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