What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He is in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS, for whom the highest Wages will be given.”
The September 18, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal included multiple advertisements offering enslaved men, women, and children for sale. One advertisement, for instance, concerned a “Young Country-born” woman “with her first Child, two Years old.” This young woman, “an extraordinary good Washer and Ironer,” was pregnant with another child. Other advertisements described enslaved people who possessed a variety of skills for sale with and without members of their families.
Yet buying and selling enslaved people was not the only means of distributing and exploiting their labor in the public prints. Several “for hire” advertisements also ran in that issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Rather than purchase enslaved people outright, colonists frequently “hired” or rented their services from their enslavers. In so doing, they acquired the labor they needed but without making as much of an investment. One advertisement proclaimed, “WANTED ON HIRE, A Sprightly NEGRO BOY, who has been used to wait on a Gentlemen, and attend at Table.” The advertiser did not sign the notice but instead instructed that anyone looking to hire out an enslaved servant should “Enquire of the Printer” for more information. John Savage placed a similar advertisement, though he stated that he wanted an enslaved man “who was handy about a House” and an enslaved woman who was a good domestic servant “ON HIRE, OR TO PURCHASE.” Thomas Fell, a tailor, informed the public that he was “in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS, for whom the highest Wages will be given.” Those wages, however, did not go to the enslaved tailors. Instead, their enslavers collected the wages. If they wanted to feel magnanimous, the enslavers could dole out a portion of those wages to the enslaved tailors who did the work. Doing so might salve their consciences, yet the tailors remained enslaved and exploited.
This system of hiring out enslaved workers for short periods – days, weeks, months, or a year – supplemented the slave trade in early America. In the colonial and revolutionary eras, it occurred throughout the colonies. It later continued into the nineteenth century in all areas that did not abolish slavery. Gabriel, the enslaved man executed for organizing a failed uprising in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, hired out as a blacksmith. Frederick Douglass hired out as a caulker in shipyards in Baltimore in the early nineteenth century. Newspaper advertisements help to tell the stories of many other enslaved men and women who were hired out in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.