May 15

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

May 15 - 5:15:1766 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (May 15, 1766).

“To be sold by MARY HARVEY, … a well chosen and neat Assortment of Dry and wet Goods.”

Female shopkeepers were disproportionately underrepresented among the advertisements placed in colonial newspapers. Consciously seeking to avoid erasing women from the commercial landscape as producers, suppliers, and retailers – not solely as consumers on the other side of exchanges – I take notice every time I spot an advertisement placed by a woman when I am making selections about which to feature here.

It would be unfair, however, to assume that I chose Mary Harvey’s advertisement solely based on her sex. It reveals so much more about early American marketing and consumer culture than “just” demonstrating that women played varied roles (though I contend that is significant in its own right). When I first began studying eighteenth-century advertising I expected to identify distinct methods or appeals made by men and women, but Mary Harvey’s advertisement, like so many others placed by women, demonstrates that male and female advertisers relied on similar appeals. In this advertisement, Harvey promised low prices. By providing an extensive list of her wares she also engaged potential customers to think of the range of choices that will allow them to make selections according to their own tastes.

Harvey also concludes with a political appeal that mirrored those frequently made by male advertisers: “as she has made it her Study to promote Home-made Manufactures, she hopes for the Countenance of her old Friends, and all those who are Lovers of their Country.” Although not allowed to participate in the formal mechanisms of politics due to her sex, Harvey joined many others in imbuing consumer choices with political ramifications. Through her advertising, Mary Harvey gained a voice in public discourse about the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, and the relationship between Parliament and the colonies.

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