‘Bud’n out’ meaning explored as 19th century slavery poster goes viral

Bruno Cooke June 21, 2022
‘Bud’n out’ meaning explored as 19th century slavery poster goes viral
Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

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A poster advertising slaves “for sale” dating to April 1848 has gone viral on Twitter after its contents horrified people who read it. The poster also features the phrase “bud’n out”, the meaning of which is even worse than you could have thought.

The poster seems to have gone viral when Twitter user Modesty Queen 19 tweeted a picture of it with the caption: “So when you ask us why we just can’t get over it.” 

The poster advertises a public auction that took place on Thursday, 12 April 1848 at O’Donald’s Auction House in Charleston, South Carolina. Slavery in the US was prohibited “except as a punishment for crime” in 1865 following the Civil War. 

The American vernacular has changed during the past 150 years, as is evident from some of the language on the poster. So here’s a breakdown of the meanings of some of the less familiar words and phrases, including “bud’n out” and “hoeing”. 

We apologise to readers for some of the things you may be about to read.

***WARNING: DISTURBING CONTENT AHEAD***

Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

‘Bud’n out’ meaning explored as slavery poster goes viral on Twitter

For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to stomach historical artefacts such as the slavery poster that’s currently doing the rounds on Twitter and Reddit.

It advertises a public auction of “Prime and Healthy” human beings.

The slave trade took several forms. Besides trading people for deployment on farms and plantations, enslavers also bought and sold men and women to perform sexual and reproductive labour.

In this context, therefore, the phrase “bud’n out” means showing signs of puberty. It’s a contraction of the phrase, “budding out”. 

It makes metaphorical reference to the life of a flower. When flowers mature, their buds open out – they “bud out” – and the flower itself emerges.

When a young woman approaches puberty, according to the parlance of the period, she “buds out”, meaning she shows some of the physical signs of her maturity.

It’s a shocking and horrific phrase once you know the meaning.

‘Bud’n out’ the ‘most horrifying line’ of the ad

Reading about slavery is always a discomforting experience but the poster for the public auction at O’Donald’s Auction House takes it a whole step further.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is dehumanising, and refers to the people who are being auctioned in ways their potential buyers would think about them. 

In other words, it’s not a historical account of what happened during the slave trade. Such accounts, written by historians, describe what happened from a modern perspective.

Instead, it shows the horrific language slave traders used to refer to slaves. For girls to be described as “bud’n out” it means they are approaching puberty, which is significant for potential buyers. 

One Twitter user described the poster, and what it represents, as “reprehensible”.

‘Hoeing’, ‘chopp’n’, ‘thrashing’, ‘bale’n’ and ‘play’n’ meanings

Some of the poor people who were available for purchase, according to the 1848 ad, were trained in “hoeing, chopp’n, thrashing, bale’n (and) plow’n”. 

To “hoe” is to use a hoe – a particular tool – to dig up earth and/or thin-out plants. There is a modern slang definition of the word that does not relate to the meaning within the context of the auction ad.

“Thrashing” likely refers to threshing. This means to use a flail to separate grain from corn. You can also use a treadle thresher or do it by hand. In some contexts, threshing and thrashing are synonymous.

The words “chopp’n”, “bale’n” and “play’n” are just contractions of “chopping”, “baling” and “playing”, the meanings of which are self-explanatory.

What about the phrase ‘future insurance’?

Of the 18 women sold at the auction, eight are described as being “with future insurance” – meaning what, exactly?

Several Twitter users have suggested that, in this context, “future insurance” means already pregnant, or at least able to become pregnant.

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The idea is the future slaveowner would be “insured” against the death of the slave.

However, Reddit users discussing the poster in a thread on the topic disagree. One argues it was likely “literal financial insurance” – “not some terrible euphemism”. 

Slave insurance in the US became a hugely profitable industry after the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which took effect in 1808. It prevented slaves from being imported into the US, meaning existing slaves became more valuable. 

If you have found this article disturbing, the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia offers advice on dealing with racial trauma, which you can access here. The Counseling Center at the University of Illinois offers counseling on coping with race-related stress, which you can access here.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.