June 13

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

Jun 13 - 6:13:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (June 13, 1768).

To be Sold by Susanna Renken, At her Shop in Fore-Street.”

Susanna Renken was one of several women who took to the pages of the several newspapers published in Boston to advertise the assortment of seeds she stocked and sold in late winter and early spring in the late 1760s. In February 1768 she commenced this annual ritual among the sisterhood of the city’s seed sellers. Over the course of the next couple of weeks Rebeckah Walker, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, and Lydia Dyar and the appropriately named Elizabeth Greenleaf also inserted their own advertisements. As had been the case in previous years, their notices sometimes comprised entire columns in some newspapers, a nod towards classification in an era when printers and compositors exerted little effort to organize advertisements according to their content or purpose.

Even though some of these female seed sellers indicated that they sold other goods, usually grocery items, most did not intrude in the public prints to promote themselves in the marketplace throughout the rest of the year. They published their advertisements for seeds for a couple of months and then disappeared from the advertising pages until the following year. Susanna Renken was one of the few exceptions to that trend. Her advertisement for seeds concluded with brief mention of her other wares: “ALSO,–English goods, China cups and saucers, to be sold cheap for cash.” Nearly four months later she followed up with a much more extensive advertisement that listed dozens of items available at her shop, an advertisement that replicated those placed by other shopkeepers – male and female – who did not sell seeds (or, at least, did not promote seeds as their primary commodity in other advertisements).

What explains the difference between the strategies adopted by Renken and other female seed sellers? Did Renken better understand the power of advertising than her peers? After all, in addition to being one of the few to place additional notices she was the first to advertise in 1768, suggesting some understanding of being the first to present her name to the public that year. Was she more convinced than the others that advertising yielded a return on her investment that made it profitable to budget for additional notices? Alternately, Renken may have diversified her business more than other female seed sellers. She may have stocked a much more extensive inventory of imported dry goods than competitors who carried primarily seeds and groceries and perhaps a limited number of housewares. If that were the case, Renken may have earned a living as a “she-merchant” throughout the year while other female seed sellers participated almost exclusively in that trade and did not need to advertise during other seasons.

It is impossible to reconstruct the complete story of what distinguished Renken and her entrepreneurial activities from the enterprises of Clark, Dyar, Greenleaf, and other female seed sellers by consulting their advertisements alone. Many of those who trod the streets of Boston in the 1760s, however, would have possessed local knowledge that provided sufficient context for better understanding why Renken inserted addition advertisements and her competitors were silent throughout most of the year, especially if Renken continuously operated a shop with an assortment of merchandise and the others pursued only seasonal work when the time came to distribute seeds to farmers and gardeners.

March 14

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

Mar 14 - 3:14:1768 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 14, 1768).

“A Fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds.”

Colonists in Boston glimpsed a sign that spring was on its way when Susanna Renken inserted an advertisement for seeds in the Massachusetts Gazette in late February 1768. It was the first of many similar advertisements that residents of Boston would have recognized as part of an annual ritual. As the first day of spring approached, other seed sellers, most of them women, joined Renken in advising the public of the many sorts of seeds they stocked, from vegetables to herbs to flowers.

Such advertisements appeared in newspapers published in other cities, but they were especially prevalent in Boston. A greater number of women who participated in the seed trade turned to the public prints to attract customers. Many of them advertised in multiple newspapers. Renken, for example, launched her advertising campaign for 1768 in the Massachusetts Gazette but very quickly followed up with notices in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy. For instance, her advertisement was the first item in the first column on the final page of the March 14, 1768, edition of the Boston-Gazette.

By then her competitors had joined her in hawking their wares in the city’s newspapers. Advertisements placed by women who sold seeds filled almost the entire column (with the exception of a two-line advertisement for “Scotch COALS” and the colophon). Rebeckah Walker, Elizabeth Greenleaf, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, and Lydia Dyar each promoted their seeds, renewing their efforts from the spring of 1768. Elsewhere in the same issue Anna Johnson’s advertisement even featured a headline for “Garden Seeds, Peas, Beans, &c.” that distinguished her notice from the others. On the same day, Sarah Winsor advertised seeds in the Boston Post-Boy.

Advertisements by Renken, Greenleaf, Dyar, and other women who sold seeds cropped up in Boston’s newspapers each spring, but even though several of them indicated that they also sold “all sorts of Groceries” or “English Goods” or other merchandise at their shops they disappeared from the advertising pages throughout the rest of the year. Why did these women consider it imperative to advertise only seeds and only as spring approached? In general, female shopkeepers were disproportionately underrepresented compared to their male counterparts when it came to placing newspaper advertisements. Considered separately, a survey of advertisements for seeds suggests that selling them was a feminized occupation in the late 1760s. Did women who otherwise avoided drawing attention to their participation in the marketplace as retailers who competed with men (rather than solely as consumers) feel more latitude to place advertisements when they knew that they competed predominantly with other women?

February 25

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

Feb 25 - 2:25:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary (February 25, 1768).

“Lucerne and Burnett seed, warranted to be of last year’s growth.”

