April 6

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 6 - 4:6:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 6, 1770).

“Seeds.”

It was a sign of spring.  Just as advertisements for almanacs told readers of colonial newspapers that fall had arrived and the new year was coming, advertisements for seeds signified that winter was coming to an end and spring would soon be upon them.  In the newspapers published in Boston in the late 1760s and early 1770s, this meant a dramatic increase in female entrepreneurs among those who placed advertisements.  Women who sold goods or provided services appeared only sporadically among newspaper notices throughout the rest of the year, but turned out in much greater numbers to peddle seeds in the spring.

Although printers and compositors did not usually organize or classify advertisements according to their purpose in eighteenth-century newspapers, they did tend to group together notices placed by women selling seeds.  Consider the last column of the final page of the April 6, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Although it concluded with a legal notice, advertisements for seeds sold by women comprised the rest of the column. Bethiah Oliver hawked seeds available at her shop “opposite the Rev. Dr. Sewall’s Meeting House.”  The appropriately named Elizabeth Greenleaf advised prospective customers to visit her shop “at the End of Union-Street, over-against the BLUE-BALL.”:  Elizabeth Clark and Elizabeth Nowell sold seeds at their shop “six Doors to the Southward of the Mill-Bridge.”  Susanna Renken also carried seeds at her shop “In Fore Street, near the Draw-Bridge.”  She was the only member of this sorority who advertised other wares, declaring that she stocked “all sorts of English Goods, imported before the Non-importation Agreement took Place.”  She was also the only one who sometimes advertised at other times during the year.  Did the others sell only seeds and operate seasonal businesses?  Or did they also carry other wares but refrain from advertising?

Spring planting was a ritual for colonists, including women who kept gardens to help feed their families.  Placing advertisements about seeds for growing peas, beans, onions, turnips, lettuce, and other produce was a ritual for the female seed sellers of Boston.  Encountering those advertisements in the city’s newspapers became one or many markers of the passage of time and the progression of the seasons for readers of those newspapers.  The news changed from year to year, but advertisements for seeds in the spring was a constant feature of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and other newspaper.

March 14

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 14 - 3:14:1768 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 14, 1768).

“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?

March 9

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 9 - 3:9:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 9, 1767).

“Red and white Clover, Red Top and Herds Grass Seed, warranted to be of last Year’s Growth.”

Compared to their male counterparts, women who pursued their own businesses placed advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers much less frequently. Even though they comprised a sizeable minority of shopkeepers in urban ports, they tended not to inject themselves into the marketplace via the public prints.

For one type of female entrepreneur, however, that changed, at least temporarily, in Boston for several weeks in late winter and early spring in the 1760s. Women who specialized in selling seeds placed advertisements in Boston’s newspapers and competed with each other for customers as the time for planting gardens approached.

Consider the March 9, 1767, issues of the Boston-Gazette. Susanna Renken’s advertisement appeared on the first page. Notices placed by four other female seed sellers (and one male competitor who, unlike the women, described his occupation as “Gardener”) filled almost an entire column on the final page of the supplement devoted solely to advertising. Just as Renken stated in her advertisement, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, Lydia Dyar, and Elizabeth Greenleaf noted that they imported seeds from London and listed the varieties they stocked. Each had advertised the previous year as well.

Clark, Dyar, and the appropriately named Greenleaf confined their advertising to seeds, but Renken also promoted “all Sorts of English GOODS and China Ware” and Oliver stocked “a general Assortment of Glass, Delph and Stone Ware, Lynn Shoes, best Bohea Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and all other Groceries.” Their advertisements suggest that Renken and Oliver ran operations much more extensive than peddling seeds, which may explain why those two also inserted advertisements in the Boston Post-Boy on the same day. Clark, Dyar, and Greenleaf may have also stocked various imported housewares and groceries, despite not making an indication in their own advertisements. None of these five women who ran advertisements for the seeds they sold in successive springs, however, placed advertisements at other times during the year.

