What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I will not pay any debts of her contracting.”
Four short lines on the final page of advertisements in the August 19, 1767, issue of the Georgia Gazette alerted residents of Savannah to discord in the Frentz household. John Frentz placed a notice “to forewarn all persons from purchasing effects of any kind from my wife, Margaret Frentz, or crediting her on my account.” He added that he would not “pay any debts of her contracting” after August 4, 1767.
By August 19, regular readers of the Georgia Gazette would have been aware of Frentz’s prohibition already. The notice first appeared two weeks earlier in the August 5 edition and again on August 12. Like many advertisements published during the colonial era, it ran for three weeks before disappearing from the pages of the public prints. The discord between John and Margaret Frentz, however, most likely did not evaporate quite so quickly, not if it had been so substantial as to warrant airing in public in the local newspaper.
Frentz’s advertisement was the only one of its kind in the Georgia Gazette throughout the month of August 1767, but it was not a sort unfamiliar to colonists. In larger ports, weekly newspapers often carried as many as half a dozen such warnings published by husbands targeting absent or recalcitrant wives. Any given issue published in New York or Philadelphia was as likely as not to contain at least one such notice.
Frentz’s notice, however, did differ from most others in one significant way. He did not indicate that Margaret had departed from his household. Similar announcements have collectively become known as “runaway wife” advertisements; they usually included some sort of variation on the wife “eloping” away from husband and home, thus justifying the aggrieved husband no longer assuming responsibility for any debts contracted by an absent and insubordinate wife.
Margaret may not have departed at the time John composed his advertisement, but he still worried about what sorts of mischief she might do to his disadvantage. He attempted to eliminate, or at least curtail, her ability to participate in the marketplace, disavowing any debts she initiated. He also sought to prevent her from selling any sorts of goods, presumably including his own belongings, which may have been a strategy for preventing her from eventually “eloping” once she had accumulated enough cash to have a fair chance of making her escape.
Runaway wife advertisements are often interpreted as evidence of women asserting agency in eighteenth-century America, removing themselves from unhappy marriages and households. That was certainly the case, but they also demonstrate that husbands continued to possess the upper hand, even after wives departed. Women had less access to cash and credit as well as fewer opportunities to participate in the marketplace. In this advertisement, John Frentz used buying and selling goods as a means of curbing the agency of his disobedient wife.