August 4

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 4 - 8:4:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 4, 1770).


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.

May 5

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

May 5 - 5:5:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 5, 1770).

“One blue Broadcloth Coat, trimmed with blue, and has a blue Velvet Cape.”

George West listed an impressive array of garments in his advertisement in the May 5, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  He began with a “blue Broadcloth Coat, trimmed with blue, and has a blue Velvet Cape” before describing “a black Velvet Waistcoast, trimmed with black” and “one Pair of Black Velvet Breeches, trimmed with black, and lined with Leather.”  In addition, he mentioned a “Pair of Mouse-coloured Velvet Breeches, trimmed with the same, having Silk Knee-straps, lined with Leather” as well as a “new Beaver Hat,” a “new homespun Check S[h]irt,” and “two striped Cotton and Linen Shirts.”  Yet West was not a merchant nor a shopkeeper nor a tailor attempting to sell these garments to consumers.  Instead, he was the captain of the Sarah, “lying at Cushing’s Wharff, in Providence,” and the victim of a theft.  Someone had stolen the garments that he listed in his advertisement.

West’s notice testifies to one of the many ways that colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.  Many purchased new goods from retailers and artisans or acquired secondhand goods at auctions and estate sales.  Others, however, participated in what Serena Zabin has termed an “informal economy,” either stealing goods for their own use or purchasing (sometimes, but now always, unwittingly) goods that had been stolen and fenced.  Theft gave some colonists greater access to goods that otherwise would have been beyond their reach.  West’s “blue Broadcloth Coat, trimmed with blue” and its “blue Velvet Cape,” for instance, represented quite an investment, yet someone benefited from West’s sartorial sensibilities without spending a shilling … provided that he managed to remain undetected.

Advertisements placed by shopkeepers and tailors were not the only newspaper notices that commented on fashion and taste in eighteenth-century America.  Advertisements concerning stolen goods often went into as much detail or more when it came to describing garments and other goods that colonists sought to acquire, sometimes through nefarious means.

November 11

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Nov 11 - 11:11:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 11, 1769).


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.

October 7

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Oct 7 - 10:7:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (October 7, 1769).

“STolen … a black Broadcloth Coat and Waistcoat.”

Advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers reveal many avenues for colonists to participate in the consumer revolution. Merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and others placed advertisements for all sorts of goods, most of them imported but some produced in the colonies. They made an array of appeals to stimulate demand, most commonly to price, quality, and gentility though in the era of the American Revolution many also launched the first wave of “Buy Amerian” advertisements. Vendue masters ran advertisements for auctions, presenting opportunities for lucky bidders to get bargains compared to the prices charged by wholesalers and retailers. They auctioned both new and secondhand goods, sometimes individually and sometimes in lots. Executors published estate notices that announced auctions for the possessions that belonged to the deceased, presenting yet another means for consumers to acquire secondhand goods.

Yet not all colonists obtained goods by legitimate means, as other advertisements frequently noted. Some engaged in burglary or theft, breaking into homes or shops to steal multiple items at a time or stealing individual items when they spotted an opportunity. Thomas Whipple of North Providence did not describe the circumstances, but he did advertise that a thief had stolen “a black Broadcloth Coat and Waistcoat” sometime at night near the end of September 1769. He described the garments so others could identify them: “the Coat has a black Lining, and Mohair Buttons; the Waistcoat lined with blue Shalloon, and has round Silver Buttons.” What happened to the coat and waistcoat? The thief may have desired these items and brazenly worn them as though they had been acquired legitimately. Alternately, the coat and waistcoat may have found their way to the black market, what Serena Zabin has termed the “informal economy,” for consumption by those who did not have the means to purchase them from a tailor or shopkeeper. The thief may even have removed the buttons for separate sales, thus making the coat and waistcoat less recognizable.

Affluent colonists and the middling sort were not the only participants in the consumer revolution. Others sought to acquire goods as well. Sometimes they purchased from shops and warehouses or at auctions, but others resorted to other means of obtaining the items they desired. Thomas Whipple may have taken great pride in his waistcoat lined with blue shalloon and adorned with round silver buttons. Someone else, less scrupulous than Whipple, apparently desired the waistcoat along with the coat with mohair buttons or knew of an opportunity to make some money by fencing the garments. When they could not afford to make purchases, some colonists devised alternate means of acquiring consumer goods.

August 31

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 31 - 8:31:1769 Massachusetts Gazette Draper
Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (August 31, 1769).
“The Store … was broke open and rob’d.”

The August 31, 1769, edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette included several advertisements for consumer goods. John Gerrish advertised a “very large Assortment of Goods, and Merchandize.” Other advertisers specialized in retail sales of particular kinds of goods: Zechariah Fowle advertised books, Peter Roberts “Drugs & Medicines,” and Richard Smith spermaceti candles “Manufactured by Daniel Jenckes & Com. at Providence.” Other advertisers promoted upcoming auctions, such as Joseph Russell’s notice for a “Variety of Houshold Furniture” intended for sale “by PUBLIC VENDUE” a week later. Still others announced estate sales, giving readers an opportunity to purchase secondhand goods.

