What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, By ELIZABETH VAN DYCK.”
The front page of the July 30, 1770, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury featured a letter “To the PRINTER” reprinted from the Public Ledger and several advertisements for consumers goods. Many of those notices used the names of the advertisers as headlines, setting them in larger type and often in capitals. At a glance, readers saw that ABEEL & BYVANCK; GEORGE BALL; RICHARD CURSON; Herman Gouverneur; Greg, Cunningham and Co.; PHILIP LIVINGSTON; JOHN McKENNEY; and ELIZABETH VAN DYCK all offered goods for sale to consumers in the city and beyond.
In many ways, those advertisements each resembled the others. With the exception of George Ball and the partnership of Abeel and Byvanck, each advertiser purchased a “square” of space and filled most of it with a short list of their merchandise. Abeel and Byvanck’s advertisement occupied two squares and George Ball’s four. Each of those longer advertisements divided the list of goods into two columns, as did Richard Curson’s advertisement. With minor variations, these advertisements for consumer goods adhered to a standard format.
That meant that the most distinguishing feature of Elizabeth Van Dyck’s advertisement was that it promoted a business operated by a female entrepreneur. Women comprised a substantial minority of shopkeepers in colonial American port cities, with some estimates running as high as four out of ten. Yet they did not place newspaper advertisements in proportion to their presence in the marketplace as purveyors of goods rather than consumers. Van Dyck was the only female shopkeeper who advertised in that issue of New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, while more than a dozen advertisements for consumer goods deployed men’s names as their headlines. No female shopkeepers advertised in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Post-Boy published the same day, nor the New-York Journal three days later.
The representation of the marketplace among the advertisements in New York’s newspapers presented it as primarily the domain of men, at least as far as wholesalers and retailers were concerned. Even though women operated shops in the bustling port in the early 1770s, they did not establish a presence in the public prints in proportion to their numbers. When Van Dyck chose to join the ranks of her male counterparts who advertised, she composed a notice that conformed to the standard format. She struck a careful balance, calling attention to her business but not calling too much attention to it. In so doing, she claimed space for herself in the market, both the actual market and the representation of it in the newspaper, while demonstrating that women’s activities as entrepreneurs need not be disruptive to good order.