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