What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Early Charlton, early Hotspur, early Golden Hotspur.”
For colonizers in Boston and nearby towns, it was a sign that spring was coming! The first advertisement for garden seeds appeared in local newspapers on February 15, 1773. In the late 1760s and the early 1770s, seed sellers, most of them women, took to the pages of the public prints to advertise their wares when they believed that winter passed its halfway point. Susanna Renken was the first in 1773, just as she had been in 1768 and 1770. Soon, several other women who advertised seeds each year would join her, as would a smaller number of men. Indeed, shopkeeper John Adams placed the second advertisement for seeds in newspapers printed in Boston in 1773, but it did not take long for women to outnumber him with their advertisements.
Renken, already familiar to many readers in part due to her annual advertising campaign, had the market to her herself for a few days. On February 15, she ran notices with identical copy in two of the three newspapers published in Boston that day, the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette. She focused primarily on a long list of seeds, but concluded by mentioning some grocery items, a “Variety of China Bowls and Dishes,” and an “Assortment of India and English Goods.” Most of her female competitors usually did not promote other items, but Renken recognized an opportunity to encourage other sales, especially if customers were not quite ready to purchase garden seeds in the middle of February. After all, many of the headlines in other advertisements still hawked “WINTER GOODS.
She had the public prints to herself for only three days. Adams inserted his advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on February 18. Renken did not expand her advertising to that newspaper or the Massachusetts Spy. Her next notices ran once again in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette and, for the first time that year, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on February 22. Other women who participated in the annual ritual joined her on that day, Elizabeth Clark and Nowell, Elizabeth Dyar, and Elizabeth Greenleaf in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette and Elizabeth Greenleaf in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. Ebenezer Oliver, who inherited the business from his mother, Bethiah Oliver, and invoked her name in his notice, also advertised in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette, as did John Adams. A few days later, John Adams, Elizabeth Greenleaf, and Ebenezer Oliver advertised in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and Lydia Dyar, Elizabeth Greenleaf, and Anna Johnson advertised in the Massachusetts Spy on February 25. By then, Renken decided that she would increase the number of newspapers carrying her advertisements, perhaps after noticing that her competitors launched their campaigns. She also placed a notice in the February 25 edition of the Massachusetts Spy. For a few days Renken was the sole seed seller promoting her merchandise in Boston’s newspapers, but it soon became a very crowded field.