November 13

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

Nov 13 - 11:13:1769 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (November 13, 1769).

“My Character of an honest and industrious Woman can be asserted to all who may inquire.”

Runaway wife advertisements were a particular genre of paid notices that frequently appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers. In such an advertisement an aggrieved husband reported that his disobedient wife departed from the household without his permission. The husband warned others that he would not pay any debts contracted in his name by his wife. Some advertisements went into greater detail than others in recording the various offenses committed by runaway wives. No matter how elaborate, publishing such advertisements must have been just as embarrassing, if not more so, for husbands than wives. After all, it was a public confession that a husband had not been able to exercise patriarchal authority or maintain order in his own household. Instead, he turned to the community for assistance in disciplining his wife.

In the fall of 1769, John Kennedy repeatedly inserted a runaway wife advertisement in Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. Dated “Bridgewater, Sept. 29, 1769,” it stated, “WHEREAS Margaret Kennedy, the Wife of me the Subscriber, has left my Bed and Board, and refuses to live with me:— This is to forwarn all Persons from trusting the said Margaret on my Account, for I hereby declare I will not pay one Farthing of her contracting from the Day of the Date hereof.”

Rarely did such notices generate a response, but occasionally wives did publish their own advertisements to address the accusations made by their husbands and defend their reputations. Margaret Kennedy did so in the November 13 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. In an advertisement dated “Bridgewater, Nov. 10, 1769,” she expressed her dismay that she had been identified in “Green and Russell’s Weekly Paper as an Eloper from the Bed and Board of my Husband.” She did not acknowledge that her husband had placed the advertisement, but instead asserted that “an ill-minded Person” published an account that was “an absolute Falshood.” She also declared that she had never incurred any debt on his behalf, not “one Shilling Lawful Money.” Having been maligned in a newspaper that circulated well beyond Boston, she defended her reputation and references for anyone uncertain about which spouse to believe in the course of this public altercation. “[M]y Character of an honest and industrious Woman,” she declared, “can be asserted to all who may inquire it by a Number of my Friends in Boston, and the Community I belong to.”

Margaret met John’s advertisement with another act of resistance, one exceptionally visible to friends, neighbors, and strangers. His original advertisement continued to run in the November 13 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, appearing on the page following Margaret’s response. Readers now had both sides of the story in a single issue, witnessing the Kennedys’ marital discord play out in print, even if not in person.

July 29

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

Jul 29 - 7:29:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 29, 1769).

“I hereby forewarn all Persons against trusting her on my Account.”

Newspapers printed in colonial America notably carried relatively little local news. As most were published once a week, printers realized that much of the local news of consequence spread via word of mouth between issues. Accordingly, they reserved space in their newspapers for printing news from other colonies, the Caribbean, Europe, and other places. This often involved reprinting items from other newspapers, organizing the contents such that news from the farthest away appeared first. Consider the July 29, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. The masthead proclaimed that it carried “the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic.” It included news from London (reprinted from the London Gazette), followed by news from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Newport, and Providence. The final page, usually reserved for advertising, carried more news from Boston and Philadelphia as well as a brief update from South Carolina. The brigantine Grant had just sailed for London from Charleston, carrying “twenty bales of STAMPED PAPER, which was imported here in the memorable year 1765.”

Although printers and editors ran little local news in colonial newspapers, the advertisements submitted by other colonists did include some of the “freshest Advices” about events that occurred in their own communities. Legal notices, estate notices, and other announcements certainly carried news of interest. Other advertisements advised readers of significant interactions and changing relationships between members of the community. In his advertisement dated “Providence, July 29 1769,” Thomas Lindsey announced that Sarah, his wife, “has eloped from my Bed and Board, and otherwise conducted herself in a very unbecoming Manner.” That being the case, Lindsey warned that he would not pay any debts contracted by his wife. This advertisement informed the community of discord in the Lindsey household, which was news as much as gossip. It documented a wife resisting the authority of her husband and the consequences for doing so. The advertisement also delivered important information to shopkeepers, innkeepers, and others who might consider doing business with a woman who was so exasperated with her husband that she saw no alternative except to remove herself from his authority. Readers who knew more of the backstory than the advertisement revealed may have extended aid despite the husband’s indignant warning.

