March 6

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 6 - 3:6:1766 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (March 6, 1766).

“My late Foreman, having left me, … I continue to carry on the Taylor’s Business.”

On several occasions I have noted that advertisements by female shopkeepers and artisans did not appear in the public prints in proportion to the numbers of women who kept shop or plied a trade in eighteenth-century America. When they did appear they could be interpreted as assertions of independence by women publicly proclaiming that they participated in the marketplace as retailers, producers, and suppliers – rather than exclusively as consumers – alongside their male counterparts.

Mary Cannan’s advertisement, however, merits different consideration. The first three lines name two men affiliated with Cannan’s “Taylor’s Business.” Indeed, she opens her advertisement naming “ANDREW BORNIE, my late Foreman,” a male colleague who presumably oversaw her business operations. In his absence, Cannan made it clear that another man, Jehu Elridge (“a sober man, and well qualified in his Trade”), continued his association with her “Taylor’s Business.”

On the other hand, it may be worth noting that even though we now use the word “tailor” to describe both men and women, in the eighteenth century men were more likely to describe themselves as tailors and women to describe themselves as seamstresses. In addition, the word – then and now – conjured connotations of working on men’s clothing.

I suspect that Cannan may have been unmarried, given her request for “a feeling of Sympathy and Compassion with my distressed Circumstance,” in which case making sure potential customers and the public more broadly knew men worked in her shop was a savvy business move and necessary to protect her reputation. After all, making and measuring clothes involved close and sometimes awkward contact with another person’s body. Putting men front and center in her advertisement may have been a strategy to ward off unsavory assumptions and accusations.

Even taking all of this into consideration, Cannan still crafted an advertisement that was different, based on her gender, than those placed by her male counterparts in the “Taylor’s Business.”

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Note:  This is Spring Break week at Assumption College.  I am resuming my regular duties while the students in my Public History class are away.  They will return as guest curators two weeks from today.

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