What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Stolen from the subscriber … a plaid jacket.”
Peter Bulkley was the victim of a theft! In an advertisement in the New-London Gazette, he listed several items (mostly clothing, but also some cash) stolen on the night of September 13, 1767. He accused John Nicholas, “a Frenchman,” of stealing a hat, a coat, a jacket, a shirt, a pair of breeches, a pair of trousers, a pair of stockings, a pair of shoe buckles, and a pair of knee buckles. Nicholas made off with an entire outfit!
What did the thief intend to do with these items? He may have been on the move to another town or another colony, somewhere that he could wear the clothes himself without attracting notice (provided others did not see Bulkley’s advertisement). Alternately, he might have planned to sell the clothes, either one piece at a time or as a package. If the latter, he may have known someone who received secondhand (sometimes stolen) goods with the intention of reselling them. In Dangerous Economies, Serena Zabin describes an informal economy in eighteenth-century America, an extralegal marketplace that included fences who worked with thieves in the redistribution of consumer goods.
Bulkley was not alone in advertising that someone stole an assortment of goods from him. Throughout the colonies, victims of theft placed advertisements describing the stolen items and offering rewards for the return of their goods and the capture of the thief. Whether Nicholas planned to keep or sell the stolen clothing, Bulkley’s advertisement and the many others like it provide evidence that some colonists devised alternate methods for participating in the consumer revolution. Rather than read the lengthy advertisements listing all sorts of imported goods and then purchasing them from merchants and shopkeepers, some colonists – especially those without the means to purchase new items – instead resorted to theft or buying secondhand goods of uncertain origins.
 Serena R. Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). See especially chapter 3, “The Informal Economy.”