What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“He is in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS, for whom good Wages will be given.”
In the early 1770s, Thomas fell operated a tailoring shop on Elliott Street in Charleston. He placed advertisements in South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to advise prospective clients of the services he offered “in the genteelest Manner, and with Dispatch.” Yet he did not run the shop alone. In addition to extending “hearty Thanks” to his customers, he also announced that he was “in want of two NEGRO MEN TAYLORS.” Fell declared that “good Wages will be given” for the work undertaken by those enslaved men.
Those “good Wages,” however, did not go directly to the tailors but instead to the enslavers who hired them out by the day, week, month, or year. As newspaper advertisements, slave narratives, and other sources demonstrate, enslavers who did not have sufficient work to occupy the time of the men and women they held in bondage instead generated a return on their investment by hiring out (or renting) them to others. Sometimes they attempted to appear magnanimous by allowing enslaved laborers to keep a portion of those “good Wages,” but in the end it was the enslavers rather than the enslaved who derived the most significant financial benefits from such arrangements.
Colonists like Fell also gained advantages from hiring enslaved artisans, including tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers. While Fell promised genteel garments made quickly for clients who visited his shop, he did not do all of the work himself. He relied on the expertise and labor of enslaved tailors. His advertisement made clear that they worked in his shop, but many other notices in the public prints certainly obscured the contributions of enslaved artisans. Rarely did proprietors mention assistants of any sort, whether free, indentured, or enslaved. The advertisements that crowded the pages of newspapers and supplements depicted vibrant commerce and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America, but often obscured the extent that enslaved men and women involuntarily provided their skills, knowledge, and labor.