June 14

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 11, 1772).

“From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772, he appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins.”

In the spring of 1772, James Eppes, the jailer in Charles City, placed an advertisement in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to inform Hardin Perkins that he imprisoned “a Negro FELLOW, who says his Name is Tom.”  This notice demonstrates how closely some colonizers read and remembered the runaway advertisements that regularly appeared in early American newspapers.  In addition to Tom stating that he “belongs to Mr. Hardin Perkins of Buckingham,” Eppes surmised “From and ADVERTISEMENT in Mess. Purdie & Dixon’s Paper of March 1772” that Tom “appears to be the same Negro advertised by Mr. Perkins, as he exactly answers the Description.”  That earlier advertisement described Tom as “about forty Years old, of the middle Size, and has an impediment in his Speech.”

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (March 5, 1772).

Tom managed to elude capture for about nine months.  Perkins reported that Tom liberated himself in August 1771, not long after the enslaver purchased him.  Perkins suspected that Tom was “lurking about Williamsburg” and offered forty shillings to anyone who “secures the said Negro, or gives me such information that I may get him again” or five pounds to anyone who delivered Tom to Perkins.  According to Eppes, Tom was “COMMITTED to Charles City Jail” on May 10.  Eppes did not mention where Tom spent his time during his nine months of freedom or the circumstances of his capture.  Like other advertisements offering rewards for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves, this one told only part of the story.

That Eppes matched Tom to an advertisement that ran in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette two months earlier suggests that the jailer carefully read the runaway advertisements and kept newspapers on hand for at least several months so he could review the notices and consult them for similarities when imprisoning Black men and women.  Newspapers played an important role in the infrastructure of returning enslaved people who liberated themselves to those who purported to be their owners or masters.  Printers disseminated the information, followed by jailers and others creating archives to aid in the capture and return of fugitives who sought freedom.

October 20

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (October 17, 1771).
“I have also made it known that I would never pay any of his Debts.”

Readers regularly encountered “runaway wife” advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers.  Aggrieved husbands placed such notices to warn the community not to extend credit to women who absconded from their households without permission.  In many instances, husbands complained about various infractions committed by their wives, but such narratives privileged husbands’ perspectives.  On those rare occasions when wives responded in print, they described misbehavior and abuses perpetrated by their husbands.  For those women, running away from their husbands constituted acts of resistance and self-preservation.

Newspaper advertisements sometimes captured other kinds of familial discord.  For instance, in 1771 William Macon, Sr., placed a notice in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to instruct others not to extend credit under his name to his son, Hartwell Macon.  The elder Macon lamented that his son had, “by his imprudent Conduct, spent all that he had any Right to, and reduced himself to such unhappy Circumstances that he is unable to discharge his just Debts.”  The situation exasperated William.  “Notwithstanding that this has been well known to the World for some Time past, and that I have also made it known that I would never pay any of his Debts,” he declared, “many People still let him have Things on Credit, expecting I will discharge his Debts, or leave him some Part of my Estate which they may seize upon after my Decease.”  Those who made such assumptions were bound to be disappointed, William warned.  He placed his notice “to prevent any One from being deceived, or rather deceiving themselves, that I am determined never to give my said Son any Thing during my Life, nor to leave him any Thing by my Will.”  William suggested that those who extended credit to Hartwell enabled further misconduct, implying that some of them did so opportunistically for their own financial benefit without taking into account what the community already knew about William and Hartwell’s fractured relationship.

Hartwell may have had his own version of events that differed from the narrative presented by his father, but the story William told made it seem unlikely that his son engaged in the sorts of resistance and self-preservation common among runaway wives who appeared in advertisements in the public prints.  Rather than taking place within the household, beyond public observation, Hartwell’s transgressions occurred in full view of the community over an extended period.  Readers of the Virginia Gazette had means of assessing and confirming William’s claims about his son that did not rely on competing accounts of what occurred within the private spaces of the Macon household.

October 17

GUEST CURATOR: Daniel Carito

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (October 17, 1771).
“A likely Negro Fellow named PRINCE … he is a Spaniard.”

In the fall of 1771, Robert Donald, an enslaver in Virginia, advertised a reward of forty shillings for Prince, “a likely Negro fellow” who liberated himself by running away.  The advertisement sparked my interest because Donald mentioned that not only did Prince come from Spanish descent but also was “an excellent swimmer, and dives remarkably well” and labeled as a “water Negro.”  My interest grew even further because in “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes’: From Britain to America,” Charles R. Foy explains how many Black sailors on Spanish vessels were captured by British and North American mariners, labeled as commodities and sold into slavery: “Between 1721 and 1748 at least one hundred and thirty-five black mariners were condemned as prize goods…  Overall, the number of Prize Negroes in North America from 1713 to1783 is estimated to exceed 500.”[1] Also, Foy argues that enslaved Black mariners were sometimes the main instigators when it came to revolting against their enslavers: “Spanish Prize Negroes often were leaders in resisting slavery in British North America.”[2]

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Enslaved men and women who liberated themselves often left few traces in the archival record.  The advertisements that encouraged colonists to engage in surveillance of Black people to determine if they matched descriptions of runaways in the newspapers and offered rewards for the capture and return of enslaved people may have been the only documents that recorded any aspect of their lives.  In such instances, enslaved people seeking freedom did not tell their own stories, but instead had their experiences mediated through the perspectives of the enslavers who composed the advertisements.

