What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“… till she behaves more like an obedient Wife.”
From New England to Georgia, runaway wife advertisements frequently appeared in early American newspapers. Aggrieved husbands warned the public against extending credit to wives who departed their households. Although these advertisements framed the women as spouses who abandoned both their household responsibilities and good social order, they also testified to one means at women’s disposal for exercising power in a society that granted so much authority to husbands. Almost certainly, women were not always solely to blame when marital discord that became so severe that wives fled from husbands. Men shaped the narrative when they published runaway wife advertisements, but they told only part of the story.
Such advertisements ran so often in colonial newspapers that they sometimes featured standardized or formulaic language, as in the case of Samuel Richardson’s notice in the April 5, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. “I forbid all Persons,” he stated, “trusting my Wife, Mary Richardson, any Thing on my Account.” Although the conflict in the Richardson household may have attracted attention, the wording that Samuel chose did not merit particular notices. Benjamin Wills, on the other hand, opted for language that did not regularly appear in this genre of advertising. “Edea, the wicked Wife of me the Subscriber,” he proclaimed, “makes a constant practice of squandering away my Substance, and spends the most of her Time in running from House to House, chatting about those Things of neither Advantage nor Profit, running me in Debt, wherever she can get credit, and takes no care of my House nor Family.” Benjamin catalogued specific grievances against his wife in the process of informing the community that he would “pay no Debts contracted by her … till she behaves more like an obedient Wife.”
Benjamin resorted to more colorful language than what appeared in most runaway wife advertisements. Was this evidence of greater discord in the Wills household compared to others with husbands who placed such advertisements? Did literacy play a part in the variations that made Benjamin’s advertisement so different from the standardized language of Samuel Richardson’s notice? Wills signed his advertisement with “his + Mark,” an indication that he did not write it, though he very well may have dictated it. Wills may have been able to read even if he could not sign his name, but he may have been familiar with runaway wife advertisements without regularly reading them and absorbing the formulaic wording. He understood their function even if he did not replicate their usual form. Realizing that such notices usually leveled accusations against willful wives, he may have done his best to explain why he found it necessary to publish the advertisement even though he did not have ready access to the usual words and phrases.
That Wills signed with “his + Mark” raises questions about the production of his advertisement. Did he visit the printing office? If so, did the printers offer any assistance in choosing the language or did they merely transcribe what Wills dictated? Did Wills instead entrust someone in the town of Lee with transcribing the advertisement for him and then sent it to the printing office in Portsmouth? If so, the printers did not have the opportunity to suggest the standardized words and phrases that so often appeared in runaway wife advertisements. The variations in Wills’s advertisement may have been the result of his level of literacy and the process of producing the notice for publication.