February 15

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

New-London Gazette (February 15, 1771).

“Wanted, a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work.”

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project seeks to identify, remediate, and republish every advertisement about enslaved men, women, and children originally published in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago each day.  The number of advertisements included in the project varies from day to day depending on which newspapers happened to have been published 250 years ago that day.  For instance, yesterday the Slavery Adverts 250 Project featured sixty-one advertisements that ran in eight newspapers on February 14, 1771.  Today the project republishes only one advertisement, a notice seeking “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work,” that ran in the February 15, 1771, edition of the New-London Gazette.

That advertisement tells a story just as important to understanding the history of enslavement in America as the dozens of advertisements from other newspapers the previous day.  Most people would not be surprised to learn that the vast majority of advertisements from February 14 ran in the Maryland Gazette, South-Carolina and American General Gazette, South-Carolina Gazette, Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, and William Rind’s Virginia Gazette.  That some of the advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, the New-York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Journal, newspapers published in colonies less often associated with slavery, likely comes as a greater surprise to many people.

The same goes for the advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” in the New-London Gazette.  In the colonial and revolutionary eras, slavery was part of the everyday life and commerce throughout the colonies, including New England and the Middle Colonies.  Readers expected to encounter advertisements about buying and selling enslaved people when they perused newspapers, including colonists in Connecticut who read the newspaper printed in New London.  They also expected to read notices describing enslaved people who liberated themselves, advertisements that encouraged all readers to engage in surveillance of Black people in hopes of identifying so-called runaways and claiming rewards for participating in capturing and returning them to bondage.  The advertisement in the New-London Gazette instructed anyone with more information about “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” to “Enquire of the Printer.”  Timothy Green, printer of the New-London Gazette, facilitated the slave trade in print and by conversing and corresponding with enslavers.  Publishing such advertisements also generated revenues for his newspaper.

A solitary advertisement about an enslaved woman appeared in the colonial press 250 years ago today, but that does not diminish its significance.  It was one of thousands disseminated in colonial newspapers in 1771, each of them perpetuating slavery and generating revenues for printers.  While the majority ran in newspapers published in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, a significant minority appeared in newspapers in New England and the Middle Colonies.  No eighteenth-century would have been surprised to see an advertisement for “a Negro Woman, that understands all Kinds of Houshold Work” in the New-London Gazette.

September 29

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

Sep 29 - 9:29:1769 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (September 29, 1769).

“TO BE SOLD … a NEGRO MAN, that understand the Rope-making Business.”

“What can we learn about the experiences of enslaved people and the history of slavery in America from newspaper advertisements?” This is a question that I regularly pose to students in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery and Freedom in America, and Public History classes when I introduce them to the Slavery Adverts 250 Project and explain that they will serve as guest curators. John Clapham’s advertisements in the September 29, 1769, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette illustrate one of the primary objectives of the project. It usually takes most students by surprise.

First, they are astounded to discover advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children in newspapers published in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Like many Americans, they are most familiar with a narrative that places enslaved people in the antebellum South in the nineteenth century, but they do not initially realize the extent that slavery was an institution in every colony in the eighteenth century. Working as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project forces them to grapple with the number and frequency of these advertisements as they examine dozens of newspapers from the era of the American Revolution. If I were to present Clapham’s advertisement from the New-Hampshire Gazette in class, some students might not appreciate the magnitude, instead dismissing it as extraordinary. When they examine for themselves all the newspapers published in the colonies in late September and early October 1769, they discover that other advertisements concerning enslaved people appeared in other newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic, including the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, Connecticut Courant, the Connecticut Journal, the Essex Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, the Newport Mercury, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, the New-York Journal, and the Pennsylvania Chronicle.

Most of my students grew up in New England or neighboring states. They confess that the presence of slavery in the region was not part of the narrative they encountered, whether in school curricula or in their communities. That allowed them to dismiss slavery not only as part of distant past but also as something that occurred somewhere else, not in the places they call home. Working as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project helps them to reconsider the past and achieve a more complete understanding of the tensions between liberty and enslavement in the era of the American Revolution. I’ve learned from experience that it is not nearly as effective to present a selection of advertisements I have carefully culled to make specific points. Instead, my students integrate the history of slavery into their narratives of the eighteenth century much more effectively when they have the experience of examining dozens of newspapers from the period themselves.