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.

June 13

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

New-York Journal (June 13, 1771).

“James Sloan … hath thought proper to advertise me his Wife for absconding from him.”

In the wake of marital discord in the Sloan household, James placed an advertisement concerning his wife, Altye, in the June 13, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal.  According to James’s version of events, his wife had “in many Respects misbehaved, and without any just Cause eloped from me, wasting and embezling my Substance.”  James further accused Altye of “endeavour[ing] to run me in Debt.”  Accordingly, he placed the advertisement “to warn all Persons not to trust or entertain her on my Account” because he would not pay any “Debt of her contracting since her Elopement.”

Runaway wife advertisements like this one appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers from New England to Georgia. They usually went unanswered, at least in the public prints.  Husbands advanced narratives about what happened, but wives generally did not have the resources to publish their own version of events.  That was not the case, however, for Altye Sloan.  She ran her own notice that acknowledged her husband’s advertisement, suggesting that James had been prompted to tell a tale to the public by “some dissolute Persons like himself.”  In turn, she offered a more accurate rendering of events, claiming that “she neither has embezzled his Substance, nor eloped from him.”  Instead, James “turned her out of Doors” after “beat[ing] and abus[ing] her often Times.”  As far as Altye was concerned, that amounted to “sufficient C[au]se to abandon such an insolent Person.”  She concluded by proclaiming that she would not run her husband into debt and neither would she pay any of his bills.

The two advertisements ran one after the other in the June 13 edition of the New-York Journal.  They did so again in the June 20 and 26 editions, before being discontinued.  The compositor may have chosen to place them together for easy reference, but the notations on the final line of each advertisement suggest that Altye may have requested that her advertisement appear with her husband’s notice.  The notations on the final lines corresponded to the issue numbers for the first and last times advertisements were supposed to run.  They aided compositors in determining whether advertisements belonged in an issue.  The “83 86” in James’s advertisement indicated that it first appeared in issue 1483 (June 6) and ran through issue 1486 (June 27).  For Altye’s advertisement, “84 86” corresponded to first running in issue 1484 (June 13) and concluding in issue 1486 (June 27).  According to the rates in the colophon, most advertisements ran at least four weeks.  James’s advertisement did so, in issues 1483, 1484, 1485, and 1486, but Altye’s advertisement ran for only three weeks.  She may have made special arrangements for a shorter run (and lower fees) that matched the remaining time her husband’s advertisement would appear.  As part of the deal, she could have requested that their advertisements run one after the other.

Altye could not prevent her husband from advertising, but she apparently possessed the means to purchase space in the New-York Journal to tell her side of the story.  Rather than allow her husband to control the narrative, she may have also requested that her notice appear with his in order to give readers a more complete story of what actually transpired in the Sloan household.  Most so-called “runaway wives” did not have opportunities to leverage print to inform the public that it was actually husbands who “misbehaved” and they “eloped” to protect themselves from various kinds of mistreatment and abuse.  Altye Sloan did publish her account of events, managing to have it inserted with her husband’s advertisement to increase the chances that readers would not see his version without the additional context she provided.

April 20

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

Providence Gazette (April 20, 1771).

“His Design is … to exclude his Wife from all Interest in, or Advantage from said Farm.”

On occasion, advertisements published in colonial newspapers generated responses disseminated in subsequent advertisements.  Such was a case when Moses Lyon advertised a farm in South Brimfield, Massachusetts, in the Providence Gazette in the spring of 1771.  Nathaniel Child placed an advertisement in response, apparently on behalf of Lyon’s wife.  Child asserted that potential buyers needed to know more about the conditions of the sale before they purchased the property.

“Justice requires,” Child proclaimed, “the Public should be informed, that [Lyon’s] Design is, if possible, to exclude his Wife from all Interest in, or Advantage from said Farm.”  In an effort to prevent such an injustice, Child published his advertisement.  He explained that Lyon’s “now lawful Wife … sustains a reputable Character” and had not “done any thing that might justly forfeit an Interest in his Affections, any more than in his Estate.”  Child did not provide all the details about the discord in the Lyon household, but he did accuse Moses of “repeated Declarations,” a “Series of public Conduct,” and “certain notorious Facts, more loudly speaking than Words” that all indicated he sought to “prevent [his wife] having the least Advantage from any of his Estate.”

Child did not specify his relationship to the Lyon family.  Perhaps he was father, brother, or cousin to the aggrieved wife.  Whatever the relationship, he framed his intervention as a matter of “Justice” so “no Person should be misled, or act in the Dark” when purchasing the farm.  Why did this warning come from him?  By law and by custom, Lyon’s wife did not possess as much power as her husband.  As a result, enlisting a male ally to act as her advocate in the public prints may have been one of the best strategies at her disposal for protecting her interests.  A third party, even a male relation, who testified to Lyon’s “Conduct towards her” likely stood to garner more trust in the veracity of that account than if she relayed a similar story on her own.  Publishing an advertisement in response to Lyon’s real estate notice gave his “now lawful Wife” and her defender greater leverage than had she pursued the matter in private.

September 2

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

Sep 2 - 8:30:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 30, 1770).

“Some People have surmised that the above Advertisement was inserted only to amuse the Publick.”

Henry Barnes, a merchant, did not meet with success the first time he offered the “Whole of the Real-Estate” he owned in Marlborough for sale in an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury in the summer of 1770.  He inserted his advertisement for three consecutive weeks in the issues distributed on July 5, 12, and 19.  In it, he described “a Dwelling-House in good Repair, very pleasantly situated, with the Out-Houses” as well as a large store conveniently located and “extremely well-calculated for Business both Wholesale and Retail.”  The property also included “a very large Pearl-Ash Work,” a still that could produce five hundred barrels of cider a year, seven acres of land for mowing and pasturing, and “a Number of Asparagus Beds in their prime.”  Prospective buyers could anticipate making a living, not just residing, on this property.  Yet the “Whole of the Real-Estate of HENRY BARNES” did not sell.

Barnes had an idea why that was the case.  Four weeks after his advertisement originally ran in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, he placed it again, but this time with an addition.  In a nota bene that concluded the advertisement, Barnes stated, “Whereas some People have surmised that the above Advertisement was inserted only to amuse the Publick: This is to Certify, that I am determined to sell, provided anybody comes up to my Terms which are thought to be very reasonable.”  Apparently, Barnes’s advertisement had not gone unnoticed, even though it had not produced the results he intended.  Readers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and others in the community became aware of Barnes’s real estate notice, discussed it, and dismissed it.  That prompted Barnes to return to the public prints to address the gossip, rumors, and idle talk that the first iteration of his advertisement produced.  He ran the advertisement with the addendum on August 16, 23, and 30.

How effective were newspaper advertisements in eighteenth-century America?  Answering questions about reception is difficult.  Barnes testified to an unintended consequence of placing his advertisement.  It did not initially result in a sale of his real estate, but other colonists did notice it and talk about it.  They read the notice, even if they did not respond in the manner that Barnes hoped.