October 27

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

Providence Gazette (October 27, 1770).

“WANTED immediately, Fifteen likely NEGROES.”

As it did in most issues, the Providence Gazette published on October 27, 1770, featured advertisements placed for various purposes.  Benoni Pearce and Elijah Bacon announced that they had “opened a BAKE-HOUSE.”  Joseph Russell and William Russell sought passengers and freight for a ship departing for London in early November.  Joseph Whipple offered a house to rent and a store and wharf for sale.  John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, hawked printed blanks and an almanac for 1771.  Hampton Lillibridge proclaimed that he “WANTED” to purchase enslaved women and children “immediately.”

Advertisements like the one placed by Lillibridge were not uncommon in the Providence Gazette and other newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Colonists turned to notices in the public prints to aid them in buying and selling enslaved people.  In other instances, they inserted advertisements to warn about runaways who liberated themselves from those who held them in bondage, offering descriptions to identify them and rewards to colonists who captured and returned them to their enslavers.  Even colonists who did not themselves make claims to owning enslaved people participated in the surveillance of Black people — carefully scrutinizing their bodies, clothing, and comportment — that helped to maintain the institution of slavery.

Printers played a critical role in perpetuating slavery in early America.  From New England to Georgia, they printed advertisements that were disseminated as widely as their newspapers and brokered information that did not otherwise appear in print.  In his effort to purchase enslaved women and children, Lillibridge instructed readers to contact him directly in Newport or via “the Printing-Office in Providence.”  Carter not only garnered revenues from publishing notices about enslaved people, he also facilitated sales through “enquire of the printer” advertisements.  In many instances, the buyers and sellers remained anonymous to the public, though the evidence of the slave trade was quite visible on the printed page, interspersed among other advertisements.

Such notices were a familiar sight when readers perused eighteenth-century newspapers.  Lillibridge’s advertisement for “Fifteen likely NEGROES” in the Providence Gazette may seem stark and out of place to modern readers unfamiliar with the history of slavery in Rhode Island and the rest of New England, but it was unremarkable at the time, just another element of a massive cultural and commercial infrastructure that maintained a system of bondage and exploitation.

October 20

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

Providence Gazette (October 20, 1770).

“The Subscriber proposes undertaking the Practice of the Law.”

In the fall of 1770, John Cole took to the pages of the Providence Gazette to advertise his services as an attorney.  In introducing himself to prospective clients, Cole noted that “several Gentlemen of the LAW have lately removed from Providence.”  Furthermore, there was “another Vacancy at the Bar” caused by the death of “the late worthy and ingenious Oliver Arnold, Esq.”  As a result, residents of Providence and nearby towns and villages no longer had access to as many attorneys.  Cole sought to fill that gap in the market.

When he informed the public that he “proposes undertaking the Practice of the Law,” Cole asserted that he had been “brought up” to the business, though he did not provide additional details about his training and credentials.  Instead, he focused on his demeanor, assuring prospective clients that he would serve them “with the utmost Fidelity, Dispatch and Punctuality.”  Advertisers of all sorts made such promises, whether attorneys or artisans, but an emphasis on fidelity had a different resonance when invoked by those practicing the law.  It implied both confidentiality and consistently working in the best interests of clients, two aspects of the profession that some attorneys more explicitly highlighted in their advertisements.  Cole made more general commitments that his clients would be satisfied with his services.

He also cast his net widely for clients, seeking them in Providence and “the neighbouring Towns or Governments.”  The Providence Gazette served much of Rhode Island as well as portions of Massachusetts and Connecticut.  For instance, Joseph Jewet and Darius Adams’s advertisement on the same page as Cole’s notice in the October 20, 1770, edition addressed readers in several towns in Connecticut who might wish to engage them as postriders to deliver their newspapers.  Jewet and Adams also promised fidelity, but in their case they meant that patrons would receive their newspapers rather than have them go missing.

With the departure of several attorneys and the death of another, Cole sought to establish himself as an attorney in Providence.  To attract clients, he not only announced that he opened an office but also suggested that he had some sort of training and offered assurances that he would be trustworthy and competent in delivering his services.  Compared to modern advertising for legal services, Cole was considerably less bombastic.  He aimed to earn the confidence of prospective clients, not attract them with spectacle.

October 6

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

Providence Gazette (October 6, 1770).

“The regular and speedy Delivery of their Papers.”

