November 21

GUEST CURATOR:  Victoria Ostrowski

New-York Journal (November 21, 1771).

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

“An apprentice-lad … named Richard Sweetman.”

In the fall of 1771, Elijah Weed and Samuel Simpson placed an advertisement describing two runaways, Thomas Jones, an indentured servant, and Richard Sweetman, an apprentice.  The advertisement mentioned that Sweetman was sixteen years old and learning to be a shoemaker.  This stood out to me because it was so different from the experiences of teenagers today.  At sixteen, most teenagers go to high school before embarking on their jobs.  Some receive vocational training and others go to college.  They do not become apprentices at age sixteen or younger, bound to masters who teach them a trade until they turn twenty-one years old.  According to an article about “Colonial Teenagers,” children “grew into adulthood more quickly than they do today, and by the time a child entered their teen years, they were already on a path toward their life’s occupation.”  In addition, “young men usually learned their trade through some form of apprenticeship.”



Although he had not yet completed his apprenticeship, Richard Sweetman acquired sufficient skill that Elijah Weed and Samuel Simpson described the runaway as “a stuff-shoe-maker by trade.”  Their advertisement did not elaborate on the reasons that Sweetman fled, but the “sour countenance” that they attributed to him may have been the result of dissatisfaction with the treatment that he received from the master who was supposed to provide training, lodging, food, and other necessities during the time of his apprenticeship.  If Weed or Simpson had been cruel or negligent, Sweetman might have decided to depart.

Weed and Simpson cataloged a variety of items that Sweetman took with him, many of them garments that almost certainly did not belong to him.  He may have taken them with the intention of disguising himself or selling or trading them.  He also carried “sundry cordwainers tools” that he likely stole.  Rather than sell or trade those items, he may have thought that he could support himself by making and repairing shoes once he arrived in a place that he believed that Weed and Simpson would not locate him.

For their part, however, Weed and Simpson cast their net widely.  They resided in Philadelphia, but placed an advertisement in the New-York Journal to alert readers there and throughout the region to keep to keep their eyes open for a runaway apprentice who may have been traveling with an indentured servant with a distinctive walk due to one leg being shorter than the other.  The power of the press worked to their advantage.  Their advertisement did not reveal any of Sweetman’s grievances that might have prompted him to run away, but it did enlist the assistance of readers who could engage in surveillance of strangers they encountered in hopes of detecting the apprentice and earning a reward for his capture.