What explains the prominence of advertisements by women selling seeds amid the scarcity of advertising by other women in colonial Boston’s marketplace? Why did the women in this occupation turn to advertising when other women who operated other sorts of businesses did not? Why did Renken and Oliver only advertise their other wares at the conclusion of their advertisements for seeds and not in separate advertisements throughout the rest of the year? These advertisements demonstrate women’s activity in the marketplace as sellers, not just consumers, but they also raise a series of questions about the limits of that participation captured in print during the period.

April 16

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 16 - 4:14:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 14, 1766).

“All Sorts of Garden Seeds.”

This advertisement sold goods that had been imported from London. The goods featured included various types of garden seeds. The advertisement listed “Pease and Beans, … split Pease, Hemp, Rape and Canary Bird Seed, red Clover and Herds Grass Seed.” Peas and beans were eaten. Hemp was used for a variety of things, including making rope. Rapeseed was a yellow flowering plant used as birdseed in colonial America, though it was used in China and Africa as a vegetable. Canary seed was used in conjunction with rapeseed for birdseed. Grass seed was used for planting grass and feeding livestock.

 

Apr 16 - Rapeseed
Rapeseed.

During the eighteenth century, the vegetables and herbs that were prepared, served, and eaten were often grown in home gardens. Due to the fact that settlers were still arriving and settling in, there were not many strong strains of familiar plants available, so plant seeds were imported from England. Colonial American gardens were grown in the style of European gardens due to the fact that inhabitants arrived to the colonies from Europe and were used to practicing garden cultivation in this manner. Most plants grown in the Colonies came from heirloom strains, indicating that they were species that had been passed down for many generations. A Colonial Williamsburg study has revealed that today all eighteenth-century varieties of broccoli, cabbage, and kale are extinct and no longer grown, though a great many other eighteenth-century vegetables are still grown at different locations throughout the United States.

 

For more information on cultivating a garden using early American techniques and understandings, attend out Old Sturbridge Village’s Garden Thyme: Vermicomposting event at 10 A.M. today or other Garden Thyme events offered the third Saturday of every month.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

In addition to “All Sorts of Garden Seeds,” Bethiah Oliver sold “a general Assortment of Glass, Delph and Stone Ware, Lynn Shoes, best Bohea Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and all other Groceries” that had been “Imported in the last Ships from London.” As we have seen in recent weeks, when it came to consumer culture colonists had a complicated relationship with England in 1765 and 1766. The protests concerning the Stamp Act spilled over into advertisements, sometimes as advertisers promoted locally produced goods and other times when they gave directions to their shops that invoked familiarity with recent events (such as stating that a shop was located “Near Liberty-Bridge“). Many colonists were energized to boycott goods imported from Britain, hoping to gain English merchants – who were represented in Parliament – as allies as politics and commerce converged.

On the other hand, many advertisements in 1765 and 1766, including today’s advertisement from Bethiah Oliver, continued to use formulaic language: “Imported in the last Ships from London.” Those ships transported more than just consumer goods. They also carried news from the center of the British Empire, including news of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Oliver’s advertisements appeared on the final page of this issue of the Boston Evening-Post. The previous page included an article that announced the “Good News!” It also demonstrates how the “glorious News of the Repeal of the STAMP-ACT” spread throughout the colonies as vessels moved from port to port, bringing letters and newspapers that were then printed or reprinted. Still, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post knew that they did not yet have the entire story: “We hear a Packet was to sail from Falmouth for New York about the 11th of February, so that we may daily expect some further Particulars of this interesting affair.” Ships from England continued to bring more goods, but they also brought more news.

Apr 16 - Good News 4:14:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 14, 1766).

Bethiah Oliver advertised “All Sorts of Garden Seeds” to customers who continued in the seasonal rhythms of colonial life. I wonder if more potential customers might have seen her advertisement as they scrambled to read the news for themselves. Even if that was not the case, her commercial notice offers a glimpse of everyday life continuing even as momentous news unfolded.