Spring was coming. In late February 1768 colonists in Boston could tell that spring was on its way by looking for certain signs. While watching for changes in the weather and landscape provided clues about the passage of the seasons, colonists also witnessed other indications. The appearance of Susanna Renken’s advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette testified that spring was indeed on its way. It was the first to promote a variety of seeds that colonists would need to purchase soon so they could plant their gardens.

Renken participated in an annual ritual, one that transformed the pages of newspapers printed in Boston for a few months. She had previously advertised seeds in 1766 and 1767, but she had not been alone. Other women had placed their own advertisements, presenting local customers with many choices for obtaining the seeds they needed. Readers of the newspapers published in Boston knew that in the coming weeks several other female shopkeepers would join Renken, each inserting their own advertisements for seeds. If the past was any indication, they could expect to see these advertisements printed one after the other, sometimes filling entire columns in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette. Renken and her competitors usually inserted their notices in multiple publications.

For now, however, Renken advertised alone. She was the first seed seller to take to the pages of the public prints in 1768, heralding the proliferation of advertisements that would soon appear, bloom for a couple of months, and recede until the next year. Colonists in Boston and its hinterlands observed this annual cycle unfold in their newspapers in the late winter and early spring, just as they saw advertisements for almanacs make their first appearances in the fall, intensify in number and frequency over several months, and taper off after the new year.

Susanna Renken was the first to advertise seeds in 1768, but soon she would not be alone. At the same time colonists noticed certain birds returning to New England as part of their seasonal migration, they also saw advertisements for seeds once again in the pages of their newspapers. The print culture of marketing had its own rhythms that colonists could associate with the changing seasons.

March 9

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

Mar 9 - 3:9:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 9, 1767).

“Red and white Clover, Red Top and Herds Grass Seed, warranted to be of last Year’s Growth.”

Compared to their male counterparts, women who pursued their own businesses placed advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers much less frequently. Even though they comprised a sizeable minority of shopkeepers in urban ports, they tended not to inject themselves into the marketplace via the public prints.

For one type of female entrepreneur, however, that changed, at least temporarily, in Boston for several weeks in late winter and early spring in the 1760s. Women who specialized in selling seeds placed advertisements in Boston’s newspapers and competed with each other for customers as the time for planting gardens approached.

Consider the March 9, 1767, issues of the Boston-Gazette. Susanna Renken’s advertisement appeared on the first page. Notices placed by four other female seed sellers (and one male competitor who, unlike the women, described his occupation as “Gardener”) filled almost an entire column on the final page of the supplement devoted solely to advertising. Just as Renken stated in her advertisement, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, Lydia Dyar, and Elizabeth Greenleaf noted that they imported seeds from London and listed the varieties they stocked. Each had advertised the previous year as well.

Clark, Dyar, and the appropriately named Greenleaf confined their advertising to seeds, but Renken also promoted “all Sorts of English GOODS and China Ware” and Oliver stocked “a general Assortment of Glass, Delph and Stone Ware, Lynn Shoes, best Bohea Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and all other Groceries.” Their advertisements suggest that Renken and Oliver ran operations much more extensive than peddling seeds, which may explain why those two also inserted advertisements in the Boston Post-Boy on the same day. Clark, Dyar, and Greenleaf may have also stocked various imported housewares and groceries, despite not making an indication in their own advertisements. None of these five women who ran advertisements for the seeds they sold in successive springs, however, placed advertisements at other times during the year.

What explains the prominence of advertisements by women selling seeds amid the scarcity of advertising by other women in colonial Boston’s marketplace? Why did the women in this occupation turn to advertising when other women who operated other sorts of businesses did not? Why did Renken and Oliver only advertise their other wares at the conclusion of their advertisements for seeds and not in separate advertisements throughout the rest of the year? These advertisements demonstrate women’s activity in the marketplace as sellers, not just consumers, but they also raise a series of questions about the limits of that participation captured in print during the period.

March 24

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

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

Mar 24 - 3:24:1766 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 24, 1766).

Elizabeth Clark placed this advertisement to sell an assortment of seeds. She got her supplies “per Capt. Freeman” from London. The timing makes perfect sense, because April showers bring May, June, July, and August crops. With it being late March the planting season was right upon colonists in Boston and the rest of Massachusetts.

 

Anyone who frequently visits the Adverts 250 Project might notice that this advertisement seems repetitive. To be honest I had to review my work from my first week as guest curator in February. The historical impact that woman of the past have on women of the present and future interests me greatly so I try to pick advertisements that feature primarily woman if I am able. On February 17, I featured an advertisement from Lydia Dyar, who also sold garden seeds and had gotten them from Captain Freeman. In his additional commentary Prof. Keyes also pointed out an advertisement from yet another woman, Susanna Renken, who both sold seeds and bought them from Captain Freeman. All three of these woman posted similar advertisements, for mostly the same product, and bought their goods from the same man.

