What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“SARAH DAWSON, the Widow of JOSEPH DAWSON, Gardener.”
Compared to their male counterparts, relatively few female entrepreneurs placed advertisements promoting their commercial activities in Boston’s newspapers in the early 1770s. With the exception of clusters of advertisements placed by female seed sellers in the spring, commercial notices constituted a primarily male space in the public prints. Esther Harrison was one of those female shopkeepers who did run advertisements. Her notice in the October 29, 1770, edition of the Boston-Gazette listed a variety of “Shop Goods cheap for Cash,” similar to advertisements placed by Benjamin Church, Archbald Cunningham, Joshua Gardner, John Gore, Jr., John Head, William Smith, Thomas Walley, and others.
Two other women joined Harrison in advertising the businesses they operated in that edition of the Boston-Gazette. Most likely by chance rather than by design, their advertisements appeared side by side, one in each column on the final page. Abigail Davidson and Sarah Dawson both advertised trees, shrubs, and seeds. Unlike Harrison, Davidson and Dawson connected their businesses to men who had once operated them. Dawson identified herself as “the Widow of JOSEPH DAWSON, Gardener, lately deceas’d.” Davidson noted that the trees she sold had been “grafted and innoculated by William Davidson, deceased.” In both instances, the women likely contributed to the family business before the death of a male relation but did not become the public face for the business until after. Davidson and Dawson made reference to those male gardeners in much the same way that male advertisers often described their credentials as they sought to convince prospective customers and clients that they were qualified for the job.
Harrison, Davidson, and Dawson all ran businesses. Their entrepreneurial activities included marketing their wares via newspaper advertisements. Harrison presented herself as the sole proprietor of her shop, but Davidson and Dawson adopted an approach often taken by women who found themselves responsible for the family business after the death of a husband or other relation. They identified themselves in connection to the deceased relative, mediating their commercial message through the authority and expertise of men. Even as female advertisers, their appearance in the public prints contributed to the depiction the marketplace as a predominantly masculine space when it came to producers, sellers, and suppliers.