What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Shop of the Subscribers was broke open, and sundry Things stolen.”
Several advertisements relayed stories of theft in the December 2, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Each had previously appeared, but the thieves had not been captured nor had the stolen goods been recovered. In a notice dated October 17, Stephen Hopkins reported the theft of a cloak and wig. Hall and Metcalf placed their own notice, dated November 4, to report that their shop “was broke open, and sundry Things stolen from thence.” Jabez Bowen, Sr., even deployed a headline for his advertisement: “A THEFT.” Dated November 11, Bowen’s notice listed several items of clothing stolen when his house was “broke open.” By December 2, the stories in these advertisements became familiar to readers of the Providence Gazette.
The thefts in these advertisements may have helped to shape the contents of other parts of the newspaper. The December 2 edition began with an item addressed to the printer of the Providence Gazette. “At a Time when Houses, Shops and Warehouses, are so frequently broke open,” an unnamed correspondent proclaimed, “and so many Thefts and Robberies are committed, both in Town and Country, by wicked vagrant Persons, unlawfully strolling about from Place to Place, perhaps it may tend to the public Good … in your next Paper to insert the following LAW concerning VAGRANTS, that it may be more generally known.” A statute then filled the remainder of the column, excepting two lines announcing that the printer sold blanks.
Not only did advertisements seem to influence coverage of the news, the inclusion of this law helped establish a theme that ran through the entire issue. Readers who perused it from start to finish first encountered the statute on the first page, Bowen’s notice and Hopkins’s notice on the third page, and Hall and Metcalf’s notice on the final page. Even if they passed over the statute quickly, encountering the advertisements about thefts may have prompted some readers to return to the first page to read the statute more carefully. The featured advertisements often demonstrate that news items and advertisements informed each other when it came to the imperial crisis and nonimportation agreements; however, those were not the only instances of advertisements relaying news or working in tandem with news. Other sorts of current events inspired coverage that moved back and forth between news and advertising in colonial newspapers.