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