May 3

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 3, 1773).

“RAN away from Admiral Montagu … a Negro Man, named JOHN POLITE.”

Two issues.  That was how long after they became printers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy it took for Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks to aid in perpetuating slavery in colonial New England by publishing advertisements offering rewards for the capture of enslaved people who liberated themselves.  The April 26, 1773, edition commenced with a notice that John Green and Joseph Russell transferred the “Printing and Publishing of this PAPER” to Mills and Hicks.  That issue featured a new colophon that promoted the various goods and services available in Mills and Hicks’s printing office, where “Advertisements … for this Paper are taken in.”  In the next issue, the new proprietors of Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy ran an advertisement that described “a Negro Man, named JOHN POTITE,” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend the above Negro, and bring him to Admiral Montagu.”[1]

Mills and Hicks were not alone in publishing that advertisement.  On the same day, May 3, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet included it (along with two other advertisements concerning enslaved people) in the Boston Evening-Post and Benjamin Edes and John Gill included it (along with an advertisement about another enslaved man who liberated himself) in the Boston-Gazette.  The other two newspapers published in Boston at the time did not happen to carry that particular advertisement, but Richard Draper did publish two advertisements about enslaved people for sale in the May 6 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Isaiah Thomas had not printed any advertisements concerning enslaved people in the Massachusetts Spy since late February when a notice in that newspaper instructed readers interested in purchasing a “NEGRO WOMAN … as good a house-negro as any in America” to “Enquire of [t]he Printer” for more information, effectively making him a broker in the sale.

Mills and Hicks participated in a practice established throughout the colonies.  No printers refused to publish such advertisements out of principle.  Instead, they inserted notices about enslaved men, women, and children in their newspapers, disseminated them far and wide, and collected the advertising fees for providing those services.  In many cases, they acted as brokers after publishing and disseminating the advertisements, as Thomas did for the sale of enslaved woman advertised in his newspaper in February 1773.  Although the practice had been well established by the time Mills and Hicks became proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, they chose to accept new advertisements concerning enslaved people when enslavers submitted them to their printing office.  They could have enacted a different editorial policy, just as other printers in Boston and beyond could have done so at any time.  Apparently, colonial printers considered publishing such advertisements too lucrative to discontinue them during the era of the American Revolution.


[1] That advertisement misspelled the enslaved man’s name: John Polite.  The compositor fixed the error in the May 10 edition.

March 4

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (March 4, 1773).

“AN ESSAY Concerning the true original Extent and End of CIVIL GOVERNMENT.”

In 1773, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette, published an American edition of John Locke’s Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government, the second of the political philosopher’s Two Treatises of Government.  The printers promoted the book in their own newspaper and in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.

Edes and Gill exercised their prerogative as printers to give their advertisement a privileged place in the Boston-Gazette.  It appeared as the first item in the first column on the first page of the March 1 edition, immediately below the masthead.  The lengthy advertisement filled the entire column and overflowed into the next.  Even as Edes and Gill proclaimed that studying Locke’s treatise “will give to every Intelligent Reader a better View of the Rights of Men and of Englishmen” they published an advertisement offering an enslaved woman for sale in the lower right corner of the same page.  In addition to generating revenue from that advertisement, they served as brokers.  The anonymous advertiser instructed interested parties to “Inquire of Edes & Gill.”  Their advertisement in the March 4 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter did not benefit from so prime a placement, running in the center column on the fourth page.  Consisting of the same copy that ran in the Boston-Gazette, it extended nearly an entire column.

In their efforts to convince colonizers to purchase the book, Edes and Gill asserted, “IT is well known among the Learned, that Mr. Locke’s two Treatise’ on Government, of which this is the Principal and by far the most Valuable, contributed more essentially to the establishing the Throne of our Great Deliverer King William, and consequently to the securing the Protestant Succession, than the Battle of the Boyne, or indeed all the Victories since obtained.”  They acknowledged that Locke’s “first Discourse has also been of great Use, as it is a most thorough Refutation of the Errors of Sir Robert Filmer,” known for defending the divine right of kings.  In a postscript, the printers explained why they opted not to publish both treatises.  Even though both had been “lately published together in England, and universally read and admired by all Lovers of Liberty there,” Edes and Gill did not consider the first treatise as essential for colonizers, in part because “few of [Filmer’s disciples] are yet to be found in this Country.”  That decision also made the book less expensive and more accessible to consumers since the second treatise was not “incumbered with the prolix Confutation of Filmer.”

