What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Freight or Passage.”
Charleston, one of the largest cities in the colonies during the era of the American Revolution, was a busy port and bustling center of commerce. Residents glimpsed this activity as they went about their daily lives, but they also encountered depictions of it in the public prints. Newspapers regularly included both shipping news from the customs house and advertisements about ships seeking passengers and freight as they prepared to depart.
For instance, more than two dozen vessels appeared among those that arrived, recently sailed, or were “NOW LOADING” in the shipping news in the November 11, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. The arrivals came from Bermuda, Georgia, and New Providence, while the departures headed for East Florida, North Carolina, and Philadelphia. Ships preparing to sail had an even wider array of destinations, including Bristol, Falmouth, Lancaster, Liverpool, London, Georgia, New York, Barbados, Bermuda, Granada, Jamaica, and New Providence. The shipping news documented extensive networks of trade that connected Charleston to England and other colonies in North America and the Caribbean.
Advertisements also testified to the level of activity in the port, especially those featuring woodcuts that showed ships at sea. In the November 11 issue, the compositor chose to cluster five such advertisements together, replicating a view that readers might have seen at the wharves. Each of the advertisements sought passengers and freight, some of them specifying “Indigo, Deer Skins, or other light Goods” as their preferred cargo.
These visual representations of maritime commerce were not unique to newspapers published in Charleston. That same week, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter included a cluster of three advertisements with woodcuts of ships at sea and the Pennsylvania Gazette had a cluster of seven such advertisements. The Pennsylvania Journal ran thirteen of those advertisements one after another, so many that the armada of commercial vessels filled an entire column and overflowed into another. Compositors did not usually arrange newspaper notices according to genre or purpose in the eighteenth century, but on those occasions that they did place advertisements with images of ships together they created stunning visual representations of an empire of trade.