September 18

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (September 18, 1772).

“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.

November 5

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

Connecticut Courant (November 5, 1771).

“Stolen … a small pair of mens worsted black stockings.”

Several advertisers placed notices in the November 5, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Courant to inform readers that they carried a variety of items.  Thomas Hopkins, for instance, hawked a “fresh & general assortment of English & India GOODS” at his shop in Hartford.  Similarly, P. Verstille promoted a “neat and universal assortment of English and East India GOODS … at his Store in Weathersfield.”  Daniel Cotton and Nathaniel Goodwin, both in Hartford, inserted similar advertisements.

Even in small towns in Connecticut, colonists had many opportunities to participate in the consumer revolution by shopping at local stores.  Yet visiting those shops and paying in “Cash or Produce in hand,” as each of the advertisers specified, was not the only means for acquiring new goods.  In the same issue, Walter Hyde of Lebanon placed an advertisement that a “thief or thieves” stole “a small pair of mens worsted black stockings, & two pieces of claret colour’d homespun serge.”  The shopkeeper suspected that “some other articles are taken away that are not missed yet.”  Hyde offered a reward in hopes of apprehending the culprits and recovering his merchandise.

The thieves may have stolen the stockings and textiles for their own use, but they might also have sold them to others who were unaware or did not care that they were stolen.  An informal economy, a black market of sorts, emerged in eighteenth-century America, running parallel to the legitimate transactions that took place in the shops and stores that appeared in so many newspaper advertisements.  For the poor and marginalized who could not afford or could not gain access to those spaces, purchasing secondhand or stolen goods became a viable alternative that allowed them to participate in the consumer revolution.  Such was the situation not only in the largest urban ports but also in small towns like Lebanon, Connecticut.  The consumer revolution and the informal economy both had long reaches.

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.

April 10

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

Apr 10 - 4:10:1770 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 10, 1770).

“He now carries on the Peruke-Making Business in all its Branches.”

Henry Davis, a wigmaker, hairdresser and barber, did not have only a single purpose for placing an advertisement in the April 10, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  Instead, he pursued several in the course of just a few lines, all of them ultimately promoting his business in one way or another.

He opened by extending “his sincere Thanks” to former customers now that the “Co-partnership of DAVIS and HUGGINS” had been “dissolved by mutual Consent.”  He expressed appreciation for “the Favours conferred on him” and requested “a Continuance of the same” in his new endeavor.  Now that Davis opened his own shop, he hoped to maintain the client base that he had established while in partnership with Huggins.

He also hoped to expand his clientele.  To that end, he addressed former and prospective customers alike when he listed and described the various kinds of wigs he made “after the most fashionable Manner.”  He carried “all Sorts of Perukes, Tates, Rolls, Mecklenburgh Fronts, Italian Braids, French Curls, English Locks, and Gentlemen’s Side-Locks.”  Davis knew that discerning readers could differentiate among the assorted styles.  In addition to the wigs, Davis sold accessories, including “fine Pomatum and scented Hair-Powder.”

As he launched his new business, the wigmaker also intended to expand his staff in order to provide additional services to his clients.  He previewed his plan to acquire enslaved workers and teach them “to shave, and dress Hair, &c. in the genteelest Taste.”  The skill of those assistants would testify to Davis’s own expertise.  Their presence in his shop would contribute to the pampering of clients.  He envisioned that his future success depended in part on the involuntary labor of others.

Finally, Davis advised readers that he had “STOPT” a new wig as well as some curtains.  In other words, someone presented him with items to purchase but he instead confiscated them because he believed they were stolen.  He invited the rightful owner to retrieve them upon offering an accurate description and “paying for this Advertisement.”  This demonstrated his character as he commenced a new enterprise.  It also revealed that some colonists attempted to participate in the consumer revolution and keep up with the latest fashions through unsavory means.

In quick succession, Davis announced the end of his partnership with Huggins, attempted to cement relationships with former clients, provided an overview of the products and services available at his new shop, noted that he intended to acquire additional staff, and invited the victim of a theft to retrieve goods he recovered.  Each of these aspects of his advertisement served to bolster confidence in his abilities as a wigmaker and entrepreneur among prospective customers.

January 29

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 26, 1769).

“Sundry stolen Goods.”

News did not appear solely among the news items in eighteenth-century newspapers. Instead, several sorts of advertisements, including legal notices and estate notices, frequently covered the news, making readers aware of recent events in their communities and beyond. Advertisements concerning stolen goods also relayed news to readers. The last two advertisements in the January 26, 1769, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter did just that.

The first reported that on January 6 “sundry stolen Goods, the Property of Joshua Winslow & Son and John Rowe,” had been found concealed in the home of Thomas Vickers. In the wake of that discovery, Vickers had fled. The remainder of the advertisement, placed by Rowe, offered a description of his physical appearance and clothing. Rowe suggested that Vickers might try to escape Boston “on board some foreign bound Vessel,” alerting mariners and others to keep their eyes open for him on the docks. Rowe offered a reward to anyone who apprehended Vickers and presented him to Edmund Quincy, “Justice of Peace in Boston.”

