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Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90

Rebecca Fifield

Head of Collection Management, Special Collections, The New York Public Library

Indentured and enslaved women in the American colonies provided domestic, agricultural, and commercial labor, but left behind little documentary evidence of their lives. Some women chose to abscond from service. In Figure 1 below, a runaway woman’s master has recorded details of her appearance in a newspaper advertisement which seeks her return. Written from the master’s perspective, such runaway ads often state the name of the woman, describe her visual appearance, record the clothing she wore when she eloped, and occasionally mention personality quirks and aptitudes. These ads offer intriguing glimpses of women whose story is otherwise difficult to tell through other documentary sources.

Very little imagery of 18th-century American working women exists, so runaway advertisements provide us with the most comprehensive source for study of their dress. (Figure 2) Garments described in the advertisements are tantalizing in their detail, listing an array of textiles, pattern, and color. In past studies, garment descriptions in runaway ads have been minimally analyzed in quantity or were randomly selected to illustrate working men and women’s dress in costume studies. [1]  In creating the Runaway Clothing Database [2], I aimed to examine what was typical in working women’s dress, and how that dress was influenced by geography, type of servitude, and other criteria.

Searching for words like “run,” “ran,” “women,” and “girl,” I was able to collect over 1,000 runaway advertisements from digitized sources for female servants during the period 1750-90. Within these ads were descriptions of over 6,000 individual garments worn or acquired by working women. Digital archives used to locate runaway ads included Early American Newspapers and several other online sources.

Runaway ads broadcasted the elopement of both indentured servants and apprentices of European descent and enslaved women of African descent. European women seeking to pay for transatlantic passage would enter an indenture of four years immediately on the wharf after disembarking from the ship. Most of these ships arrived at Philadelphia, gateway to the great agricultural breadbasket of Pennsylvania, where labor was in high demand. Apprentices were young people entering an indenture in order to learn a skill. These workers served seven-year terms or a period of time covering their teenage years. Enslaved women in the American colonies included women born in Africa, born in the American colonies, or born in the West Indies. In England, convict women were indentured as an alternative to the death penalty. Convicts were shipped primarily to Annapolis and indentured for seven to fourteen years.  

The geographic distribution of runaway advertisements in my Runaway Clothing Database reflects general American labor conditions between 1750 and 1790. Sixty-three percent of women in the study are from the mid-Atlantic, 32% are from the South, and 5% are from the North. During the late 18th century, slavery in the northern colonies was replaced with paid labor through gradual emancipation, which may account for the smaller amount of runaway advertisements between 1750 and 1790.  The lack of indentured women runaways in Southern advertisements reviewed for the project imply that indentured female labor had been replaced with slavery south of Virginia. (Figure 3) The mid-Atlantic runaways represent indentured, enslaved, and convict women. The prosperity of Pennsylvania and shipments of convicts to Maryland created a larger servant workforce, and therefore, higher amounts of runaways from those colonies.

Garments worn by elite women and working women during the 18th century varied little by type. Basic dress for women of all social statuses included a shift (a linen undergarment), stays (corset), stockings, petticoats, an upper body garment (such as a gown or jacket), apron, handkerchief (worn around the neck), cap (generally of white linen and worn over the hair), and some sort of hat or bonnet. While the garments and their construction were similar between economic classes, the garments differed in fit, fabric, and trims and ornamentation. (Figure 4) The presumption that working women wore durable fabrics in dull colors is often the extent of the discussion of working women’s dress in traditional dress survey texts.

Through the Runaway Clothing Database project, it became apparent that not only did women in servitude have an interest in participating in fashion, but also that certain textiles and methods of dress allowed working women to approach fashionable ideals. Consider the rotten luck of Mary Allen, an English woman who served her time in Cecil County, Maryland. After her service was complete, she pursued a free life in Philadelphia, and—under suspicion of not being free—she was thrown in jail. When she was found to be innocent, she was sold again into servitude in order to pay for her jail expenses. She wore a calico (likely a printed cotton fabric) jacket, dirty linsey petticoat and old straw hat, but attempted to follow fashion by dressing her hair “raised with a roller” and wearing high-heeled shoes. [3] Among the advertisements in the database, 40% of the upper-body garments worn by women were made of inexpensive cotton or linen fabrics printed with floral, geometric, and pictorial designs, primarily in purple, red, black, and blue. Mary Patterson ran away wearing an “old calico blue and yellow sprig gown.” [4] (Figure 5)

Servants attempted to craft fashionable appearances with small accessories, including printed handkerchiefs, silk bonnets, and the trimming of hats and caps.  Silk—still considered a luxury fabric today—was available to working women in the form of ribbons, handkerchiefs, and hats and bonnets. Silk ribbons were used to trim caps and hats, to create breastknots, and were worn around the neck as jewelry. My database found 390 silk garments belonging to 298 runaways in the 1,000 ads analyzed, or, put another way, 30% of runaways had at least some small amount of silk in their wardrobes. 

At the same time, much of working women’s clothing had to endure constant wear. It was infrequently replaced and often requiring patching. Garments were supplied by their masters as terms of the women’s indentures. These women may also have supplemented their wardrobes by purchasing second-hand clothing and small luxuries. Sally Bronsdon, an apprentice in the Boston area, began her apprenticeship with the Davenport family in 1794. Sally recorded every piece of clothing that Mrs. Davenport gave her during the almost seven years of her apprenticeship. Approximately 25% of her garments were described as old, including skirts and stockings. Only shifts and shoes were always provided new. [5] How garments were reused cannot be studied through extant garments, as these objects no longer exist.

