August 8

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

Aug 8 - 8:8:1768 New-York Gazette Weekly Post-Boy
New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy (August 8, 1768).

“RUN away … a Welch Servant Man, named WILLIAM WALTERS.”

John Gifford was not happy when “a Welch Servant Man, named WILLIAM WALTERS” ran away in the summer of 1768. The aggrieved master reported that Walters, a mason, had departed with his wife, a woman described as “very remarkable in her Talk.” Gifford may have been commenting on her dialect, but given that he described both husband and wife as “much given to Drink” he may have meant that she resorted to crude speech that made her particularly easy to identify.

To reduce the chances of Walters and his unnamed wife successfully making their escape, Gifford placed notices in multiple newspapers. The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy both published his advertisement on Monday, August 8. The same advertisement first appeared the previous Thursday in the August 4 edition of the New-York Journal (number 1335). The notation “35 38” intended for the compositor indicated that Gifford made arrangements for his advertisement to run for four consecutive weeks. He intended to place it before as many eyes as possible in hopes of capturing the runaway mason.

To that end, Gifford immediately inserted a similar advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, printed in Philadelphia. Like the New York publications, it was distributed to subscribers and other readers far beyond the city. Gifford suspected that the couple might be more readily identified in New York and would attempt to make their way to another busy port before continuing their flight via ship to somewhere even more distant. Gifford’s advertisement ran in the Pennsylvania Chronicle the same day it first appeared in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy, simultaneously informing widely dispersed readerships to be on the lookout for a Welch mason and his wife. Gifford must have quickly dispatched copy for the advertisement to William Goddard’s printing office on Market Street in Philadelphia in order for his notice to appear in print so quickly. He revised it only slightly, acknowledging local conditions by offering “Forty Shillings Reward” rather than “TWO POUNDS REWARD.” He also added a nota bene that demanded “All masters of vessels and others are hereby forbid to carry them off,” a standard warning in advertisements for runaway servants and slaves.

When it came to enlisting the aid of the public prints in capturing a runaway servant, Gifford spared little expense. In addition to the reward and “all reasonable Charges” he offered to “Whoever secures [Walters], so that his master may have him again,” he also invested in advertisements in four newspapers published in two cities. The New-York Journal was the only one that listed its advertising rates: “Five shillings, four Weeks.” Others most likely charged similar fees, indicating that Gifford spent at least twenty shilling (or one pound) on advertising intended to increase surveillance and lead to the capture and return of his runaway servant. Creating imagined communities via simultaneous readership was not just a project undertaken by printers who selected content from among possible news items, often reprinting from one newspaper to another. Advertisers made their own contributions to that project when they paid to have notices printed in multiple newspapers in multiple locations.

July 25

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

Jul 25 - Connecticut Courant 7:25:1768
Connecticut Courant (July 25, 1768).


When Ephraim Smith, “an assigned Servant,” ran away from Dr. Eliot Rawson of Middletown in the summer of 1768, the doctor placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Courant in hopes that someone would “take up said Runaway, and secure him in any of his Majesty’s Goals.” Once Smith had been captured and committed to jail, Rawson pledged to pay a reward as well as other expenses. One aspect of Rawson’s advertisement especially distinguished it from other notices concerning runaway servants, apprentices, and slaves. The headline featured unique typography, the word “RUN-AWAY” in capital letters printed upside down.

Was this intentional? Or was it merely an error made by the compositor? If it was an error, nobody associated with the runaway notice – not the advertiser, not the compositor, not the printers of the Connecticut Courant – considered it consequential enough to remedy. The advertisement ran for three weeks, the standard time specified in rate structure listed in the colophon, before being discontinued. Throughout its entire run it likely attracted attention as a result of the upside down text that introduced the description of Smith and the reward offered by Rawson.

The compositor certainly had opportunities to correct the error. The advertisement first appeared in the July 11 edition, at the top of the center column and immediately below the masthead on the front page. It moved to different positions on the fourth page in the next two issues, indicating that the compositor viewed and handled the type.

Even if the headline initially appeared upside down as a mistake, perhaps everyone involved considered it a fortuitous one and intentionally chose not to reset the type in the first line of the advertisement. After all, it made Rawson’s notice difficult to miss on a page that consisted almost entirely of densely text. An advertisement for a runaway servant might not have merited a second glance by readers who had previously encountered it in another edition, but the incongruity of the upside down text in all capitals and a larger font demanded subsequent notice. It forcefully reminded readers to keep their eyes open for the delinquent Smith when they might otherwise have passed over the advertisement as old news.

