September 10

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

Massachusetts Spy (September 10, 1772).

“The New Auction-Room and Intelligence-Office.”

The partnership of Russell and Yorke operated the “New-Auction-Room and Intelligence-Office” in Boston in 1772.  In the September 10 edition of the Massachusetts Spy, they explained to prospective clients that the intelligence office “is conducted … upon the same useful plan such offices are in the city of LONDON and other capital placed in England.”  Russell and Yorke served as agents who registered real estate, commodities, livestock, and other items “for sale or hire.”  They also introduced colonizers with money to invest to borrowers who could provide “security.”  In addition, they offered employment services, keeping a roster of colonizers seeking employment in order to “provide gentlemen and ladies with servants in all capacities.”  In the auction room, they conducted sales “upon the most reasonable terms” for clients who entrusted them to sell “goods of all kinds.”  Their advertisement included sections for items “Now registered at said office for SALE” (including “A lady’s pinchbeck watch” and “Two genteel houses in good repair, pleasantly situated in Boston”) and people who “WANT EMPLOYMENT” (including “A woman who would take the care of a family, or children, and can be well recommended”).

Russell and Yorke listed “negros” among the commodities they registered and sold at the intelligence office, acknowledging that slavery and the slave trade were enmeshed in commerce and daily life in Boston during the era of the American Revolution.  One of the partners, Ezekiel Russell, also ran a printing office.  For less than six months, from late November 1771 through early May 1772, he published a combination political magazine and newspaper called The Censor.  That publication occasionally included a supplement for advertising, but did not attract many advertisers during its short run.  No advertisements offering enslaved people for sale or offering rewards of the capture and return of enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away from their enslavers appeared in extant issues, differentiating The Censor from other colonial newspapers.  That does not seem, however, to have been the result of a principled stand by Russell but rather an outcome grounded in failing to recruit advertisers for a publication with low circulation numbers during its brief existence.  Just a few months after The Censor folded, the printer advertised his services as an agent who registered “negros” at the intelligence office “Over E. RUSSELL’s Printing-Office” in Boston.  While other printers in the city acted as slave brokers when they disseminated “enquire of the printer” advertisements in their newspapers, Russell promoted the services he provided as a slave broker at his new intelligence office.  In printing offices and intelligence offices alike, facilitating the buying and selling of enslaved men, women, and children was one of many services available to colonizers.

October 31

GUEST CURATOR:  Jake Luongo

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 31, 1771).

“A YOUNG, sprightly, sober NEGRO BOY … Enquire of the Printer.”

This advertisement offers a thirteen-year-old “NEGRO BOY” for sale, along with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer hereof” for anybody interested in purchasing the enslaved boy slave.  Selling a human being is just abhorrent, to say the least, but to put the advertisements amongst other advertisements for household items and livestock is just utterly disturbing to today’s readers. Unfortunately, it was just another advertisement to most readers of eighteenth-century newspapers.  Advertisements for enslaved people for sale were abundant in number yet often sparse when it came to details regarding the people actually being purchased. If interested buyers needed more information, they were to “Enquire of the Printer.”

Printers acted as liaisons between buyers and sellers of enslaved people. According to Jordan E. Taylor, printers acted as “slave brokers” both before and after the American Revolution.[1]  Once the Declaration of Independence was signed, it seemed contradictory to some Americans to advertise enslaved people for sale, but printers did not agree.  The advertisements continued, along with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer.”  According to Taylor, no matter the backlash printers received for these advertisements in the late eighteenth century, the money made on them mattered more, especially in towns with more than one newspaper that competed with each other for advertisements.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Jake outlines some of the most significant arguments that Jordan E. Taylor makes in “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807.”  In his study of “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements, Taylor examined newspapers published throughout the colonies and the new nation in the eighteenth century.  That included newspapers published in New England and the Middle Atlantic, where Taylor identified a concentration of these advertisements before the end of the American Revolution.[2]

Note that the advertisement Jake examined appeared in the Massachusetts Spy, the newspaper published in Boston by ardent patriot Isaiah Thomas.  In the spring of 1775, Thomas fled to Worcester for his safety after repeatedly infuriating British officials with the articles and editorials he published in the Massachusetts Spy.  Even in 1771, when the advertisement for a “YOUNG, sprightly, sober NEGRO BOY” appeared with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information, Thomas made his political principles known.  The advertisement not only ran among notices promoting consumer goods and services but also in close proximity to Thomas’s own advertisement for the “Massachusetts CALENDAR; or an ALMANACK, for the year 1772.”  Rather than publishing a generic almanac, Thomas made clear his was one for American patriots.  It contained essays “On Liberty and Government” as well as an engraving of the Boston Massacre as both memorial and warning.

