What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“John Sloan, my Apprentice, has lately misbehaved.”
Advertisements for unfree laborers who ran away – indentured servants, slaves, apprentices – comprised one of the most common genres of paid notices inserted in eighteenth-century newspapers. Such advertisements appeared in newspapers printed and distributed throughout the colonies on August 11, 1768. Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, for instance, included two advertisements for runaway slaves, one concerning “a Negro Man partly Molatto named Primus” and the other “a Negro Man named Caesar.” Both advertisements offered rewards for the capture and return of the fugitive slaves. Fifteen advertisements for runaways – two for indentured servants, two for slaves, and eleven for indentured servants – appeared on the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette, its supplement, and a one-page postscript. Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette carried four advertisements for runaway slaves. The main competitor, Rind’s Virginia Gazette, had twice as many advertisement, seven for slaves and another for am “English convict servant.” The New-York Journal continued publishing an advertisement for “a Welch servant man named William Walters” and another for “an Apprentice Lad, named Jacob Horsen, by Trade a Blacksmith.”
The New-York Journal carried another advertisement about an unruly apprentice, an advertisement preemptively placed in anticipation that he would attempt to run away from his master. James Sloan explained that his apprentice, John Sloan, “has lately misbehaved” and “threatened to leave.” Expecting that apprentice Sloan would attempt to make his escape imminently, master Sloan warned that “no Person will entertain, harbour, conceal, or carry off the said Apprentice, as they will answer it at their Peril.” Aggrieved masters frequently threatened legal action against anyone who aided runaways. The master also offered a reward for his apprentice’s capture and return even before he run away. James Sloan was sufficiently certain that his apprentice would make the attempt that he paid five shillings to have a notice inserted in the New-York Journal for four weeks. He may have considered this a less expensive option than waiting for apprentice Sloan to depart, especially if brought the advertisement to the apprentice’s attention. Knowledge of the advertisement and the increased surveillance directed at the apprentice may have been a preventative measure that forestalled flight from his master.
Throughout the colonies printers generated revenues by selling advertisements for unfree laborers who ran away from their masters. In this case, James Sloan adapted those familiar advertisements, devising a notice that warned of the possibility that his apprentice might attempt to flee. As the apprentice asserted his own agency by misbehaving and threatening to run away, the master sought to harness the power of the press in his efforts to manage and control a disorderly apprentice.