Yet retail sales, auctions, and estate sales were not the only means of acquiring goods and participating in the consumer revolution that was taking place in the colonies and throughout the British Atlantic world. Another advertisement reported that someone “broke open and rob’d” the store belonging to Benjamin Greene and Son earlier in the month. Several pieces of merchandise went missing, including handkerchiefs, sewing silk, “Mens Hose,” and assorted textiles. Greene and Son offered a reward to “Whoever will discover the Thieves so that they may be brought to Justice.”

Unfortunately for retailers and residents of Boston and other cities and towns throughout the colonies, Greene and Son’s advertisement was not particularly unusual. Similar advertisements appeared regularly in the public prints, suggesting that those who could not participate in consumer culture through legitimate means resorted to other methods of acquiring the goods they desired. The “sundry small Articles” taken from Greene and Son’s store likely ended up in the hands of colonists other than the thieves, passing through a black market or, as Serena Zabin has termed it, an “informal economy” for distributing goods of questionable provenance. The reach of the consumer revolution extended far beyond the gentry and the middling sort; it encompassed colonists of all backgrounds. Those who lacked the means to visit the shops, auction houses, and estate sales advertised in the Massachusetts Gazette and other newspapers devised other ways of obtaining consumer goods.

September 18

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Sep 18 - 9:18:1767 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (September 18, 1767).

“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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.”

November 16

GUEST CURATOR: Mary Williams

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Providence Gazette (November 16, 1766).

Opened my House … for the Reception of such Gentlemen and Ladies who may travel this Way.”

In this advertisement from the Providence Gazette, Abijah Hunt wrote that he had just opened up his house to the public. He promised “every Thing suitable for their Accommodation” to any gentlemen and ladies who might stop by.

When I first read through this advertisement I was confused about what exactly Hunt was advertising to readers: an inn or a tavern. He promised to accommodate travelers, but he also mentioned entertainment. On the Colonial Williamsburg webpage, Ed Crews writes that taverns were also called “inns, ordinaries, and public houses” in colonial America. Traveling performers often provided the entertainment in these inns. A wide variety of performers put on acts at these inns, such as magicians, actors, and musicians. Some acts included the use of animals, such as trained pigs. The most common instruments musicians used in their performances were violins, flutes, and trumpets. On nights when there was no provided entertainment, customers often sang together in groups.

Hunt wrote that some of the public taverns in Providence were “not so agreeable as those (to be found in most other large Towns).” Taverns and inns could vary greatly in their atmospheres. Crews describes many inns as “male-domains” where men drank too much and used foul language. Furthermore, “Felons planned crimes, fenced goods, and passed counterfeit money in inns. Fights and murders were common.” Refined women avoided taverns, but prostitutes visited often. In this advertisement, Hunt offered an alternative place of shelter and entertainment for those colonists who wanted a more safe and refined experience.



Mary paints a vivid picture of some of the activities that took place in taverns in the eighteenth century. In addition to being places of entertainment where colonists socialized, Mary also indicates that taverns provided a venue for participating in consumer culture in various ways, including fencing stolen goods and passing counterfeit money.

Such activities were part of what Serena R. Zabin has described as the “informal economy” in colonial America. Not all colonists had the means to purchase new goods directly from merchants and shopkeepers, but that did not prevent them seeking out other ways to obtain the “English, India, and West-India GOODS” that Samuel Nightingale, Jr., marketed on the page after Abijah Hunt’s advertisement appeared. Zabin and others have demonstrated that a vibrant secondhand economy operated in eighteenth-century America; colonists bought and sold used clothing and other goods. Yet others turned to more nefarious means to get their hands on the goods they desired, either stealing or purchasing stolen items. In today’s advertisement Abijah Hunt announced that he opened a house of entertainment to be a place of refuge for visitors “to this Town, both on Business and Recreation,” patrons that he believed wished to avoid some of the more unsavory activities (including the exchange of stolen goods) that took place in some taverns.

While newspaper advertisements reveal a lot about the availability of goods during the consumer revolution, they do not tell the entire story. Occasionally shopkeepers and others placed advertisements lamenting thefts and announcing rewards upon the capture and conviction of the perpetrators, but those who stole the goods almost certainly did not turn to newspapers to offer them for sale. Piecing together the informal economy that included fencing stolen goods, as Zabin has done, requires consulting court records. Those documents provide insight into how some colonists – consumers themselves – used and thought about goods, while newspaper advertisements, for the most part, suggest how retailers, producers, and suppliers attempted to shape colonists’ attitudes and behaviors related to consumption.


August 18

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 18 - 8:18:1766 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (August 18, 1766).

“The Store of Habijah Savage on the Long Wharff was broke open.”