If Prince, as he was called by his enslaver, were indeed a Spanish “Prize Negro” then other kinds of documents may have recorded some of his experiences.  Additional archival work might uncover additional traces of Prince’s life before he arrived in Virginia.  Even if we managed to locate Prince in other sources, his wife and children would likely remain elusive, their stories even more fragmented and obscured than that of their husband and father.  Donald suspected that Prince “took the Road to Charles City, where he had a Wife and Children at Mr. Acrill’s.”  That brief reference to Prince’s family raises more questions than it answers.  How long had Prince and his wife been a couple?  How many children did they have?  How old were the children at the time?  How long had it been since the rest of the family had seen Prince?  Were his wife and children still in Charles City?

Donald recorded several characteristics to identify Prince, including his height, his clothing, and his manner of speaking (“fast and thick”).  The enslaver described Prince as an “excellent Swimmer” and diver who “had on such Clothes as Watermen generally wear.”  Prince’s wife and children in Charles City were just one more detail to Donald and colonists who read the advertisement, but they were not just another detail to Prince or his family.  Donald’s brief narrative about Prince certainly did not match how the enslaved man would have described himself or the most important people in his life.

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[1] Charles R. Foy, “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes’: From Britain to America,” Slavery and Abolition 31, no. 3(September 2010): 381.

[2] Foy, “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes,’” 384.

September 22

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 19, 1771).
“It is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen.”

During the era of the American Revolution, newspapers from New England to Georgia carried advertisements offering rewards for enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away.  The first of those advertisements appeared almost as soon as colonial printers began publishing newspapers at the turn of the eighteenth century.  In the process of using the press to regain their human property, enslavers sometimes revealed details of other measures used to deny Black men and women their freedom.

Such was the case in an advertisement that Archibald Campbell of Norfolk placed in the September 19, 1771, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette.  Campbell lamented that Tom “ABSCONDED from my Service” and likely headed to Williamsburg “to lay Claim to his Freedom.”  Prior to making his escape, the enslaved man served aboard ships and “has been used to the Sea.”  Tom may have had papers that testified to his freedom, but Campbell asserted that those papers were not what they seemed.  The enslaver noted that Tom “was born in the Island of Bermuda, in my Mother in Law’s Family, and given to my Wife when a Child.”  A particular practice in Bermuda explained how Tom may have acquired freedom papers.  “Owners of Vessels” there “generally man them with their Slaves,” Campbell declared, “and it is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen, in Case they should be taken by the Enemy.”  In that case, they could not be confiscated as contraband.

In this case, that maneuver might have backfired, but Campbell worked to prevent it.  Campbell suspected that Tom, “who went to Sea from that Island when a Boy” either “had one of those Passes given to him by his then Master” or more recently “got Possession of one that belonged to some other Negro.”  Given the circumstances, any pass that Campbell produced to demonstrate his freedom was not a legitimate pass but instead a legal subterfuge.  At least that was how Campbell wanted others to treat any document that Tom displayed to “lay Claim to his Freedom” in Williamsburg. Campbell insisted that a pass that seemed to benefit a Black man should not be used for that purpose because the original intention was that it protect the interests of his enslaver instead.  When it came to achieving his freedom, Tom faced the injustice of the context in which the pass was written potentially outweighing what the actual words on the page promised.  Despite his courage and conviction, the deck was stacked against him.

September 8

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 5, 1771).
“PURDIE and DIXON have imported a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper.”

Like many other colonial printers, Alexander Purdie and John Dixon took advantage of their access to the press to insert advertisements for goods and services they provided in the newspaper they published.  Such was the case in the September 5, 1771, edition of the Virginia Gazette.  Interspersed among the paid notices, the printers included their own advertisement for a vast array of imported goods.

