March 10

GUEST CURATOR: Luke DiCicco

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

Connecticut Journal (March 10, 1769).

“TO BE SOLD … A NEGRO MAN.”

This advertisement in the Connecticut Journal offered an African American man for sale because the slaveholder no longer had any use or “Employment” for him. One of the things that shocked me about this advertisement is that is says that the man is “employed” by the advertiser. Enslaved men and women were not employed; they were owned and set to work by people who called themselves their masters. “Employment” insinuates that someone was hired and wanted to do the job they were assigned, but that was not what happened with an enslaved person. Another shocking part of this advertisement is how easily Bernard Lintot transitioned from talking about selling “A NEGRO MAN” to talking about selling horses and harnesses. This type of talk might have been commonplace for the people in the eighteenth century, but its dehumanization shocks me in the twenty-first century.

As a history major, I know that slavery was still very much a common practice in New England in the 1760s, but the average person might be shocked by this because many people often think that the northern colonies never really were involved with slavery. However, as a result of gradual emancipation laws, slavery in Connecticut did not officially end until 1848 . Connecticut made some steps in 1784, when the state passed the Gradual Abolition Act. However, this only emancipated the children born into slavery and they were only emancipated after they reached the age of twenty-five. Abolition was sometimes a slow process in the northern states, as many states passed laws outlawing slavery but those laws were not always for immediate emancipation.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Luke uses this advertisement offering an enslaved man for sale to make an argument about the past that many people never knew, have forgotten, or would prefer to ignore. As we have discussed in our Revolutionary America class, the revolutionary era was a turning point for the practice of slavery in the new nation. The northern states made efforts toward fulfilling the rhetoric of the era by abolishing slavery, though, as Luke notes, some states opted for gradual emancipation that extended the practice well into the nineteenth century. In the southern states, slavery became further entrenched, especially as westward expansion opened new opportunities to create economies dependent on forced labor. Ray Raphael refers to these diverging trajectories as “a tale of two stories” that get manipulated through the selective use of evidence when presenting the history of the American Revolution and its repercussions to general audiences.[1]

Luke’s choice of advertisement, however, was anything but selective in a misleading manner. In addition to serving as guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project this week, he is also the guest curator for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. In fulfilling his responsibilities for the latter, he identified fifty-one advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children inserted in newspapers published during the week of March 10-16, 1769. Of those fifty-one advertisements, thirteen appeared in newspapers from New England or the Middle Atlantic, the colonies that became the (mostly) free states during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Two of the advertisements ran in New England newspapers, one in the New-London Gazette as well as the one Luke examined from the Connecticut Journal. Similar advertisements often appeared in newspapers from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. (Luke flagged one for a runaway “Negro Man Servant named Prince” that ran in more than one Boston newspaper, but I ultimately excluded it because the language did not make clear that that Prince was enslaved rather than a free black who had been indentured or otherwise attached to the household of the advertiser. This decision may have resulted in undercounting the number of advertisements for enslaved people appeared in newspapers in New England.) Among the other eleven advertisements, one ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, one in the New-York Journal, two in the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, and seven in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Some announced enslaved men, women, and children for sale, but others offered rewards for the capture and return of those who had escaped bondage in an era that colonists complained about their supposed enslavement by Parliament.

Overall, this means that when Luke considered the advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children he compiled for his week as guest curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project that he discovered that one out four – a significant minority – appeared in newspapers published in northern colonies. He used the prevalence of these advertisements to tell a story that all too often remains overlooked when we focus on the practice of slavery in nineteenth-century America but do not take into consideration the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even then, as Luke underscores in his comparison of gradual emancipation and immediate emancipation laws, slavery continued in some northern states into the nineteenth century, in stark contrast to the rhetoric of the revolutionary era.

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[1] Ray Raphael, Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past, rev. ed. (New York: New Press, 2014), 215-216.

December 10

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

Providence Gazette (December 10, 1768).

“The Sign of the Black Boy and Butt.”

No advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children happened to appear in the December 10, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette, but that did not mean that the black body was absent from the commercial landscape of the port city that newspaper served. Jonathan Russell inserted an advertisement for his “large and fresh Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS,” noting that readers would easily recognize his store “on the West Side of the Great Bridge” because “the Sign of the Black Boy and Butt” marked its location. It was not the first time that he invoked his shop sign when giving directions to prospective customers, though he had previously referred to it simply as “the Sign of the BLACK-BOY.” Perhaps he had acquired a new sign, but it may have always included a depiction of a butt, a large cask. Russell’s description of it could have shifted over time.

Even when Russell was not advertising in the local newspaper, his sign was constantly on display in Providence, reminding residents and visitors alike of the connections between black bodies and colonial commerce. Nor was Russell the only merchant or shopkeeper to adopt such iconography. Two years earlier Augustus Deley placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Courant to proclaim that he “CONTINUES to carry on the Business of manufacturing TOBACCO … for chewing or smoaking.” Interested parties could find him “At the Sign of the Black Boy, Near the North Meeting-House in Hartford.” Signs depicting black boys had a long history in New England. More than thirty years earlier, Jonathan Williams placed an advertisement for imported wine and New England rum sold “at the Black Boy and Butt.”[1] In some instances, the youths represented enslaved workers closely associated with the products sold. Such was the case for Deley’s tobacco, grown on plantations in other colonies, and Williams’s rum, produced from molasses acquired as a byproduct of sugar cultivation on Caribbean plantations. The connection between Russell’s “Black Boy” and his “ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” was not as immediate. Instead, it offered a shorthand description of the networks of trade, production, and consumption that crisscrossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Commercial exchange in Providence was part of a larger system that included the transatlantic slave trade and forced labor at sites of cultivation and production. Residents of Providence did not need “the Sign of the Black Boy and Butt” to inform them of that. Instead, it testified to a reality that was familiar to consumers throughout the Atlantic world.

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[1] New England Weekly Journal (March 8, 1737).