GUEST CURATOR: Katerina Barbas
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Woman of good character … may hear of a place by inquiring of the Printer hereof.”
This advertisement highlights traditional gender roles for European colonists in colonial America. European gender roles constituted that the ideal family was led by a man who was in charge of his family and represented it beyond the home, while a woman performed domestic work and ran the household. These European gender roles were brought to the colonies in the new world. According to an article on National Geographic’s website, white women in colonial America had responsibilities within the household such as cooking, cleaning, sewing, making soap and candles, and caring for and educating children, which was their primary role. Seeking a “woman of a good character” required that the woman be an exceptional role model, because she would be supporting the emotional and moral development of the children and prepare them for adulthood. A woman who responded to this advertisement would have been responsible for teaching young girls in the family how to perform household tasks in order to prepare them for the traditional role as wife and mother.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Among the many legal notices and advertisements for consumer goods and services that colonists paid to insert in the New-York Journal, a variety of employment advertisements appeared as well. Many of them featured labor undertaken by women. In the advertisement Katerina chose to feature today, an unnamed advertiser sought a woman willing to move fourteen miles from the busy port to serve as a “nursery maid” for a family in the countryside. In another advertisement in the October 3, 1771, edition, another anonymous advertiser offered work for a “Careful woman who understands washing, cooking … and is willing to do all work in a middling family.” That advertisement concluded with a nota bene proclaiming that “None need apply without being able to produce a good character from reputable people.” In other words, candidates needed to produce references before entering the household. The family in the countryside seeking a nursery maid also likely requested similar assurances.
In both instances, the prospective employers relied on John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, to act as a broker. The family in the countryside informed prospective nursery maids that they “may hear of a place by inquiring of the Printer hereof.” Similarly, the “middling family” instructed women with appropriate references that they “may hear of employment by applying to the printer.” Holt disseminated some information in print, but, at the request of advertisers, reserved some details only for readers who contacted the printing office. That was also the case for a “likely healthy Negro” woman offered for sale. An unnamed enslaver described the woman as “an excellent thorough Cook” who could “pickle and preserve.” The advertisement did not say much else about the woman except that she was “about 24 Years of Age.” Like so many other advertisements, it declared, “for Particulars, inquire of the Printer.” In this instance, Holt became not only an information broker but also a broker of enslaved labor. He actively facilitated the slave trade, first by running the advertisement in his newspaper and then by collaborating with enslavers who bought and sold the “likely healthy Negro” woman.
Colonists turned to the public prints as a clearinghouse for acquiring workers, female as well as male. Advertisements offering employment to women maintained expectations about the roles they fulfilled within families, like cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. Some of those advertisements offered women new opportunities with employers of their choosing, but others merely perpetuated the enslavement of Black women. Gender played an important part in shaping the experiences of women who applied to the advertisement Katerina selected for today, but it was not the only factor that defined their role in New York and other colonies.