Purdie and Dixon deployed a standard list format, creating a dense block of text.  Within their advertisement, however, they did organize their merchandise according to three main categories:  stationery wares, music, and patent medicines.  Many printers created additional revenue streams by selling books, stationery, and writing equipment.  Purdie and Dixon stocked “a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper, fine large Dutch and Hudson Bay Quills, fine Japan Ink, shining Sand, red and black Dutch Sealing Wax,” and a variety of other items to equip any desk for business or correspondence.  They also carried several pieces of music, including “Midas, the Padlock, and Love in a Village, for the Harpsicord, Voice, German Flute, Violin, or Guitar” and “eight Italian Sonatas for two Violins or Flutes, with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsicord, by several eminent Composers.”  The printers had on hand both popular and genteel selections to suit the tastes of their customers.  Furthermore, most printers and booksellers who included music among their titles did not indicate such an extensive selection.  Purdie and Dixon concluded by enumerating a dozen patent medicines, including many of the most common ones marketed from New England to Georgia.  “Bateman’s Pectoral Drops; Stoughton’s Squire’s, and Daffy’s Elixirs; [and] Turlington’s Balsam” required no further explanation because they were so familiar to consumers.  That may have been one of the reasons that printers frequently supplemented their stock of books and stationery with patent medicines, even if they did not sell other sorts of consumer goods.

Purdie and Dixon’s printing office “at the POST OFFICE” in Williamsburg was a hub for collecting and disseminating information, but it was also a place to go shopping.  They made available a variety of equipment for writing, all kinds of sheet music for entertainment, and an assortment of patent medicines for customers to treat illnesses and chronic conditions.  In addition to the fees they generated for subscriptions, advertising, and job printing, Purdie and Dixon also generated revenues from selling items from select categories of imported goods.

June 22

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

Providence Gazette (June 22, 1771).

“ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful Money.”

Today marks two thousand days of production for the Adverts 250 Project.  Every day for two thousand consecutive days, I have examined an advertisement originally published in an eighteenth-century newspaper.  Students enrolled in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Public History, and Research Methods classes at Assumption University have also contributed to the Adverts 250 Project as guest curators.

This milestone seems like a good opportunity to address two of the questions I most commonly encounter.  How much did a subscription to an eighteenth-century newspaper cost?  How much did an advertisement cost?  Most printers did not regularly publish subscription rates or advertising rates in their newspapers, but some did include that information in the colophon at the bottom of the final page.  Of the twenty-two newspapers published during the week of Sunday, June 16 through Saturday, June 22, 1771, that have been digitized and made available for scholars and other readers, seven listed subscription rates and six indicated advertising rates.  Four of those, the Essex Gazette, the Maryland Gazette, Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, and Rind’s Virginia Gazette, included both subscription rates and advertising rates in the colophon. That nearly as many identified advertising rates as the cost of subscriptions testifies to the importance of advertising for generating revenue.

Here is an overview of subscription rates and advertising rates inserted in the colophons of colonial newspapers during the last week of spring in 1771.

SUBSCRIPTION RATES:

  • Essex Gazette (June 18): “THIS GAZETTE may be had for Six Shillings and Eight Pence per Annum, (exclusive of Postage) 3s. 4d. (or 3s. 6d. if sent by Post) to be paid at Entrance.”
  • Maryland Gazette (June 20): “Persons may be supplied with this GAZETTE, at 12s. 6d. a Year.”
  • Massachusetts Spy (June 20): “Persons may be supplied with this paper at Six Shillings and Eight Pence, Lawful Money, per Annum.”
  • Pennsylvania Chronicle (June 17): “Subscriptions, (at TEN SHILLINGS per Annum) Advertisements, Articles and Letters of Intelligence are gratefully received for this Paper.”
  • Pennsylvania Journal (June 20): “Persons may be supplied with this Paper at Ten Shillings a Year.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 20): “ALL Persons may be supplied with this PAPER at 12s. 6d. a Year.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Rind] (June 20): “All Persons may be supplied with this GAZETTE at 12s6 per Year.”

ADVERTISING RATES:

  • Essex Gazette (June 18): “ADVERTISEMENTS not exceeding eight or ten Lines are inserted for Three Shillings.”
  • Maryland Gazette (June 20): “ADVERTISEMENTS, of a moderate Length, are inserted for the First Time, for 5s. and 1s. for each Week’s Continuance.  Long Ones in Proportion to their Number of Lines.”
  • New-York Journal (June 20): “Advertisements of no more Length than Breadth are inserted for Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after, and larger Advertisements in the same Proportion.”
  • Providence Gazette (June 22): “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful Money.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 20): “ALL Persons may … have ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted in it for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Rind] (June 20): “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length are inserted for 3s. the First Week, and 2s. each Time after; and long ones in Proportion.”

Those newspapers that specified both subscription rates and advertising rates demonstrate the potential for generating significant revenue by publishing advertisements.  The competing newspapers in Williamsburg, Virginia, each charged twelve shillings and six pence per year for a subscription and collected three shillings for the first insertion of an advertisement and two shillings for every subsequent insertion.  William Rind declared that he set rates “in Proportion” for longer advertisements.  An advertisement that ran for six weeks cost more than an annual subscription.  Anne Catherine Green set the same price, twelve shillings and six pence, for a subscription to the Maryland Gazette, but charged five shillings the first time an advertisement ran.  Samuel Hall charged six shillings and eight pence for a subscription to the Essex Gazette and three shillings for each appearance of an advertisement of “eight or ten Lines.”  Some significantly exceeded that length, costing as much as a subscription for a single insertion.  Other printers presumable set similar rates, a pricing structure that meant that advertising played a substantial role in funding the dissemination of the news even in the colonial era.