Which piece of news had greater relevance to readers of the Providence Gazette, a note about stamped paper being returned to England several years after the repeal of the Stamp Act or a notice about evolving personal and financial relationships in the Lindsey household contained in an advertisement? Each touched on aspects of colonial life and culture. Each delivered information that helped readers better understand the society in which they lived. For those who interacted with the Lindsey family, news of Sarah leaving Thomas was as momentous in their daily lives as learning about continued resistance to all sorts of new legislation from Parliament. Purchasing advertising space gave colonists other than printers and editors an opportunity to deliver and shape the news that appeared in the public prints.

March 5

GUEST CURATOR: Olivia Burke

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (March 3, 1769).

“JUDITH, the Wife of me the Subscriber, hath Eloped from me”

In this advertisement in the New Hampshire Gazette, William Sampson said that his wife left him and would no longer live with him. He cautioned the public from trusting her or letting her charge things to his account; it was a typical warning in advertisements similar to this one. Sampson reported that his wife had “eloped” from him. Eloped in this sense meant she left suddenly. There is no information in the advertisement about what transpired between the couple to give readers an understanding of why she left.

At this time, divorces were nearly impossible to obtain, according to Dorothy Mays in Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival and Freedom in a New World. In a marital relationship, a wife’s duties centered around maintaining and running the household.[1] Marital relations were conservative partnerships in which the wife was understood to act faithfully to her husband at all times. Women were not able to act independently for themselves. Once they got married to a man, they had no legal options to leave. The only way to get out of a marriage was to leave on their own accord. In this advertisement it appears that Judith did just that. This is a daring move given the way colonists looked upon women who disrupted and acted outside of their place in society, a move met with public humiliation in the newspaper.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Olivia is correct that advertisements like the one William Sampson placed concerning his wife Judith departing from their home and refusing to live with him were intended to humiliate women when they engaged in such acts of resistance. Yet Judith would not have been the only partner in that relationship who experienced public scrutiny and disgrace for her actions. By placing a notice in the New-Hampshire Gazette, William made a public pronouncement that he was incapable of exercising the patriarchal authority that he was supposed to wield. He had been unable to keep Judith in her place as a dutiful helpmate and had to resort to cutting off her credit when she “Eloped” from him.

As Olivia indicates, this advertisement does not provide much detail about what transpired between Judith and William. It succinctly deployed formulaic language that appeared in such advertisements in newspapers throughout the colonies. Some readers, especially those who lived near the Sampsons in Arundel, may have been quite familiar with the causes of the domestic discord. Considering that the situation got to the point that Judith eloped, friends and neighbors had likely already witnessed some of the disagreements between the couple. They did not need William to rehearse them in a newspaper notice, nor did he necessarily wish to air all of his grievances with his wife in a public forum and, in the process, demonstrate his shortcomings as a husband to a much broader audience.

Other husbands who placed such advertisement, however, did provide much greater detail about the misbehavior of their wives. They accrued personal embarrassment when doing so, but may have calculated that the public would direct greater opprobrium at recalcitrant wives when presented with evidence of their impudence. In placing these advertisements, husbands exercised one more form of authority usually beyond the reach of wives: using the public prints to advance their version of events to the disadvantage of wives who had “eloped.” Very rarely did runaway wives publish notices in response. The printers who published advertisements on behalf of their husbands already knew not to extend them credit; they reserved whatever resources they had in their possession for necessities rather than newspaper notices.

Like advertisements for runaway indentured servants and enslaved men and women who escaped from those who held them in bondage, advertisements for runaway wives tell truncated stories from the perspectives of those who believed they had been aggrieved by the runaways. When considered from the perspective of the subjects of the advertisements, however, these notices tell stories of resistance that contribute to a more complete rendering of the past, one that incorporates the agency and experiences of colonists often marginalized in the historical record.

