Printing presses have always fascinated me. I spent a lot of time studying them as a newspaper reporter in my teens and early 20’s. This was in the early 2000’s, and it was a time of transition for print media. Papers were updating equipment and moving on from traditional printing methods towards completely digital technologies. No matter the size or circulation, every paper had one dusty room that housed a large printing press that was growing more obsolete by the day. Once in a while—when I should have been working—I would take some time to look through the old type cases. These were wooden boxes with multiple compartments to store the metal type used to print newspapers. Capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case. This, incidentally, is why we call those letters upper and lowercase. Along with the metal letters used to make newspaper print, there were all kinds of wonderful images hidden in those old drawers. These images carved into metal told a story not only of the newspaper, but of the local community the newspaper covered. The metal type in those boxes contained generic images used for want ads, local columns, national political news, crime briefs—any image the paper might need to draw a reader’s attention to a mass of black text.
Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my days conducting research on 19th Century U.S. history. Newspapers of that era had little in the way of visual imagery to break up massive amounts of text. One area that did feature unique images were advertisements. The quality of these ads ran the gamut from crudely made to intricately carved works of art. On the crude end of the spectrum were the common images papers used for small advertisements and announcements made by everyday folks. Most papers had small type that looked like houses for property listings, cows for livestock sales, and dogs for missing pets. These small impressions on 200-year-old papers in digital form are easy to look past with modern eyes. One category of metal type that is hard to overlook, however, is the metal type used to announce the runaway slave.
As a historian, I always try to remember that the people whose stories I tell were indeed real living breathing individuals. They had hopes and fears and desires and struggles. That’s why these advertisements, with their small black figures pressed into ink centuries ago, are so jarring. These figures not only represent human beings taking the drastic step to flee chattel slavery, they represent how easily this evil was tolerated in everyday life. These newspapers were prepared for the inevitability of masters advertising runaways—masters ready to pay to have their role as master protected. Someone at each of these papers had to physically see that the images depicting runaways were fixed into place, covered in ink, and pressed onto the paper. These papers were accomplices in a worldwide commercial establishment built on slavery. These images show the horrors of slavery reduced to just another small news items among the hundreds of the day.
One of the greatest horrors of the slave system was the systematic destruction of not only the family unit, but of the enslaved person’s very own identity. The enslaved were often not only taken away from family members, they were removed from any sense of community they might have had on the plantation. They were named by masters and had little control of their own bodies under this system. Ironically, these ads written by masters provide brief glimpses into the lives of these faceless African-Americans. The master’s own words often tell us that these former slaves were intelligent, well-spoken, and strong. The ads describe ways runaways dressed and the physical scars they carried with them.
The moveable type images from these newspapers themselves are intriguing. Obviously, these images were white constructs—a white artisan’s depiction of a runaway. These images were seen by white Americans nearly every day. Some of the type was used so often over so long a period of time that it began to wear, blurring the figures like the image from the Times Picayune featured above. The Times Picayune, based in the nation’s largest slave market in New Orleans, is littered with runaway ads covering every several decades of the antebellum United States. For whites experiencing these images of African-Americans, the message was clear: African-Americans were deception, capable of subterfuge, and often on the wrong side of the law. These runaway ads are more than meets the eye, though. In these images I see determination, self-reliance, and an attempt to strip the bonds of slavery and forge a new identity—their own identity.