What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“She has an assistant just arrived from London.”
In the late 1760s, relatively few women in Williamsburg, Virginia, resorted to the public prints to advertise consumer goods and services. Many certainly worked in shops operated by husbands and other male relations, their contributions hidden when it came to marketing. Others ran their own shops but neglected to make themselves more visible to the public by placing newspaper advertisements. They participated in the marketplace without calling attention to themselves, perhaps relying on friends and regular patrons to promote them via word of mouth.
Sarah Pitt, however, joined the ranks of women who did advertise. On December 14, 1769, she placed an advertisement in William Rind’s Virginia Gazette. She did not run the same advertisement in the other newspaper printed in Williamsburg, Alexander Purdie and John Dixon’s Virginia Gazette. Her marketing did not reach as many readers as notices that other advertisers placed in both publications. Still, she informed readers of Rind’s newspaper that she sold an array of textiles, accessories, and other merchandise, most of it intended for women and children.
To maintain and even enlarge her customer base or, as she described it, “a continuance of the Ladies custom,” Pitt also reported that “she has an assistant just arrived from London.” This assistant, presumably a woman, “understands the millinery business.” This allowed Pitt to expand her enterprise by providing a service associated with the goods she sold. She provided one-stop shopping for customers who wished to purchase, for example, “Balladine silk,” “rich black lace,” “white blond thread,” “fine cap wire,” and “shaded flowers” to be made into a hat. Having “just arrived from London,” Pitt’s assistant would have been familiar with the current fashions in the most cosmopolitan city in the empire. With that knowledge, she could recommend other accouterments and combinations of goods to purchase for the purpose of making hats or “mounting fans, and making cardinals and bonnets.”
Sarah Pitt made savvy decisions when she advertised in Rind’s Virginia Gazette. She emphasized consumer choice by listing a vast array of goods available at her shop. She also promoted a service that many other shopkeepers did not provide, noting the contributions her new assistant made to the business.