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[1] Dorothy A. Mays, Women on Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 251

October 7

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

Oct 7 - 10:7:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (October 7, 1768).

“She now has full Liberty to contract any Debts on my Account.”

In the summer and fall of 1768, the Wiggin family of Stratham, New Hampshire, engaged in a domestic dispute that played itself out in the public prints. Readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette had their first glimpse of the Wiggins’ trouble when Tuften placed an advertisement in the August 19 edition. He informed the public that his wife, Sarah, “refuses to live with me as an obedient Wife” and instructed others from “giving her Credit on my Account.” In a nota bene, Tuften addressed a short note directly to his wife: “If she returns, she will be kindly received upon reasonable terms.”

Apparently Sarah had no desire to reconcile with her husband at that time. The next issue included a brief notice from the printers, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, that her “APPEAL to the Public representing her Husband’s Advertising her in this Paper, came too late, but will be in our next.” The Fowles reinforced the discord, reporting that this appeal would demonstrate “how greatly [Sarah] has been injured and imposed upon by [Tuften].” In so doing, they signaled to readers that the pages of the next issue would contain gossip that they would not want to miss. A public argument between husband and wife certainly could not hurt circulation of their newspaper. The September 2 edition included Sarah’s advertisement, extending three-quarters of a column. The aggrieved wife delivered a detailed account of the many abuses she had suffered at the hands of her husband.

For three consecutive weeks readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette glimpsed a new scene of the Wiggins’ marital difficulties. Most eighteenth-century runaway wife advertisements did not garner responses in print, but occasionally a wife or one of her friends or relatives did attempt to present the story from her perspective. Even more rarely, a subsequent advertisement advised the public that a couple had resolved their altercation. Tuften Wiggin placed such an advertisement in the October 7, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. He advised “THE PUBLICK” that “the Breach between us is now made up; and I do hereby REVOKE that Advertisement in every Part.” Sarah now had “full Liberty to contract any Debts on my Account … if she should be so inclined.” The new notice did not mention how the Wiggins had arrived at their accord, only that they had made peace. Now that Sarah was back in Tuften’s good graces, the Fowles benefited from another windfall from the couple’s dispute: one more advertisement that generated revenues for the newspaper. The printers made money each time the Wiggins decided that they would continue to publish their saga in the public prints.

September 2

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

Sep 2 - 9:2:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (September 2, 1768).

“IT is with much Regret I find myself obliged to appear in Print against my Husband.”

A week ago the Adverts 250 Project featured a preview of “Mrs. Sarah Wiggenss APPEAL to the Public representing her Husband’s Advertising her in this Paper.” That preview took the form of a notice inserted by the printers in the final issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette published in August 1768. Upon learning that her husband, Tuften, had placed an advertisement in the previous issue to advise the public that he would no longer pay any debts contracted by her because she had “ELoped from me … and refuses to live with me as an obedient Wife,” Sarah submitted her own advertisement to tell her side of the story. It “came too late” to the printing office to appear in the August 26 edition, but the printers promoted it as a feature that readers should anticipate “in our next.” The printers did not merely acknowledge that they would publish Sarah’s response. Instead, they disclosed that “it will appear how greatly she has been injured and imposed upon” by Tuften. By inciting interest in this domestic dispute laid before the public, the printers likely hoped to increase readership of the New-Hampshire Gazette and reap the benefits of placing their newspaper before the eyes of greater numbers of colonists.