The second advertisement also told the story of a theft, but this one perpetrated “by some evil-minded Person or Persons yet unknown.” Rather than a description of the thief, it provided descriptions of the items stolen from onboard the sloop “Wilkes, William Campbell, Master,” on January 9. The stolen goods included “One Piece check Linnen narrow strip’d, 32 Yards,” “Three Dozen Pair dark speckled Hose,” and “A Suit blue Broad-Cloth Cloaths, Waistcoast and Breeches.” Campbell hoped that descriptions of the goods would aid in capturing the thief as well as recovering the property he had lost.

These two advertisements appeared immediately below others placed by John Gerrish, Richard Smith, and William Jackson. Gerrish advertised an auction scheduled to take place the following day. Smith and Jackson both listed merchandise available at their stores. All three named wares that corresponded closely to the kinds of items stolen from aboard the Wilkes and presumably those discovered in Vickers’s house. In their efforts to participate in the consumer revolution, not all colonists acquired goods from merchants, shopkeepers, and auctioneers. Some stole them and other purchased items either knowing that they had been pilfered or not inquiring too carefully about their origins. A single column of advertisements in the Boston Weekly-Mercury reveals the spectrum of choices available to colonists when it came to acquiring consumer goods.

December 14

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

Georgia Gazette (December 14, 1768).

“STOLEN out of the subscriber’s shop, A SILVER LANCET CASE.”

Readers of the Georgia Gazette encountered several means for acquiring consumer goods in the December 14, 1768, edition. They could make choices from among the inventory of merchants and shopkeepers. William Belcher, for instance, advertised a variety of textiles, housewares, and hardware imported from London and Boston. For those inclined to purchase secondhand goods rather than new, David Moses Vallotton, the administrator of the estate of Paul Dubois, offered “HOUSEHOLD GOODS, WEARING APPAREL, some TOOLS and TANNED LEATHERS, and sundry other articles.” Several others executors also announced estate sales and auctions.

Lewis Johnson’s advertisement, however, testified to other ways of obtaining goods in colonial America: theft and purchase of stolen goods. “STOLEN out of the subscriber’s shop,” his advertisement proclaimed, “A SILVER LANCET CASE with five lancets. Ten shillings will be given for returning it, and no questions will be asked. If it should be offered for sale he begs it may be stopt.” Similar advertisements regularly appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies, reporting thefts and describing stolen items in hopes of recovering them. Most offered rewards. Many expressed interest in punishing the perpetrators, though Johnson seemed more interested in recovering the stolen lancet case.

Such advertisements encouraged readers to engage in surveillance of other colonists and their belongings. In particular, they called on the community to be on the lookout for particular items and to assess the possessions of others to determine if they matched those described in the public prints and thus might have been acquired in an unscrupulous fashion. Advertisements for stolen goods cultivated attitudes and behaviors similar to those encouraged in many advertisements that encouraged readers to purchase goods.   Both prompted colonists to evaluate the character and status of others by taking into account the goods they possessed, their comportment, and other factors. Both suggest that consumer goods played an integral role in shaping interactions between colonists. Whether the new textiles sold by Belcher, the secondhand housewares from Dubois’s estate, or the lancet case stolen from Johnson, consumer goods were more than mere things. They possessed meaning that played into the appraisals colonists made of others.

August 12

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

Aug 12 - 8:12:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (August 12, 1768).

“Last Night the shops of the subscribers in said Middletown was broke open.”

Many advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers listed all sorts of consumer goods as a means of encouraging readers to visit shops, examine the merchandise, and make purchases. Other advertisements, however, demonstrate that not all colonists acquired goods through those means. Some colonists instead resorted to theft.

Such was the case in Middletown, Connecticut, at the end of July in 1768. On the morning of the final day of the month, George Philips, Asal Johnson, and Francis Whitmore all awoke to discover that their shops had been “broke open” during the night and several items stolen. The thief or thieves grabbed “about 6 dozen barcelona handkerchiefs, of which 2 dozen were black, the rest shaded various colours; 1 dozen black cravats, 3 or 4 pieces of black ribbons, 1 paper of white metal buckles, 1 castor hat a little moth eaten, 2 or 3 penknives,” and currency in several denominations from Philips. Similar items went missing from the shops of Johnson and Whitmore. The volume of stolen goods suggests that the thieves may not have intended these items solely for their own use. Instead, they may have attempted to fence them or otherwise distribute them through what Serena Zabin has termed an informal economy that allowed greater numbers of colonists to participate in the consumer revolution.

Philips and Johnson offered a reward to “Any person who will seize the thief or thieves with any or all of said articles, and secure them so that they shall be brought to justice.” The penalties could be quite severe for those convicted. Two years earlier in Rhode Island, for instance, Joseph Hart became a convict servant, sold into servitude “for the term of three years to satisfy the damages and costs of his prosecution and conviction, for stealing sundry goods.” Colonists who chose to gain access to the consumer revolution via extralegal means weighed the risks and rewards of acquiring goods that might otherwise have remained beyond their reach.

