Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I AM very sorry for advertising my Wife.”
Marital discord in the Elwell household spilled over into the public prints in the fall of 1772. In a notice dated October 20, John Elwell of “Salem County, West New-Jersey” revealed some of those difficulties to the readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette. His advertisement ran a week later in the October 28 edition, stating that “MARCEY ELWELL, my Wife, hath eloped from me, and I am apprehensive that she will run me in Debt.” Accordingly, he placed the notice “to forewarn all Persons not to trust her on my Account, as I am determined not to pay any Debts of her contracting, after the Date hereof.” Elwell used formulaic language that appeared in many similar advertisements published throughout the colonies. As in almost every other instance, the notice told only a portion of the story without any commentary from the wife who reportedly “eloped” from her husband. Only in rare instances did women publish rebuttals.
Marcey Elwell was not one of those wives who found the resources to run her own advertisement, but a short time later her husband apparently had a change of heart. In a notice dated November 2, he rescinded his previous statement. “I AM very sorry for advertising my Wife,” he wrote, “it being done through the Heat of Passion and Inconsideration; which I now retract.” It took longer for that advertisement to reach the printing office in Philadelphia than the initial one. The updated notice ran in the November 18 edition, more than two weeks after John wrote it. By that time, news that the Elwells reconciled may have spread via word of mouth in their local community. The second newspaper notice served as an update and conclusion for the broader public, alerting shopkeepers, artisans, and others that they could once again do business with Marcey. Although John did not discuss the particulars in either advertisement, the second notice may have also been part of his penance in convincing his wife to return to him. The husbands who placed such advertisements sought to shape the narratives about what occurred in their households, though readers knew that the wives had their own perspectives about what happened. Marcey’s side of the story did not appear in print, but her husband did make a rare public acknowledgment that it was he who had given in to “the Heat of Passion and Inconsideration.” Few wives received such apologies in the public prints.