Sarah detailed response to her husband’s short advertisement made for lively reading. First, she apologized for even having to place a notice in the public prints. “IT is with much Regret,” she lamented, “I find myself obliged to appear in Print against my Husband.” However, she was stunned that Tuften had even placed an advertisement and, in the process, implied that she had committed adultery. She had been betrayed by her husband, “one whose Duty it is to be my Virtue’s Guard and preserve it from every stain.” That was only one way in which Tuften had failed as a husband, but it was sufficient for Sarah to defend herself in view of the entire community. Given “how base I have been and still am treated by him,” Sarah proclaimed, “my Resentment rises at his Folly, and in justice to my injur’d Reputation, I am bound to vindicate it.” She then revealed that Tuften had courted her for some time. She initially refused his advances, but eventually consented to marry him in January 1767, “though greatly against the Advice of my Friends.” At that point Tuften apparently became more interested in the property Sarah brought into the marriage than in his bride herself. He stole her “Marriage Settlement” out of her chest, depriving her of the legal document that offered financial protection in the event that she became a widow. Having surrendered her “Right of Dower” to Tuften’s estate, Sarah now had “nothing left me.” This provoked a heated argument that culminated in her departure, but “with his consent.” According to Sarah, she took some clothing with her and Tuften “promised to send all my other Things by any Body I sent for them.” When she sent a man named Kenniston to collect her belongings, Tuften became enraged and refused to hand over anything. Instead, he placed the advertisement accusing Sarah of departing without his permission and refusing to heed his authority as head of the household. Most upsetting to Sarah, the advertisement implied she committed adultery. In the wake of Tuften demanding that others not to extend credit to his wife, she relied on sympathy to overcome those instructions. She bemoaned her current condition: “I have one small Child of six Months old at my Breast, and we are exposed to the wide World, having no prospect of a Reconciliation with my Husband.” She concluded with one more apology for making a private matter so public, asking “Pardon of the Public, for the Trouble I have given them to read the Circumstances of my Misfortunes.” That Sarah found herself in the position to make such an apology painted an even more unflattering portrait of perfidious husband.

Extending three-quarters of a column, Sarah Wiggin’s “APPEAL” rivaled news items printed elsewhere in the issue for length. If the printers charged to insert this response, they certainly increased their advertising revenue for the week. Even if they did not charge but instead treated her response as a letter intended to inform the public of interesting news, they still stood to generate additional revenue. Printing such a salacious story likely captivated readers, perhaps even drawing the attention of some who did not regularly peruse the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette but took a prurient interest in observing this drama unfold. More readers, for whatever reason, meant wider circulation and the potential to sell even more advertising space.

August 26

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

Aug 26 - 8:26:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (August 26, 1768).

“Mrs. Sarah Wiggenss APPEAL … will be in our next.”

The August 26, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette included a notice from the printers concerning two advertisements, one that had been published and one that had not. “Mrs. Sarah Wiggenss APPEAL to the Public, representing her Husband’s Advertising her in this paper,” the printers explained, “came too late, but will be in our next.” The printers encouraged readers to acquire the next issue and peruse it carefully in order to learn how gros[s]ly she has been injured and imposed upon by him.” The Wiggins resided in Stratham, but their marital squabbles became common knowledge far beyond their own town.

Readers did not need to look any further than the next page to witness (once again, since it also appeared in the previous issue) the quarrelsome advertisement that had elicited Sarah Wiggin’s “APPEAL.” Her husband, Tuften, announced to the residents of Portsmouth and its hinterland that his wife had “ELoped from me … and refuses to live with me as an obedient Wife.” Given that turn of events, he resorted to the same measures as many other spurned husbands, stating that he placed his notice in the public prints in order “to forbid any Person, giving her Credit on my Account” because “I will not pay any Debt by her contracted from the ninth of August last, 1768.” In a nota bene he magnanimously, from his perspective at least, counseled that “If she returns, she will be kindly received upon reasonable terms.”

Sarah apparently had no intention of returning to Tuften. Instead, she submitted a detailed defense of her flight to the printers for presentation to the public, a defense so lengthy that the compositor did not have sufficient time or space to include it in the August 26 edition by the time it arrived in the printing office. When it did appear the following week it occupied three-quarters of a column (more on that in a subsequent entry). Public awareness of domestic strife in the Wiggin household expanded as husband and wife each placed advertisements and the printers inserted notices concerning those advertisements.

The printers did not merely note that a response from Sarah would soon appear in the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Instead, they offered colorful commentary about “how gros[s]ly she has been injured and imposed upon” by her husband. Perhaps they found her response convincing and felt sympathy for her, but their own notice that another chapter in the saga would soon become available had the added benefit of provoking additional interest among readers. The printers leveraged these advertisements about an unhappy marriage to bolster circulation of their newspaper. It was not the first time that they capitalized on disputes made public in this manner.

