‘Really inspiring’: Historical ads lend insight into lives of pioneer-era women

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(ABC4) – Homemade family medicines, bank accounts, a Singer sewing machine, fur capes and collars, classes for midwifery.

Ads from the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper based in Salt Lake City that ran from 1872 to 1914, gives insight into the daily lives of female members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the time period. The newspaper included articles on a wide-range of topics, such as church-related events, home and family, slavery, and the suffrage movement.

Professor Jeremy Browne, from Brigham Young University‘s Office of Digital Humanities, says that people tend to have certain perceptions about what women were like and what they were doing.

Senior librarian Elizabeth Smart and BYU Digital Humanities Professor Jeremy Brown created a digital database of 4,000 advertisements that appeared in the Woman’s Exponent. Photo Courtesy: Brigham Young University

“These advertisements do kind of hint that maybe it’s a more complicated picture than what we might have imagined,” he tells ABC4.com.

Browne and Senior librarian Elizabeth Smart recently finished a digital database of roughly 4,000 advertisements that ran in the Woman’s Exponent. The ads are searchable by year, vendor, and industry.

The project was part of a larger effort by The University of Utah‘s J. Willard Marriott Library and Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library to digitize the entire Women’s Exponent archive, Browne explained. He then got permission to carry the project further and create a database of the advertisements.

But why focus on advertisements?

“When I was looking at the newspaper, the thing that I found the most approachable for myself, not being an expert in this content area, was the advertisements because this is something we still see today,” he explains.

He says going through each of the advertisements was eye-opening. For example, Browne says he was unaware that there were several female certified medical doctors in Salt Lake City at that time.

“These are women who traveled from Utah to the East Coast to receive their medical training and then returned with their degrees. You see a lot of advertisements not for just services that they offered, but also for training. They held classes on Midwifery… and nursing schools,” he shares. “These were women who brought back their knowledge and then started to to distribute or disseminate that knowledge in the community, and to me that’s really inspiring.”

Courtesy: Brigham Young University

Advertisements of the day also gave broader insight into attitudes towards women’s fashion, according to Smart.

For example, several editorials published in the paper criticized French fashion trends, saying they made women look “weak and sickly.”

According to Smart, “In the seventh issue, published on September 1, 1872, Lula Greene’s editorial, titled “Who Is to Blame?,” notes:

“It has become so popular among the fashionable women of society, to be weak and sickly, and under the care of a physician, that a woman who is blest with good health and has sense enough to appreciate it, is likely to be considered coarse, masculine, and non-sensitive in her mental as well as physical organization.”

“Greene continued by praising girls who can “enjoy exuberantly a bowl of hominy and milk . . . [and] indulge in a genuine, hearty laugh and not complain of a fearful pain in the side for the next forty-eight hours” because she is not hampered by “tight lacing, wearing high heeled boots; and, in short, the whole toilet of the fashionable lady of the day.” Greene notes that these fashions “[make] a sacrifice of health and all real happiness,”” Smith says.

However, Smith realized the newspaper also contained many advertisements for the same fashion styles that the editorialists wrote against.

“It seems that, despite efforts by editorialists, the readers’ interest in current fashion and foreign trends continued unabated,” Smith states. “In one last example from 1898, M. Francis, manager of the Woman’s Co-operative Committee, encouraged ladies attending the October General Conference to also attend their fall opening, and claimed, “Our French patterns are more beautiful than ever.”

Another advertisement aimed towards women that ran for nearly ten years, was for bank accounts at Zion’s Bank. The advertisements contained a paragraph stating that the laws of Utah permit married women and also children who are minors, to open savings accounts in their own name, subject to their own control, Browne states.

The ads were signed by The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Browne points out that one of the arguments the suffragists had for gaining the right to vote was taxation without representation and that women who owned businesses were still paying taxes, even though they were not allowed to elect the officials who represented them.

“This silk industry was thriving in Utah at the time and there are advertisements for mulberry trees that you can buy and silk worms that you could buy. Women were spinning silk in their home, women were doing all sorts of home industries and making money off this,” he states.

“So when Zions Bank says, hey, you can open an account, they’re not saying, bring us the allowance that your husband gave you. What they’re saying is, you can come deposit under your own control, money that you are making on your own,” he adds.

According to Browne, some of the advertisements were humorous. His favorite was one for the “Mormon Hill Excavation Company” which sold souvenirs from the Hill Cumorrah, which Latter-day Saints believe was where founder Joseph Smith recovered the golden plates, the manuscript for the Book of Mormon.

The advertisement “calls it Mormon hill because that’s what they called it in the region, and they didn’t refer to it as the Book of Mormon, but as the golden Bible or as the Mormon Bible,” Browne explains. “That advertisement only ran for two issues, but it shows the divide between the the way that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would refer to places and items and the way that the people back in New York were referring to them.”

Browne says he hopes that the advertisement database will be used to help support historical research. But he also hopes that members of the public will enjoy it.

“What would really make me happy is if some member of the public decided to get into the onto the website and just browse some of these advertisements or do some searches. Because, like I said, if they read an article out of the women’s exponent, they don’t have as much context as they do if they’re looking at an advertisement because advertisements haven’t changed that much in the last 150 years,” Browne states.

Visitors to the database can submit feedback, make suggestions, and ask questions. Browne says he would be interested in hearing if the public would appreciate further expanding the database with advertisements from other historical newspapers.

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