February 20

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

Boston-Gazette (February 20, 1769).

“To be sold by Lydia Dyar … A Variety of sundry Garden Seeds.”

It was a sign of spring, even though the season would not arrive for another month. Lydia Dyar placed an advertisement for “A Variety of sundry Garden Seeds” in the February 20, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette. In so doing, Dyar was one of the first advertisers to participate in an annual ritual. Just as the first appearances of advertisements for almanacs marked the arrival of fall, advertisements for garden seeds heralded spring, especially in newspapers published in Boston.

Dyar was one of several seed sellers who annually inserted advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and other local newspapers. Just a few days after her notice ran, Elizabeth Clark and Elizabeth Greenleaf both placed advertisements for seeds in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Over time many others who sold seeds, the overwhelming majority of them women, would join Clark, Greenleaf, and Dyar on the pages of the public prints. Each tended to advertise in multiple newspapers, presenting colonists with an image of a feminized occupational group. Compared to their male counterparts, relative few women who were purveyors of goods placed advertisements to promote their commercial activities. That made the simultaneous appearance of half a dozen or more advertisements by female seed sellers in a single issue of a newspaper particularly noticeable.

Compositors contributed to the enhanced visibility of those advertisements, often placing them together such that they filled entire columns or sometimes the smaller sheets issued as supplements to standard issues. Printers and compositors rarely organized advertisements by category; usually they did not impose any sort of classification system, yet advertisements for seeds were an exception. They tended to place those notices together, presenting readers with advertisement after advertisement that featured women’s names in larger font as the headlines. Most of these women rarely advertised other goods or services during the rest of the year, but for a couple of months in late winter and early spring they asserted a noteworthy presence in the pages of Boston’s newspapers.

March 14

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

Mar 14 - 3:14:1768 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 14, 1768).

“A Fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds.”

Colonists in Boston glimpsed a sign that spring was on its way when Susanna Renken inserted an advertisement for seeds in the Massachusetts Gazette in late February 1768. It was the first of many similar advertisements that residents of Boston would have recognized as part of an annual ritual. As the first day of spring approached, other seed sellers, most of them women, joined Renken in advising the public of the many sorts of seeds they stocked, from vegetables to herbs to flowers.

Such advertisements appeared in newspapers published in other cities, but they were especially prevalent in Boston. A greater number of women who participated in the seed trade turned to the public prints to attract customers. Many of them advertised in multiple newspapers. Renken, for example, launched her advertising campaign for 1768 in the Massachusetts Gazette but very quickly followed up with notices in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy. For instance, her advertisement was the first item in the first column on the final page of the March 14, 1768, edition of the Boston-Gazette.

By then her competitors had joined her in hawking their wares in the city’s newspapers. Advertisements placed by women who sold seeds filled almost the entire column (with the exception of a two-line advertisement for “Scotch COALS” and the colophon). Rebeckah Walker, Elizabeth Greenleaf, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, and Lydia Dyar each promoted their seeds, renewing their efforts from the spring of 1768. Elsewhere in the same issue Anna Johnson’s advertisement even featured a headline for “Garden Seeds, Peas, Beans, &c.” that distinguished her notice from the others. On the same day, Sarah Winsor advertised seeds in the Boston Post-Boy.

Advertisements by Renken, Greenleaf, Dyar, and other women who sold seeds cropped up in Boston’s newspapers each spring, but even though several of them indicated that they also sold “all sorts of Groceries” or “English Goods” or other merchandise at their shops they disappeared from the advertising pages throughout the rest of the year. Why did these women consider it imperative to advertise only seeds and only as spring approached? In general, female shopkeepers were disproportionately underrepresented compared to their male counterparts when it came to placing newspaper advertisements. Considered separately, a survey of advertisements for seeds suggests that selling them was a feminized occupation in the late 1760s. Did women who otherwise avoided drawing attention to their participation in the marketplace as retailers who competed with men (rather than solely as consumers) feel more latitude to place advertisements when they knew that they competed predominantly with other women?

March 9

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

Mar 9 - 3:9:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 9, 1767).

“Red and white Clover, Red Top and Herds Grass Seed, warranted to be of last Year’s Growth.”

Compared to their male counterparts, women who pursued their own businesses placed advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers much less frequently. Even though they comprised a sizeable minority of shopkeepers in urban ports, they tended not to inject themselves into the marketplace via the public prints.

For one type of female entrepreneur, however, that changed, at least temporarily, in Boston for several weeks in late winter and early spring in the 1760s. Women who specialized in selling seeds placed advertisements in Boston’s newspapers and competed with each other for customers as the time for planting gardens approached.