In the 1770s, the Providence Gazette served as the local newspaper for many readers in the northeastern region of Connecticut as well as northern Rhode Island.  An advertisement that ran in the October 6, 1770, edition outlined the route that Joseph Rickard, a former postrider, took from Providence to several towns in Connecticut.  Joseph Jewet and Elijah Nichols intended to assume Rickard’s responsibilities, informing the public, “particularly the Customers to the PROVIDENCE GAZETTE,” that they now carried letters and newspapers to Killingly, Pomfret, Woodstock, and Ashford.

In their attempt to build their clientele, Jewet and Nichols offered improvements over the service that Rickard provided.  They pledged the “greatest Attention will be paid to the regular and speedy Delivery of the Papers” in order that “Customers may receive them earlier than usual.”  The masthead of the Providence Gazette proclaimed that it contained “the freshest ADVICES, Foreign and Domestic.”  That “speedy Delivery” enhanced the careful selection of contents and the speed that the printer took news to press, putting “the freshest Intelligence” in the hands of subscribers and other readers in northeastern Connecticut.  Jewet and Nichols also indicated that they would “extend their weekly Ride to other Towns” if they encountered sufficient demand.

John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, gave Jewet and Nichols’s advertisement a privileged place.  It was the first advertisement that appeared in the October 6 edition, running immediately below the list of prices current in Providence.  Readers more interested in news than advertising were more likely to peruse Jewet and Nichols’s notice as a result of where the printer chose to place it on the page.  Carter had his own interest in the success of the postriders’ endeavor.  Reliable and speedy delivery to northeastern Connecticut meant that he could maintain and possibly even expand the number of subscribers in that region.  Success for Jewet and Nichols meant better prospects for Carter and the Providence Gazette.

September 22

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

Providence Gazette (September 22, 1770).

Cutting his throat, and stabbing him in the belly.”

The advertising section of the Providence Gazette in the early 1770s sometimes read like a late nineteenth-century police blotter.  Consider the September 22, 1770, edition.  Among the advertisements for consumer goods and services, legal notices, and one advertisement offering a good price for a flying squirrel, several other advertisements relayed stories of thefts and worse crimes.

The first recorded a theft, its tone suggesting unpleasant consequences for the thief.  An anonymous advertiser suggested that the “Person who took a new Beaver Hat out of the Court-House” on the previous Thursday evening “will do well to leave it” at the printing office for the owner to retrieve.  By doing so, the thief “may thereby prevent the disagreeable Circumstance of a personal Application.”  Whether or not the advertiser actually knew the identity of the thief, he suggested that he did.  The prospect of a “personal Application” suggested retribution for refusing to voluntarily return the hat.

In an advertisement that had already been running for many weeks, Seth Wetmore of Middletown, Connecticut, described how his house “was broke open … by some Person or Persons unknown” at the beginning of July.  The burglars absconded with a variety of clothing and other personal articles.  Wetmore suspected that they may have been the same men who escaped from the jail in New Haven the previous night, John Armstrong and John Galloway, and their accomplice, James Burne.  Wetmore offered a reward for the return of his goods “or the greater Part of them” and the capture of the “Felons” over and above the reward offered by the jailer.

In the most disturbing of these advertisements, Charles Keen of Providence described the depraved acts of “notorious offenders … instigated by the devil.”  An “evil-minded person or persons” had entered his pasture in the dead of night and attempted to kill his horse.  The unfortunate horse had been “peaceably feeding and fettered” when the perpetrators set about “cutting his throat, and stabbing him in the belly, with a large knife, or other weapon.”  The horse initially survived the ordeal, but Keen suspected that he could still die of the wounds.  Keen offered a substantial reward to anybody “who will make such discovery of any person or persons that were guilty of the above wicked act.”

When it came to crime reporting, from a hat nicked at the courthouse to a brutal attack on a horse in the middle of the night, the advertisements in this issue of the Providence Gazette carried far more news than the rest of the newspaper.

September 15

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

Providence Gazette (September 15, 1770).

“The extraordinary Forwardness of the College Edifice.”

To make possible the move from Warren to its permanent home in Providence, Rhode Island College (now Brown University) constructed a new building in 1770.  The college launched a fundraising campaign in Rhode Island and other colonies, including South Carolina and Georgia.  Advertisements in the Providence Gazette kept the community apprised of progress on the building … and reminded “Subscribers,” those who had pledged funds or supplies for the cause, to fulfill their commitments.  In early June, for instance, a committee comprised of Stephen Hopkins, John Jenckes, and John Brown placed an advertisement calling on “ALL Persons who have undertaken to supply any of the Timber for the COLLEGE” to deliver it as soon as possible since work on the foundation was nearing completion.

