August 27

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Courant (August 27, 1771).

“I think it high time to clip the wings of these public spirited gentlemen, that make so great an appearance in our weekly papers.”

A trio of advertisements about “runaway wives” appeared in the August 13, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Courant, each of them describing the misbehavior of a woman who absconded from her husband and warning others not to extend credit because their aggrieved husbands refused to pay any debts they contracted.  Richard Smith placed one of those advertisements, claiming that his wife, Hannah, “makes it her business to pass from house to house with her [busy] news, tattling and bawling and lying.”  In addition, he accused her of “carrying out things out of my house, things contrary to my knowledge.”

Such advertisements told only part of the story.  In most instances, wives did not possess the same access to the press as their husbands, especially once husbands published notices that they refused to make payments on behalf of recalcitrant wives, so runaway wife advertisements largely went unanswered in the public prints.  Occasionally, however, women defended their behavior and their reputations by publishing notices of their own.  When Hannah Smith did so, she told a very different story than the one her husband previously presented in the Connecticut Courant.

Hannah blamed both her husband and his children from a previous marriage for the discord in their household.  She first pointed to the “perfidious instigation” of his children that “represented me in a false and ungenerous light, to be wastful, tattling, and wilfully absenting myself.”  Problems arose, Hannah claimed, because she had a husband “who keeps himself (for the most part) intoxicated ten degrees below the level of a beast.”  She also experienced emotional and physical abuse, reporting that Richard “allows some of his children to treat a step mother with the most abusive, ignominious language, not sparing to kick her.”  None of these details appeared in Richard’s advertisement!

Since Richard made accusations against her in a public forum, Hannah in turn insisted that the situation “absolutely necessitated” that she “ask the public, how a woman ought to behave” in such circumstances.  At the same time, she critiqued advertisements for runaway wives more generally, perhaps reacting to the three that appeared one after the other and concluded with Richard’s advertisement concerning her alleged misconduct.  “As the woman is the weaker vessel,” Hannah asserted, “I think it high time to clip the wings of these public spirited gentlemen, that make so great an appearance in our weekly papers.”  Richard Smith had not told an accurate or complete story in his advertisement; neither had Samuel Pettibone and John Savage in their notices.  In a rare rebuttal that appeared in print, Hannah Smith defended not only herself but also Mary Pettibone, Nancy Savage, and other women targeted by runaway wife advertisements.

August 24

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

Aug 24 - 8:24:1767 Advert Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (August 24, 1767).

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Aug 24 - 8:24:1767 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (August 24, 1767).

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.