Taylor identifies many other instances of the juxtaposition of content advocating liberty for some Americans alongside content that perpetuated the enslavement of Africans and African Americans.  Historians now consider Isaiah Thomas one of the most significant and influential printers active during the era of the American Revolution, in large part because he was such a vocal proponent of American rights, American liberty, and American independence.  Closer examination of the contents of the Massachusetts Spy, however, reveals that he also served as a slave broker, facilitating the purchase and sale of enslaved men, women, and children by publishing advertisements and providing additional information to those who did “Enquire of the Printer.”

Massachusetts Spy (October 31, 1771).

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[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.

[2] Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer,” 309.

June 17

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (June 17, 1771).

“For further Particulars, enquire of Edes & Gill.”

Two short advertisements about enslaved people appeared in the June 17, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  One announced, “TO BE SOLD, A likely Negro Fellow about 15 Years of Age.”  The other declared, “A Negro Child of a good Breed, to be given away.”  The same day, two other advertisements ran in the Boston-Gazette.  “To be Sold for Want of Employ,” stated one, “A likely Negro Woman, about 33 Years old, remarkable for Honesty and a good Temper.”  The other described “a Negro Man named Dick or Richard” who liberated himself.  The clever fugitive for freedom possessed a forged pass.

Each of those advertisements testified to the presence of slavery in northern colonies in the era of the American Revolution.  As colonists debated their rights and objected to abuses perpetrated by Parliament, many continued to enslave Africans and African Americans.  They turned to the same newspapers that kept them informed about politics and current events to facilitate the buying and selling … and even giving away … of enslaved men, women, and children.  In offering a reward for the capture and return of Dick, David Edgar encouraged all readers, whether enslavers or not, to engage in surveillance of Black people to detect the fugitive seeking freedom.  Newspapers, especially advertisements, helped perpetuate slavery in early America.

Most of those advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on June 17 had another similarity:  the extent that the printer participated in the transaction.  Edgar was the only advertiser who signed his notice.  Both advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post concluded with “Enquire of the Printers.”  The one offering a “likely Negro Woman” for sale in the Boston-Gazette advised, “For further Particulars, enquire of Edes & Gill.”  In addition to being well known as printers of that newspaper, their names appeared in the colophon at the bottom of the column that featured that advertisement.  The printers of both newspapers not only generated revenues by publishing advertisements about enslaved people but also actively took part in the buying, selling, and giving away of enslaved men, women, and children.  They played the role of information brokers beyond the printed page, providing additional services to enslavers who placed and responded to advertisements.

May 22

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

“Enquire of the Printers.”

May 22 - 5:22:1769 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (May 22, 1769).

On May 22, 1769, readers of the Boston Evening-Post encountered an advertisement offering an enslaved youth for sale: “TO BE SOLD, A fine healthy Negro Boy, 17 Years old, brought up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of the Printers.” On the same day, a nearly identical advertisement ran in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette: “TO BE SOLD, A fine healthy Negro Boy, 17 Years old, bro’t up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of Edes and Gill.” The Massachusetts Gazette, published the same day, also carried that advertisement: “TO BE SOLD, A fine likely Negro Boy, 17 Years old, bro’t up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Inquire of Green & Russell.”

May 22 - 5:22:1769 Boston-Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (May 22, 1769).

Except for variations in the spelling of “brought” (or “bro’t”), the copy in all three notices was identical until the final sentence that advised interested parties to “Enquire of the Printers” for more information. These advertisements and many others like them made T. and J. Fleet, Edes and Gill, and Green and Russell active participants in the slave trade. Printing advertisements for the purposes of buying and selling enslaved men, women and children or capturing those who escaped from bondage already made printers complicit in the perpetuation of slavery, but these “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements demonstrated even more active involvement as purveyors of people, not merely as conduits for disseminating information.

May 22 - 5:22:1769 Boston Post-Boy
Massachusetts Gazette [Green and Russell] (May 22, 1769).
Compared to newspapers published in the Chesapeake and Lower South, far fewer advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children ran in newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic, but they were not absent. Printers in Boston devoted less space in their newspapers to these advertisements, but the frequency of “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements suggests that the Fleets, Edes and Gill, and Green and Russell invested time in facilitating these transactions beyond what was required for receiving the copy and setting the type. In effect, they served as brokers, even if they never described or advertised their services in that manner.