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Learning from the Past: The Exponent Advertisements Database

Dive into 1800s Latter-day Saint women’s culture with a database of newspaper advertisements.

When we combine history with digital humanities, we gain insights into the past that help us understand society from a different perspective. One of these insights is from the Exponent Advertisements database, which holds 4,000 advertisements from Salt Lake City’s late-1800s newspaper, the Woman’s Exponent.

Jeremy Browne, associate research professor in the Office of Digital Humanities and collaborator on the database, explained, “I like to think of looking through advertisements as digging through historical garbage because nobody makes an advertisement with the idea that it’s going to be preserved and viewed in fifty, or one hundred, or one hundred fifty years.”

On October 20, 2021, Browne gave a presentation about the project at the University of Utah, titled “Digging Through History's Dumpster—The Woman's Exponent Advertising Database.” He spoke about the efforts he and BYU librarian Elizabeth Smart took to create the Exponent Advertisement database and illuminate a forgotten piece of Salt Lake City’s history.

Between 1872 and 1914, the Woman’s Exponent ran ads for everything from French fashion to female-led medical courses. Though seemingly insignificant, these advertisements share important details about life for early Latter-day Saint women. The Exponent advertisements were made “for a specific purpose at a specific time, so there’s less of a filter. It establishes more of a perception of economic reality than what we might get from an editorial,” Browne said.

One of the most important things the Exponent Advertisements database does is shed light on the activities women were involved in and the economic atmosphere during the time. For example, over fifty advertisements for Doctors Ellis and Maggie Shipp announce classes on obstetrics and nursing. The Drs. Shipp were among the few licensed female medical practitioners of the time, but they used their unique position to encourage other women to join the medical field.

Image of an 1800s newspaper advertisement for Zions Bank.

Browne noted that some Exponent advertisements highlighted the difference in economic activity between women in Utah and those outside of Utah. For example, advertisements from Zion’s Bank announced that the laws of Utah permitted married women and children to open their own savings accounts. Browne said his colleague, Smart, “would point out that because there was so much home industry going on at this time, this was not just a call for women to take the allowance their husbands were giving them and put it into the bank.”

While the bank’s advertisement was a positive step for women, it shows us today how unusual it was for American women to have control over their own money at that time. “For me, it’s the idea that the bank has to inform the readers of what the laws of the land allow them to do,” Browne said.

Projects like the Exponent Advertisements database are impactful not necessarily because of their reach but because of the significance they hold to those who are interested in these specialized topics. “Even if it’s not terribly useful to historians,” Browne concluded, “it is interesting to people around here and, for a moment, casts some of their minds back to the pioneer heritage that we have here and some of the struggles that women in particular faced in early Salt Lake society.”