Edes and Gill argued that all colonizers had a duty to read Locke’s work and discuss it with others.  They declared, “It should be early and carefully explained by every Father to his Son, by every Preceptor to his Pupils, and by every Mother to her Daughter.”  Just as many colonizers encouraged women to participate in politics through the decisions they made as consumers, the printers envisioned a role for women in educating their children about civic virtue.  In so doing, they drew upon the example of “Roman Ladies, especially those of the first Rank and Fashion” who “not only taught their Daughters, but their Sones, the first Rudiments of Learning.”  They achieved significant results; those “noble Matrons by their Sense and Virtue, contributed in this and a Thousand other Instances, no less toward the building up their glorious Republic than the Wisdom and Valour of the greatest Captain’s.”  Edes and Gill anticipated the notion of republican motherhood that citizens, male and female, embraced during the era of the early republic that followed the American Revolution.

Why did Edes and Gill publish and promote Locke’s Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government?  Historians disagree about the motivations of printers, publishers, and booksellers who produced and sold political treatises during the imperial crisis.  Did they align with the ideology in the books and pamphlets they published and sold, hoping to convert other colonizers to share their perspective?  Or did they merely seek to generate revenues?  Such motivations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  By the time they published an American edition of Locke’s Essay, Edes and Gill already established their reputation as patriot printers.  They very likely considered printing, promoting, and selling this treatise a political act … but that did not mean they did not also seek to make money.  For Richard Draper, the printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, running an advertisement for Locke’s Essay may have been more about generating revenues, especially considering that he tended to support British officials.  Edes and Gill may have chosen to advertise in his newspaper as a means of reaching readers less likely to peruse newspapers published by patriot printers, exposing them to some of Locke’s reasoning in the lengthy advertisement even if they opted not to purchase or read the Essay.

November 22

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

Connecticut Journal (November 22, 1771).

“Whoever will bring said Saddle to the Printers hereof … shall be fully rewarded.”

Most likely the type for the rest of the newspaper had already been set when the copy for a notice about a missing saddle arrived at the printing office of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy.  That would explain the unusual placement of an advertisement that ran in the right margin of the November 22, 1771, edition.  The advertiser, eager to recover lost property, apparently felt some urgency to publish the notice and did not want to wait an entire week until the next issue.  To accommodate the advertiser, the compositor placed the notice in the only empty space still available, the margin.  As a result, the text ran perpendicular to the masthead and the three columns containing news.  To make it fit, the compositor also divided the advertisement into four short columns, the first two featuring three lines and the last two with two lines.  Each of those short columns was the same width as the standard columns, allowing the compositor to gather all of them together to republish the advertisement in the next issue without having to start over with setting the type.

It was a common strategy deployed by printers and compositors throughout the colonies when they wanted to work additional items into newspapers, though most such notices usually appeared on the second or third pages rather than on the first.  The advertiser may have negotiated for a spot most likely to attract attention in hopes of recovering a “SADDLE, not entirely new, yet whole and sound” that had been “LOST out of the Shop of Captain John Mix.”  The notice offered a reward to whoever brought the saddle to the printing office (rather than the shop where it had been lost or perhaps stolen) or provided information about where it could be found.  Beyond publishing the advertisement, the printers of the Connecticut Journal would play a role in recovering the saddle if anyone wished to collect the reward.  They facilitated the transaction, just as they did for the sale of a “Likely, strong NEGRO LAD” described in an advertisement placed by an unnamed enslaver who instructed interested parties to “Enquire at the Printing Office.”  Squeezing the advertisement about the missing saddle into the newspaper as soon as they received it was one of multiple services offered by the printers.  They not only agreed to broker information in print but also to act as agents on behalf of the advertiser if anyone brought any leads or the saddle itself to the printing office.

November 4

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

Pennsylvania Packet (November 4, 1771).

“WANTED, A NEGRO BOY … apply to the Printer.”

Two issues.  It took only two issues for John Dunlap, the printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, to become a slave broker.  Dunlap published the inaugural issue of his newspaper on October 28, 1771.  It overflowed with advertising.  So many advertisers submitted notices to the printing office that Dunlap published a two-page supplement and inserted a note that other advertisements arrived too late for publication that week but would appear in the next edition.  Most advertisements in that first issue promoted consumer goods and services.

The following week, however, Dunlap ran another sort of advertisement that regularly appeared in newspapers from New England to Georgia:  a notice in which an unnamed advertiser sought to purchase an enslaved person.  “WANTED,” the advertisement proclaimed, “A NEGRO BOY, from fourteen to twenty years of age, that can be well recommended.”  In running that advertisement, John Dunlap and the Pennsylvania Packet helped to perpetuate slavery and the slave trade.  Yet Dunlap did more than provide space in his newspaper in exchange for advertising fees that made his new publication a viable venture.  The advertisement instructed that “Any person who has such to dispose of, may hear of a Purchaser by applying to the Printer.”  Dunlap brokered the sale by supplying additional information to readers who responded to the advertisement.

