What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“She continues the Upholstery Business with Mr. COLEMAN.”
Rebecca Weyman’s advertisement announcing that “she continues the Upholstery Business” demonstrated what was possible for women participating in the eighteenth-century marketplace, though not necessarily what was probable. Relatively few women placed newspaper advertisements publicizing the goods and services they provided during the colonial era. Of those who did resort to the advertising to promote their business endeavors, most were shopkeepers, seamstresses, milliners and schoolmistresses. Each pursued occupations widely considered appropriate for women. Seamstresses and, especially, milliners might have been considered artisans, but their work depended on skills traditionally associated with women’s labor within the household. Their presence in the marketplace and the public prints did not disrupt prevailing gender expectations.
On occasion, other female artisans ran advertisements, but they were small in number among both the general population and advertisers. Those who did place newspaper advertisements often did so in collaboration with a male relative, supervisor, or partner, perhaps as a means of tamping down apprehensions that they participated in the market in ways that deviated from what was considered appropriate for women. Note that Rebecca Weyman appended her own advertisement to the conclusion of Thomas Coleman’s much lengthier notice. In it, she specified that she “continues the Upholstery Business with Mr. COLEMAN.” For his part, Coleman indicated that he operated the business “At Mr. Edward Weyman’s.” The female upholsterer had both a business partner and a male relation overseeing her work. This gave her additional security to earn a living as an upholsterer by sanctioning her endeavors and shielding her from criticism. In a marketplace dominated by men, Rebecca Weyman mobilized her affiliation with these particular men as a means of giving her more freedom to operate her business, doing her best to transform constraint into opportunity.
Not all female advertisers, however, opted to establish masculine oversight of their business endeavors in their advertisements. An advertisement for a female shopkeeper appeared in the same column of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, placed by “FRANCES SWALLOW, SOLE-TRADER.” Among the colonies, South Carolina had a fairly unique legal designation for married women who operated businesses independently of their husbands: sole trader. Swallow established her autonomy in the first line of her advertisement, adopting a very different strategy than Weyman. Perhaps Rebecca Weyman believed that allowing Thomas Coleman to do the bulk of the marketing in their joint advertisement allowed her to attract attention for her services without attracting condemnation for her intrusion into the marketplace.