What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“MILLINERY … supplied on the shortest notices, by … M. and J. HUNTER.”
At a glance, this advertisement for a “GENTEEL ASSORTMENT of MILLINERY” placed by M. and J. Hunter in the October 15, 1767, issue of the Virginia Gazette seems to obscure the participation of women in the marketplace – and in the public prints – as retailers and producers, at least to modern readers who do not possess the same familiarity with Williamsburg in the 1760s as residents of the period.
Only upon close reading of the second paragraph does it become clear that M. and J. Hunter, the “humble servants” who imported and sold “all the materials for making hats and bonnets,” were women. Since milliners often tended to be women, some readers might have made this assumption as soon as they spotted the word “MILLINERY” in large, bold letters. Yet male shopkeepers and merchants, even if they did not work as milliners themselves, also imported, advertised, and sold millinery supplies to milliners and the general public. That the Hunters who placed the advertisement were women becomes clear when once states, “The subscriber having a sister just arrived from LONDON, who understands the millinery business, she hopes to carry it on to the satisfaction of those who shall favour them with their commands.” Here it becomes clear that the “subscriber,” the person who placed the notice, was a woman who went into business with a sister recently arrived in the colony: “The subscriber” referenced herself as “she.”
While it requires some special attention for the modern reader to identify M. and J. Hunter as female entrepreneurs, it would not have been as difficult for eighteenth-century readers who resided in Williamsburg. Note the careful attention to detail in the advertisement. The Hunters described their merchandise in detail, providing a long list of items as a means of signaling the wide array of choices available to consumers. They made appeals to gentility, fashion, and price. Yet they did not indicate where they operated their millinery shop. This suggests that the Hunters, especially the sister who already resided in Williamsburg for some time, believed that local readers of the Virginia Gazette already knew who they were and where to find them. The signature “M. and J. Hunter” alone does not reveal to modern readers that these milliners were women, but it would have been sufficient for contemporary residents of Williamsburg to immediately associate the advertisement with female entrepreneurs.