April 5

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (April 5, 1771).

“… till she behaves more like an obedient Wife.”

From New England to Georgia, runaway wife advertisements frequently appeared in early American newspapers.  Aggrieved husbands warned the public against extending credit to wives who departed their households.  Although these advertisements framed the women as spouses who abandoned both their household responsibilities and good social order, they also testified to one means at women’s disposal for exercising power in a society that granted so much authority to husbands.  Almost certainly, women were not always solely to blame when marital discord that became so severe that wives fled from husbands.  Men shaped the narrative when they published runaway wife advertisements, but they told only part of the story.

Such advertisements ran so often in colonial newspapers that they sometimes featured standardized or formulaic language, as in the case of Samuel Richardson’s notice in the April 5, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette.  “I forbid all Persons,” he stated, “trusting my Wife, Mary Richardson, any Thing on my Account.”  Although the conflict in the Richardson household may have attracted attention, the wording that Samuel chose did not merit particular notices.  Benjamin Wills, on the other hand, opted for language that did not regularly appear in this genre of advertising.  “Edea, the wicked Wife of me the Subscriber,” he proclaimed, “makes a constant practice of squandering away my Substance, and spends the most of her Time in running from House to House, chatting about those Things of neither Advantage nor Profit, running me in Debt, wherever she can get credit, and takes no care of my House nor Family.”  Benjamin catalogued specific grievances against his wife in the process of informing the community that he would “pay no Debts contracted by her … till she behaves more like an obedient Wife.”

Benjamin resorted to more colorful language than what appeared in most runaway wife advertisements.  Was this evidence of greater discord in the Wills household compared to others with husbands who placed such advertisements?  Did literacy play a part in the variations that made Benjamin’s advertisement so different from the standardized language of Samuel Richardson’s notice?  Wills signed his advertisement with “his + Mark,” an indication that he did not write it, though he very well may have dictated it.  Wills may have been able to read even if he could not sign his name, but he may have been familiar with runaway wife advertisements without regularly reading them and absorbing the formulaic wording.  He understood their function even if he did not replicate their usual form.  Realizing that such notices usually leveled accusations against willful wives, he may have done his best to explain why he found it necessary to publish the advertisement even though he did not have ready access to the usual words and phrases.

That Wills signed with “his + Mark” raises questions about the production of his advertisement.  Did he visit the printing office?  If so, did the printers offer any assistance in choosing the language or did they merely transcribe what Wills dictated?  Did Wills instead entrust someone in the town of Lee with transcribing the advertisement for him and then sent it to the printing office in Portsmouth?  If so, the printers did not have the opportunity to suggest the standardized words and phrases that so often appeared in runaway wife advertisements.  The variations in Wills’s advertisement may have been the result of his level of literacy and the process of producing the notice for publication.

April 20


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

Apr 20 - 4:20:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (April 20, 1768).

“Alexander Findlay & James Seyour, A.M. DESIGN TO OPEN SCHOOL.”

Alexander Findlay and James Seymour advertised a school where they taught “BRANCHES of LITERATURE” as well as “several PARTS of the MATHEMATICKS.” Today it seems hard to imagine a world without public schools considering that most students attend public schools rather than private ones. However, throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, private schools, like the one featured in this advertisement, were often the only option for education outside the home in many places.

According to Robert A. Peterson, education began at the home, typically as the responsibility of the mother, and, as the children grew older, became the father’s task. In Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, E. Jennifer Monaghan explains that “religious motives underlay reading instruction in colonial America, while secular motives led to writing instruction.” The most commonly read books were the Bible, a primer, and a hornbook. As children in southern colonies grew older, their schooling prepared them for their eventual roles in plantation life. Boys advanced further in subjects such as math, Greek, Latin, science, and navigation. Girls learned the duties of the mistress of the plantation, such as basic arithmetic to handle household expenses.

Today many people argue that without public schools the job of educating future generations would simply not get done, but colonists did not have the same access to widespread public education that Americans now take for granted.



Although Alexander Findlay and James Seymour sought children and youth as students at their school “in the lower End of Broughton-Street” in Savannah, they also suggested that they provided adult education as well, at least when it came to writing.  As Mary notes, they taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as some more advanced subjects, promising that their methods would “do all possible justice to those who will please to commit their children to their care.”  However, they concluded their advertisement with a nota benethat reiterated that they offered writing instruction:  “They also design to teach Writing at the same place between the hours of twelve and one.”  Assuming that their young pupils took a break from their studies at midday, Findlay and Seymour had an opportunity to teach adults who wished to learn or further develop a particular skill without enrolling for the entire curriculum.

Even though today most people link the ability to read and the ability to write because they have been taught simultaneously or in quick succession in elementary schools, that was not the case in the colonial period.  Reading and writing were considered different skills utilized for different purposes.  Learning to read granted colonists access to the Bible and other devotional literature, whereas learning to write (and do arithmetic) opened up the world of commerce to them.  Accordingly, colonists considered reading the more vital skill.  Many of those who perused the Georgia Gazettemay well have been able to read Findlay and Seymour’s advertisement and the other content yet did not possess the ability to make notes in the margins, write a note asking for more information, or otherwise use quill and ink in their daily lives.  Like the Latin and Greek that the schoolmasters proposed to teach, writing was not a necessity in colonial society, but it was certainly useful for those who acquired the skill.  For adults who had not previously learned to write as part of their education, Findlay and Seymour offered a chance to obtain that skill in brief lessons without pursuing the rest of the relatively extensive curriculum at their day school.

