November 11

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

Nov 11 - 11:11:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 11, 1769).

“A THEFT.”

Multiple reports of theft appeared among the advertisements inserted in the November 11, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Stephen Hopkins reported the theft of “one Cloak, the Cloth of a fine blue Drab” and “an old light grey cut Wig.” He offered a reward to “Whoever will discover the said Cloaths, and apprehend the Thief.” Hall and Metcalf proclaimed, “ON Monday Night last the Shop of the Subscribers was broke open, and sundry Things stolen from thence.” The stolen items included “a Quantity of drest Deers Leather, … a Pinchbeck Watch, with s Steel Chain, China Face, … [and] five Pair of Leather Breeches.” Like Hopkins, Hall and Metcalf offered a reward to “Whoever secures the Thief or Thieves, with the Articles stolen.”

Reporting on another incident, Jabez Bowen, Sr., incorporated a headline – “A THEFT” – into his advertisement, distinguishing it from the other two. Someone “broke open” his house and made off with “a Man’s blue Broadcloth Great-Coat, with Basket Buttons of the same Colour; and a Woman’s light-coloured Camblet Coat, very long.” Bowen provided a description of two suspects “who were seen lurking about the same Evening” and offered two rewards, a larger one for apprehending the thieves and recovering his stolen property and a smaller one for recovering the stolen goods but not capturing the thieves.

Relatively few advertisements for consumer goods ran in that issue of the Providence Gazette, making the advertisements about the several thefts even more conspicuous. This minor crime wave signaled that some colonists sought alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution rather than buying new merchandise from merchants and shopkeepers, bidding on new and used items at auctions and vendues, or acquiring secondhand goods at estate sales. Not all colonists had the cash or credit to make such purchases. The thieves may not have desired Hopkins’s cloak or Hall and Metcalf’s watch or Bowen’s coats for themselves. Instead, they may have fenced them, thus funneling the goods into what Serena Zabin has termed an “informal economy.” Some colonists who did not have the means to acquire the goods they desired through legitimate means turned instead to the informal economy. Some eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements testify to attempts to stimulate demand and encourage participation in consumer culture, but others, such as these advertisements about thefts, suggest that some colonists devised their own means of acquiring consumer goods that otherwise would have been beyond their means.

October 7

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

Oct 7 - 10:7:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (October 7, 1769).

“STolen … a black Broadcloth Coat and Waistcoat.”

Advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers reveal many avenues for colonists to participate in the consumer revolution. Merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and others placed advertisements for all sorts of goods, most of them imported but some produced in the colonies. They made an array of appeals to stimulate demand, most commonly to price, quality, and gentility though in the era of the American Revolution many also launched the first wave of “Buy Amerian” advertisements. Vendue masters ran advertisements for auctions, presenting opportunities for lucky bidders to get bargains compared to the prices charged by wholesalers and retailers. They auctioned both new and secondhand goods, sometimes individually and sometimes in lots. Executors published estate notices that announced auctions for the possessions that belonged to the deceased, presenting yet another means for consumers to acquire secondhand goods.

Yet not all colonists obtained goods by legitimate means, as other advertisements frequently noted. Some engaged in burglary or theft, breaking into homes or shops to steal multiple items at a time or stealing individual items when they spotted an opportunity. Thomas Whipple of North Providence did not describe the circumstances, but he did advertise that a thief had stolen “a black Broadcloth Coat and Waistcoat” sometime at night near the end of September 1769. He described the garments so others could identify them: “the Coat has a black Lining, and Mohair Buttons; the Waistcoat lined with blue Shalloon, and has round Silver Buttons.” What happened to the coat and waistcoat? The thief may have desired these items and brazenly worn them as though they had been acquired legitimately. Alternately, the coat and waistcoat may have found their way to the black market, what Serena Zabin has termed the “informal economy,” for consumption by those who did not have the means to purchase them from a tailor or shopkeeper. The thief may even have removed the buttons for separate sales, thus making the coat and waistcoat less recognizable.

Affluent colonists and the middling sort were not the only participants in the consumer revolution. Others sought to acquire goods as well. Sometimes they purchased from shops and warehouses or at auctions, but others resorted to other means of obtaining the items they desired. Thomas Whipple may have taken great pride in his waistcoat lined with blue shalloon and adorned with round silver buttons. Someone else, less scrupulous than Whipple, apparently desired the waistcoat along with the coat with mohair buttons or knew of an opportunity to make some money by fencing the garments. When they could not afford to make purchases, some colonists devised alternate means of acquiring consumer goods.

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1769 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (September 1, 1769).

