What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“STOPPED, from a Person (supposed to be stolen) a SILVER TABLE-SPOON.”
Newspaper advertisements promoted a variety of new merchandise in the eighteenth century, encouraging colonizers to participate in a transatlantic consumer revolution. In the May 19, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, for instance, Owen Biddle advertised a “large and neat ASSORTEMNT of EUROPEAN & EAST-INDIA GOODS” recently imported from London and Bristol. He listed dozens of textiles and housewares available at his shop. Similarly, John McCalla and Son and other merchants and shopkeepers attempted to incite demand for their own “neat Assortment of MERCHANDIZE.”
Colonizers also participated in the consumer revolution by acquiring secondhand goods, sometimes at auctions and other times through estate sales. Other sales took place through less formal mechanisms. That led to more possibilities for participating in the consumer revolution, through theft and fencing stolen goods and knowingly or unknowingly buying stolen goods. Historian Serena Zabin has described those exchanges as part of an informal economy that operated parallel to the legitimate marketplace. The informal economy made space for indentured servants, free and enslaved Black men and women, and the poor to acquire goods, whether secondhand or stolen.
This also caused many colonizers to remain vigilant about secondhand goods offered for sale, prompting them to seize items when not satisfied with explanations about how the sellers acquired them. Such was the case for a “SILVER TABLE-SPOON, marked T.P.A. and three Silver Tea-Spoons, marked A.H. in a Cypher.” Among the advertisements for new goods in the May 19 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, another notice described those spoons and stated that they had been “STOPPED” or confiscated on suspicion of being stolen. Whoever “STOPPED” the spoons informed the rightful owner or owners that they could reclaim them “on proving their Property, and paying Charges” (most likely, paying for the advertisement).
Newspaper advertisements chronicled the consumption and circulation of goods, whether the newest and most fashionable items just imported or secondhand goods sold at auctions and estate sales or stolen items that thieves attempted to fence. Colonizers from many backgrounds devised numerous ways to participate in the consumer revolution.