Consider the March 9, 1767, issues of the Boston-Gazette. Susanna Renken’s advertisement appeared on the first page. Notices placed by four other female seed sellers (and one male competitor who, unlike the women, described his occupation as “Gardener”) filled almost an entire column on the final page of the supplement devoted solely to advertising. Just as Renken stated in her advertisement, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, Lydia Dyar, and Elizabeth Greenleaf noted that they imported seeds from London and listed the varieties they stocked. Each had advertised the previous year as well.

Clark, Dyar, and the appropriately named Greenleaf confined their advertising to seeds, but Renken also promoted “all Sorts of English GOODS and China Ware” and Oliver stocked “a general Assortment of Glass, Delph and Stone Ware, Lynn Shoes, best Bohea Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and all other Groceries.” Their advertisements suggest that Renken and Oliver ran operations much more extensive than peddling seeds, which may explain why those two also inserted advertisements in the Boston Post-Boy on the same day. Clark, Dyar, and Greenleaf may have also stocked various imported housewares and groceries, despite not making an indication in their own advertisements. None of these five women who ran advertisements for the seeds they sold in successive springs, however, placed advertisements at other times during the year.

What explains the prominence of advertisements by women selling seeds amid the scarcity of advertising by other women in colonial Boston’s marketplace? Why did the women in this occupation turn to advertising when other women who operated other sorts of businesses did not? Why did Renken and Oliver only advertise their other wares at the conclusion of their advertisements for seeds and not in separate advertisements throughout the rest of the year? These advertisements demonstrate women’s activity in the marketplace as sellers, not just consumers, but they also raise a series of questions about the limits of that participation captured in print during the period.

February 17

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

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

Feb 17 - 2:17:1766 Boston Gazette
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (February 17, 1766).

“A fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds … warranted to be good.”

As a female millennial who is interested in women’s rights and equality, seeing a woman merchant who posted in a newspaper made me very excited! Lydia Dyar sold “A fresh assortment ” of seeds of all types, from spices and herbs to vegetables. She listed quite a collection of different types of seeds and goes on to say that she has even more. The seeds came from London and had been recently brought in on “the lasts Ships, and Captain Freeman.” Even though the seeds came from London, they had probably been collected from all over England’s other colonies, from the Caribbean to India to trading posts in Africa.

Feb 17 - British Empire 1763
Britain’s global empire in 1763, a result of commercial enterprise and military conquest.

With it being February and winter being somewhat close to over, the early American colonists would be starting to think and prepare for spring. Spring meant that the growing season was going to start and seeds would be a necessity.   Many early American colonists grew much of what they ate rather than always trading or purchasing food. They had no 24-hour CVS or Super Walmart. Lydia Dyar also “warranted to be good” which would be a sort of warrantee that the seeds would yield the appropriate amount of fruit.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

When she first selected this advertisement, Elizabeth asked if it was out of the ordinary for women to participate in the eighteenth-century marketplace as retailers, wholesalers, suppliers, or producers rather than as consumers. I explained that women filled those roles more often than everyday assumptions about early America might suggest. In urban ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia as many as one-fifth to one-third of shopkeepers were women.

On the other hand, women did not tend to place advertisements in proportion to their numbers. It would not quite be correct to state that advertisements placed by women were uncommon, but on the whole women tended to be less likely to promote their businesses in the public prints than men.

Given her desire to feature advertisements by women, Elizabeth had three choices in the four-page Boston-Gazette and its two-page Supplement, both issued on February 17, 1766. Lydia Dyar’s advertisement appeared on the second page of the supplement. Shopkeeper Jane Eustis advertised an extensive assortment of textiles on the third page of the regular issue.

Feb 17 - 2:17:1766 Boston-Gazette - Renkin
Boston-Gazette (February 17, 1766).

And Susanna Renken, a competitor to Lydia Dyar, inserted this advertisement on the final page of the regular issue. Notice that both women sell many of the same seeds. Both indicate that they had been supplied by Captain Freeman. In the absence of an existing personal or commercial relationship with one seed seller or the other, how might a colonial consumer have decided which to visit?

Convenience based on location might have been a deciding factor. However, Dyar made appeals to potential customers that Renken did not: “warranted to be good, and of last Year’s Growth, sold at the lowest Terms.” Renken announced that she had seeds for sale, but Dyar put extra effort into marketing her wares. Perhaps Renken ended up regretting that the Boston-Gazette published a supplement – including Dyar’s advertisement – that week instead of holding her competitor’s advertisement until publishing a new full issue the following week.