July 5

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (July 2, 1772).

“M. ASBY, Millener from LONDON.”

In the summer of 1772, James Asby took to the pages of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter to inform the public that he imported a “compleat Assortment of Gold, Silver, Pinchbeck & Tortoishell WATCHES” and sold them at his shop “nearly opposite the British Coffee-House in King-street.”  He placed that notice in collaboration with M. Asby, a “Millener from LONDON” who advised “her Customers and other Ladies” that she “removed from the Corner of Cross-street to a Tenement in Capt. Joy’s Buildings in Quaker-Lane.”  James and M. did not disclose their relationship.  They might have been husband and wife operating businesses at different locations, but they might have been brother and sister, father and daughter, or mother and son.

Whatever their relationship, promoting the millinery shop accounted for two-thirds of the advertisement, an interesting contrast to most advertisements shared by male and female relations.  In most instances, women’s contributions to the family business or enterprises that they pursued on their own amounted to a brief sentence or two at the end of an advertisement, if they were mentioned at all.  In this case, however, M. described in some detail the “compleat Assortment of dress and undress Caps of the newest Fashions, Ribbons, Gauzes, silk Gloves and Mits, Ladies Patterns for Ruffels, and Handkerchiefs, and many other Articles in the Millenary Way” that she imported.  In addition, she declared that she made cloaks, hats, bonnets, and other garments “on the shortest Notice, and in the most fashionable Taste.”  By reiterating “newest Fashions” and “most Fashionable Taste,” she sought to reassure prospective customers that they could trust her to outfit them according to the latest styles.  Underscoring that she was an entrepreneur in her own right, M. concluded the advertisement with a note that “An Apprentice is wanted to the said Business.”

Even as James and M. invested in an advertisement together, she became the focal point of the notice.  Her name and occupation, “M. ASBY, Millener from LONDON,” appeared in larger font and centered, drawing attention.  In contrast, James’s name, though in all capitals, appeared in the same size font in the middle of a paragraph.  Only on closer examination would readers have discovered that the two placed the advertisement together.  At first glance, most readers likely assumed the advertisement concerned M. and her business alone.  Even though her name appeared second, she took the lead in the advertisement that James and M. shared.