What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To the PRINTER, WHEREAS a very extraordinary newspaper hath lately appeared in your paper …”
Advertisements for “runaway wives,” women who defied the practices of patriarchy and the laws of coverture by disobeying or abandoning their husbands, frequently appeared in colonial newspapers. On January 15, 1767, alone a total of six such advertisements appeared in Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal, alerting residents of Philadelphia and its hinterland not to trust half a dozen women, nor to extend credit to them.
Most advertisements for runaway wives were fairly brief, such as this one that appeared on the first page of the Pennsylvania Journal: “January 15. WHEREAS Catherine the wife of Stephen Wright, of Bristol Township, Bucks county, has absconded and refused to live with him, this is to forewarn all persons from trusting her on my account, as I will pay no debts by her contracted after the date hereof, STEPHEN WRIGHT.” The indigent husband resorted to stock language and formulaic constructions in making this announcement, inserting the appropriate names, dates, and locations.
Charles Tennent, in an advertisement dated January 1, opted for more original language in a much lengthier advertisements that spelled out a variety of charges against his wife, Jane. He reported that she “hath departed from me without my consent, after having extravagantly laid out large sums of money without my knowledge; has threatened to run me much more in debt than she has already done, and not withstanding my frequent earnest, and tender requests to her, she has refused to return to my house and live with me, according to our solemn obligations.” Charles then devoted the second half of his notice to disavowing any debts contracted by Jane.
Its length alone made that advertisement extraordinary, but even more significantly it garnered a response from the runaway wife, a woman who felt she had been defamed by her unjust and unreasonable husband. In an advertisement twice the length of that placed by the disgruntled Charles, Jane defended her reputation and told her side of the dispute “In order to do myself justice, and let the matter in a clearer light to the public than what it has yet been represented.” She made accusations that Charles had “used me extremely ill, and not treated me like a wife.” She also complained that her husband had deprived of her female slave as well as her horse and carriage. To make matters even worse, he had refused to allow her to take a horse when she needed to have a tooth extracted. In turn, she set out on foot and upon returning home discovered that in the interim Charles had placed advertisements about her conduct. Furthermore, she disputed his claims that she spent money extravagantly, arguing that any purchases she made came out of the estate she brought to the marriage. From her perspective, she had been generous in providing clothes for Charles and his children (who may have been from a previous marriage, making them stepchildren to Jane). To make matters worse, Jane stated that she had attempted to return to their household but Charles refused to admit her and was not even willing to meet with her “before any gentlemen in town to talk the matter face to face.” She put up a spirited defense that may have been considered unseemly for a woman yet simultaneously shamed her husband for his poor conduct.
Advertisements for runaway wives demonstrate the agency of colonial women who sought to escape the confines and, in some cases, abuses of patriarchal marriage. In most cases they must be read against the grain because they are accounts written and shaped by men about women. Jane Tennent, however, did not leave it to her friends and neighbors – or historians – to consider her take on the events her husband described. She offered a response that recast her husband as the villain rather than herself as improperly deviating from the ideals of virtuous femininity.
As an aside about another aspect of the history of advertising, note that Jane Tennent reported that her husband “pasted up advertisements round the neighbourhood to the same effect he has done here” in the Pennsylvania Journal. Charles went beyond simply placing an advertisement in the local newspaper. Instead, he contracted a bit of job printing, a separate broadside of unspecified size, that he distributed on his own and strategically placed in places around his own neighborhood. This suggests that pasting up advertisements in colonial cities and towns was fairly common, that residents experienced a visual and textual landscape of advertising in their everyday lives.