What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“HESTER is now become a sole trader.”
Throughout the eighteenth century the laws of coverture prevented most married women in Britain’s American colonies from operating businesses independently of their husbands. Upon marriage, the wife became a feme covert, her legal rights and obligations subsumed by her husband. Married women were barred from owning property and could not make contracts or sign legal documents in their own names. They also could not incur debts; instead, husbands were responsible for financial obligations their wives initiated (which helps to explain why so many advertisements for runaway wives stated that husbands would not pay any debts the absent wives contracted; it was a means of exercising control). A feme covert was literally “covered” by her husband in a legal fiction that the two had become one person. An unmarried woman, known as a feme sole, on the other hand, had not surrendered those rights. Single and widowed women operated businesses without the permission or oversight of husbands, but in most colonies married women did not have that option.
The colonial governments in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, however, did pass feme sole trader laws that allowed married women to conduct business in their own names, assuming all the risks yet exercising all the responsibilities. South Carolina passed two such laws, first in 1712 and again in 1744. According to the Elizabeth Murray Project, “the title of the 1712 law suggests that it was designed to make married women traders more responsible for their own debts.” The 1744 expanded on that purpose by offering certain protections to married businesswomen, especially allowing for “women to sue debtors in their own names.”
In the late summer of 1767 Hester Fulcker became an entrepreneur in her own right, but only after receiving permission from her husband. Henry Fulcker placed an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal announcing that Hester “is now become a sole trader by his consent.” Accordingly, “any body may trust her as such on her separate account, independent of him.” This gave Hester greater freedom to operate her business, but it also shielded Henry from any financial liability if she failed. Compared to married women in most other colonies, Hester Fulcker experienced significantly greater opportunities for participating in the marketplace as a retailer and supplier rather than solely as a consumer, thanks to her feme sole trader status.