Whether intentional or an error, the unique headline produced benefits that relied on the visual elements of the advertisement rather than the copy, making it unnecessary or undesirable to flip the headline to the proper orientation in subsequent iterations of the advertisement. Especially in the absence of visual images, typography played an important role in the quest to have readers take note of newspaper advertisements.

November 11

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

Nov 11 - 11:11:1767 Pennsylvania Chronicle Extraordinary
Pennsylvania Chronicle Extraordinary (November 11, 1767).

“She is a new Vessel, has excellent Accommodations for Passengers.”

The various commodities marketed in eighteenth-century newspapers testify to the networks of exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic, but the advertisements also reveal the movement of people. Almost every advertisement in the November 11, 1767, extraordinary issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, for instance, featured some element of mobility.

Six advertisements offered passage from Philadelphia to faraway places, including Cape Fear, North Carolina; Grenada; Barbados; Londonderry; and London. Half simply stated that readers could arrange either “Freight or Passage,” but the others promoted their “excellent Accommodations for Passengers” to attract travelers. Due to the size of the port city, newspapers published in Philadelphia regularly carried such advertisements, but similar advertisements also appeared frequently in newspapers from smaller cities and towns.

Some colonists used advertisements to announce their arrival. For instance, one “YOUNG MAN … lately arrived from England” placed an employment notice in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, informing his new neighbors that he “would be glad to serve any Gentleman as Clerk.” The anonymous ‘YOUNG MAN” requested that anyone interested in hiring him “Inquire of the PRINTER.” He also indicated his willingness to extend his journey when he expressed interest in positions available “either in Town or Country.”

Three additional advertisements documented recent departures of indentured servants who absconded from their masters. One reported that Abraham Weaver, am English linen weaver who ran away from Amos Garrett in Swan Creek in Maryland, had been seen with a widow who might attempt to pass as his wife. Garrett suspected that “they may make for Philadelphia or the eastern-shore of Maryland.” John Odenheimer of Philadelphia indicated that his servant, a German named Eberhard Hirschman, had been “seen in Lancaster, at the Sign of the Highlander” the previous week. These runaways attempted to put considerable distance between themselves and their masters.

Newspaper advertisements like these depicted a flurry of movement of people, not just commodities, throughout the Atlantic world and beyond in the eighteenth century. Those who purchased passage on ships traveled for various reasons, commercial and personal. Some, like the “YOUNG MAN … lately arrived from England,” embraced mobility as a means of encountering new opportunities, but others, including many indentured servants, found that their experiences in new places did not live up to their expectations. They made new departures, frustrating masters who had bought their services for a period of years. American colonists lived in an extremely mobile society. Advertisements for consumer goods and services often insinuated social mobility, but other paid notices revealed significant geographic mobility as well.

December 20

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

Supplement to the New-York Journal (December 20, 1766).

“RUN away from their Master in New-York, two indented Servants.”

Alexander M’Cullugh was not happy when two of his indentured servants ran away. He posted an advertisement describing Joseph M’Nabb, an “English Man” who “writes a good Hand” and “is a tolerable Scholar,” and William Rankin, a “Scotch Man” who was a “Shoe-maker by Trade.” He offered rewards to anyone who “secures them, so that their Master may have them again,” ten dollars for M’Nabb, but only five for Rankin. M’Cullugh concluded his advertisement with a nota bene that made a general observation about runaway servants: “It has been remarked by several, that none elopes but Irish People, but it is evident from the above, that there are other People of as bad a Species as the Hibernians.” Such caustic comments caught my eye in the aftermath of an election that featured the worst sorts of bigotry as part of an increasingly accepted and normalized public discourse. M’Cullugh cast aspersions based on ethnicity, status, and immigration, and he did so openly, in the public prints. Historians chart change over time, but sometimes the continuities are just as significant.

Advertisements for runaway indentured servants (and for runaway convict servants, too) regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers, especially those published in the Middle Atlantic colonies. They were a standard part of the advertising pages, just as much so as advertisements for runaway slaves filled the pages of newspapers printed in the Chesapeake and the Lower South. Whether enslaved or indentured, men and women who called someone else “master” and who were exploited for their labor attempted to escape.

When teaching courses about early American history and culture, my responsibilities include examining the extent and significance of unfree labor in all of its forms. Given its unique aspects and enduring legacy, slavery receives certain emphasis, but not at the expense of indentured servitude, apprenticeship, and convict servants. That multiple forms of unfree labor existed in eighteenth-century America has created a conundrum – but also an opportunity – when working with students on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.

