September 22

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

Providence Gazette (September 22, 1770).

Cutting his throat, and stabbing him in the belly.”

The advertising section of the Providence Gazette in the early 1770s sometimes read like a late nineteenth-century police blotter.  Consider the September 22, 1770, edition.  Among the advertisements for consumer goods and services, legal notices, and one advertisement offering a good price for a flying squirrel, several other advertisements relayed stories of thefts and worse crimes.

The first recorded a theft, its tone suggesting unpleasant consequences for the thief.  An anonymous advertiser suggested that the “Person who took a new Beaver Hat out of the Court-House” on the previous Thursday evening “will do well to leave it” at the printing office for the owner to retrieve.  By doing so, the thief “may thereby prevent the disagreeable Circumstance of a personal Application.”  Whether or not the advertiser actually knew the identity of the thief, he suggested that he did.  The prospect of a “personal Application” suggested retribution for refusing to voluntarily return the hat.

In an advertisement that had already been running for many weeks, Seth Wetmore of Middletown, Connecticut, described how his house “was broke open … by some Person or Persons unknown” at the beginning of July.  The burglars absconded with a variety of clothing and other personal articles.  Wetmore suspected that they may have been the same men who escaped from the jail in New Haven the previous night, John Armstrong and John Galloway, and their accomplice, James Burne.  Wetmore offered a reward for the return of his goods “or the greater Part of them” and the capture of the “Felons” over and above the reward offered by the jailer.

In the most disturbing of these advertisements, Charles Keen of Providence described the depraved acts of “notorious offenders … instigated by the devil.”  An “evil-minded person or persons” had entered his pasture in the dead of night and attempted to kill his horse.  The unfortunate horse had been “peaceably feeding and fettered” when the perpetrators set about “cutting his throat, and stabbing him in the belly, with a large knife, or other weapon.”  The horse initially survived the ordeal, but Keen suspected that he could still die of the wounds.  Keen offered a substantial reward to anybody “who will make such discovery of any person or persons that were guilty of the above wicked act.”

When it came to crime reporting, from a hat nicked at the courthouse to a brutal attack on a horse in the middle of the night, the advertisements in this issue of the Providence Gazette carried far more news than the rest of the newspaper.

August 4

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

Aug 4 - 8:4:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 4, 1770).

“A THEFT.”

The August 4, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette included advertisements that promoted consumers goods and services for sale, but it also featured several notices that indicated some colonists resorted to alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution.  Purchasing new and secondhand items was not the only means of acquiring goods in eighteenth-century America.

In one such advertisement, Jonathan Farman announced “A THEFT” in the headline.  He went on to list the various items stolen from him in Newport, including “one Pair of blue Yarn Stockings” and “a red and white woollen Jacket, without Sleeves.”  His wallet also included notes and papers that he wished to recover.  Farman provided a brief description of the thief, “a Mulatto Fellow,” that was so general as to focus suspicion on any young, light-skinned Black man that readers encountered.

In another advertisement, Seth Wetmore of Middletown, Connecticut, commenced with a headline that promised a “Twenty-One Dollar Reward.”  His house had been “broke open … by some Person or Persons unknown” in the middle of the night a month earlier.  The culprits made off with “one black double Sattin Cloak, a full Suit of black Paduasoy (Womens Cloaths, large) a black Taffety Quilt and Apron, a light colored Chintz Gown, four Yards of double-folded white Holland, six Yards of whitened Tow-Cloth, three or four Pocket Handkerchiefs, not made up, a Woman’s Shift, and sundry other Things.”  Wetmore conjected that “the Felons” who stole these items had escaped from the New Haven jail the previous items.  He identified John Galloway and John Armstrong, noting that James Burne was an accomplice.  These men may not have desired to possess the stolen items for themselves but instead intended to fence them or sell them for cash to further aid in their flight from the law.

That seemed to have been the case with several items that Ezekiel Burr declared that he had “STOPPED” or confiscated in another advertisement.  When offered “one Woman’s Apron, one Pair of Womens Shoes, and a Remnant of fine Holland” cloth for sale, he suspected that those items “have been stolen,” seized them, and placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette in hopes that the rightful owner would reclaim them.

This trio of advertisements told a different story of participation in the consumer revolution than many of the other advertisements that promoted goods and services in eighteenth-century America.  Rather than listing goods for sale by merchants and shopkeepers or up for bid at auctions and estate sales, they described the theft, burglary, and fencing that were part of what Serena Zabin has described as an “informal economy” in the colonies.

March 30

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

Mar 30 - 3:30:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 30, 1770).

“The trifling expence of a News Paper.”

Colonists did not have to subscribe to newspapers to gain access to their contents.  Some subscribers passed along newspapers to friends and neighbors.  A single newspaper could change hands several times.  Proprietors of coffeehouses often subscribed to a variety of newspapers that they made available to their patrons, just one of the many amenities intended to make their establishments more cosmopolitan and attractive to customers.  Colonists sometimes read aloud from newspapers in taverns, sharing news and editorials with larger audiences than read the articles themselves.  Colonists did not need to subscribe in order to read or hear about the news.  They could gain access to newspapers in public venues … or they could steal them.

The theft of newspapers was a sufficiently chronic problem that Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, inserted a notice in the March 30, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette.  The Fowles excoriated the “mean, lowliv’d Fellows, who have not Souls large enough to be at the trifling expence of a News Paper, yet are continually stealing their Neighbours, and others.”  The Fowles did not deliver the New-Hampshire Gazettedirectly to subscribers.  Instead, they dispatched copies from their printing office in Portsmouth to taverns “in the several Country Towns” with the intention that subscribers would pick them up or arrange for delivery by a local carrier.  Too many “lowliv’d Fellows,” however, interfered with the system by picking up newspapers that belonged to others and “never deliver[ing them] to the proper Owners.”