February 21

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

Feb 21 - 2:18:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (February 18, 1768).

“No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office.”

John Gerrish had a bone to pick with Elias Dupee. Gerrish operated the North-End Vendue-Office. Dupee, his rival, ran the New-Auction Room. The two competed for both clients who supplied merchandise and bidders who purchased those wares.

On February 15, 1768, Dupee placed advertisements impugning Gerrish’s reputation in two newspapers, the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Post-Boy. Gerrish was so concerned about the accusations leveled against him that he did not wait a week to respond in the publications that originally ran Dupee’s advertisement. Instead, he published his own rebuttal just three days later in the Massachusetts Gazette. After devoting just a few lines to promoting his upcoming auction, Gerrish addressed Dupee’s allegations at length. Though he never mentioned his rival by name, Gerrish did closely paraphrase a portion of Dupee’s advertisement.

Dupee had offered a reward “to be paid to any Body, who shall bring to Justice, one John Taylor, who Stole out of the New Auction Room, the Night the Fire was, a blue Surtout Coat, and had it Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Anyone who resided in Boston would have know that John Gerrish was the auctioneer at the North-End Vendue-Office, especially anyone who regularly read any of the local newspapers. Gerrish, like Dupee and Joseph Russell from the Auction-Room in Queen Street, advertised regularly in several newspapers.

In his advertisement, Dupee explicitly accused Taylor of being a thief, but he also implicitly alleged that Gerrish was Taylor’s fence when he stated that the stolen coat had been “Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Such allegations had the potential to do significant damage to Gerrish’s reputation, scaring away bidders who did not wish to obtain stolen merchandise as well as suppliers who did not want their own names or ware associated with illicit business practices. Gerrish answered Dupee’s charges with a detailed timeline. The “Coat Sold for Taylor” had entered the North-End Vendue-Office ten days before the fire at Dupee’s New Auction Room, therefore it could not have been the same coat stolen the night of the fire. In addition, Gerrish identified discrepancies between the quality and price of the coat auctioned at his establishment and the one stolen from Dupee. Furthermore, the coat had been on display and “every Day exposed for Sale,” suggesting that many witnesses could attest to having seen it at the North-End Vendue-Office. Some of them could confirm the quality and value of that coat.

Gerrish acknowledged the possibility that Taylor had stolen a coat from Dupee, but if he had it was not the one that Gerrish auctioned. “Taylor may be a Thief,” he stated, “but verily he did not look more like one, than the Advertiser.” Dupee had attacked Gerrish’s reputation. Gerrish responded in kind. He also underscored, just in case readers had not followed all the complexity of his timeline, that “there is not the least probability, that the Coat Advertised, is the same that was Sold at the North-End Vendue-Office.”

Gerrish concluded with a message for prospective clients and potential bidders. “No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office, in endeavouring to detect suspected persons, –he has detected several, –let others beware.” Many colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century via an informal economy that included secondhand and stolen goods. Newspaper advertisements frequently alerted readers about stolen goods. In addition, court records show that theft and fencing regularly occurred. That being the case, Gerrish devoted significant effort to demonstrating that he conducted a legitimate business that did not truck in stolen wares. He needed buyers and sellers, as well as the community more generally, to trust in his character if he wished to continue his business and compete against the rival auction houses in Boston.

Feb 21 - 2:15:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (February 15, 1768).

December 21

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

Dec 21 - 12:21:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (December 21, 1767).

John M’Lane stop’d last Wednesday Night a Large Silver Spoon.”

Watchmaker John McLane advertised his services in the Boston Post-Boy for several weeks in December 1767. He relied on two marketing strategies to attract potential clients, one commonly used by artisans and the other a clever innovation that testified to his character in addition to his credentials.

McLane opened his advertisement with a recitation of his training to assure customers that he was qualified to work as a watchmaker. He had completed an apprenticeship, having “serv’d his Time in Dublin to one of the best Finishers there.” On its own, this might have impressed prospective clients, but McLane also reported that he received additional training when he “work’d in London for improvement.” Artisans who migrated across the Atlantic frequently asserted their connections to the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the empire, often providing details about their previous training and work.

McLane’s second strategy, however, deviated from colonial artisans’ usual marketing practices. He appended a nota bene that reported he had “stop’d last Wednesday Night a large Silver Spoon.” In other words, a man that McLane deemed untrustworthy had attempted to sell him a spoon, but the watchmaker suspected stolen goods. He confiscated the spoon and advertised descriptions of both the spoon and the man who attempted to sell it to him. The owner, upon recognizing the monogram or “Marks of the Spoon,” could contact McLane to have it returned.

When he “stop’d” the silver spoon, McLane prevented it from circulating in an informal economy or black market, an alternative means for many colonists to participate in the consumer revolution. Less scrupulous artisans would have purchased it at a bargain price and not questioned how the stranger who presented the spoon had acquired it. By taking this action, McLane demonstrated his character to potential customers in a manner they might remember longer than they would recall his training in Dublin and additional experience in London. Not only was he skilled, he was also trustworthy.

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.

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[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.”