What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“REBECCA WRIGHT, SOLE-DEALER, MILLINER, from LONDON.”
Late in the summer of 1768, Rebecca Wright, a “MILLINER, from LONDON,” took to the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to announce that she intended to open her own shop on King Street in Charleston. She informed prospective customers that she pursued “the MILLINARY BUSINESS in all its branches, in the genteelest taste.” In just a few words, Wright commented on her abilities to pursue her trade and her attention to current fashions. In those regards the appeals in her advertisement paralleled some of the most common appeals deployed by artisans throughout the eighteenth century. Her notice, however, deviated from those placed by other artisans in once significant manner: the headline.
For most artisans, their name alone served as the headline for their advertisements. Their occupation or trade appeared as a secondary headline. Such was the case in other advertisements that ran in the same column as Wright’s notice. These included “JAMES OLIPHANT, JEWELLER, in Broad-street, next door to the Post-office,” “JOHN LORD, CARVER and GILDER,” and “THOMAS COLEMAN, UPHOLSTERER and PAPER-HANGER.” The headline for Wright’s advertisement had an additional element, identifying her as a “SOLE-DEALER” before listing her occupation as a secondary headline. What did this designation mean?
Laws replicating the English practice of coverture were in place throughout the colonies. Such laws negated the separate legal identity of married women. This certainly had ramifications for women in business. As the Elizabeth Murray Project explains, “Most legal arrangements, such as contracts, were considered to be the husband’s sole right and responsibility. … If [a wife] were able to enter into contracts on her own, she could ultimately be held liable in ways that might deprive a husband of services to which he had first claim.” Wives who ran their own businesses did so under the authority of their husbands, who were legally responsible for the debts incurred and other commercial activities of their entrepreneurial wives. Only Pennsylvania and South Carolina passed feme sole trader statutes that enabled married women to participate in the marketplace on their own behalf, separating their legal identity from husbands when it came to business.
Wright proclaimed that this was case with her millinery shop. The headline of her advertisement announced that she operated her business on her own, that she (not her husband) was ultimately responsible for making contracts, paying debts, suing for payment, and any other legal actions necessary for its operation. This advertisement – along with one placed by “FRANCES SWALLOW, SOLE DEALER,” on the same page – testifies to the commercial independence that some married women managed to achieve even in an age when coverture was the common practice.