Articulations of White-Race Discourse in the Penny Press

An item in the Bulletin of the Business Historical Society in December 1936 that early advertisements are described as a“simple, unillustrated announcement that John Smith sold clothing at a certain address.” They resemble classified ads today. But the main mode of discourse in these ads excludes blacks from the world catered to by the publishers. This point was strong because advertisements were still a very large part of the content of these papers.

A search of a ProQuest database of five historical newspapers, the Christian Science Monitor (1808—1995), Hartford Courant (1764—1984), New York Times (1851-2005), Wall Street Journal (1889—1991), and Washington Post (1877—1992), using the parameters “journeymen ”and the dates 1 January 1830—12 December 1860,5 found 1,995 documents. Some were news stories and some—if not the vast majority—were devoted solely to a variety of advertisements.6 Most of the ads were from the Courant. The ads were for a variety of things, for example, medicines, goods for purchase and sale, rooms to let, help wanted. A search of the same database with the same time period and the new parameter “Mechanics’ Society” turned up fifty-eight documents; again many if not most represented advertising.

This new incarnation of mass advertising indicated two things: the importance of the new categories and the significance of this new form of mass media to the development of the category of white individuals. The number of documents produced with the search parameter “journeymen”—1,995—indicates the significance of this new category of people, albeit the latent presentation of issues of race. Two of the want ads from the September 21, 1838, edition of the Courant read: (1) “a journeyman Cabinet Maker, and a journeyman Joiner, that are good workmen and of good principles”; and (2) “5 Good Journeymen Cabinet Makers, and a carpenter.”

These advertising pages were relatively crude, straightforward ads with no special layout distinguishing any of the ads and very few drawings distinguishing some. While there is clear evidence of this new group of post-Revolutionary War laborers, there is little manifest evidence of “white” racial terms outside the postrevolutionary labor categories that excluded blacks. A random review of the pages points to very few indicators of race. A search of this database using the same time period and the parameters “African,” “slavery,” and “negro” produced a relatively small number of documents, only 125.8 Yet when one examines the advertising content in the context of the early nineteenth-century mass culture, the content is sometimes rife with latent references to race, both black and white.

On a page of advertisements in the July 6, 1830, edition of the Courant the following ads were run:

Wanted immediately, two Journeymen Waggon Makers, to whom steady employment will be given. N.B. The subscriber has removed to his new stand on the east side of Main- street, about thirty rods south of the one formerly occupied by him.

Mechanics’Society. A Quarterly Meeting of this Society will be held at their Hall, this evening, (July 6th), at half past 7 o’clock.—A general attendance is requested. E. Gleason, Secretary.

Run Away, On the 10th June, an indented Boy 16 years old, by the name of Cyrus Sperry.

Said boy is about 5 feet high, blue eyes, with a curled head of hair; had on when he went away a suit of dark brown clothes and a nape[?] hat, with a pair of saddle-bags on his shoulders. I forbid all persons harboring him on penalty of the law. A reward of one dollar will be paid if delivered at my house, and no charges.

Colonization Society. The subscriber, Treasurer of the Connecticut Colonization Society, will receive donations made in this State and acknowledge them in the Connecticut Observer. A memorandum of the name of the donor or Society paying, when collected, by whom paid over, and the name of the minister of the Religious Society contributing, will enable me to make suitable acknowledgements, and communications to the Parent Society, and entries. Seth Terry, Treasurer.

Notice for someone to be an agent for non-resident Landholders, and can offer to emigrants from the Eastern States extensive and valuable tracts of Land in Trumbull, Portage, Medina, Cuyahoga, Lorain, Huron, Union and Marion counties.

The first two ads, which mentioned “journeymen” and “Mechanics Society,” are references to the new category of “white” labor of European descent. The third, about the runaway white indentured servant, points to two things: (1) the fear Roediger suggests whites harbored that close similarities would be drawn between their existence and that of chattel slaves; and (2) the need for groups of whites, particularly the “propertyless,” to distinguish themselves from blacks:

The long decline of urban indentured servitude, which had begun during the two decades of economic uncertainty before the Revolution, continued during the war because freedom was offered in exchange for military service, and because of the drying up of British immigration, the general decline in shipping, and republican attacks on the “traffick in white people” (Roediger 1999: 32).

The fourth ad, for the Colonization Society, is yet another advertisement with no manifest representations of race. However, the Colonization Society worked for the return of blacks to Africa. It was a coalition of moderate leaning abolitionists and slavers. The abolitionist forces wanted blacks, when freed, to have the option to return to Africa; on the other hand, the slavers wanted to eliminate the category of free black people. This simple, quietly stated ad reflected a huge debate in abolitionist circles about the appropriateness of abolitionists supporting the Colonization Society (Franklin 1980). The fifth ad is a want ad advertising the services of an agent for Easterners in the expanding areas in the West where the continuation of slavery was being debated.

Historians who study this period indicate that by the third decade of the nineteenth century mass culture also revolved around the rights of white yeomen commoners who owned and cultivated their own land white landless artisans in urban areas and white indentured servants. Their interests centered on the resolution of two political issues that were inherently racial: the slavery question and the land rights of Native Americans (Saxton 2003, 1984). While the slavery question became more pronounced later in the 1800s, Native American land rights were a big issue during the early development of the Penny Press. The early days of the Penny Press seemed to indicate a symbiotic relationship between the development of white group consciousness and the developing mass circulation media based on advertising, for the advertisers were reaching out to this new group of people and reifying their existence as a group.

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