What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Considerable Quantity of Goods were stoped … upon Supposition of their being stolen.”
As they participated in a transatlantic consumer revolution, colonizers acquired goods in a variety of ways in the eighteenth century. Colonial newspapers carried many advertisements for both new goods and secondhand goods for sale in shops and auction rooms and at estate sales. In addition, some colonizers took advantage of what Serena Zabin has termed an “informal economy” that included purchasing stolen goods. Buyers were not necessarily aware that they bought stolen goods, but a variety of circumstances, including the prices, should have at least made them suspicious that was the case.
Newspaper advertisements document some attempts to supply the informal economy with new wares, including notices about shops “broke open” during the night and others about goods “stopped” or seized when offered for sale. An advertisement in the September 18, 1772, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, for instance, told one such story. It announced that a “Considerable Quantity of Goods were stoped by Mr. John Prentice at Londonderry upon Supposition of their being stolen.” Apparently, the prices seemed too good to be true. Prentice explained that he became suspicious because the “Person on whom the Goods were found offered them for Sale at less than half their Value.” That person may have stolen them himself or he may have acquired them from the person who had.
Prentice offered a means for the owner to recover the goods, instructing that the “Owner may have them [by] telling the Marks and paying Charges.” In other words, anyone claiming to be the legitimate owner needed to describe the items, including distinguishing features intended for easy identification, and pay for the advertisement and other expenses incurred in recovering and publicizing the goods. Unfortunately for the victim of the theft, the person who offered them for sale “made his Escape from the Officer” after being apprehended. He could not be prosecuted or further questioned about how those goods came into his possession or other stolen merchandise. Other colonizers did not have the same scruples as Prentice. Many goods circulated as the result of buyers and sellers alike not asking too many questions or reaching uncomfortable conclusions about the origins of those goods.