September 14

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

Sep 14 - 9:14:1769 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 14, 1769).
“RUN away … a Mulatto slave.”

The digitization of historical sources has made them much more widely accessible to scholars and the general public. Anyone with an internet connection, for instance, can access this advertisement from the September 14, 1769, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg has made the entire issue, along with hundreds of other newspapers published in Williamsburg from 1736 to 1780, available via their Digital Library.

These sources, however, sometimes obscure portions of the past even as they provide greater illumination for other parts. Everyday use damaged some sources even before they found their way into an archive or library. Others have suffered the ravages of time. Poor photography has contributed to the illegibility of some digital surrogates.

Consider today’s featured advertisement. At a glance, readers can identify it as an advertisement for a runaway thanks to the mostly legible first two words as well as the muddy outline of a woodcut depicting a fugitive. Although such woodcuts most often accompanied advertisements about enslaved people who escaped, they sometimes appeared in notices about indentured servants and convict servants. Readers with experience examining similar advertisements might spot the word “Mulatto” on the second line and then reasonably extrapolate it to “Mulatto slave.” Most of the rest of the advertisement is illegible, except for the name of the advertiser at the end. Who was the slaveholder who sought the return of an enslaved person who attempted to escape from bondage? Thomas Jefferson.

Like most other eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, especially runaway advertisements, this notice ran for multiple weeks. Sometimes this allows readers the opportunity to read the same advertisement in another issue, but in this case other insertions are not much more legible. Jefferson’s advertisement first ran on September 7. Look for it near the top of the third column on the third page. A portion of the page was cut out at some point. What remains of Jefferson’s advertisement is only partially legible, but not his name on the final line. The advertisement ran again on September 21, the first item in the final column on the final page. The digital image of this insertion is more legible; an experienced reader could carefully transcribe most of the advertisement. The advertisement is accessible, but not easy to read. This time the fault appears to lie with poor photography rather than the vagaries of time damaging the page.

Due to the prominence of the enslaver who sought the return of his human property, this advertisement has been transcribed and made widely available by the National Archives. The presentation includes the complete text, but not an image, of the advertisement. Other content from the September 14 edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, including an advertisement for “sundry SLAVES” to the right of Jefferson’s notice, remains inaccessible via digital surrogates. Other extant copies may be much more legible, but readers who rely on digitized sources do not have ready access to those. Digitization of historical sources helps to tell a more complete story of the past, but the digitization does not necessarily make any source readily accessible.

May 7

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

May 7 - 5:4:1769 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (May 4, 1769).
“Best HARD SOAP at 6d. by the box.”

In the spring of 1769, Freer Armston,, a chandler and soap boiler in Norfolk, Virginia, attempted to enlarge his market by expanding his operations into Williamsburg. He placed an advertisement in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to inform prospective customers that he had opened a new shop where he sold “TALLOW CANDLES as good as any on the continent.” With such a bold statement, Armston favorably compared his wares to any others that consumers could acquire.

To make his candles even more attractive, he took the unusual step of naming their price in his advertisement: “by the box 11 d. paying freight from Norfolk.” Advertisers rarely listed prices in eighteenth-century newspapers, though many often made general appeals to low or reasonable prices. Readers likely knew what to expect to pay for a box of tallow candles from other chandlers and shopkeepers in Williamsburg. As a newcomer, Armston attempted to stimulate interest in his merchandise by allowing prospective customers to assess on their own whether he offered a deal. He did the same for his “Best HARD SOAP at 6d. by the box, or 7d. halfpenny [sic] small quantities.” He was not as verbose about the quality of his soap, simply describing it as “Best,” and instead emphasized the price and potential savings by buying in bulk. Customers saved twenty percent when they purchased an entire box of hard soap.

Armston also sought to establish that he was a careful and responsible entrepreneur. In addition to selling candles and soap, he asked readers to provide him with supplies, especially “good WOOD ASHES” used in the production of soap, for which he offered “goods or money.” He was vigilant when it came to accepting ashes from Black men and women, assuming that some did not acquire them by legitimate means. Armston instructed that “all persons that send by or give their ashes to Negroes” must also send a note specifying that they had done so or else he would not accept them. The chandler and soap boiler was not about to give “goods or money” to Black people who could not demonstrate how they came into possession of ashes they delivered to his shop. In addition to offering quality goods at low prices, Armston depicted himself as a good neighbor who attended to maintaining proper order in his business dealings.