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The Occupations of Slaves Sold in New Orleans: Missing Values, Cheap Talk, or Informative Advertising

By Jonathan Pritchett and Jessica Hayes


Although plantation records indicate that many slaves in the southern United States were artisans and craftsmen, relatively few slaves were recorded as such on the New Orleans sales invoices. Robert Fogel (1989, p.57, 162) assumes that the slaves without recorded occupations were unskilled workers,concluding that skilled slaves were "less than half as likely to have been sold as were ordinary field hands." Using data from New Orleans newspapers, we find that most sales advertisements include information about the slave's skill or occupation. A comparison of the advertisement with the corresponding invoice shows that the slave's occupation was often omitted from the sales invoice. Because the slave's market price should reflect all relevant information available at the time of sale, the informational value of the slave's advertised occupation can be estimated using regression analysis. Interestingly, we find that the qualitative description of the slave's skill level affected his market price more than his advertised occupation. For example, an "excellent" cook commanded a premium price whereas a "plain" or "tolerable" cook did not. These results suggest that buyers used available information in making their bids and that newspaper advertisements were not simply "cheap talk."slavery, human capital

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