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Intellect

Curious about Utah’s frontier women? Browse BYU’s new database of women’s newspaper ads

Jeremy Browne, Elizabeth Smart Women's Exponent
Senior librarian Elizabeth Smart and Jeremy Browne from BYU's Office of Digital Humanities collaborated to create a database of 4,000 advertisements that ran in the Woman’s Exponent newspaper.

A single bottle of tonic to cure diabetes, cancer, ulcers and dizziness. Raisins and currants for Christmas mince meat pies. Midwifery courses taught by a certified female doctor, $30 a term. A souvenir stone from the Hill Cumorah, “guaranteed genuine,” mailed from New York for 25 cents.

This list represents just a sampling of the goods and services advertised to Utah frontier women in the Woman’s Exponent, the preeminent woman’s newspaper published in Salt Lake City from 1872 to 1914 to share local and general news, household tips and educational materials. Thanks to an ongoing project by the BYU Office of Digital Humanities and the Harold B. Lee Library, anyone can now explore life in nineteenth-century Utah through a new searchable, browsable database of the newspaper’s ads.

“Studying advertisements is a bit like digging through the trash because it’s really the part of history that was never meant to be a historical record,” said BYU digital humanities professor Jeremy Browne, who wrote software to categorize the Exponent’s 4,000 ads by industry, vendor and date. “The ads have a certain authenticity to them that we don’t get elsewhere. The project’s purpose is to take one aspect of the newspaper that is more approachable and make it accessible to the general public.”

Exponent ad 1
An advertisement published in the Woman’s Exponent advertising a sewing machine.


The Exponent’s ads, printed on the back page of each issue, feature bankers, storekeepers, milliners and dressmakers, medical professionals and medical charlatans, all bidding for Utah women’s time and money.

“There were a lot of women’s papers nationally at this time, but these ads are interesting because the audience for this paper was really specific,” said BYU senior librarian Elizabeth Smart, a collaborator on the database. “You see the advertisers trying to connect with women in many areas of their lives.”

The advertisements — half of which advertise clothing — give insight into women’s fashion and their attitudes toward it, which were sometimes in conflict.

“Several of the editorials in the Exponent discouraged women from French fashions that were expensive, extravagant or even uncomfortable, such as extremely tight corsets,” said Smart. “But these are some of the very fashions advertised on the back page of the paper. Despite efforts by female editorialists, the public’s interest in current fashion seemed to continue unabated.”

Another recurring theme Browne and Smart noted in perusing the ads is the autonomy and self-reliance of Utah women, particularly for their time.

For instance, for almost a decade the Exponent ran the same ad from Zion’s Bank encouraging women to open an account, with the promise of the account being under their own control rather than their husband’s — suggesting a highly unusual degree of financial independence for nineteenth-century American women. The ads were always signed by the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who also served as the bank president.

Exponent Ad 2
An advertisement published in the Woman's Exponent advertising a single bottle of tonic to cure diabetes, cancer, ulcers, and dizziness.

One of many possible reasons for the bank ads is that the women had money to save and spend. “Utah women worked in a lot of fields and were earning a lot of money, whether they worked in printing as typesetters or bookbinders, were seamstresses, grew produce or sold mulberry trees for silk, all industries you see reflected in the ads,” said Smart.

“It wasn’t that they were being given an allowance by their husband, and they were going to go put that in the bank,” added Browne. “These women were productive in and of themselves.”

Medicine is a notable women’s profession that crops up in the ads. Alongside the ubiquitous quack cures that were commonly advertised in newspapers of the period, the Exponent’s ads uniquely featured qualified female physicians offering services and classes in nursing and midwifery. The high number of accredited women doctors reflected the pioneers’ practice of sending women to the East Coast to earn their medical degrees.

“That starts to challenge all sorts of assumptions about societal structure in the nineteenth century,” said Browne. “How were these women accepted by male doctors in the community? How did women react to having a female doctor to meet their needs? That story gives me goosebumps and just enthralls me, and it’s something I learned from the advertisements.”

To explore more of the advertisements in context of the entire newspaper, readers can also access fully digitized copies of the Woman’s Exponent here through the library’s digital collections. In collaboration with the Marriott Library and Digital Matters lab at the University of Utah, BYU continues to help improve the collection’s accessibility using the most recent scanning and character recognition technology.

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