October 12

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

Oct 12 - 10:12:1767 Boston-Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (October 12, 1767).

“The Calamitous State of the Enslaved NEGROES in the British Dominions.”

American colonists became increasingly preoccupied with their own liberty and potential enslavement by Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s. Among their many methods of protest, they gave voice to their anxieties in newspapers. For instance, Edes and Gill printed a lengthy letter warning against “parliamentary slavery” resulting from the “corruption of Parliament” alongside the text of the an “ACT OF PARLIAMENT, for granting certain Duties in the British Colonies and Plantations in America,” better known today as the Townshend Act.

Colonists concerns about the enslavement they believed they experienced stood in stark contrast to advertisements concerning enslaved Africans that appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies, including those published in New England. In the same issue of the Boston-Gazette that Edes and Gill paired the Townshend Act with a spirited critique of Parliament, four advertisements presented slaves for sale. Whether for “a very likely Negro Boy” who could “sort & cut & spin all Sorts of Tobacco” or a “healthy, stout Negro Man … who has been in this Country about three Months,” all four advertisements instructed interested buyers to “inquire of Edes and Gill” for more information. A fifth advertisement offered “A fine Negro Male Child, well provided with Cloathing” for free, “To be given away.” Again, the advertisement concluded with “inquire of Edes & Gill.” The printers who gave voice to Anglo-American colonists’ objections to the tyranny of Parliament not only generated revenues by selling advertisements for slaves but also served as agents who facilitated the trade for anonymous sellers.

Edes and Gill could not have been completely oblivious to this contradiction. After all, one additional advertisement mentioned slavery. The printers announced that they sold “A CAUTION and WARNING to Great-Britain and her Colonies, in a short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved NEGROES in the British Dominions.” Anthony Benezet, a Quaker abolitionist from Philadelphia, penned this pamphlet in 1766. Originally published in Philadelphia, it was reprinted in London the following year. Based on the supplementary materials mentioned in the advertisement, Edes and Gill sold yet another edition, this one printed by Hall and Sellers in Philadelphia in 1767.

As many colonists fretted over the tension between their own liberty and imagined enslavement, some applied such rhetoric more broadly to include enslaved Africans and their descendants in the colonies. Others conveniently ignored any contradictions. Printers like Edes and Gill, through the advertisements and pamphlets they sold and the exchanges they facilitated, stood to gain financially from the activities of slaveholders and abolitionists alike.

September 30

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

Sep 30 - 9:30:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 30, 1767).

“RUN AWAY … a NEGROE FELLOW, named LONDON.”

Hundreds of advertisements for runaway slaves appeared in colonial American newspapers every year throughout the 1760s, documenting one form of resistance to the institution of slavery. From New Hampshire to Georgia, readers would have recognized them as a familiar component of the public prints, published alongside advertisements for consumer goods and assorted legal notices. Many runaway advertisements focused solely on the experiences of particular runaways, but some also told stories about other members of colonial communities.

Grey Elliott inserted such an advertisement in the September 30, 1767, issue of the Georgia Gazette. In it, he reported that London, a “NEGROE FELLOW … well known in and about Savannah” ran away a month earlier. Elliott offered a reward, ten shillings, to whoever captured London and delivered him either to Elliott or “the Warden of the Work house in Savannah.” In addition, he detailed two other awards. Suspecting that London had assistance from accomplices, Elliott announced rewards for anyone “who shall discover him or her by whom the said negroe is harboured.” In other words, he was interested in learning where London was hiding out and who concealed him from his master and colonial authorities. The awards varied: “TWENTY SHILLINGS if a slave” (twice as much as the reward for capturing London) and “FIVE POUNDS … if a white person” (ten times as much as the reward for capturing the runaway). The wording makes it difficult to determine definitively if Elliott meant a slave informant would receive twenty shillings and a white one five pounds or of he meant that the rewards would depend on whether London received aid from a fellow slave or a white accomplice.

Either way, Elliott’s advertisement demonstrates that runaways did not always go it alone when they absconded from their masters. Instead, they benefited from assistance provided by other slaves and, perhaps, sometimes even sympathetic white colonists. Other runaway advertisements provided even more specific information, sometimes noting family relationships that might have drawn runaways to particular places or influenced others to provide aid and comfort. Running away was an act of resistance undertaken by many slaves, but it also had ripple effects. Those who provided assistance to runaways engaged in their own acts of resistance as member of a community allied against the power and authority of slaveholders.

July 22

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

Jul 22 - 7:22:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (July 22, 1767).

“SUGAR … RUM … NEGROES … NEGROE SHOES.”

Cowper and Telfairs’ business, at least the aspects promoted in this advertisement, revolved around the enslavement of African men, women, and children. Near the end of July 1767, they announced to readers of the Georgia Gazette that they sold “A FEW NEGROES, consisting of men, women, boys, and girls.” They did not, however, elaborate on the origins of these slaves, whether they had just arrived in the colony directly from Africa or if they had been transshipped through other colonial ports or if they had been born in Georgia. Nor did they add other information that acknowledged the humanity of the men, women, and children they sold. The “NEGROES” were merely commodities to be exchanged, not unlike the goods listed before and after them in the advertisement.

