What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
The August 4, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette included advertisements that promoted consumers goods and services for sale, but it also featured several notices that indicated some colonists resorted to alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution. Purchasing new and secondhand items was not the only means of acquiring goods in eighteenth-century America.
In one such advertisement, Jonathan Farman announced “A THEFT” in the headline. He went on to list the various items stolen from him in Newport, including “one Pair of blue Yarn Stockings” and “a red and white woollen Jacket, without Sleeves.” His wallet also included notes and papers that he wished to recover. Farman provided a brief description of the thief, “a Mulatto Fellow,” that was so general as to focus suspicion on any young, light-skinned Black man that readers encountered.
In another advertisement, Seth Wetmore of Middletown, Connecticut, commenced with a headline that promised a “Twenty-One Dollar Reward.” His house had been “broke open … by some Person or Persons unknown” in the middle of the night a month earlier. The culprits made off with “one black double Sattin Cloak, a full Suit of black Paduasoy (Womens Cloaths, large) a black Taffety Quilt and Apron, a light colored Chintz Gown, four Yards of double-folded white Holland, six Yards of whitened Tow-Cloth, three or four Pocket Handkerchiefs, not made up, a Woman’s Shift, and sundry other Things.” Wetmore conjected that “the Felons” who stole these items had escaped from the New Haven jail the previous items. He identified John Galloway and John Armstrong, noting that James Burne was an accomplice. These men may not have desired to possess the stolen items for themselves but instead intended to fence them or sell them for cash to further aid in their flight from the law.
That seemed to have been the case with several items that Ezekiel Burr declared that he had “STOPPED” or confiscated in another advertisement. When offered “one Woman’s Apron, one Pair of Womens Shoes, and a Remnant of fine Holland” cloth for sale, he suspected that those items “have been stolen,” seized them, and placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette in hopes that the rightful owner would reclaim them.
This trio of advertisements told a different story of participation in the consumer revolution than many of the other advertisements that promoted goods and services in eighteenth-century America. Rather than listing goods for sale by merchants and shopkeepers or up for bid at auctions and estate sales, they described the theft, burglary, and fencing that were part of what Serena Zabin has described as an “informal economy” in the colonies.