A new advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette in the middle of September.  It provided an update about the building, using it as an occasion to remind subscribers of their obligations.  On behalf of the “Corporation of the COLLEGE in this Colony,” the notice trumpeted “the extraordinary Forwardness of the College Edifice” that had taken shape over the summer months.  What had been merely a foundation a few months earlier now had “Timber for the fourth Floor” in place.  Such progress meant that the college had incurred expenses.  Accordingly, the advertisement called on “the several Subscribers [to] immediately pay their Subscriptions to the Treasurer of the Corporation, or the Committee for carrying on the Building.”

This notice was part of the continued fundraising efforts of Rhode Island College, but it also served as a news item that kept readers of the Providence Gazette updated about the progress of the building.  Those who resided in town might have been aware of the status of the building based on their own observations as they went about their daily business, but others who lived elsewhere did not witness the various stages of erecting the building.  Fundraising advertisements aimed at subscribers helped keep the entire community informed.

September 8

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

Providence Gazette (September 8, 1770).

An Advertisement to be inserted three Weeks successively in the Providence Gazette, in the Newport Mercury, in one of the Boston, and in one of the New-York News-Papers.”

The misfortune of others generated advertising revenue for John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, and other newspaper printers in the 1770s.  Consider the September 8, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  It featured six advertisements concerning insolvent debtors placed by Henry Ward, secretary of Rhode Island’s General Assembly.

Those notices reiterated formulaic language.  Each named a colonist and his place of residence, stating that he “preferred a Petition unto the General Assembly … representing that he is an insolvent Debtor, and praying that he may the receive the Benefit of an Act passed in June, 1756, intituled, ‘An Act for the Relief of insolvent Debtors.’”  According to the notice, the General Assembly deferred consideration of the petition until the next session, but also specified that “his creditors should be notified” via newspaper advertisements.  On behalf of the General Assembly, Ward invited those creditors to attend the next session and “there to shew Cause, if any they  have, why the said Petition should not be granted.”

Four of these notices called for such advertisements to appear in the Providence Gazette and the Newport Mercury, the two newspapers published in Rhode Island in 1770.  The two other notices each cast a wider net.  One added “one of the New-York News-Papers” and the other added “one of the Boston, and … one of the New-York News-Papers.”  All six called for the advertisements to run “three Weeks successively” in each newspaper.

Carter solicited advertisements for the Providence Gazette in the colophon at the bottom of the final page of every issue.  He may have been especially grateful for these notices in early September since he had few others to insert and he continued to run his own notice calling on “ALL Persons indebted to the Printer” to settle accounts or face legal action.  Assuming that he could depend on the General Assembly to pay for these advertisements in a timely manner, they might have been a windfall for Carter.

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 1, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”

On the first day of September in 1770, Benjamin Bowen and Benjamin Stelle advertised “MEDICINES, A full and general Assortment, Chymical and Galenical,” in the Providence Gazette.  They informed prospective customers that they could purchase these medicines “at the well-known Apothecary’s Shop just below the Church, at the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”  In case that shop was not as familiar to readers as Bowen and Stelle suggested it might be, they named the sign that adorned it.  That landmark identified the exact location to acquire “the best of MEDICINES” and “CHOCOLATE, by the Pound, Box, or Hundred Weight.”

Newspaper advertisements placed by entrepreneurs like Bowen and Stelle testify to the visual landscape that colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of towns and cities in eighteenth-century America.  In addition to the “Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar,” that same issue of the Providence Gazette included directions to John Carter’s printing office at “the Sign of Shakespeares Head.”  Not all advertisers always included their shop signs in their notices.  Joseph Russell and William Russell placed an advertisement for gun powder and shot that did not make reference to the “Sign of the Golden Eagle.”  On other occasions, however, they were just as likely to include the sign without their name, so familiar had it become in Providence.

Very few eighteenth-century shop signs survived into the twenty-first century.  Evidence that the “Unicorn and Mortar,” “Shakespeares Head,” and the “Golden Eagle” once marked places of commercial activity and aided colonists in navigating the streets of Providence and other places comes from newspaper advertisements and other documents from the period.  Any catalog of such signs draws heavily from advertisements since colonists so often referenced them in their notices.  Even those who did not have shop signs of their own listed their locations in relation to nearby signs, suggesting the extent that shop signs helped colonists make sense of their surroundings and navigate the streets of towns and cities.