Colonists who had acquired slaves also needed to outfit them. Cowper and Telfairs pursued this market as well, selling “NEGROE SHOES at 36s. per dozen.” The price structure indicates that the partners expected to deal with slaveholders who wished to purchase in volume. The Georgia Gazette and the several newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina, frequently inserted advertisements for “NEGROE SHOES,” though none provided much detail about the shoes. As the price suggests, they would have been constructed of inferior materials, especially stiff fabrics, and not particularly comfortable. Presumably readers were already so familiar with this commodity that “NEGROE SHOES” usually merited no additional comment. Cowper and Telfairs, however, did offer various sizes. They promised, “Any person who chuses to deliver measure[ment]s may be supplied in proper time for their negroes.”

Finally, Cowper and Telfairs advertised commodities produced with enslaved labor: sugar and rum. Slaves certainly participated directly in the cultivation and processing of sugar. The advertisers did not reveal the origins of the rum they sold. Slaves may have played a significant role in distilling it. At the very least, rum, whether made from molasses or sugarcane juice, was a byproduct of sugar production, a commodity that circulated throughout the Atlantic world in great quantities as a consequence of enslaved labor on sugar plantations.

Cowper and Telfairs advertised several “commodities” – slaves, shoes, sugar, rum – that might seem like a haphazard combination at first glance. However, the system of enslavement that formed the foundation of economic exchange in the early modern Atlantic world linked all of these “commodities” in ways that would have been apparent to eighteenth-century readers and consumers.

June 24

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

Jun 24 - 6:24:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (June 24, 1767).

“TO BE SOLD, A YOUNG, HEALTHY, and HANDY, NEGROE WENCH.”

Nine advertisements about enslaved men and women appeared in the June 24, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Four of them offered slaves for sale. Another sought not to sell an enslaved woman outright but instead to hire her out by the month. Readers could rent her services – washing and ironing – for less than purchasing a slave. The slaveholder continued to generate a return on an investment in human property. Three other advertisements warned against runaways and offered rewards for their capture and return. The final advertisement identified two runaways that had been captured and “Brought to the Work-house, ” where they were being held until their masters collected them.

As the image above demonstrates, seven of those advertisements ran on the final page of the issue. They accounted for approximately half of the content printed on the page. The other two notices similarly accounted for half of the space allotted to advertising elsewhere in the issue. This underscores that advertisements concerning slaves provided a firm foundation for other sorts of advertising in the Georgia Gazette. Revenues from these advertisements contributed to the continuation of the newspaper.

Most of these advertisements focused exclusively on slaves, especially those for runaways and captured fugitives. On the other hand, some that advertised slaves for sale did so in the midst of attempting to make other sales as well. For instance, one notice for an estate sale listed “HOUSEHOLD and KITCHEN FURNITURE” and “a SMALL STOCK of CATTLE, a GUN, a PAIR of PISTOLS, a SMALLSWORD, TWO WATCHES, a NEGROE BOY, a MAN’s SADDLE, &c.” The same advertisement also listed “TWO NEGROE FELLOWS, a PARCEL of BOOKS, and sundry other articles.” Undifferentiated from other possessions, the presence of slaves among an estate inventory soon to be auctioned further demonstrates that eighteenth-century consumer culture (and the print culture that bolstered it) operated firmly within a system that relied on the productive labor of enslaved men, women, and children and the ability to buy and sell them as easily as any other commodities.

May 9

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

May 9 - 5:9:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 9, 1767).

“Assortment of English and India GOODS, at his Shop at thr Sign of the BLACK-BOY.”

Jonathan Russell ran a shop “at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY; on the West Side of the Great-Bridge, in PROVIDENCE.” As I compiled today’s entries for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project I debated whether Russell’s advertisement should be included. Two other notices in the same issue of the Providence Gazette explicitly sold slaves, “A Negro Woman, who understands all sorts of houshold Work” and “A Likely, healthy Negro Boy … fit for either Town of Country,” but Russell’s advertisement did not promote the sale of slaves.

The Slavery Adverts 250 Project casts a wide net when it comes to including notices that mention slaves. Most of the advertisements fall into three main categories: slaves for sale, runaway slaves, and captured slaves. Enslaved men, women, and children, however sometimes found themselves the subjects of other sorts of advertising. Rather than sell slaves, some masters preferred to hire them out. Others mentioned the role slaves played in commercial ventures, such as Lewis Johnson’s help wanted notice seeking “AN OVERSEER who understands the BUSINESS of STAVEMAKING, to take charge of a few negroes employed in that way” in the Georgia Gazette (May 6, 1767). Some provided evidence of the presence of enslaved people in everyday life in the colonies, such as Robert Murray’s notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette (May 8, 1767) offering to return a “PLAIN gold RING” upon the owner “paying for this advertisement, and giving something to the negro who found it.”

