What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Multiple reports of theft appeared among the advertisements inserted in the November 11, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Stephen Hopkins reported the theft of “one Cloak, the Cloth of a fine blue Drab” and “an old light grey cut Wig.” He offered a reward to “Whoever will discover the said Cloaths, and apprehend the Thief.” Hall and Metcalf proclaimed, “ON Monday Night last the Shop of the Subscribers was broke open, and sundry Things stolen from thence.” The stolen items included “a Quantity of drest Deers Leather, … a Pinchbeck Watch, with s Steel Chain, China Face, … [and] five Pair of Leather Breeches.” Like Hopkins, Hall and Metcalf offered a reward to “Whoever secures the Thief or Thieves, with the Articles stolen.”
Reporting on another incident, Jabez Bowen, Sr., incorporated a headline – “A THEFT” – into his advertisement, distinguishing it from the other two. Someone “broke open” his house and made off with “a Man’s blue Broadcloth Great-Coat, with Basket Buttons of the same Colour; and a Woman’s light-coloured Camblet Coat, very long.” Bowen provided a description of two suspects “who were seen lurking about the same Evening” and offered two rewards, a larger one for apprehending the thieves and recovering his stolen property and a smaller one for recovering the stolen goods but not capturing the thieves.
Relatively few advertisements for consumer goods ran in that issue of the Providence Gazette, making the advertisements about the several thefts even more conspicuous. This minor crime wave signaled that some colonists sought alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution rather than buying new merchandise from merchants and shopkeepers, bidding on new and used items at auctions and vendues, or acquiring secondhand goods at estate sales. Not all colonists had the cash or credit to make such purchases. The thieves may not have desired Hopkins’s cloak or Hall and Metcalf’s watch or Bowen’s coats for themselves. Instead, they may have fenced them, thus funneling the goods into what Serena Zabin has termed an “informal economy.” Some colonists who did not have the means to acquire the goods they desired through legitimate means turned instead to the informal economy. Some eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements testify to attempts to stimulate demand and encourage participation in consumer culture, but others, such as these advertisements about thefts, suggest that some colonists devised their own means of acquiring consumer goods that otherwise would have been beyond their means.