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.