What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the Black Boy and Butt.”
Two advertisements in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured Black bodies on display, either as part of a device that marked the location of a shop or in the description of an enslaved man who liberated himself by fleeing from his enslaver. In each instance, an advertiser laid claim to a Black body for his own purposes and benefit.
Jonathan Williams sold “Good Madeira,” other imported wines, and cider at his shop “in Cornhill.” To help customers identify his business, Williams marked the location with a sign, “the Black Boy and Butt,” that depicted a Black child and a large cask. Like other purveyors of goods and services who included shop signs in their advertisements, Williams presented an image intended to represent his business, a precursor to the modern logo. In this instance, that image commodified not only wine through the depiction of the cask but also Black men, women, and children through the depiction of the “Black Boy.” Both wine and enslaved Black people arrived in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies via networks of trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic. Colonial consumers very well knew that commerce depended in large part on enslaved labor and the transatlantic slave trade. In placing a Black boy and a cask on display, Williams’s shop sign encapsulated that relationship.
Elsewhere among the advertisements in that issue, Hugh McLean of Milton provided a description of “a Negro Man, named Peleg Abby” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend said Runaway.” According to McLean, Abby was “about 26 Years of Age” and “about Five Feet Six Inches high.” To help readers recognize the fugitive who sought his freedom so they could return him to bondage, McLean also documented the clothes Abby wore when he departed and other clothes he took with him. McLean placed the same advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, but that version also included a generic woodcut of a Black man on the run. The image helped draw attention to that advertisement at the same time that McLean asked readers to take careful note of the age, height, and clothing of all Black men they encountered in order to discern if any of them might be the enslaved man he sought to recover.
Black people were a common sight in Boston and its hinterlands in the colonial period on the eve of the American Revolution. Descriptions of Black bodies, sometimes accompanied by nondescript woodcuts, were also subjects of interest in the public prints, frequently appearing in newspaper advertisements published in the bustling port city. Their presence testified to the extent that both culture and commerce, even in New England, were enmeshed the transatlantic slave trade and the perpetuation of slavery in the colonies.