newspapers in eighteenth-century America.

August 26

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

Aug 26 - 8:23:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (August 23, 1770).

“Two Negro Men, supposed to have gone off in Company.”

Two Black men, known to their enslavers as Boston and Newport, liberated themselves in the summer of 1770.  They escaped from Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainfield, Connecticut, during the night of August 8.  Coit and Kinsman, in turn, immediately set about placing newspaper advertisements describing Boston and Newport and offering rewards in hopes of enlisting other colonists in capturing the Black men and returning them to enslavement.  Unlike most enslavers who placed such advertisements in a single newspaper or multiple newspapers in a single city, Coit and Kinsman broadened the scope of their surveillance and recovery efforts by inserting advertisements in five newspapers published in five cities and towns in four colonies.  In addition to the reward they offered, they made an investment in advertisements that ran in Hartford’s Connecticut Courant, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, the New-London Gazette, the New-York Journal, and the Providence Gazette.

Although similar, these advertisements were not identical.  The variations tell a more complete story of the escape devised by Boston and Newport.  Consider the notice that ran in the New-London Gazette.  Dated August 9 (first appearing in the August 10 edition) and signed by Coit, it featured Boston only, describing him as “a stout, thick-set fellow, of middling stature, about 30 years old, very black.”  It was the only advertisement that included a visual image, a crude woodcut of a Black person in motion, wearing a grass skirt and carrying a staff, an “R” for runaway on the chest.  Another advertisement dated August 9 ran in the New-York Journal, but that one included the descriptions of both Boston and Newport.  It did not appear until August 23, likely due to the time it took for the copy to arrive in the printing office in New York from Plainfield.  An undated advertisement with almost identical copy also ran in the Providence Gazette for the first time on August 18, likely dispatched to the printing office at the same time as the one sent to New York.  Coit and Kinsman both signed it.  They noted in the final paragraph that “Said Negroes have Passes, and if apprehended, ‘tis requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters.”  Quite likely Coit sent the copy for his advertisement concerning Boston to the New-London Gazette, the newspaper closest to Plainfield, prior to discovering that Newport liberated himself from Kinsman.  When the enslavers realized that Boston and Newport liberated themselves on the same night, they collaborated on new advertisements with a narrative updated from what ran in the New-London Gazette.  The new version stated that Boston and Newport were suspected “to have gone off in Company,” a conspiracy to free themselves.  Determining that they had passes may have caused Coit and Kinsman to widen the scope of their efforts by publishing in multiple newspapers in New England and New York, realizing that the passes increased the mobility and chances of escape for Boston and Newport.

Two other advertisements, those that ran in the Connecticut Courant and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, had identical copy.  They included short descriptions of Boston and Newport, signed by Coit and Kinsman.  In a nota bene, they declared, “It is suspected said Negroes have got a forg’d Pass.”  These advertisements were both dated August 10.  The notice in the Hartford newspaper first appeared on August 13 and in the Boston newspaper on August 16.  As the enslavers fretted about Boston and Newport having better prospects for making good on their escape thanks to the passes, they likely determined that they needed to place notices in additional newspapers.  Doing so amounted to an effort to recruit more colonists to participate in the surveillance of Black men to determine whether they might be Boston or Newport.

Advertisements for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves appeared in American newspapers just about every day in the era of the American Revolution.  The advertisements concerning Boston and Newport were not unique in their content or purpose.  What made them extraordinary was the geographic scope of the newspapers in which they appeared and the effort and expense undertaken by the enslavers Coit and Kinsman.  They marshalled the power of the press across a vast region in their attempt to return Boston and Newport to bondage.

May 25

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

May 25 - 5:25:1770 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (May 25, 1770).

I the Subscriber now carry on the Hatting Business.”

Witnessing the sense of accomplishment that undergraduate students experience when they work with digitized primary sources is one of my favorite parts of having them serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project when they enroll in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery in America, Public History, and Research Methods courses.  Much of that sense of accomplishment comes from learning to read eighteenth-century newspapers, a more difficult task than some initially expect.