Runaway advertisements were used to identify eloping servants, so masters included a high level of detail, including signs of wear and patching. Nearly 500 garments worn by eloping servants were described as worn, old, or patched and included all types of garments. Mary McCroy of Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, wore a “striped petticoat, with a piece of tow cloth sewed to it before” and Agnes Mackey of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wore a striped linsey bedgown described as “very much broken at the breast, and pieced with cloth of a different colour from the body." [6] This data reveals information about the value of textiles to working women and what sort of styling choices working women made for repair of their clothing.   

Perhaps the most interesting women among the runaways are those who ran away more than once. Cataloging runaway women’s elopements allows further study of the experience of unfree labor, as well as an opportunity to study how the servants’ clothing changed over a period of years. Eleanor Ferrell, an Irish servant who indentured herself upon arrival in the colonies around 1760, ran away from a number of masters approximately six times. While almost 35 women in the database ran away more than once, Eleanor was the only woman to run away more than twice.

It is a given that Eleanor Ferrell was a character. Henry Jamison noted in his runaway advertisement for Eleanor as “very talkative, and subject to violent Pasions [sic], and easily offended.” [7] Abraham Emmitt described her as “an ill natured, scolding, cursing, swearing, thieving servant Woman” and noted her enjoyment of snuff. [8] She spoke good English, according to master Thomas Talman, but with a heavy brogue according to Henry Jamison and Abraham Emmitt. [9] The absence of runaway advertisements from some of her masters can lead us to think that they did not wish to reacquire her. Perhaps the dark grounded cotton Eleanor used to fabricate cuffs for the “coarse calico gown” she wore in 1763 were the remnants of the gown of “dark chintz, with red Flowers, lined with sheeting Dowlas” that she ran away in fifteen months before.

Individually, the runaway advertisement still fascinates with its personal tale of escape. If these women did not choose to elope, there would be no record of their existence. We delight in reading about “husseys” who enjoy tobacco. We are curious about the circumstances behind one woman’s departure to follow the army. We delight in the complexity of appearance of women like Eleanor Armstrong whose runaway ad lists layers of patterned and colored garments:

“a long chits [sic] wrapper, of a yellow ground, with large red and brown sunflowers the pattern, the sleeves pieced near the cuff, with red and brown spotted calicoe, and broke under the arms; and over said wrapper, a short gown, with some red and white stripes and sprigs through it, a good deal worn, and pieced under the arms with check linen, the colour much faded; a new camblet skirt, of a deep blue…and one old ditto, of a light blue colour, a good small check apron, of a bad colour, a green Barcelona handkerchief, much faded, one large blue and white check ditto, marked in one corner E.E. a clean cap, with a black sattin [sic] ribbon, tied round her head, and brought under her chin, a blue cloth cloak, with a cap to it, tied at the neck with a narrow worsted tape; an old changeable silk bonnet, lined with blue silk, and tied with a white ribbon.” [10]

The runaway advertisements found in 18th-century newspapers are full of personal details and quirks. But without large-scale analysis, it is difficult to understand how working women’s dress reflected the impact of unfree servitude on their participation in material culture and American society. (Figure 6)



[1] Claudia Kidwell discusses using a computer program in 1978 to sort characteristics of short gowns in advertisements from a number of sources. See Claudia Brush Kidwell, “Short Gowns, DRESS, the Journal of the Costume Society of America 4 (1978) pp. 30-65. Living history reenactors have often undertaken projects of a similar build through manual tabulation or by reprinting advertisements directly from newspapers to inform their costuming. See Sue Huesken and Karen Mullian, “Had on and took with her" : clothing in female runaway servant advertisements from the Pennsylvania evening post, later the Pennsylvania evening post and daily advertiser, as published by Benjamin Towne of Philadelphia between 1775 and 1784 (Palmyra, NJ : SK Shortgown Research, 1995). Also Joanne Early. “Runaway Advertisements: A Source for the Study of Working-Class Costume,” Pennsylvania Folklife 27 no. 4 (1978) pp. 46-49. Don N. Hagist, Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls, A Selection of Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers, 1770-1783 (Baraboo, WI: Ballindalloch Press, 2008), which mainly reproduces advertisements without analysis, with the exception of a few interpretive drawings. A number of other similar projects focusing only on specific garments are available on line. Jonathan Prude focused mainly on men and the social forces that shaped the appearance of the runaway servant in his article. See Jonathan Prude, “To Look upon the ‘Lower Sort’: Runaway Ads and the Appearance of Unfree Laborers in America, 1750-1800,” The Journal of American History 78, no. 1 (Jun. 1991) pp. 124–59.

[2] Rebecca Fifield 'Had on When She Went Away . . .': Expanding the Usefulness of Garment Data in American Runaway Advertisements 1750–90 through Database Analysis. Textile History. Volume 42, Issue 1 (01 May 2011), pp. 80-102. DOI:

[3] The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 26, 1776.

[4] The Pennsylvania Evening Post, August 31, 1775.

[5] Sally Bronsdon Clothing List. Joseph Downs Collection. Winterthur Museum. Doc. 1136.

[6] The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 11, 1767 and November 24, 1768.

[7] Henry Jamison, The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 27, 1762.

[8] Abraham Emmitt, The Pennsylvania Gazette, September 8, 1763.

[9] Thomas Talman, The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 23, 1761.

[10] William Evitt, runaway advertisement, The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 2, 1771.


Rebecca Fifield is Head of Collection Management, Special Collections, at The New York Public Library, as well as an independent scholar focusing on the dress of working women. Becky is a 2013 recipient of a Winterthur Research Fellowship, Chair of the American Institute for Conservation’s Collection Care Network, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists. She has presented at the American Alliance of Museums, American Institute for Conservation, American Antiquarian Society, American Association for State and Local History, the Association for Preservation Technologies International, Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Several articles on the Runaway Clothing Database project are available at Becky’s blog,

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