Russell’s advertisement for “his Shop at the Sign of the BLACK-BOY,” however, does not refer to an actual person or to any humans treated as commodities that he attempted to sell. Yet “the Sign of the BLACK-BOY” drew meaning from the context of transatlantic commerce that included the slave trade and the production of “indigo, rum, melasses, sugar, rice,” and other goods produced by enslaved men, women, and children and transported to Russell’s and other shops throughout the Atlantic world. Slaves lived and toiled in Providence. Many merchants from the city and other ports in Rhode Island made their livings, at least in part, by participating in the slave trade. In his own fashion, Jonathan Russell also exploited black bodies for his own benefit when he adopted “the sign of the BLACK-BOY” as the device to mark his location and identify his commercial enterprises. Accordingly, I have included his advertisement in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.

April 26

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

Apr 26 - 4:23:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 23, 1767).

“Will also sell … a Negro Man that understands Brewing and Distilling.”

As he prepared to leave Boston for Nova Scotia, Robert Whatley had the eighteenth-century version of a moving sale. He scheduled a “Public Vendue” (or auction) to sell many of his personal belongings, including beds, tables, chairs, and even a “fine large Canoe with Sails.” Whatley, a brewer by trade, also wished to sell his equipment, including “a Copper Boiler with a brass Cock to it, fit for a Coffee-House or Tavern” and his “Brewing Utensils with all Things necessary for that Business.”

In addition to his household furniture and the tools of his trade, Whatley also offered to sell “a Negro Man that understand Brewing and Distilling.” The Adverts 250 Project recently examined an advertisement that included enslaved artisans, including carpenters and coopers, exploited for their expertise and specialized skills in addition to their labor. Whatley’s advertisement further demonstrates the range of occupations and crafts enslaved men and women pursued in the colonial and Revolutionary eras.

Both the copy and the layout of Whatley’s notice suggest that colonists would not have considered it in any way extraordinary that “a Negro Man that understands Brewing and Distilling” played a role in operating the business. Readers who skimmed the advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette might even have missed the portion of Whatley’s advertisement that mentioned the enslaved brewer; that sentence was nestled in the middle of two dense paragraphs. In some respects, Whatley’s attempt to sell his slave was hidden in plain sight. It was part of his advertisement, but not its main purpose.

As my students and I have pursued the Slavery Adverts 250 Project for the past seven months, the frequency of advertisements like this one has been a striking feature. We expected to encounter advertisements exclusively devoted to slavery, especially those that offered one or more slaves for sale and others concerning runaway slaves. We have been a bit more surprised by how often slaves for sale incidentally appeared in advertisements, listed alongside consumer goods and real estate. The practice of slavery – the presence of slavery in everyday life and commerce – pervaded early American print culture, especially advertising, more subtly and to a much greater extent than we initially expected.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 18 - 4:18:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 18, 1767).

“A Negro Woman who understands all Sorts of houshold Work.”

I chose this advertisement because slavery in northern colonies and states is often overlooked when discussing slavery in American history. For the most part, slavery and the slave trade in the southern colonies get more attention. However, slavery was not only used in the northern colonies (see the census from 1774) but Rhode Island was also a hub for the slave trade. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, “Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but also entered with gusto into the trade.” Rhode Islanders gained so many profits from slavery that “[b]y the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.” Voyages like these not only kept the institution of slavery going but encouraged it. I found this advertisement quite surprising, learning that slavery was so important so close to home.

Apr 18 - Census
Rhode Island Census for 1774 (Newport: Solomon Southwick, 1774).  Courtesy John Carter Brown Library.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Recovering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children can be an extremely difficult task. Historians consult many different kinds of sources in their efforts to reconstruct the experiences of slaves, including advertisements like the one Jonathan selected to feature today. That advertisement offers frustratingly few details, but it does reveal the presence of an enslaved woman in Rhode Island. It includes her approximate age and suggests the type of labor she performed for her master, “all Sorts of houshold Work.” The advertisement does not, however, include the enslaved woman’s name nor the name of the slaveholder who wished to sell her. The conditions of the sale were camouflaged by instructions to interested parties: “For further Particulars enquire at the Printing-Office.” This advertisement appeared immediately below another one that revealed the presence of slavery in Rhode Island but advanced few details: “TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years old, fit for either Town or Country, having been used to Farming Business.” It also concluded with instructions to “enquire at the Printing-Office in Providence.” Such advertisements aid historians in making generalizations about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, even in the absence of enough evidence to sketch more complete biographies.

On the other hand, other sorts of advertisements for slaves tell much more complete stories about their subjects. Advertisements for runaways frequently incorporated extensive descriptions of enslaved men, women, and children, from their physical appearance to their clothing to any goods they carried off. They elaborated on their ethnicity and the languages they spoke. They specified any special skills runaways possessed or trades they practiced. They revealed relationships within slave communities and among others, black and white, that might attempt to aid runaways. In some cases, they even told stories of previous attempts to abscond. Although written by white masters attempting to regain their human property, some scholars consider advertisements for runaways to be the first slave narratives. It would be difficult to deny the agency exhibited by slaves who chose to flee from those who kept them in bondage.