June 12

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

Jun 12 - 6:12:1769 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (June 12, 1769).

“UMBRILLOES.”

Oliver Greenleaf and Isaac Greenwood placed competing advertisements for “UMBRILLOES” in the June 12, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette. They relied on different marketing strategies, but both presented umbrellas as accessories perfectly appropriate for colonists, especially women, to acquire and use. Kate Haulman explains that umbrellas were a source of debate in the era of the American Revolution. They had only recently appeared in England and its colonies in North America. “Though large and clumsy by modern standards,” Haulman explains, “the umbrellas of the late eighteenth century were brightly colored items of fashion made of oiled silk, stylistic spoils of empire hailing from India.” Yet some colonists were uncertain that they should adopt this fashion. Beyond the space devoted to advertising, debates about umbrellas appeared elsewhere in colonial newspaper, “the forum best suited to prescribe or proscribe certain styles and behaviors for a wide audience of readers.” Some colonists considered umbrellas “ridiculous and frivolous, serving no purpose that a good hat could not supply.” Others allowed for their use, but only by women. In the eighteenth-century, many considered the umbrella a feminine accessory.[1]

Other colonists, however, defended umbrellas. Greenleaf and Greenwood addressed them, though they likely hoped to win new converts with their advertisements as well. Greenleaf did not acknowledge the debate over umbrellas. Instead, he positioned his umbrellas and the “great Variety of English GOODS” available at his shop within another debate about consumer culture. He proclaimed that his umbrellas and other goods were “NOT Lately Imported.” Usually merchants and shopkeepers emphasized that they carried the latest fashions that only recently arrived via ships from English ports, but in 1769 the vast majority in Boston participated in a nonimportation pact in protest of the duties on certain goods imposed by the Townshend Acts. A committee of merchants and traders monitored adherence and published reports in the city’s newspapers. Greenleaf’s livelihood and his reputation both depended on assuring the public that he did not peddle goods that violated the nonimportation agreement, hence his assertion that his merchandise was “NOT Lately Imported.”

Prospective customers interested in making purchases from Greenwood, on the other hand, did not need to worry about when he had acquired his umbrellas because he made them at his shop in the North End of Boston. Along with the nonimportation agreement, merchants, shopkeepers, and other colonists emphasized the importance of local production, what they termed domestic manufactures, coupled with virtuous consumption of goods produced in the colonies. This required the commitment of both suppliers and consumers. As a producer, Greenwood fulfilled the first part; he depended on consumers to do their part by choosing his umbrellas over those imported by Greenleaf, regardless of when they might have been transported across the Atlantic. He did imply that women might be more interested in umbrellas than men when he addressed “Ladies whose Ingenuity, Leisure and Oeconomy leads them to make their own.” They could save some money and demonstrate their own industry by purchasing the materials – fabrics and “Sticks or Frames” – from Greenwood and then putting together the umbrellas on their own. Although Greenleaf more explicitly commented on the nonimportation agreement then in effect, Greenwood more effectively placed his umbrellas within the discourse of local production.

Umbrellas were the subject of several debates and controversies in the decade before the American Revolution. Some colonists questioned their use at all, depicting them as unnecessary luxuries and frivolous feminine accessories. Others advocated for umbrellas, but only those that did not violate the terms of the nonimportation agreements. Those produced in local workshops possessed even greater cachet. In that regard, umbrellas became imbued with political as well as cultural meaning.

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[1] Kate Haulman, “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 62, no. 4 (October 2005): 632.

March 19

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

Mar 19 - 3:19:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (March 19, 1767).

“To be sold by WILLIAM JACKSON, at his Shop at the Brazen Head.”

This advertisement made me curious about William Jackson and the Brazen Head since I am from a town close to Boston. These curiosities led me to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s article on William Jackson.

Jackson was born in 1731. Mary Jackson, his widowed mother kept the Brazen Head Tavern next to the Town House (which is now known as the Old State House) in Boston. In 1758, William went into business with his mother, starting a “variety store” selling an assortment of goods in the same location,.

William Jackson was a Loyalist who adamantly supported the king throughout the imperial crisis and the Revolution. The Massachusetts Historical Society notes that in a Boston newspaper Jackson was named along with others for being “those who audaciously continue to counteract the united Sentiments of the Body of Merchants throughout NORTH AMERICA, by importing British goods contrary to the agreement.” He was such a loyalist to the king, that when the British abandoned Boston in March of 1776, he tried to leave as well, only to be caught and imprisoned for a year. In the end, William Jackson returned to England, where he resided until his death in 1810.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

At a glance, William Jackson’s advertisement does not appear to explicitly reveal much about women’s roles in the eighteenth-century marketplace, either as consumers or producers/sellers. However, Ceara and I did not need to do much research to discover that William Jackson’s story cannot be told without acknowledging women’s participation in commerce and consumer culture. As Ceara has already outlined, one of Jackson’s first forays into the world of business involved a partnership with his mother, already an experienced businesswoman who operated a tavern. Although widows may have been more likely to operate businesses than their married sisters, in the century before the Revolution wives stepped forward to act as what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has described as “deputy husbands” who attended to matters of business in the temporary absence of their husbands. Many eighteenth-century advertisements make reference to wives or other female relations who worked in shops owned by their husbands, but historians have demonstrated that even if women’s contributions were not acknowledged in the marketing materials that they were indeed present and assisting in the operation of the family business.

Mar 19 - Jackson Broadside
Anonymous broadside accusing William Jackson of not abiding by nonimportation agreements (Boston:  ca. 1769-1770).  Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

To learn more about William Jackson, Ceara consulted the online collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In addition to a short biography of the prominent Loyalist shopkeeper, the MHS has made available an image of an anonymous broadside (ca. 1769-1770) warning “SONS and DAUGHTERS of LIBERTY” against purchasing goods from Jackson, “an IMPORTER,” who operated in violation of a non-importation agreement that most merchants and shopkeepers had signed in 1768 in response to the Townshend Acts. Note that the broadside addressed both “SONS” and “DAUGHTERS,” imbuing decisions that both men and women made about consumption with political meaning. Barred from formal mechanisms of political participation – voting and holding office – women engaged in political debates and civic discourse through other means, including the politicization of consumer culture. Nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements, what we would call boycotts today, were effective only if they had widespread approval and adherence. Women’s role in managing their household economy took on political significance as each personal choice whether to buy certain goods made a statement about their views. As acts of consumption increasingly had political valence, neutrality became impossible. During the imperial crisis, women were political actors in the overlapping marketplace of goods and marketplace of ideas.

William Jackson’s advertisement is an especially fine choice to examine during Women’s History Month. It reminds us that much of women’s history has been obscured but not hidden beyond recovery. A willingness to conduct a little more research, to ask new questions, and to approach sources from new perspectives allows us to tell a much more complete story of the American past.