January 21

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

Georgia Gazette (January 21, 1767).

“He will undertake to fair-copy and engross any deeds.”

Patrick Poulson turned to the advertising section of the Georgia Gazette in his attempts to attract clients in early 1767. He assured readers that he possessed all the necessary skills of a clerk, copyist, and bookkeeper. He could “fair-copy and engross any deeds or instruments whatsoever” and “post and settle merchants books of accompt” as well as “any other business in the way of a scrivener.” In making his pitch, he adapted familiar appeals concerning quality to fit his own profession: he promised “exactness” in the work he did and the documents he created. Attending to legal and financial matters demanded a special attention to detail.

Poulson gave “Publick Notice” to all readers of the Georgia Gazette, seeking clients among local merchants as well as shopkeepers and artisans in Savannah and farmers in the countryside. Considering literacy rates of the period, some among the lower sorts in particular may have possessed special need of his services when it came to producing copies of legal documents. Regardless of their status or occupation, colonists who read Poulson’s advertisement may not have been able to write. The two skills were taught separately in colonial schools, with greater numbers of people learning how to read than to write or do calculations. Schoolmasters often listed the familiar triad of reading, writing, and arithmetic together when they described their curricula in newspaper advertisements, but that did not result in each student developing all three skills to the same extent.

Even colonists who possessed basic writing skills may have turned to Poulson to draft copies of particularly important documents, including various sorts of contracts or deeds that secured their property. His ability to “fair-copy and engross” documents meant that he created formal records in clear, attractive, and possibly large script for clients and witnesses to affix their signatures and, when appropriate, any necessary seals. When he promised prospective customers that “their business shall be dispatched with exactness,” Poulson did not refer to accuracy alone. He also meant the attractiveness and readability of the documents he produced.

March 3


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

Mar 3 - 3:3:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening Post (March 3, 1766).

“West India Pilots; 9 leaved Charts; Mariners Compasses and Kalenders.”

Richard Salter’s advertisement in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette gives a look into what was being sold in Boston during 1766. The goods advertised were “just imported from London” and to be sold at Salter’s shop in Boston “by Wholesale and Retail.” There was a great variety of goods being sold, from books to maritime instruments and even shoes.

Many of the items listed show the development of Boston’s economy and its successful port. One specific item in Salter’s advertisement I find interesting is the “West India Pilots.” This was a book published by Joseph Smith Speer an English mariner who spent many years in Central America and the Caribbean. The book contained thirteen maps and detailed instructions on how to navigate between Caribbean ports. A book like this would have been invaluable to merchants interested in trading in the Caribbean.

Items being sold this one, as well as paper, quills, and “Chambers Dictionary, with Scotts Supplement,” all allude to the growing literacy rate in Boston. An article published by Colonial Williamsburg explains how cities like Boston, by the end of the eighteenth century were approaching one hundred percent literacy rates. Advertisements like Salter’s helped push the colonies into the educational boom that transpired in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.



Mar 3 - 3:3:1766 Boston-Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (March 3, 1766).

Richard Salter wanted to make sure that potential customers in Boston and its hinterland saw his advertisement. While many advertisers were content with publishing their notices in just one of the four newspapers printed in Boston in 1766, Salter arranged to have his advertisement inserted in three of them, presumably at some cost. In addition to the advertisement Trevor chose from the Monday, March 3, 1766 issue of the Boston Evening-Post, a similar advertisement appeared in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette on the same day. In addition, a nearly identical advertisement was also featured the previous Friday in the February 27 issue of the Supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette.

Mar 3 - 2:27:1766 Massachusetts Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette (February 27, 1766).

Only the Boston Post-Boy, also published on Mondays, neglected to print an advertisement from Salter during that week. Perhaps Salter could not afford to pay to advertise in yet another newspaper. Or, perhaps he figured that placing his advertisement in two of the three newspapers published on Monday gave him sufficient coverage of the market at the beginning of the week.

I am often asked if advertising actually worked in eighteenth-century America. Unfortunately, that is an extremely difficult question to answer. Early American consumers did not leave behind documents in which they explicitly stated that they did (or did not) make purchases based on advertising. Those who placed advertisements were more likely to comment that they believed in the effectiveness of their methods.

Dec 8 - 12:6:1765 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (December 6, 1765).

Salter’s multiple advertisements could be interpreted several ways. He may have placed them because they were indeed effective. Alternately, he may have placed so many of them out of sheer desperation, a last resort to move his merchandise out the door. I featured a nearly identical advertisement by Salter last December when this project existed exclusively on Twitter. Would Salter have placed this advertisement three months later (and in three newspapers!) if he did not believe it would garner new business? Although I believe that advertising incited consumer demand in the eighteenth century, examples like this one force me to consider the possible limits of marketing during the period.