That project privileges the experiences of slaves, incorporating every advertisement for runaway slaves while passing over similar numbers of advertisements for runaway servants. It offers an important, but somewhat truncated, glimpse of unfree labor in early America. When I designed the project, I grappled with whether to include advertisements for runaway servants and apprentices, but ultimately decided that would make the project too diffuse and perhaps too large to tackle with students. If the project included advertisements for runaway servants, then it would also need to include advertisements for servants for sale. It was better, I reasoned, to start with the slavery advertisements as an experiment and see how that unfolded before adding other sorts of runaways to the mix. Perhaps in the future the project might expand to include all unfree laborers. Perhaps my students and I could develop an alternate project devoted to runaways of all sorts (including runaway wives).

That’s where the opportunity arises. Even as my students passed over advertisements for runaway servants when doing the research for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, they recognized that they were indeed excluding a fair number of advertisements that resembled those included in the project. Although runaway servants were not incorporated into the digital humanities projects we pursued, they made it into one-on-one and classroom discussions about colonial American society and economics throughout the semester.

October 8

GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Curley

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

Georgia Gazette (October 8, 1766).

“WENT AWAY from the subscriber about a week ago, AN INDENTED IRISH SERVANT MAN.”

This advertisement caught my eye because my ancestry is Irish. My father came to Boston in 1956. As with many Irish immigrants across time, he did not come with much money.   His aunt who lived in Boston sponsored him, and he had to work very had in the carpenters union to get to where he is now. Jeremiah Herrington, the “INDENTED IRISH SERVANT MAN” in this advertisement from the Georgia Gazette, made a similar journey for Ireland to North America.

In terms of culture and climate, Georgia was a big difference from what Jeremiah was used to in Ireland. Slavery had been banned in colonial Georgia until 1750, so indentured servitude was another way to get laborers during early years of settlement in the colony.

This advertisement had also been placed the week before on October 1, and not taken down. This leads me to believe that Joshua Vaughan had not heard from his Irish servant or any subscribers of the Georgia Gazette.   This could have meant that Herrington as still on the run.   Runaway advertisements were very popular in colonial newspapers; unfortunately, at the time owning a person was very common and desensitized. Missing servants and slaves were noticed quickly and often times if not found reported. If returned to their masters they were often punished. In some colonies, such as Virginia, masters could punish runaways with death if they were repeat offenders.



Elizabeth has chosen an advertisement that provides an important corrective to some of the research she and her classmates are doing this semester. In addition to guest curating the Adverts 250 Project for a week, each student in my colonial America class is also curating the newly established Slavery Adverts 250 Project on Twitter. Regular visitors here know that all of the advertisements from that project are republished here in a daily digest.

In designing that project, I chose to focus exclusively on slaves in colonial America, excluding other sorts of unfree laborers, such as indentured servants and convict servants. In part, I wanted to keep the project focused rather than risk becoming too diffused. In addition, modern Americans continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery in our culture, politics, and economics every single day; we are rather confronted with a legacy of indentured servitude that challenges us in the same way.

From a practical standpoint, I knew that the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would be an experimental collaborative research effort with my students. In launching something new like that I wanted to start off relatively small and leave room to expand at a later time, if the project worked out. As an instructor, I knew that the project needed to be self-contained and manageable for undergraduates who were studying colonial America for the first time and who were new to using digitized primary sources to conduct independent research. To test the viability of the project, I gathered all the slavery advertisements for a single week several months ago. In the process, I determined that the scope in terms of research, effort, and time was an appropriate substitute for the essay assignment the project replaced on the syllabus.

Still, I have questioned my decision because featuring slavery advertisements exclusively tells only part of the story of unfree laborers in early America. Each student submits hard copies of all the newspapers printed in colonial America during his or her week as curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. I carefully skim through them to confirm that all the advertisement they have highlighted belong to the project as well as flag any that they might have missed. In the process, my students and I have encountered significant numbers of advertisements for indentured servants (and a smaller number for convict servants), both for sale and runaways. Such advertisements were especially common in newspapers published in Philadelphia and New York in 1766.

I stand by my decision to focus exclusively on advertisements concerning slavery for the class project, but that does not mean that our conversations in class exclude other forms of unfree labor, nor does it mean that the Adverts 250 Project cannot examine advertisements for indentured servants and convict servants in colonial America. This week Elizabeth has examined and advertisement for each.

June 7

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

Jun 7 - 6:6:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 6, 1766).

“Whoever secures my servants and Negro … shall, besides the reward allowed by law, be paid any reasonable satisfaction.”

John Mercer turned to the Virginia Gazette to advertise more than just beer, porter, and ale. His lengthy advertisement for the “MARLBOROUGH BREWERY” appeared on the opposite side of the page as this notice concerning a slave and two indentured servants who ran away from the brewer. John Mercer had a hard time holding on to his help!

