What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Imported … by MAGDALEN DEVINE … the following goods.”
Compared to their male counterparts, female shopkeepers placed relatively few advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers (and turned to other forms of marketing media, such as magazine wrappers, trade cards, and broadsides, even less often). Women’s participation in the marketplace as retailers rather than consumers was disproportionately underrepresented among advertisements in colonial and Revolutionary-era newspapers.
Magdalen Devine’s lengthy list-style advertisement was notable, however, not only because she was a female entrepreneur who turned to the public prints to promote her business. To draw attention to her notice, Devine included a woodcut that depicted the sorts of textiles she imported and sold at her shop on Second Street near the Quaker Meetinghouse. A border surrounded two rolls of cloth positioned next to two swatches, all of them arrayed to demonstrate four different patterns. This visual image reinforced the work done in Devine’s dense list of merchandise: customers could expect to make choices among the assortment of dry goods she stocked.
Given that few male advertisers, whether shopkeepers, artisans, or others, commissioned woodcuts to include in their marketing efforts, Devine’s advertisement was quite extraordinary. To paraphrase Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s analysis of gendered women’s activities in colonial New England, Devine’s advertisement demonstrates what was possible rather than what was probable when women took on some of the same tasks and responsibilities most often reserved for or associated with men.
Three other women played a role in advertisements that appeared in the same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. A notice placed by “JOHN HOLLIDAY, TAYLOR,” included a final paragraph about “Mrs. Holliday’s new-invented curious Compound” for removing hair. Unlike her husband, Mrs. Holliday’s name did appear in all capitals. “WILLIAM SYMONDS” and “MARY SYMONDS, Millener,” cooperated in placing an advertisement, though Mary seems to have been the driving force. The advertisement briefly noted that William “has just imported in the last vessels, a neat assortment of merchandize.” Mary, on the other hand, provided a list of her “neat assortment of millenery goods” that exceeded Devine’s in length. (Symonds was one of the few female entrepreneurs who distributed her own trade card in eighteenth-century America, though she would not do so for another decade.) Finally, “ANN PEARSON, MILLENER,” also inserted a list-style advertisement, seemingly of her own accord. It did not mention any male relatives who might have overseen her participation in the marketplace.
The woodcut that accompanied Devine’s advertisement made her marketing memorable. The May 14 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette consisted of eight pages (the four-page standard issue as well as a four-page supplement) with nearly seven of them devoted to advertising. Only two other advertisements included woodcuts, a generic ship with Alexander Lunan’s notice about freight and passage on a ship about to sail for South Carolina and an extended hand with dyer Joseph Allardyce’s advertisement for his shop “at the Sign of the Blue Hand.” Although men most actively advertised consumer goods and services in early America, women also adopted marketing innovations and experimented with various methods for marketing their wares.