What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“MARY SYMONDS, MILLENER, Is now removed from her late Shop.”
The advertisement that Mary Symonds, a milliner, inserted in the April 7, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazettedid not look any different than others promoting consumer goods and services, but that belies her role as an extraordinary advertiser in early America.
What made Symonds extraordinary? It was not merely that she was a female entrepreneur who advertised her wares in the public prints. True, women were disproportionately underrepresented among newspaper advertisers in eighteenth-century America, especially in busy urban ports like Philadelphia where they comprised anywhere from a quarter to a third or more of shopkeepers. Despite their numbers, relatively few ran newspaper advertisements. Yet enough did that Symonds could not be considered extraordinary – then or now – for placing an advertisement that promoted the “very large and neat Assortment of MILLENERY GOODS for Sale” at her new shop on Chestnut Street.
In addition to regularly running notices in newspapers, Symonds resorted to at least one other form of advertising, one that male merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans dominated even more than newspaper advertisements. By 1770 she distributed a large trade card to incite demand among prospective customers. Trade cards circulated widely in England, especially in London. The practice made its way across the Atlantic to the colonies, but relatively few women adopted this method of advertising. Those that did tended to commission rather simple designs that did not rival the engraved images that graced the trade cards passed out by their male counterparts.
Fewer than half a dozen trade cards distributed by American women in the eighteenth century have survived, indicating that even fewer women resorted to trade cards than placed newspaper advertisements. That made Symonds an extraordinary advertiser. Her trade card stands out as an example not of what was probably in the eighteenth-century marketplace but instead what was possible. The milliner devised an advertising campaign that incorporated one of the most innovative methods deployed by male entrepreneurs, supplementing her newspaper advertisements with engraved trade cards for current customers and prospective clients. In so doing, she made a major investment in her marketing efforts, expecting it to pay off by attracting more business to her shop.
Colonists encountered a visual landscape of advertising every day. By distributing her trade card, Mary Symonds claimed a place in that visual landscape of circulating ephemera just as she physically occupied a space in the marketplace by operating a shop on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.