August 30

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

Aug 30 - 8:30:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (August 30, 1768).

“REBECCA WRIGHT, SOLE-DEALER, MILLINER, from LONDON.”

Late in the summer of 1768, Rebecca Wright, a “MILLINER, from LONDON,” took to the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to announce that she intended to open her own shop on King Street in Charleston. She informed prospective customers that she pursued “the MILLINARY BUSINESS in all its branches, in the genteelest taste.” In just a few words, Wright commented on her abilities to pursue her trade and her attention to current fashions. In those regards the appeals in her advertisement paralleled some of the most common appeals deployed by artisans throughout the eighteenth century. Her notice, however, deviated from those placed by other artisans in once significant manner: the headline.

For most artisans, their name alone served as the headline for their advertisements. Their occupation or trade appeared as a secondary headline. Such was the case in other advertisements that ran in the same column as Wright’s notice. These included “JAMES OLIPHANT, JEWELLER, in Broad-street, next door to the Post-office,” “JOHN LORD, CARVER and GILDER,” and “THOMAS COLEMAN, UPHOLSTERER and PAPER-HANGER.” The headline for Wright’s advertisement had an additional element, identifying her as a “SOLE-DEALER” before listing her occupation as a secondary headline. What did this designation mean?

Laws replicating the English practice of coverture were in place throughout the colonies. Such laws negated the separate legal identity of married women. This certainly had ramifications for women in business. As the Elizabeth Murray Project explains, “Most legal arrangements, such as contracts, were considered to be the husband’s sole right and responsibility. … If [a wife] were able to enter into contracts on her own, she could ultimately be held liable in ways that might deprive a husband of services to which he had first claim.” Wives who ran their own businesses did so under the authority of their husbands, who were legally responsible for the debts incurred and other commercial activities of their entrepreneurial wives. Only Pennsylvania and South Carolina passed feme sole trader statutes that enabled married women to participate in the marketplace on their own behalf, separating their legal identity from husbands when it came to business.

Wright proclaimed that this was case with her millinery shop. The headline of her advertisement announced that she operated her business on her own, that she (not her husband) was ultimately responsible for making contracts, paying debts, suing for payment, and any other legal actions necessary for its operation. This advertisement – along with one placed by “FRANCES SWALLOW, SOLE DEALER,” on the same page – testifies to the commercial independence that some married women managed to achieve even in an age when coverture was the common practice.

September 15

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

Sep 15 - 9:15:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 15, 1767).

“HESTER is now become a sole trader.”

Throughout the eighteenth century the laws of coverture prevented most married women in Britain’s American colonies from operating businesses independently of their husbands. Upon marriage, the wife became a feme covert, her legal rights and obligations subsumed by her husband. Married women were barred from owning property and could not make contracts or sign legal documents in their own names. They also could not incur debts; instead, husbands were responsible for financial obligations their wives initiated (which helps to explain why so many advertisements for runaway wives stated that husbands would not pay any debts the absent wives contracted; it was a means of exercising control). A feme covert was literally “covered” by her husband in a legal fiction that the two had become one person. An unmarried woman, known as a feme sole, on the other hand, had not surrendered those rights. Single and widowed women operated businesses without the permission or oversight of husbands, but in most colonies married women did not have that option.

The colonial governments in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, however, did pass feme sole trader laws that allowed married women to conduct business in their own names, assuming all the risks yet exercising all the responsibilities. South Carolina passed two such laws, first in 1712 and again in 1744. According to the Elizabeth Murray Project, “the title of the 1712 law suggests that it was designed to make married women traders more responsible for their own debts.” The 1744 expanded on that purpose by offering certain protections to married businesswomen, especially allowing for “women to sue debtors in their own names.”

In the late summer of 1767 Hester Fulcker became an entrepreneur in her own right, but only after receiving permission from her husband. Henry Fulcker placed an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal announcing that Hester “is now become a sole trader by his consent.” Accordingly, “any body may trust her as such on her separate account, independent of him.” This gave Hester greater freedom to operate her business, but it also shielded Henry from any financial liability if she failed. Compared to married women in most other colonies, Hester Fulcker experienced significantly greater opportunities for participating in the marketplace as a retailer and supplier rather than solely as a consumer, thanks to her feme sole trader status.

September 9

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

Sep 9 - 9:9:1766 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 9, 1766).

“To carry on Business on her own proper Account, as sole Dealer and seperate Trader.”

Anne Raymor published an advertisement with an unusual twist. Throughout the colonies, newspaper readers would have been very familiar with advertisements for runaway wives, a genre in which aggrieved husbands announced that their wives had absconded or “eloped” from them and warning merchants, shopkeepers, and other not to extend any credit to them. In such instances, men exercised financial mastery over women, curtailing their ability to participate in the marketplace as consumers.

According to today’s advertisement, Anne Raymor wished to be more than a consumer. She wanted to “carry on Business on her own proper Account, as sole Dealer and seperate Trader, exclusive and free from any Concern with her Husband.” In this instance, it was the wife who sought to sever financial connections with the husband. This was a particularly transgressive course considering the political and economic rights of women under the laws of coverture in eighteenth-century America.

Upon marriage, a woman became a feme covert, her legal identity subsumed by her husband, the head of the family and household. She could not own property in her own name, sign contracts, control her own earnings, or sue others in court. All of these actions would have been important and necessary, then as now, for women who operated businesses, whether shopkeepers, milliners, seamstresses, or tavernkeepers. An unmarried woman, a feme sole, did not labor under such restrictions.

Raymor did not provide any details about her dispute with her husband, but she sought some means to function as a feme sole and pursue her business interests independently of her husband’s oversight or interference. Obtaining credit “from some of her Friends” provided an avenue to do so, at least according to the “Advice of Council at Law” that she had consulted.

This advertisement demonstrates that women found themselves in a precarious position when it came to being entrepreneurs in eighteenth-century America. Making a living was also difficult for men, but it was even more imperative for most women to rely on others, especially networks of friends, when they operated on their own in the marketplace. Anne Raymor found herself in the position of using the limited space in her advertisement to delineate her relationship with her husband rather than extolling the qualities of her merchandise.