December 3

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

Dec 3 - 12:3:1767 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (December 3, 1767).

“I advertise this that the Names may be distinguished and my character not stained.”

Weert H. Banta, a carpenter, took out an advertisement in the New-York Journal in hopes of resolving a case of mistaken identity and remedying any damage done to his reputation as a result of the confusion.

Banta reported that Weert C. Banta, also a carpenter, had published an advertisement concerning the “Elopement” of his wife, Elizabeth, two months earlier. In that fairly standard runaway wife notice, the other Banta proclaimed that Elizabeth departed “without any cause” and that he was “apprehensive [she] may run me [into] Debt.” To that end, he desired to “warn all Persons, that they do not Trust, harbour or entertain her, on my Account, for I will pay no Debt of her contracting.”

Due to the similarity of their names and their shared occupation, many readers of the New-York Journal and other residents of the city had mistaken Weert H. Banta for Weert C. Banta. The former Banta clarified that he had not placed the advertisement. Furthermore, his wife’s name was Hannah, not Elizabeth. Not only did he seek to sort out the confusion, he implored “that the Names may be distinguished and my character not stained.”

Banta may have also worried about his wife’s reputation, but as a carpenter “noted through the whole City” he expressed primary concern about his own character and what friends, neighbors, and business associates would think of him. Advertisements for runaway wives typically depicted the absent women as the transgressors in marital relationships, but they still did not reflect well on the men who placed such notices in the public prints. That a wife had “eloped” revealed that her husband failed to exercise proper authority or to maintain order in his own household. These advertisements may have been considered a necessary last resort as a means of reining in recalcitrant wives or at least saving husbands money they did not authorize runaway wives to spend, but they did so at the expense of their masculinity. Anxious not to lose face, Weert H. Banta needed his fellow colonists to know that Hannah, his wife, had not run away. Instead, he competently governed his own household.

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.

August 19

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

Aug 19 - 8:19:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 19, 1767).

“I will not pay any debts of her contracting.”

Four short lines on the final page of advertisements in the August 19, 1767, issue of the Georgia Gazette alerted residents of Savannah to discord in the Frentz household. John Frentz placed a notice “to forewarn all persons from purchasing effects of any kind from my wife, Margaret Frentz, or crediting her on my account.” He added that he would not “pay any debts of her contracting” after August 4, 1767.

By August 19, regular readers of the Georgia Gazette would have been aware of Frentz’s prohibition already. The notice first appeared two weeks earlier in the August 5 edition and again on August 12. Like many advertisements published during the colonial era, it ran for three weeks before disappearing from the pages of the public prints. The discord between John and Margaret Frentz, however, most likely did not evaporate quite so quickly, not if it had been so substantial as to warrant airing in public in the local newspaper.

Frentz’s advertisement was the only one of its kind in the Georgia Gazette throughout the month of August 1767, but it was not a sort unfamiliar to colonists. In larger ports, weekly newspapers often carried as many as half a dozen such warnings published by husbands targeting absent or recalcitrant wives. Any given issue published in New York or Philadelphia was as likely as not to contain at least one such notice.

Frentz’s notice, however, did differ from most others in one significant way. He did not indicate that Margaret had departed from his household. Similar announcements have collectively become known as “runaway wife” advertisements; they usually included some sort of variation on the wife “eloping” away from husband and home, thus justifying the aggrieved husband no longer assuming responsibility for any debts contracted by an absent and insubordinate wife.

Margaret may not have departed at the time John composed his advertisement, but he still worried about what sorts of mischief she might do to his disadvantage. He attempted to eliminate, or at least curtail, her ability to participate in the marketplace, disavowing any debts she initiated. He also sought to prevent her from selling any sorts of goods, presumably including his own belongings, which may have been a strategy for preventing her from eventually “eloping” once she had accumulated enough cash to have a fair chance of making her escape.

