February 23

GUEST CURATOR:  Mary Aldrich

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Feb 23 - 2:20:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (February 20, 1766).
Feb 23 - 2:24:1766 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (February 24, 1766)

“WANTED, a young Woman with a good Breast of Milk.”

“A Very good WET-NURSE is willing to take a Child.”

These two advertisements are interesting in the fact that they relate to the same service but come from different angles. The first is an advertisement for a wet nurse while the second is advertising a woman’s willingness to be a wet nurse. Using a wet nurse was a common practice among European elite women that was not as popular across the pond in the colonies.

There were cases when a wet nurse was needed, such as the death of the mother or if she was too busy to take care of her child or some kind of ailment that prevented her from breastfeeding. Women generally used breastfeeding as a form of contraception, albeit unreliable, but it did give them some control over the spacing of their pregnancies.

The first advertisement is looking for “a young woman with a good breast of milk” to “go into a family.” It is interesting that this advertisement is seeking to incorporate this wet nurse into the family whereas the second gives the option of nursing “abroad,” which meant not in the house.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

I noted last week that women offering goods and services (shopkeepers, milliners, schoolmistresses, and the like) were disproportionately underrepresented in newspaper advertisements in colonial America. Today, Mary has selected two notices that illustrate the most common reason women were featured in advertisements for goods and services during the eighteenth century: offering or seeking assistance from wet nurses.

Note that even though both advertisements testify to labor (pun not necessarily intended) undertaken by women, they both also obscure the identity of the woman seeking or offering this service. Instructions to “Enquire of the Printers” or “Inquire of W. Weyman” (the printer of the New-York Gazette) rendered these women anonymous, perhaps by their own choice as a means of retaining their privacy. These advertisements figuratively put women’s bodies on display for public consumption, making it understandable why the advertisers might not have desired further identifying information.

Mary notes that these advertisements speak about two sides of the same transaction. I would like to suggest that each also incorporates concerns specific to the woman who placed the notice. For the first, seeking a wet nurse, it is quite possible that the advertisement was a last resort. A woman and her family may have first exhausted a network of family and trusted friends and neighbors before looking more broadly for a wet nurse. For the second, offering services as a wet nurse, Mary comments on the distinction between “in the House or abroad.” The advertiser demonstrated her willingness to adapt to conditions set by a potential employer. In looking for employment, she likely had to acclimate to the wishes of potential employers, whereas those seeking to hire wet nurses may have felt that they had more flexibility to set the terms.

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