18th Century Costuming Information from a Controversial Source

March 14, 2012

Slavery in the 18th century was a cruel, but common thing. Since slaves were considered little more than animals or property, they were treated as such. This treatment extended so far as to pass slaves from owner to owner as trade goods, inheritances, gifts, or even as debt settlements. When one ran away to escape the cruelty, owners would place ads for their return, much as someone today posts flyers or Craigslist ads for lost pets. These advertisements are often highly detailed, especially if a runaway took items of value from the slave owner. The same was done for servants that fled (indentured servants were basically ‘temporary slaves’ that often turned into unofficial slaves if they had dishonest masters), military men that deserted their units, and convicts.

Since these ads had to detail what the runaway looked like without the benefit of a portrait picture, advertisers would describe everything from scars to the color of a coat lining. Since many of these ads have survived, they present an unusual source of information on everyday life of the lower classes of 18th Century America. A recent post on Slightly Obsessed: An 18th Century Reenacting Blog discusses how many instances shoes are mentioned (For example: “Only a few examples of non-leather shoes are listed in the runaway advertisements, which makes sense considering the generally lower class status of the runaways”). Other ads include highly detailed descriptions of clothing, both male and female:

Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg , from November 11, 1737:

RUN away from the Subscriber, of Essex County, on Wednesday the 9th of this Instant November, a Convict Servant Woman, nam’d Anne Wheatley; she is a lusty, well set Woman, with very dark Hair, black Eyes, and a fresh Complexion. She had on, when she went away, a black quilted Petticoat, lin’d with an ash colour’d Stuff, a blue and white strip’d India Cotton Gown, the Sleeves of which are fac’d with red and white Callico, a Drugget Wastecoat, without Sleeves, a Shift and Apron of Princes Linen; the Apron has in it Two Breadths, and is bound with a Yellow Cotton String, new almost washed white; has neither Shoes nor Stockings with her: She is a Londoner, and was brought in by Capt. Loney, last year. Whoever apprehends the said Servant, and carries her before a Justice, in order to be sent Home by a Constable, as the Law directs, shall have, if above Five Miles from Home, Five Shillings, and if above Ten Miles, Ten Shillings Reward, besides what the Law allows. – Francis Smith.”

Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, from September 27, 1770:

 Norfolk county, Broad Creek, September 24, 1770. STOLEN from the subscriber, on the 16th instant, by ELIZABETH DUGAL, who was hired in the house, the following things, viz. two chintz gowns, one dark, the other light, with springs and branches, and a coat of the same, one fine white callico gown, one blue India persian quilted coat, lined with light brown shalloon, almost new, one pair of stays, not half worn, one black peelong bonnet, trimmed with the same, three large silver spoons, marked A.M. and several other things, to the amount of 30 l. She carried with her, of her own, a blue durant or tammy gown, and pink callimanco skirt, is about 27 years of age, of a fair complexion, pitted with the small pox, has a long nose, very thin hair, and of a middle stature; says she was born in Pennsylvania, where she may probably be gone, though it is suspected she will make towards Carolina. Whoever will apprehend her, so that she may be brought to justice, shall have TWO PISTOLES reward. LEMUEL ROBERTS.”

The VCDH database of runaway notices has multiple search methods including keywords, type, location, and year. Indeed, the resource would be excellent for an educational booth at a reenactment or in a classroom! As cruel as the actuality of the ads may be, they are undoubtedly a good source of information, providing especially rare information about the clothing of servants and slaves.

However, the serious nature of these ads must never be downplayed! Some of them may seem quite humorous today, describing everything down to missing teeth or corpulence, but if you use these historical advertisements for research, keep in mind that these little blurbs weren’t always so quaint!

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