GUEST CURATOR: Alex Ruston
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
This advertisement features an item that many of us probably take for granted in the twenty-first century. Umbrellas first appeared in England in the 1760s. In the eighteenth-century, the umbrella stirred up a lot of social attention. According to Kate Haulman, “Though large and clumsy by modern standards, the umbrellas of the late eighteenth century were brightly colored items of fashion made of oiled silk, stylistic spoils of empire hailing from India.” Umbrellas were popular for the upper class, especially women, leading to a lot of controversy surrounding their use. “Some regarded umbrellas as ridiculous and frivolous, serving no purpose that a good hat could not supply. Others called them effeminate, appropriate only for use by women.” In this advertisement, Isaac Greenwood of Boston emphasized women and girls as customers for his “UMBRILLOES.” When umbrellas debuted in colonial America they were a controversial and uncommon accessory that “received positive and negative attention.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
By the time this advertisement appeared in the Boston-Gazette in the spring of 1772, Isaac Greenwood was already familiar to many of the residents of Boston. They may have spotted women and girls carrying his umbrellas as they traversed the streets of the city. Readers of the Boston-Gazette saw his advertisements, many of them featuring a distinctive woodcut that depicted a woman carrying an umbrella. Greenwood first included that image in an advertisement that ran in the May 20, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette. Over the course of the next year, he periodically ran additional advertisements that featured the woman with the umbrella.
In that time, he sought to expand his clientele by offering even smaller umbrellas for young girls. In May 1771, he declared that “Ladies may be supplied with all Sizes, so small as to suit Misses of 6 or 7 Years of Age.” A year later, he revised the copy to state that “Ladies may be supplied with all Sizes, so small as to suit Misses of 4 or 5 Years of Age.” Eager to sell his product, Greenwood took a position in the debates about umbrellas. They were appropriate for women and even young girls.
Greenwood was not the only artisan in Boston who advertised that he made and sold “UMBRILLOES.” In the June 12, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette, his advertisement appeared next to one placed by Oliver Greenleaf. Greenwood gave his customers the option of buying finished products or the supplies to construct their own umbrellas, informing “Those Ladies whose Ingenuity, Leisure and Oeconomy leads them to make their own, [that they] may have them cut out by buying the Sticks or Frames of him.” In extending that offer, he suggested that umbrellas were not as frivolous as some of the critics claimed. Rather than luxury items that merely testified to conspicuous consumption, umbrellas made by female consumers had the potential to demonstrate some of the virtues that women possessed. Since any umbrella could have been made through the “Ingenuity” and “Oeconomy” of the woman who carried it, Greenwood might have intended to reduce critiques of all ladies with umbrellas in an effort to increase sales by making his product less controversial.
 Kate Haulman, “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 62, no. 4 (October 2005): 632.