That was a common practice throughout the eighteenth century.  In “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Jordan E. Taylor analyzes a “dataset of more than 2,100 unique eighteenth-century North American ‘enquire of the printer’ newspaper slave advertisements appearing from 1704 through 1807.”[1]  Most of those advertisements ran for multiple weeks, making them even more ubiquitous before the eyes of readers and profitable for printers.  Dunlap, then, was not an outlier among printers during the era of the American Revolution.  Instead, he very quickly adopted a widespread practice.  Not exclusively a broker of information, the printer also served as a broker of enslaved men, women, and children.


[1] 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): 290.

March 19

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

Essex Gazette (March 19, 1771).

“Whoever has a Mind to purchase … by applying to the Printer hereof may know further.”

Advertisements for grocery items, an “elegant Assortment of English GOODS,” sermons in memory of George Whitefield, and real estate for sale or lease ran in the March 19, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette.  Readers were accustomed to encountering each sort of advertisement when they perused the Essex Gazette.  They were also accustomed to another kind of advertisement that offered enslaved people for sale.  In that issue, an anonymous advertiser presented a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man, of about 30 Years of Age, who understands the farming Business in all its Branches.”  The advertiser advised prospective purchasers that the enslaved man was “To be SOLD, for Want of Employ, and not for any Fault.”  In other words, he was not ill, lazy, or disorderly; his current enslaver did not have enough work to keep him occupied.  The advertiser, who also had a “House Lot” in Marblehead for sale, instructed interested parties to contact the printer for more information.

Samuel Hall was that printer.  He began printing the Essex Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts, in August 1768.  The success of that newspaper and every other newspaper published in the colonies depended on attracting both subscribers and advertisers, but it also depended on other services provided at the printing office.  Printers served as information brokers.  The newspapers they distributed accounted for only a portion of the information in their possession.  They frequently disseminated via other means, including letters and conversations in printing offices, information that did not appear in print, especially when advertisers did not include all the particulars in their notices but instead asked readers to “enquire of the printer.”  In some cases, they made introductions, putting those who made inquiries in contact with advertisers.  On other occasions, they supplied additional details.  Either way, they acted as brokers, not only brokers of information but also brokers who facilitated sales.

When Hall published an advertisement for a “House Lot in Marblehead” and a “likely, healthy, stout NEGRO Man” that told readers they could learn more “by applying to the Printer,” he became a real estate broker and a broker in the slave trade.  Jordan E. Taylor has recently examined “enquire of the printer” advertisements published throughout the colonies and new nation in the eighteenth century, demonstrating that Hall was not alone.[1]  Taylor identified more than 2100 unique “enquire of the printer” advertisements offering enslaved people for sale.  Printers from New England to Georgia actively participated in the slave trade, both by publishing advertisements about enslaved people and by acting as a broker for “enquire of the printer” advertisements.  As Taylor argues, “Print culture was inextricable from the culture of slavery, just as print capitalism was slavery’s capitalism.”


[1] 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 15

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

Jul 15 - 7:12:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (July 12, 1770).

“Hear of good Encouragement, by applying to the Printer at the Exchange.”

By the late 1760s, entrepreneurial colonists established and advertised “intelligence offices” in Boston and New York.  The brokers who operated those establishments provided a variety of services for their clients.  They introduced merchants and traders seeking to buy and sell commodities.  They conducted real estate transactions.  They also facilitated sales of indentured servants and enslaved people in addition to aiding employers seeking workers.  Brokers made matches in the marketplace.

Yet their occupation was not unique in that regard.  Printing offices served as intelligence offices by another name.  Throughout the eighteenth century, advertisements often concluded with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information.  Consider some of the advertisements that appeared in the July 12, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal.  One short notice offered a young enslaved woman for sale, but offered little detail beyond her age and a promise that she “can be well recommended.”  The advertisement did not identify the enslaver; instead, it concluded with the familiar refrain, “Enquire of the Printer.”  Another advertisement offered employment opportunities for men willing to migrate to Virginia.  The anonymous advertiser sought a “Sober single Man, of a good Character, who understand the Smith’s Business” and “a single Man of like Character, who understands the tending and Management of a Merchant’s Mill.” Candidates could learn more “by applying to the Printer at the Exchange.”  According to the colophon, John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, ran his office “near the Exchange, in Broad-Street.”

Printing offices were hubs for collecting and circulating information in eighteenth-century America.  Printers disseminated some information via newspapers, but advertisements in those publications often hinted at far more information that did not appear in print.  By visiting or sending notes to printers, readers could learn more about job opportunities and commodities, real estate, indentured servants, and enslaved people for sale.  Newspaper advertisements reveal how frequently printers acted as brokers as one of the many facets of their occupation.