What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds.”
Colonists in Boston glimpsed a sign that spring was on its way when Susanna Renken inserted an advertisement for seeds in the Massachusetts Gazette in late February 1768. It was the first of many similar advertisements that residents of Boston would have recognized as part of an annual ritual. As the first day of spring approached, other seed sellers, most of them women, joined Renken in advising the public of the many sorts of seeds they stocked, from vegetables to herbs to flowers.
Such advertisements appeared in newspapers published in other cities, but they were especially prevalent in Boston. A greater number of women who participated in the seed trade turned to the public prints to attract customers. Many of them advertised in multiple newspapers. Renken, for example, launched her advertising campaign for 1768 in the Massachusetts Gazette but very quickly followed up with notices in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy. For instance, her advertisement was the first item in the first column on the final page of the March 14, 1768, edition of the Boston-Gazette.
By then her competitors had joined her in hawking their wares in the city’s newspapers. Advertisements placed by women who sold seeds filled almost the entire column (with the exception of a two-line advertisement for “Scotch COALS” and the colophon). Rebeckah Walker, Elizabeth Greenleaf, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, and Lydia Dyar each promoted their seeds, renewing their efforts from the spring of 1768. Elsewhere in the same issue Anna Johnson’s advertisement even featured a headline for “Garden Seeds, Peas, Beans, &c.” that distinguished her notice from the others. On the same day, Sarah Winsor advertised seeds in the Boston Post-Boy.
Advertisements by Renken, Greenleaf, Dyar, and other women who sold seeds cropped up in Boston’s newspapers each spring, but even though several of them indicated that they also sold “all sorts of Groceries” or “English Goods” or other merchandise at their shops they disappeared from the advertising pages throughout the rest of the year. Why did these women consider it imperative to advertise only seeds and only as spring approached? In general, female shopkeepers were disproportionately underrepresented compared to their male counterparts when it came to placing newspaper advertisements. Considered separately, a survey of advertisements for seeds suggests that selling them was a feminized occupation in the late 1760s. Did women who otherwise avoided drawing attention to their participation in the marketplace as retailers who competed with men (rather than solely as consumers) feel more latitude to place advertisements when they knew that they competed predominantly with other women?