Earlier this week the Adverts 250 Project featured an announcement that Simon Rhodes placed in the New-London Gazette. In late July 1766, a thief or thieves broke into his home in Stonington, Connecticut, and stole two silver watches and a pair of silver buckles. He offered a description of the missing items, warned against anybody purchasing the stolen goods, and offered a reward for their return and the capture of the culprits.

In today’s advertisement, Habijah Savage offered a similar story out of Boston. In this case, however, the thieves “broke open” Savage’s store, rather than his house, and made off with a significant amount of merchandise, amounting to “Forty Pounds Lawful Money.” This was a quite a loss for Savage’s business. Indeed, his list of stolen merchandise was as extensive as those that frequently appeared in advertisements placed by merchants and shopkeepers seeking to sell new goods and auctioneers sponsoring vendue sales.

Despite Savage’s announcement about the theft in the public prints, it seems unlikely that he would have been able to recover all (or any) of the stolen goods. For the most part, they were fairly common items that would have been easily absorbed into an underground economy that paralleled the more legitimate means of acquiring goods. In a fascinating chapter on “The Informal Economy” in Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York, Serena R. Zabin has traced how many marginalized colonists – the poor, slaves and free blacks, women – participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century through alternative means that worried authorities and elites. This was an economy that incorporated crime and threatened to disrupt traditional social and economic hierarchies.

The goods stolen from Habijah Savage’s store likely became part of that informal economy. Who might have ended up wearing that “new Beaver Hatt” or making clothes from the “English Stone Sleeve Buttons” and assorted textiles?

August 15

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 15 - 8:15:1766 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (August 15, 1766).

“STOLEN out of the Subscriber’s House in the Night … Two silver Watches.”

As a general rule, most advertisements featured on the Adverts 250 Project promoted consumer goods and services. As its primary purpose, the project explores how eighteenth-century advertising incited consumer demand and convinced colonists to purchase an expanding array of goods and services.

Today’s advertisement, however, demonstrates that buying new goods from shopkeepers and merchants was not the only way that colonists could participate in the consumer economy. Some purchased used goods (which were sometimes advertised, but also changed hands in an informal economy that did not rely on public commercial notices), but others resorted to theft to obtain the items they desired or intended to sell for their own gain.

In Simon Rhodes’ case, a thief made off with “Two Silver Watches” and “a pair of Silver wrought Buckles with Steel Chapes and Tongues.”

Rhodes wanted his watches and buckles back, so much so that he paid to insert this advertisement in the New-London Gazette at least three times. (It appeared on August 15, 22, and 29. It may have appeared in earlier issues, but they are no longer extant.) He also offered a reward of five dollars to anybody who captured “the Thief or Thieves, so that the above things may be had, and he or they brought to Justice.” At the very least, Rhodes wanted to make it difficult for the thief or thieves to benefit from the crime. He requested that if any readers noticed his stolen property “offered for Sale” that “they may be stopped.” In addition, his descriptions of the stolen goods, including their flaws and repairs, were designed to make it more difficult to sell them.

February 14

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Feb 14 - 2:14:1766 New-Hampshire gazette
New- Hampshire Gazette (February 14, 1766).

“A Fellow had the Impudence to Steal five Pair of worsted Stockings.”

I could not imagine having my stockings and handkerchiefs stolen from within my own home or shop. Clearly this person from New Hampshire could not either until it happened to him, and he was upset enough to place a whole two dollar reward for information on thief. That would have been a lot of money for five pairs of stockings and two red and white handkerchiefs. This makes me wonder if it was more about revenge on the thief.

This advertisement was placed in Portsmouth, which was one of the biggest cities in New Hampshire, and had different types of people living in the area: robbers and other questionable characters, shopkeepers, merchants, and the genteel class. Edmund Coffin went on to say that “every inhabitant” should watch out and report such behavior or it could happen to them.

This advertisement really grabbed my attention. It was a little different from some of the other advertisements that I had seen, because it was not a service or goods begin sold or bought. Especially in today’s society socks and handkerchiefs are so easily attainable that I would never even think twice if two of my socks disappeared.



The Adverts 250 Project focuses primarily on marketing consumer goods and services in eighteenth-century America, but then (as now) not all advertisements were placed for that purpose. The guest curators from my Public History class and I have reached an agreement: each may select one advertisement not intended to sell goods or services during his or her week.

Elizabeth is beginning her week as guest curator with her “exception(al)” advertisement, but it is an extremely good choice because it tells us a lot about consumption in eighteenth-century America. Purchasing goods was not the only way to participate in the consumer revolution taking place in the colonies and Britain. Sometimes people came into possession of goods in more nefarious ways via an underground economy that included stolen items. Serena Zabin devotes an entire chapter to this “Informal Economy” in Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York. In addition to stolen items, secondhand goods were often exchanged via the informal economy. As Elizabeth notes, people of various backgrounds – from the lower sorts to the elite – resided in colonial cities and towns. Not all of them purchased new goods, but a great many found alternate ways to participate in the marketplace. This advertisement demonstrates one way they did so, much to the chagrin of poor Edmund Coffin who was the victim of an eighteenth-century shoplifter.