August 5

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (August 5, 1772).

“Probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”

Jem, a “Mulattoe SLAVE,” made his escape during the night of July 15, 1772, liberating himself from Thomas May in Elk Forge, Maryland.  In his efforts to capture Jem and return him to enslavement, May ran an advertisement in which he described Jem as a “cunning ingenious fellow” who “probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”  Jem possessed several skills that may have helped him elude May, but those skills also made him even more valuable to the enslaver.  In addition to being able to read “pretty well” and speak Dutch, Jem was a “good workman in a forge, either in finery or chafery, can do any kind of smith’s or carpenter’s work, necessary about a forge, [and] can also do any kind of farming business.”  May also described the clothes that Jem wore when he liberated himself.  No doubt Jem would have offered other details had he been given an opportunity to publish his own narrative.  Even in Jem’s absence, May exerted control over his depiction in the public prints.

Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote (August 4, 1772).

May also made decisions about how widely to disseminate advertisements describing Jem and offering “FIVE POUNDS REWARD” for capturing him.  His advertisement appeared in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on August 5.  Of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time, those had the longest publication history.  That likely gave May confidence that those newspapers circulated to many readers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.  Apparently, however, he did not consider that sufficient.  May was so invested in capturing and returning Jem to enslavement at the forge that he also placed advertisements in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on August 8 and the Pennsylvania Packet on August 10.  Considering the skills that Jem possessed, May probably thought it well worth the fees to place notices in all four English-language newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time.  He even took advantage of the translation services that Henry Miller, printer of the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, offered to advertisers in a nota bene that appeared at the bottom of the masthead.  May’s advertisement describing Jem ran in that newspaper on August 4, further increasing the number of colonizers who might read it, carefully observe Black men they encountered, and participate in capturing the fugitive seeking freedom.  Thomas May expended significant money and effort in attempting to re-enslave Jem, using the power of the press to overcome the various advantages Jem sought to use to his own benefit.

February 17

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

Wöchentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote (February 12, 1771).

All ADVERTISEMENTS … translated gratis.”

Henry Miller (Johann Heinrich Muller) printed the Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote from January 1762 through May 1779, serving the German-speaking community in Philadelphia and its hinterlands.  Reflecting the reach of the publication, Miller changed the name to the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote in January 1768.  The newspaper began as a weekly, like most others published in colonial America.  It temporarily became a semi-weekly from May 1775 through July 1776, but reverted to a weekly after that.

While intended primarily for German speakers, the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote also aided other colonists in disseminating information, including legal notices and advertisements for consumer goods and services, to broader audiences than they otherwise would have reached via the Pennsylvania Chronicle, Pennsylvania Gazette, Pennsylvania Journal, and other English-language newspapers published in Philadelphia.  Miller encouraged such submissions in the masthead with a nota bene in English, usually the only portion of the newspaper not in German.  “AllADVERTISEMENTS,” the printer proclaimed, “to be inserted in this Paper, or printed single by HENRY MILLER, Publisher hereof, are by him translated gratis.” Placing the nota bene about translating advertisements in the masthead at the top of the first page made it much more visible than nestling it in the colophon at the bottom of the final page.  Miller wanted to increase the likelihood that prospective advertisers would become aware of this service.  To make it even more enticing, he did the translations for free rather than applying an additional charge.  Any advertisements “printed single,” such as broadsides, handbills, and trade cards, yielded even wider circulation of information among German-speaking colonists.

The Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote served a particular community, but not in an insulated fashion.  The printer offered a means for English-speaking colonists to share information and seek customers among the German-speaking community.  For purveyors of goods and services, this presented opportunities to enlarge the market for their wares.  This was good business for everyone involved, including German speakers who gained access to more information, English speakers who attracted customers to their businesses, and the printer who generated revenues from each advertisement he translated and published.