What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The late Company of ABIGAIL WHITNEY and DAUGHTER.”
In an extraordinary that accompanied the March 31, 1768, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette, Abigail Whitney advertised “a large Assortment of Goods” that she sold “at her Shop in Union-Street” in Boston. Like other eighteenth-century merchants and shopkeepers, she made an appeal to price, announcing that she sold her wares “quite low.” She also demonstrated the extent of the choices she offered consumers by listing dozens of items included among her “large Assortment of Goods,” from a variety of fabrics to curtains and quilts to items for personal adornment that included buttons, fans, and “Horn and Ivory Combs.” She further emphasized choice when she stated that she also stocked “many other Articles not mentioned.” Among the items she did list, Whitney explicitly connected some to current styles in London and throughout the British Atlantic world as a means of further enticing prospective customers concerned that they appear genteel to their friends and neighbors. For instance, she carried “newest fashion striped and flowered Lutestrings” to be made into garments. Given this array of marketing strategies, Whitney’s advertisement was not extraordinary at all, despite being published in a four-page extraordinary when Richard Draper needed more space for all the content he had compiled for the Massachusetts Gazette that week.
Whitney’s advertisement, however, was fairly unique given that she was a female retailer who advertised her participation in the colonial marketplace as supplier rather than a consumer. In urban ports, women comprised a significant proportion of shopkeepers, often more than a quarter of all shopkeepers according to other records from the late colonial period. Yet many chose not to advertise in the public prints; they were disproportionately underrepresented among the advertisements that filled and sometimes dominated the pages of colonial newspapers. Even though some of Whitney’s sister retailers did advertise in Boston’s newspapers they did not do so according to their numbers among the residents of the city.
Whitney herself may have chosen to advertise as the result of extraordinary circumstances. A short paragraph at the end of her advertisement, a fraction of the length of the list of the “Assortment of Goods,” called on “all Persons indebted to the late Company of ABIGAIL WHITNEY and DAUGHTER, to pay their respective Ballances speedily.” If they did not, the “surviving Partner” would initiate legal action. Abigail Whitney and Daughter had not been in the habit of advertising. The last (and only) time that an advertisement placed by anyone named Abigail Whitney appeared in newspapers published in Boston had been nearly ten years earlier when notices appeared in both the Boston-Gazette and the Boston News-Letter in December 1759. Those advertisements had a similar format, listing an extensive inventory of imported goods. Between March and July 1768, Whitney placed the new advertisement in the Boston Chronicle, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette, but she did not advertise in newspapers again after that. Although she advertised rarely, Abigail Whitney’s advertisement testifies to the presence of women in the colonial marketplace as retailers, producers, and suppliers. They were familiar to colonists who walked the streets of Boston even if they maintained much less visibility in the pages of newspapers from the era. Whitney’s advertisement even reveals a partnership of female entrepreneurs, a partnership cut short when her daughter died.