That may tell us something about what kind of master Mercer was, but he used this advertisement to shape the narrative. What else could be expected of Temple, the slave? After all, he “carries the marks of the discipline he underwent” while on a ship in the West Indies. It was plain for anybody to see (especially from the scars Neptune bore on his body), Mercer suggested, that the slave had a history of challenging authority, not following instructions, and stepping out of his appropriate place.

The two indentured servants, Joseph Wain and William Cantrell, were equally troublesome, according to Mercer. A single glance could reveal that Wain was trouble, considering the way that he “stoops pretty much in his walk” and “has a down look.” Cantrell apparently had a habit of misrepresenting his skills: “he pretend[s] to understand ploughing and country business.” (Advertisers regularly denigrated runaway slaves and servants by accusing them of not possessing the skills they claimed.) Mercer suspected his servants had conspired with others that went missing at the same time. Furthermore, several horses disappeared around that time. In addition to being runaways, Wain and Cantrell were likely thieves, at least according to Mercer.

All three men – Temple, Joseph Wain, and William Cantrell – sought their own freedom when they ran away from their master. Mercer’s exasperation concerning Wain and Cantrell may have been justified considering that they served only half a year of their indentures, skipping out on a contract when they departed, but his frustration at Temple’s escape from more than three decades of slavery garners no sympathy at all.

April 14

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

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

Apr 14 - 4:14:1766 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (April 14, 1766).

This advertisement is not for goods or services, but instead a runaway advertisement. William Darlington hoped that someone would find his twenty-six-year-old “Irish Servant Man, Named CONNOR O“ROURK”. He went on to describe the servant’s physical features, which brings up the fact that missing person advertisements from the eighteenth century could not actually feature a photo of the missing person. You can probably understand the limitations that this posed. Today’s society is often very visual, but in the eighteenth century it was common for advertisements to not have any visuals to accompany them.

The Irish man in the advertisement was an indentured servant, whose labor was owned by the man who put out the advertisement. The concept of indentured servitude is that an individual or an individual’s family member agrees, through the signing of a contract, to give a person’s labor (and personal freedoms) over to a “master” for a certain period of time, in which the servant was to provide service, which would help pay off a debt. During the seventeenth century, the Virginia Company was responsible for founding indentured servitude as a means of payment for transportation of those who could not afford to pay for their own way to North America. Colonial indentured servitude and the slave trade were both forms of labor in which individuals could not choose to stop working for their master. This means that they were also not allowed to leave their master’s location, meaning that many indentured servants and slaves who went missing had attempted to escape the limitations of their conditions by running away.

For a lesson designed to introduce middle school students to indentured servitude and slavery, check out this link from Teaching American History in South Carolina.



Indentured servants are part of my world. Not literally, of course, but to me they are a familiar part of the American colonial experience and the past that has unfolded into the present. I sometimes forget just how foreign the past can be to others who do not spend as much time in the eighteenth century as I do. The differences between then and now manifest themselves in so many different ways, from something as mundane as the long S in eighteenth-century texts (which I no longer notice, but the guest curators brought to my attention earlier this week as a challenge they encountered in just reading advertisements and other parts of the newspaper for this project) to entire systems of economic and social organization that structured everyday life and interaction in the colonies.

Systems of unfree labor – slavery, indentured servitude, apprenticeships – fall into that latter category. They offer potent evidence of change over time. We live and work in a much different world today than our eighteenth-century ancestors. Our memories of that world have faded unevenly. From our readings (from the excellent Slavery and Public History) and discussions about slavery in our Public History course throughout the semester, we have reached the conclusion that most Americans are aware that slavery existed at some point in the American past, but, for the most part, they do not know much about slavery and its impact on slaves and slaveholders or the major political, social, and economic contours of American history.

Anecdotally (based on both everyday conversations and nearly a decade of teaching), it seems that the average person on the street knows even less about other forms of unfree labor, including indentured servitude. (Even the program I am using to compose this passage does not recognize “unfree” as a real word. Scholars of early America use it regularly, once again demonstrating that we sometimes live in a very different world.) As other scholars have noted, all too often people imagine a stark divide between European settlers and enslaved Africans in colonial America, not realizing that many of the “lower sorts” among European colonists were exploited for their labor and (temporarily) belonged to masters. We may not know all of the details of Connor O’Rourk’s story – why he became an indentured servant and why he chose to run away from his master – but, as Kathryn notes, both slaves and indentured servants sought freedom by running away. Many students are surprised to learn that indentured servants existed at all. Their presence certainly complicates the story of the colonial experience.