May 20

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Boston-Gazette (May 20, 1771).

UMBRILLOES.”

A brief advertisement in the May 20, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette informed readers of “ALL Sorts of UMBRILLOS, made in the neatest Manner, and very cheap, to be sold at the Golden Cock, Marlboro’ Street, Boston—Where Ladies may have their own Silk made into Umbrillos, or old Umbrillos mended.”  That advertisement likely garnered less attention than the one placed by competitor Isaac Greenwood in the same issue of the Boston-Gazette.  As part of his marketing campaign, Greenwood used graphic design to his advantage.

Like many other advertisers, Greenwood led with a headline, in this case “UMBRILLOES” in capitals, italics, and a slightly larger font.  He paired the headline with a visual image depicting a woman holding an umbrella.  A close view of the woman, it included only her head and shoulders, thus allowing readers to see that she wore a necklace and had an elaborate hairstyle.  The umbrella contributed to her aura of refinement.  The entire umbrella was not visible; instead, it extended beyond the frame of the image, suggesting that the amount of protection it provided from sun or rain could not be fully represented in the image.  More importantly, this also communicated that a woman who carried an umbrella would occupy a greater amount of both physical and visual space.  That, in turn, meant greater notice by observers.  As a fashionable accoutrement, an umbrella enhanced a genteel woman’s image or even a young girl’s image.  Greenwood proclaimed that “Ladies may be supplied with all Sizes, so small as to suit Misses of 6 or 7 Years of Age.”  As Kate Haulman explains, umbrellas appeared in England and its American colonies in the 1760s, “stylistic spoils of empire hailing from India,” but many critics considered umbrellas “effeminate, appropriate only for use by women.”[1]  Note that both advertisements positioned women and girls as the primary consumers of umbrellas or parasols, the decidedly feminine counterpart.

Carrying an umbrella, the entire concept an exotic import in the early 1770s, likely meant attracting attention.  Greenwood underscored that was the case with a visual image that undoubtedly drew notice, especially since so few newspaper advertisements featured visual images of any sort.  In depicting both an umbrella and the woman who carried it, Greenwood anticipated the fashion plate that became such an integral part of marketing in the nineteenth century.

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[1] Kate Haulman, “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 62, no. 4 (October 2005): 632.

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