Consider this advertisement from the May 25, 1770, edition of the New-London Gazette.  It is not indecipherable, but it does require some effort to read, even for those with experience working with eighteenth-century newspapers.  The quality of the printing and the paper, including text bleeding through from the other side of the page, makes the advertisement more difficult to read than the crisp and clear text in books and articles students are more accustomed to reading.  They discover that historians must work with primary sources of varying condition.  The deviations in spelling compared to twenty-first century standards also present a minor challenge, including “Hatts” for “Hats,” “Furr” for “Fur,” and “chuse” for “choose” in this advertisement.  Shifts in the meaning of words over a quarter of a millennium also allow opportunities to consider context in the process of understanding what advertisers said when they used language that now seems strange.  In this advertisement, William Capron described himself as “I the Subscriber,” but he did not mean that he paid to receive the newspaper.  Instead, he deployed the common eighteenth-century usage of the word “subscriber” to mean “a person who signs his or her name to a document,” in this case the advertisement itself.

Perhaps the most significant sense of achievement for many students comes from decoding the “long “s” that they initially mistake for an “f” in eighteenth-century newspapers and other primary sources.  In this advertisement, Capron addressed his “former Customers, present Creditors, and the Public in general,” but to students with less experience reading such sources this phrase initially appears to say “former Cuftomers, prefent Creditors, and the Public.”  “Hatting Business” looks like “Hatting Bufinefs” and “too short for spinning” looks like “too fhort for fpinning.”  That Capron’s advertisement appeared in italics further compounds the difficulty for some readers.  For my part, I’ve become so accustomed to the “long s” that I no longer notice it.  When I began working with students on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, however, I quickly became aware that I took for granted how easily others with less experience reading eighteenth-century newspapers would adapt to the “long s.”  As an instructor, I’ve learned to take more time and to make more allowances for students to become comfortable with that particular element of eighteenth-century print culture.  I also reassure them that they will eventually recognize the “long s” merely as an “s.”  They might not even realize when the transition happens!

Primary sources of any sort are the cornerstone of college-level history courses.  In the absence of special collections and research libraries with original documents, access to digitized primary sources allows me to replicate the experience of working with materials from the eighteenth century.  In the process, students get a better sense of what how historians “do” history as they encounter and overcome these and other challenges.

April 20

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

Apr 20 - 4:20:1770 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (April 20, 1770).

“He makes and sells all Kinds of FELT HATS.”

In the late 1760s and early 1770s the New-London Gazette carried fewer advertisements than most other newspapers printed in the colonies, in large part due to being published in a smaller town than most of its counterparts.  Those advertisements that did appear in the New-London Gazette, however, tended to replicate the marketing strategies deployed in advertisements published in other newspapers.  T.H. Breen asserts that colonists experienced a standardization of consumer goods available for purchase from New England to Georgia.[1]  They also encountered a standardization in advertising practices when they read the notices in colonial newspaper.

Consider an advertisement that Abiezer Smith, “HATTER, at NORWICH-LANDING,” placed in the April 20, 1770, edition of the New-London Gazette.  He informed prospective customers that he had “served a regular Apprenticeship to the FELT MANUFACTURE.”  Artisans frequently listed their credentials, especially upon arriving in town from elsewhere or opening a new business.  Since they did not benefit from cultivating a reputation among local consumers over time, they adopted other means of signaling that they were qualified to follow the trade they advertised.  In addition to consumers, Smith addressed retailers, the “Merchants and Shopkeepers in the Country” that he hoped would stock his hats.

Smith also made an appeal to quality and connected it to contemporary political discourse, just as advertisers in Boston and New York were doing during at the time.  The hatter at Norwich Landing proclaimed that his hats were “equal in goodness to any manufactured in this Country.”  Yet that assurance of quality was not sufficient.  He also declared his wares were preferable to any imported from Europe or elsewhere.”  Although the duties on most imported goods had been repealed, news had not yet arrived in the colonies.  For the moment, Smith stood to benefit from nonimportation agreements that prompted consumers to purchase “domestic manufactures” instead, provided that he made prospective customers aware of his product.  For retailers, he offered a new source of merchandise.  Even though his appeal would have less political resonance in the coming months, the quality remained consistent.  Many colonial consumers tended to prefer imported goods, but Smith offered an alternative that did not ask them to sacrifice the value for their money.

Smith’s advertisement could have appeared in any other newspaper in the colonies.  Indeed, given the scarcity of advertising in the New-London Gazette, he very well may have consulted (or at least had in mind) newspapers from other towns and cities when he wrote the copy for his advertisement.  His appeals that invoked his training, the quality of his wares, and the political significance of purchasing his hats made his advertisement resemble others placed by American artisans in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (1988): 81-84