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.

August 25

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

Aug 25 - 8:25:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 25, 1770).

“ALL Persons indebted to the Printer hereof … are AGAIN requested to settle their respective Balances.”

In 1770, every issue of the Providence Gazette concluded with a colophon that informed readers that the newspaper was “Printed by JOHN CARTER, at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespeares Head; where Subscriptions, Advertisements, Articles, and Letters of Intelligence, &c. are received.”  Like any other printer, Carter needed both subscribers and advertisers to make his newspaper a viable enterprise.  Subscribers constituted the foundation, but for many printers the real money was in advertising.  Neither the number of subscribers nor the number of advertisers mattered much, however, if they did not pay their bills.

Colonial printers frequently found it necessary to run notices calling on their customers to pay their debts.  Carter inserted such a notice into the August 25 edition of the Providence Gazette.  He proclaimed, “ALL Persons indebted to the Printer hereof, either for the Gazette, Advertisements, or in any other Manner, are AGAIN requested to settle their respective Balances, that he may be enabled to discharge his own Contracts.”  That “AGAIN” appeared in capital letters communicated Carter’s exasperation, which he further underscored in the process of threatening legal again.  “Those who pay as little Regard to this as they have done to many and repeated Notices of a like Nature,” he warned, “cannot reasonably expect any further Indulgence.”  He considered taking his customers to court “disagreeable” and a last resort, but something he was “compelled” to do under the circumstances.  Having taken a strident tone throughout the notice, Carter attempted to conclude on a positive note.  “[W]hile the Printer justly complains of those who neglect their Arrearages,” he declared, “he cannot but return his grateful Thanks to such Gentlemen as have paid him with Honour and Punctuality.”  In thanking his customers who paid their bills, he also launched an implicit critique of those who had not.

Such notices were a standard feature of colonial newspapers.  Like other entrepreneurs, printers extended credit to their customers but sometimes found themselves overextended or their customers too slow in settling accounts.  For merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and others, placing such notices represented an additional cost of doing business.  Newspaper printers, on the other hand, did not incur additional expenses when running such advertisements.

August 18

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

Aug 18 - 8:18:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 18, 1770).

“Said Negroes are supposed to have Passes.”

In eighteenth-century newspapers, advertisements often served as a supplemental source of news.  Paid notices delivered information about current events that editors did not necessarily select for inclusion among the news articles and editorials that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper.  Advertisements about “runaways,” enslaved people who liberated themselves, fit into this category of paid notices that delivered the news.

Consider an advertisement concerning “two Negro Men,” Boston and Newport, “supposed to have gone off in Company” with each other that ran in the August 18 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  The enslavers who placed the advertisement, Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainsfield, Connecticut, provided lengthy descriptions of Boston, “a thick-set, well-built Fellow, of a middle Stature, about 30 Years of Age very black,” and Newport, “a well-built Fellow, of a lesser Size than the former, and not so clear a Black, about 24 Years of Age.”  In addition to these physical descriptions, Coit and Kinsman listed all of the clothing that Boston and Newport took with them, hoping that “a Snuff-coloured Velvet Jacket, lined with Calimanco, having Horn Buttons nearly of the same Colour” would help vigilant colonists recognize Boston or that “a Pair of Brown Fustian Breeches” would aid in identifying Newport.  The enslavers also suspected that Boston and Newport “have Passes,” though they did not elaborate on how the enslaved men had acquired those passes, whether they were literate enough to forge passes for themselves or if an accomplice provided them.  Coit and Kinsman may not have known; they “requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters,” perhaps in hopes of examining them to determine their origins and prevent Boston, Newport, and other enslaved people from making use of other passes in subsequent attempts to liberate themselves.

Placed for the purpose of capturing Boston and Newport in order to return them to bondage, this advertisement operated as a news report that supplemented the other contents of the Providence Gazette.  As readers perused the paid notices in the August 18, 1770, edition, they learned of impoverished colonists seeking “the Benefit of an Act … for the Relief of insolvent Debtors,” a burglary in Middletown, Connecticut, a variety of goods “STOPPED” because they were “Supposed to have been stolen,” and the efforts of Boston and Newport to seize their own liberty.  Since printers often focused on reprinting news from faraway places, local news appeared among the advertisements.