What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I shall from this Date, pay no Debts of his contracting.”
Advertisements that ran in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy in the spring of 1772 testified to marital discord in the Wolcott household. In the May 8 edition, Jeremy Wolcott inserted a notice informing the public that “My wife SARAH, and MYSELF, being unhappy in the Marriage State !! which had subjected me to great anxiety; and for Reasons, I hereby forbid any Person trusting her on my Account, for I will not pay any Debts by her contracted, after this Date.” It was one of dozens of similar advertisements placed by anxious patriarchs in newspapers published in New England that year. Throughout the colonies, aggrieved husbands ran similar notices in their attempts to assert control over wives they claimed did not obey their commands. Jeremy’s advertisement appeared in the next two issues as well.
When it concluded its run, something unusual happened. Sarah inserted her own advertisement in response, a rare instance of a wife answering her husband’s charges in print. Not surprisingly, Sarah told a very different story than the one rehearsed by Jeremy, one that likely humiliated him even more than placing his own advertisement that implicitly confessed his inability to exercise proper authority within his household. In a notice that first appeared in the May 29 edition, Sarah referred to Jeremy’s notices “in the Connecticut Journal, No. 238, 39, and 40” that advised “the Publick, not to trust me on his account, and declar’d he will pay no Debts of my contracting.” Given the actual state of affairs, according to Sarah, that advertisement misrepresented Jeremy’s record of providing for his wife. “I think I ought (in Justice to myself),” she proclaimed, “inform the Public, That I never was trusted a farthing on his Credit, in my Life.” Furthermore, “when I was married to my said Husband, he had no Estate, and was much in Debt, which I soon after paid for him, and ever since he has been supported out of the Incomes of my Estate, for he has done little or nothing to support himself.” In Sarah’s version, Jeremy had never fulfilled his responsibilities as husband and head of household.
She then turned the tables on him, issuing similar directions “not to trust him hereafter, on my Account, as I shall from this Date, pay no Debts of his contracting, further than the Select-Men’s Allowance.” Sarah paid taxes legitimately levied by locally elected representatives, but she asserted that she did not want the resources she brought to the marriage used by Jeremy for any other purposes. That must have resulted in further embarrassment for Jeremy, especially since the vast majority of women targeted in the sort of advertisement that he placed did not have the means to offer any sort of rebuttal in print. Most of the time, husbands exercised exclusive access to the power of the press. On occasions, however, women like Sarah Wolcott published forceful responses that may have caused their husbands to wish that they have never gotten the printing office involved at all.