July 20

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

Jul 20 - 7:20:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (July 20, 1768).

“Said Winter has all sorts of garden seeds to dispose of.”

Robert Winter advertised “all sorts of garden seeds” almost as an afterthought in a notice he placed in the July 20, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Winter served as the caretaker for several gardens – Pleasant Oak, Mulberry Hill, and Spring Gardens – that belonged to Dr. James Cuthbert. In the course of performing his duties he noticed a series of robberies committed by “several very indiscreet persons.” In turn, the caretaker took measures to prevent further thefts on the premises. He also turned to the public prints to warn fellow colonists about those measures, proclaiming that “he has guns, dogs, and other snares laid for such as may trespass there for the future.” Furthermore, should he catch anyone defacing any of the gardens Winter was “resolved to bring them to justice. The caretaker imagined a variety of possible suspects, including “apprentices, servants, and negroes.” He requested that “masters will caution” them “against the like errors.”

Only after signing his name to this notice did the caretaker insert an additional line that deviated from his primary purpose of preventing further robberies: “Said Winter has all sorts of garden seeds to dispose of.” Compared to extensive advertisements placed by others who specialized in selling seeds, this portion of Winter’s notice was exceptionally short. He did not elaborate on any of the varieties he offered for sale. He assumed that potential customers were already familiar with the gardens he tended and did not need further explanation. Indirectly, the series of robberies indicated a certain level of demand for the plants that sprang from his seeds.

Winter put virtually no effort into marketing his garden seeds. He merely made an appeal to choice by noting that he sold “all sorts.” Yet he did follow another convention common to many eighteenth-century advertisements. Often colonists placed notices with two purposes. In many cases, the primary purpose revolved around some sort of announcement, such as estate notices, calls to settle accounts before advertisers left town, or, in this instance, cautioning robbers against further attempts. Having purchased space in the newspaper, some advertisers opted to pursue a secondary purpose: selling consumer goods and services. Having attracted attention for their primary purpose, but not wishing to distract from it too much, they appended short invitations for readers to make purchases, whether the contents of the rest of the notice applied to them or not.

Winter’s story of “guns, dogs, and other snares” intended to ward off the “several very indiscreet persons” who “made a practice of robbing the gardens” he tended likely garnered interest among readers solely because it was so different that the rest of the contents among the advertisements in the Georgia Gazette. The caretaker seized that opportunity to encourage sales of his seeds.

February 10

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

Feb 10 - 2:10:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (February 10, 1768).

“RUN AWAY WITH … A SQUARE STERN PILOT-BOAT.”

When Captain Samuel Covell departed Savannah for Barbados in early February 1768 the Elizabeth and Mary sailed without three members of its crew. James Colmy, John Roche, and Alexander Sim had deserted while the ship was in port. That these sailors chose not to continue on the Elizabeth and Mary was not itself out of the ordinary, but their choice to steal a boat from William Lyford attracted more attention than they might otherwise have received.

Lyford placed an advertisement in the February 10 edition of the Georgia Gazette, the first issue published after Colmy, Roche, and Sim stole his “SQUARE STERN PILOT-BOAT” sometime in the night of February 5. To aid in apprehending the fugitive seamen, Lyford provided descriptions of the thieves and his boat. In addition, he indicated that one of his slaves had been kidnapped in the process of stealing his boat. He reported that “there was on board a DARK INDIAN FELLOW, who speaks good English, also the property of the said William Lyford, who it is supposed was asleep in the hold when the above men stole the vessel.”

Lyford may have been correct that the unnamed “INDIAN FELLOW” had been asleep and even unnoticed by the thieves when they made off with his pilot boat, but that was not the only possibility. Sensing an opportunity to gain his freedom, the enslaved Indian may have collaborated with the fugitive sailors in stealing the vessel, choosing not to resist or raise an alarm even if he had been surprised when they first boarded. If he was familiar with local waterways, the unnamed Indian could have been a valuable ally in making the escape and avoiding detection. Colmy, Roche, and Sim may have welcomed him as a partner in their adventure. After all, eighteenth-century mariners practiced an egalitarianism that often overlooked race in favor of emphasizing skill, status, and similar experiences. The “INDIAN FELLOW” and the sailors may have both embraced circumstances that allowed them to cooperate for mutual benefit as they ran away from the masters – whether slaveholders or captains – who exercised power over them.

October 2

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

Oct 2 - 10:2:1767 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (October 2, 1767).

“WILLIAM ROGERS, a notorious villain, for shop lifting.”

In the fall of 1767, William Crossing placed an advertisement in the New-London Gazette to warn readers that William Rogers, a “notorious villain,” had escaped from his custody. According to Crossing, he had “lawful authority to hold” Rogers “for shop lifting.” Advertisements concerning theft appeared regularly in newspapers throughout the colonies. Sometimes retailers indicated that goods had been stolen from their shops. Other times advertisers reported that thieves took items from their homes. Theft, rather than purchasing, became an alternate means for some colonists to participate in the consumer revolution in eighteenth-century America.

Crossing described a particular kind of theft: “shop lifting.” While it came as no surprise that this crime existed in colonial America, the use of that particular term to describe it made me wonder when “shoplifting” entered the English lexicon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “shoplift” was used as a noun as early as 1665 and as a verb as early as 1756 (a little over a decade before it appeared in today’s advertisement). Describing “one that steals out of shops” as a “shoplift” has fallen out of use, now described by the OED as historical and rare. The term “shoplifter,” on the other hand, has survived from the 1660s and is still in common use today.

Although “shoplift” and “shoplifter” described petty criminals in Restoration England, the OED does not include any examples of “shoplift” as a verb until nearly a century later, when it appeared in the July 22, 1756, edition of London’s Public Advertiser. The newspaper reported on fabrics stolen from a linen draper’s shop. The OED also indicates that the word “lyft” had been in use as early as 1585. In 1824, Sir Henry Ellis, a prominent antiquarian and eventually principal librarian of the British Museum, noted the meanings of several words associated with theft in Early Modern English: “ffoyste is to cutt a pocket, nyppe is to cut a purse, lyft is to robbe a shoppe.” In its original iteration, “lyft” did not need further clarification to indicate that it referred to stealing goods from a shop while pretending to be a customer. The origins of the term “shop lifting” date back to the time of Shakespeare, long before the transatlantic consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.