Runaway wife advertisements are often interpreted as evidence of women asserting agency in eighteenth-century America, removing themselves from unhappy marriages and households. That was certainly the case, but they also demonstrate that husbands continued to possess the upper hand, even after wives departed. Women had less access to cash and credit as well as fewer opportunities to participate in the marketplace. In this advertisement, John Frentz used buying and selling goods as a means of curbing the agency of his disobedient wife.

January 15

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

jan-15-1151767-pennsylvania-journal
Pennsylvania Journal (January 15, 1767).

“To the PRINTER, WHEREAS a very extraordinary newspaper hath lately appeared in your paper …”

Advertisements for “runaway wives,” women who defied the practices of patriarchy and the laws of coverture by disobeying or abandoning their husbands, frequently appeared in colonial newspapers. On January 15, 1767, alone a total of six such advertisements appeared in Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal, alerting residents of Philadelphia and its hinterland not to trust half a dozen women, nor to extend credit to them.

Most advertisements for runaway wives were fairly brief, such as this one that appeared on the first page of the Pennsylvania Journal: “January 15. WHEREAS Catherine the wife of Stephen Wright, of Bristol Township, Bucks county, has absconded and refused to live with him, this is to forewarn all persons from trusting her on my account, as I will pay no debts by her contracted after the date hereof, STEPHEN WRIGHT.” The indigent husband resorted to stock language and formulaic constructions in making this announcement, inserting the appropriate names, dates, and locations.

Charles Tennent, in an advertisement dated January 1, opted for more original language in a much lengthier advertisements that spelled out a variety of charges against his wife, Jane. He reported that she “hath departed from me without my consent, after having extravagantly laid out large sums of money without my knowledge; has threatened to run me much more in debt than she has already done, and not withstanding my frequent earnest, and tender requests to her, she has refused to return to my house and live with me, according to our solemn obligations.” Charles then devoted the second half of his notice to disavowing any debts contracted by Jane.

Its length alone made that advertisement extraordinary, but even more significantly it garnered a response from the runaway wife, a woman who felt she had been defamed by her unjust and unreasonable husband. In an advertisement twice the length of that placed by the disgruntled Charles, Jane defended her reputation and told her side of the dispute “In order to do myself justice, and let the matter in a clearer light to the public than what it has yet been represented.” She made accusations that Charles had “used me extremely ill, and not treated me like a wife.” She also complained that her husband had deprived of her female slave as well as her horse and carriage. To make matters even worse, he had refused to allow her to take a horse when she needed to have a tooth extracted. In turn, she set out on foot and upon returning home discovered that in the interim Charles had placed advertisements about her conduct. Furthermore, she disputed his claims that she spent money extravagantly, arguing that any purchases she made came out of the estate she brought to the marriage. From her perspective, she had been generous in providing clothes for Charles and his children (who may have been from a previous marriage, making them stepchildren to Jane). To make matters worse, Jane stated that she had attempted to return to their household but Charles refused to admit her and was not even willing to meet with her “before any gentlemen in town to talk the matter face to face.” She put up a spirited defense that may have been considered unseemly for a woman yet simultaneously shamed her husband for his poor conduct.

Advertisements for runaway wives demonstrate the agency of colonial women who sought to escape the confines and, in some cases, abuses of patriarchal marriage. In most cases they must be read against the grain because they are accounts written and shaped by men about women. Jane Tennent, however, did not leave it to her friends and neighbors – or historians – to consider her take on the events her husband described. She offered a response that recast her husband as the villain rather than herself as improperly deviating from the ideals of virtuous femininity.

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As an aside about another aspect of the history of advertising, note that Jane Tennent reported that her husband “pasted up advertisements round the neighbourhood to the same effect he has done here” in the Pennsylvania Journal. Charles went beyond simply placing an advertisement in the local newspaper. Instead, he contracted a bit of job printing, a separate broadside of unspecified size, that he distributed on his own and strategically placed in places around his own neighborhood. This suggests that pasting up advertisements in colonial cities and towns was fairly common, that residents experienced a visual and textual landscape of advertising in their everyday lives.