The Fowles were concerned about subscribers not receiving their newspapers, but they were just as worried about the impact this “vile and scandalous Practice” would have on their business.  Customers who regularly did not receive their newspapers were likely to discontinue their subscriptions.  Theft endangered another important revenue stream.  The Fowles lamented that the missing newspapers were “often a Damage on Account of Advertisements,” a twofold problem.  First, advertising represented significant revenue that made it possible to disseminate the news.  If prospective advertisers suspected that their advertisements did not reach the intended audiences then they might refrain from placing them.  Second, many advertisements, especially notices about public meetings, estate notices, and legal notices, delivered news that supplemented the articles, editorials, and letters that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper.  Advertisements underwrote the newspaper business while also informing readers of matters of public interest.

The situation reached a point that the Fowles called on their “good Customers” to inform them “of those Fellows Names” who had “abused both the Customers & Printers in this Way for Years past.”  The Fowles planned to publish a list of the offenders, a public shaming that included descriptions of “their proper Character,” as well as prosecute them “as the Law directs for stopping Letters, News Papers.”  Newspaper advertisements frequently reported the theft of consumer goods in eighteenth-century America, but this notice indicates that “lowliv’d Fellows” also stole newspapers and, by extension, access to information.

December 27

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

Dec 27 - 12:27:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (December 27, 1769).

“One of Mrs. Stoke’s hand bills relating to her boarding school in Charlestown.”

Newspaper notices accounted for the vast majority of advertisements that circulated in eighteenth-century America, yet they were not the only form of marketing familiar in the colonies or the new nation. Advertisers distributed a variety of other media, including broadsides, trade cards, billheads, catalogs, magazine wrappers, subscription notices, furniture labels, and handbills. Even more ephemeral than newspapers, relatively few of these items survive today. Those that are extant testify to a vibrant landscape of advertising in early America.

In some cases, newspaper notices alluded to other advertisements, providing a more complete story of their production and circulation in eighteenth-century America. For instance, printers, booksellers, auctioneers, and others sometimes noted in their advertisements that they provided free catalogs to prospective customers who wished to learn more about their inventory. Sometimes newspaper notices placed for purposes other than marketing consumer goods and services mentioned advertisements distributed via other media.

Such was the case in a notice that ran in the December 27, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Lewis Johnson informed the public that several certificates and bills had been “STOLEN out of a desk in [his] house.” Je offered a reward to “whoever will give any information of the thief.” To help anyone who might come in contact with the culprit identify the stolen bills, Johnson reported that the “money was put up on one of Mrs. Stokes’s hand bills relating to her boarding school in Charlestown.” That single sentence, embedded in a newspaper advertisement about a theft, revealed quite a bit about another advertisement that circulated separately. Not only had a schoolmistress in Charleston, South Carolina, hired a printer to produce handbills about her boarding school, at least one of those handbills found its way to Savannah, Georgia. Whether or not he had any interest in Stokes’s school, Johnson held onto the handbill, adapting it to his own purposes when he used it as a folder to contain his certificates and bills. A significant proportion of eighteenth-century advertising ephemera in the collections of research libraries and historical societies have been preserved among family papers related to finances and household management. This suggests that advertising was integrated into the everyday lives of early Americans. In this instance, Johnson encountered Stokes’s handbill regularly as he saw to his own finances (before the theft), while readers of the Georgia Gazette saw references to an advertisement that many might have also seen circulating elsewhere.

December 2

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

Dec 2 - 12:2:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 2, 1769).

“The Shop of the Subscribers was broke open, and sundry Things stolen.”

Several advertisements relayed stories of theft in the December 2, 1769, edition of the Providence GazetteEach had previously appeared, but the thieves had not been captured nor had the stolen goods been recovered.  In a notice dated October 17, Stephen Hopkins reported the theft of a cloak and wig.  Hall and Metcalf placed their own notice, dated November 4, to report that their shop “was broke open, and sundry Things stolen from thence.”  Jabez Bowen, Sr., even deployed a headline for his advertisement: “A THEFT.”  Dated November 11, Bowen’s notice listed several items of clothing stolen when his house was “broke open.”  By December 2, the stories in these advertisements became familiar to readers of the Providence Gazette.

The thefts in these advertisements may have helped to shape the contents of other parts of the newspaper. The December 2 edition began with an item addressed to the printer of the Providence Gazette.  “At a Time when Houses, Shops and Warehouses, are so frequently broke open,” an unnamed correspondent proclaimed, “and so many Thefts and Robberies are committed, both in Town and Country, by wicked vagrant Persons, unlawfully strolling about from Place to Place, perhaps it may tend to the public Good … in your next Paper to insert the following LAW concerning VAGRANTS, that it may be more generally known.”  A statute then filled the remainder of the column, excepting two lines announcing that the printer sold blanks.

Not only did advertisements seem to influence coverage of the news, the inclusion of this law helped establish a theme that ran through the entire issue.  Readers who perused it from start to finish first encountered the statute on the first page, Bowen’s notice and Hopkins’s notice on the third page, and Hall and Metcalf’s notice on the final page.  Even if they passed over the statute quickly, encountering the advertisements about thefts may have prompted some readers to return to the first page to read the statute more carefully.  The featured advertisements often demonstrate that news items and advertisements informed each other when it came to the imperial crisis and nonimportation agreements; however, those were not the only instances of advertisements relaying news or working in tandem with news.  Other sorts of current events inspired coverage that moved back and forth between news and advertising in colonial newspapers.

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.