September 6

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

“ROGER SHERMAN … has lately sent a Fresh Assortment of Goods there to the Care of Mrs. SARAH JOHNSON.”

Sep 6 - 9:6:1766 Connecticut Gazette
Connecticut Gazette (September 6, 1766).

Relative to the number of women who worked as shopkeepers or otherwise operated businesses of various sorts in eighteenth-century America, very few women placed advertisements to promote their endeavors and attract customers. As a matter of principle, I do not wish to further obscure women’s participation in the marketplace as producers and retailers on the supply side of the equation; all too often they are depicted merely as consumers on the demand side. Accordingly, I select advertisements placed by women as frequently as practical.

Today’s advertisement caught my attention because it promotes a business run by a woman, yet it was not placed by the woman herself. Sarah Johnson sold “a Fresh Assortment of Goods” in Wallingford, a town about a dozen miles outside of New Haven. Roger Sherman, however, placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Gazette to “acquaint his Customers at Wallingford” that Johnson sold those goods and provided discounts for customers who bought in volume. He also wanted potential customers in New Haven to know that he sold a similar “Assortment of Goods” on the same terms.

This advertisement raises questions about the arrangements Johnson and Sherman made. It appears that Johnson oversaw the day-to-day operations of the shop in Wallingford, including the necessary accounting and negotiating (as indicated when Sherman allowed for payment in “such other Species as may be agreed on” instead of cash). Yet she seems to have been an employee of some sort rather than a partner. What kind of stake did she have in the enterprise? Did she own any of the inventory she stocked? Did she earn commissions on the goods she sold? How much risk had she assumed compared to Sherman? How much autonomy did she exercise in selecting goods and setting prices? Did she participate in the decisions to offer discounts or to call in debts? Note that Sherman referred to customers Johnson served in Wallingford as “his Customers,” suggesting how he envisioned his relationship to both Johnson and their (his?) clients.

This advertisement acknowledges Sarah Johnson’s presence in the operation of a shop in Wallingford, Connecticut, but it does not fully elaborate on her position relative to Roger Sherman beyond suggesting that even though she participated in the marketplace she did so as a subordinate to Sherman. The advertisement, intended for public consumption, maintained the gender hierarchy of the period, regardless of whatever practices Johnson and Sherman devised outside the public eye.

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