What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I am obliged to take this public Method to forewarn all Persons from trusting her on my Account.”
“I am obliged to take this method solemnly to declare, that those charges against me have not the least foundation in truth.”
Joseph Perkins’ advertisement concerning the misbehavior of his wife, Elizabeth, made its second appearance in the August 24, 1767, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, having previously appeared in the issue with the same date inserted at the end of the notice, August 17. More elaborate than many “runaway wife” advertisements, this one was particularly notable because it garnered a response in print from its subject. Most such advertisements went unanswered in the newspapers, but occasionally bold women refused to allow their husbands to exercise exclusive control over shaping the narrative presented to the public.
Elizabeth may have anticipated that her husband would publish this sort of advertisement and checked Philadelphia’s newspapers for it. At the very least, she read or heard about it within days of its publication and set about responding to it with her own advertisement, dated August 22. Readers of the Pennsylvania Chronicle could piece together the story, encountering Eliazabeth’s response on the third page and the original notice reprinted on the fourth and final page. (In the next issue, either the editor or compositor made a decision to run the related advertisements one after the other. They appeared as the final two items in the August 31 edition, Joseph’s initial notice first, followed by Elizabeth’s rebuttal. Instead of a series of advertisements unrelated to each other, that issue concluded with a narrative drama.)
Joseph had leveled the usual accusations against his wife: she “behaves in a very unbecoming Manner towards me” and “she may endeavor to run me in Debt.” Elizabeth turned the tables by “solemnly” declaring “that those charges against me have not the least foundation in truth.” She went on to describe “disorderly company” that her husband invited into their home and the “notorious scenes of disorder” his guests created. To underscore the point, she deployed racialized language, asserting that she had been subjected to treatment “that would have shocked a savage of the Ohio.” To escape this abuse, she had taken the only option available to her: she fled to her mother’s house.
Historians of early American often read runaway wife advertisements as evidence of women’s agency. Even though written and published by men, they demonstrate that women did not always bow to the patriarchal order within their households. At the same time, however, the very nature of runaway wife advertisements, especially the warnings not to engage in commercial exchanges with runaway wives, suggest a rather constrained agency in which men continued to exert control over women’s access to credit and consumer goods. That did not have to be the end of the story. Some runaway wives, like Elizabeth Perkins, also turned to the public prints, to offer alternate accounts that further illuminated the circumstances of their departure.