Two of them seem to have had shops in the same vicinity: Mill Creek. Susanna Renken states that her shop is “near the Draw Bridge” and Elizabeth Clark advertised that she was located “near the Mill Bridge,” which was located on Mill Creek. This trade card helped further convince me that these two woman shops were near each other because William Breck had a shop “at the Golden Key near the draw-Bridge Boston.”

Mar 25 - William Breck Trade Card
William Breck’s trade card (Paul Revere, engraver, ca. 1768).  This trade card is part of the American Antiquarian Society’s Paul Revere Collection.

Nathaniel Abraham, who also regularly advertised in the Boston newspapers, listed “Sign of the Golden Key, in Ann-street” as his location too.

 

Mar 24 - Nathaniel Abraham - 2:20:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (February 20, 1766).

This map shows that Ann Street intersected Mill Creek.  The drawbridge crossed Mill Creek.  Elizabeth Clark, Susanna Renken, William Breck, and Nathaniel Abraham had shops located near each other.

Mar 24 - Detail of Map
Detail of A Plan of the Town of Boston.
Mar 24 - Map of Boston.jpg
A Plan of the Town of Boston with the Intrenchments &ca. of His Majesty’s Forces in 1775, from the Observations of Lieut. Page of His Majesty’s Corps of Engineers, and from Those of Other Gentlemen (1777?).  Library of Congress.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

I am impressed with the way that Elizabeth mobilizes several different primary sources –newspaper advertisements, trade cards, maps – in a preliminary attempt to reconstruct neighborhoods and marketplaces in Boston in the 1760s. This is work that historians and scholars in related fields have undertaken on a grander scale.

I appreciate that Elizabeth draws attention to an aspect of eighteenth-century advertisements that has not yet received much attention here: when examined systematically the locations listed in the advertisements help us to understand not only the geography of early American towns and cities but also relationships of various sorts.

More than two decades would pass before publication of the Boston Directory, the city’s first directory that listed the occupations and residences of its inhabitants, in 1789. That and subsequent city directories from Boston and other urban centers in early America have been invaluable to historians, but such sources do not exist for earlier periods.

Elizabeth has discovered on her own – and helps to demonstrate – that newspaper advertisements provide more information than just lists of goods or attempts to convince potential customers to make purchases. They include valuable information about where people worked and where they lived, details that fill in some of the blanks for an era before city directories.

February 17

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

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

Feb 17 - 2:17:1766 Boston Gazette
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (February 17, 1766).

“A fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds … warranted to be good.”

As a female millennial who is interested in women’s rights and equality, seeing a woman merchant who posted in a newspaper made me very excited! Lydia Dyar sold “A fresh assortment ” of seeds of all types, from spices and herbs to vegetables. She listed quite a collection of different types of seeds and goes on to say that she has even more. The seeds came from London and had been recently brought in on “the lasts Ships, and Captain Freeman.” Even though the seeds came from London, they had probably been collected from all over England’s other colonies, from the Caribbean to India to trading posts in Africa.

Feb 17 - British Empire 1763
Britain’s global empire in 1763, a result of commercial enterprise and military conquest.

With it being February and winter being somewhat close to over, the early American colonists would be starting to think and prepare for spring. Spring meant that the growing season was going to start and seeds would be a necessity.   Many early American colonists grew much of what they ate rather than always trading or purchasing food. They had no 24-hour CVS or Super Walmart. Lydia Dyar also “warranted to be good” which would be a sort of warrantee that the seeds would yield the appropriate amount of fruit.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

When she first selected this advertisement, Elizabeth asked if it was out of the ordinary for women to participate in the eighteenth-century marketplace as retailers, wholesalers, suppliers, or producers rather than as consumers. I explained that women filled those roles more often than everyday assumptions about early America might suggest. In urban ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia as many as one-fifth to one-third of shopkeepers were women.

On the other hand, women did not tend to place advertisements in proportion to their numbers. It would not quite be correct to state that advertisements placed by women were uncommon, but on the whole women tended to be less likely to promote their businesses in the public prints than men.

Given her desire to feature advertisements by women, Elizabeth had three choices in the four-page Boston-Gazette and its two-page Supplement, both issued on February 17, 1766. Lydia Dyar’s advertisement appeared on the second page of the supplement. Shopkeeper Jane Eustis advertised an extensive assortment of textiles on the third page of the regular issue.

Feb 17 - 2:17:1766 Boston-Gazette - Renkin
Boston-Gazette (February 17, 1766).

And Susanna Renken, a competitor to Lydia Dyar, inserted this advertisement on the final page of the regular issue. Notice that both women sell many of the same seeds. Both indicate that they had been supplied by Captain Freeman. In the absence of an existing personal or commercial relationship with one seed seller or the other, how might a colonial consumer have decided which to visit?

Convenience based on location might have been a deciding factor. However, Dyar made appeals to potential customers that Renken did not: “warranted to be good, and of last Year’s Growth, sold at the lowest Terms.” Renken announced that she had seeds for sale, but Dyar put extra effort into marketing her wares. Perhaps Renken ended up regretting that the Boston-Gazette published a supplement – including Dyar’s advertisement – that week instead of holding her competitor’s advertisement until publishing a new full issue the following week.