What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ELIZABETH ROFFE HAS just imported … a fresh assortment of GOODS.”
On November 16, 1767, the Boston Post-Boy published an “Address to the LADIES,” a poem that advised women to refrain from purchasing imported goods in favor of wearing “cloaths of your own make and spinn.” In addition to donning homespun, the anonymous poet recommended that women substitute Labrador tea indigenous to North America for Bohea and Hyson cultivated in other parts of the world and shipped through English ports. The poet also gave advice for courtship: “agree that you’ll not married be / To such as will wear London Fact’ry” and instead encourage relationships only with men who clothed themselves in “our own Manufact’ry.” Despite this brief acknowledgment that men purchased imported textiles and other goods, the poet positioned women as the primary consumers in the colonies, a common assumption among poets and essayists who critiqued consumer culture in the public prints in the decades before the American Revolution. The author underscored the urgency of following these instructions by stating that “money’s so scarce, and times growing worse,” referring to an imbalance of trade with Britain that drained the colonies of hard currency. Concerns about “times growing worse” may have also included the imposition of the Townshend Act in less than a week.
The “Address to the LADIES” portrayed women as consumers. It did not, however, address women as purveyors of consumer goods. The poet imagined women’s participation in the marketplace confined to consumption alone, envisioning even the acts of production required to generate homespun as individual labors that did not extend to marketing, selling, or otherwise participating in commerce as retailers rather than shoppers. Yet women operated their own shops and ran other businesses throughout the colonies, especially in the largest and busiest port cities.
Female entrepreneurs were certainly underrepresented among advertisers who promoted consumer goods and services in eighteenth-century newspapers, but they were not completely absent. The day after readers in Boston perused the “Address to the LADIES” the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal ran two advertisements placed by women. Katharine Lind and Elizabeth Roffe each inserted list-style advertisements that named dozens of items they recently imported and stocked in their shops in Charleston. They also advanced other appeals made by their male counterparts, including price and quality.
Even as the author of the “Address to the LADIES” called on women to practice politics through their consumer choices, he or she overlooked the important role women played on the other side of the production/consumption equation. Calling on female retailers to alter their relationships with English merchants who supplied their wares, however, would have required also lecturing their male counterparts. That would have distributed responsibility to both men and women, whereas imagining consumption as predominantly a feminine pursuit conveniently allocated blame to women alone. It made them responsible for the vices and disadvantages associated with importing and purchasing an array of goods instead of relying on American manufactures. This scapegoating ignored the entrepreneurial efforts of women like Lind and Roffe while simultaneously sparing their male peers from critique.