“He will mend and clean a WATCH for one half what Simnet will, let him mend as cheap as he will.”

Readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette were treated to the next chapter in the ongoing feud between watchmakers Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith and John Simnet when they perused the September 1, 1769, edition. Griffith had previously toned down his rhetoric targeting his rival, but a new development caused him to make direct comparisons to Simnet once again. A week earlier Griffith placed an advertisement to inform the community that “some VILLAIN or VILLAINS … broke open” his shop and stole a gold watch, five or six silver watches, several gold rings, and other items. To make matters worse, the stolen watches did not come exclusively from Griffith’s inventory. Many belonged to clients who had left them for repair. Griffith offered a reward to “Whoever apprehends said Thief or Thieves, so that the above Articles may be procured again.” Griffith faced ruin!

That advertisement ran a second time on September 1, this time immediately above an updated version of an advertisement that appeared two weeks earlier. The original advertisement did not make any allusions to Simnet; it simply encouraged prospective clients to entrust their watches to Griffith’s care if they wished to have them “speedily re-fitted and expeditiously returned.” He did his work “in the best and cheapest Manner.” Given the calamity that he had just experienced, however, the revised advertisement included a second paragraph that explicitly named his competitor. “AS said Nathaniel Sheaffe Griffith has begun anew, he will mend and clean a WATCH for one half what Simnet will, let him mend as cheap as he will.” Griffith went to extreme measures to save his business. No matter how much his rival might try to undercut his price, he vowed to charge only half as he faced the challenge of rebuilding.

Griffith also had a retort for Simnet’s oft-repeated credentials, which appeared once again in an advertisement immediately below Griffith’s revised notice. Simnet consistently argued that his training and experience made him the most skilled watchmaker in New Hampshire. He described himself as “Finisher to all the best original Workmen in the old Country.” Exasperated with the implied disparagement from Simnet, Griffith allowed that “I am not a Finisher to all the best original Workmen in the Old Country; but if I don’t do my Work well, I charge nothing.” Griffith valued honest labor and he expected prospective clients to value it as well. He also attempted to make up for not coming from the same background as his rival by pledging not to charge if clients found his work wanting.

Both Griffith and Simnet ran advertisements proclaiming that they set their prices at half what their competitor charged, giving prospective clients an opportunity to haggle for really low prices. A clever compositor arranged all three advertisements in a single column to better tell a dramatic story of their rivalry and the catastrophe that had recently befallen Griffith. Even readers who did not have watches to be repaired could be entertained by this spectacle as events continued to unfold.

August 31

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

Aug 31 - 8:31:1769 Massachusetts Gazette Draper
Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (August 31, 1769).
“The Store … was broke open and rob’d.”

The August 31, 1769, edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette included several advertisements for consumer goods. John Gerrish advertised a “very large Assortment of Goods, and Merchandize.” Other advertisers specialized in retail sales of particular kinds of goods: Zechariah Fowle advertised books, Peter Roberts “Drugs & Medicines,” and Richard Smith spermaceti candles “Manufactured by Daniel Jenckes & Com. at Providence.” Other advertisers promoted upcoming auctions, such as Joseph Russell’s notice for a “Variety of Houshold Furniture” intended for sale “by PUBLIC VENDUE” a week later. Still others announced estate sales, giving readers an opportunity to purchase secondhand goods.

Yet retail sales, auctions, and estate sales were not the only means of acquiring goods and participating in the consumer revolution that was taking place in the colonies and throughout the British Atlantic world. Another advertisement reported that someone “broke open and rob’d” the store belonging to Benjamin Greene and Son earlier in the month. Several pieces of merchandise went missing, including handkerchiefs, sewing silk, “Mens Hose,” and assorted textiles. Greene and Son offered a reward to “Whoever will discover the Thieves so that they may be brought to Justice.”

Unfortunately for retailers and residents of Boston and other cities and towns throughout the colonies, Greene and Son’s advertisement was not particularly unusual. Similar advertisements appeared regularly in the public prints, suggesting that those who could not participate in consumer culture through legitimate means resorted to other methods of acquiring the goods they desired. The “sundry small Articles” taken from Greene and Son’s store likely ended up in the hands of colonists other than the thieves, passing through a black market or, as Serena Zabin has termed it, an “informal economy” for distributing goods of questionable provenance. The reach of the consumer revolution extended far beyond the gentry and the middling sort; it encompassed colonists of all backgrounds. Those who lacked the means to visit the shops, auction houses, and estate sales advertised in the Massachusetts Gazette and other newspapers devised other ways of obtaining consumer goods.

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.

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.