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.