What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“STOLEN out of the subscriber’s shop, A SILVER LANCET CASE.”
Readers of the Georgia Gazette encountered several means for acquiring consumer goods in the December 14, 1768, edition. They could make choices from among the inventory of merchants and shopkeepers. William Belcher, for instance, advertised a variety of textiles, housewares, and hardware imported from London and Boston. For those inclined to purchase secondhand goods rather than new, David Moses Vallotton, the administrator of the estate of Paul Dubois, offered “HOUSEHOLD GOODS, WEARING APPAREL, some TOOLS and TANNED LEATHERS, and sundry other articles.” Several others executors also announced estate sales and auctions.
Lewis Johnson’s advertisement, however, testified to other ways of obtaining goods in colonial America: theft and purchase of stolen goods. “STOLEN out of the subscriber’s shop,” his advertisement proclaimed, “A SILVER LANCET CASE with five lancets. Ten shillings will be given for returning it, and no questions will be asked. If it should be offered for sale he begs it may be stopt.” Similar advertisements regularly appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies, reporting thefts and describing stolen items in hopes of recovering them. Most offered rewards. Many expressed interest in punishing the perpetrators, though Johnson seemed more interested in recovering the stolen lancet case.
Such advertisements encouraged readers to engage in surveillance of other colonists and their belongings. In particular, they called on the community to be on the lookout for particular items and to assess the possessions of others to determine if they matched those described in the public prints and thus might have been acquired in an unscrupulous fashion. Advertisements for stolen goods cultivated attitudes and behaviors similar to those encouraged in many advertisements that encouraged readers to purchase goods. Both prompted colonists to evaluate the character and status of others by taking into account the goods they possessed, their comportment, and other factors. Both suggest that consumer goods played an integral role in shaping interactions between colonists. Whether the new textiles sold by Belcher, the secondhand housewares from Dubois’s estate, or the lancet case stolen from Johnson, consumer goods were more than mere things. They possessed meaning that played into the appraisals colonists made of others.