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.

October 4

GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Curley

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

Providence Gazette (October 4, 1766).

“To be sold at Public Vendue … One Joseph Hart!

This advertisement announced “One Joseph Hart” would be sold into servitude for three years as punishment for stealing “sundry goods from Mr. Obadiah Sprague.” After an auction at the Providence jail, Hart would give up a few years of his life to someone else to work off his crimes as a convict servant. The second half of the advertisement included a brief physical description and a description of the crimes that he committed. This way that the person who purchased and brought him into their service would know what type of person that they were bringing into their home. This also allowed them to see what type of jobs he would be able to do. Since he was “a stout able-bodied active man,”,Hart would have been able to do or assist with any job that his future master bought him for.   These possible jobs could have ranged from blacksmith to carpentry to farming.

The court systems in colonial America had varied punishments.   Today some of them would seem cruel, but then they were commonplace consequences. According to James A. Cox in “Bilboes, Brands, and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments,” sometimes criminals had an ear nailed to the pillory, were dragged along from the stern of a boat, or branded on the hand for stealing, as well as many other punishments that today would be considered cruel and inhumane. As we see with Joseph Hart, another common form of “paying” for crimes was through a form of indentured servitude.   Vengeance and humiliation were the background idea for many of these punishments. The public and the punished would remember and hopefully not do it again. In colonial America, the factor of shame was added because punishments took place in public so that anyone could see.   In addition, placing an advertisement in the newspaper was a very public way to shame Hart and his family, as was the public auction for someone to “buy” his time. Becoming a convict servant would have been embarrassing, but Hart may have seen it as a preferred way to avoid bodily harm as punishment.



In selecting this notice about a “Public Vendue” to auction off “One Joseph Hart” as a convict servant for a period of three years, Elizabeth chose an advertisement that looks quite different from most featured by the Adverts 250 Project. I briefly contemplated asking her to choose a different advertisement, one that more explicitly demonstrated how entrepreneurs used advertising to incite demand and fuel the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. However, I would not have dissuaded her from selecting advertisements in which people were treated as commodities. Quite the contrary, I have encouraged all the guest curators to grapple with advertisements that sought to buy and sell indentured servants and enslaved men, women, and children. This announcement about an auction for a convict servant – a punishment doled out by the Superior Court as punishment for the crimes Joseph Hart committed – further demonstrates how easily and casually people could be bought and sold in eighteenth-century America, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, race, or color of their skin.

That was reason enough to approve this advertisement when Elizabeth presented it, but the nature of Hart’s crime confirmed that this advertisement merited inclusion in the Adverts 250 Project. What crime had Hart committed that prompted the Superior Court to order that he be “sold at Public Vendue” in order to “satisfy the damages and costs of his prosecution and conviction?” Hart was guilty of “stealing sundry goods from Mr. Obadiah Sprague.” Not all colonists participated in the consumer revolution in the same manner. They certainly did not have the same access to the myriad of goods produced and exchanged throughout the Atlantic world. Other advertisements that appeared in the same issue of the Providence Gazette encouraged potential customers to visit local shops and purchase an assortment of products, many of them imported from faraway places. Many colonists, however, did not have the resources to shop in those establishments. Many purchased used goods at auctions or estate sales, but others participated in an informal economy that included trading stolen goods. It appears that Joseph Hart was eager to get his hands on “sundry goods,” stealing them rather than buying them. In the end, Hart was offered for sale himself.

August 18

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

Aug 18 - 8:18:1766 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (August 18, 1766).

“The Store of Habijah Savage on the Long Wharff was broke open.”

Earlier this week the Adverts 250 Project featured an announcement that Simon Rhodes placed in the New-London Gazette. In late July 1766, a thief or thieves broke into his home in Stonington, Connecticut, and stole two silver watches and a pair of silver buckles. He offered a description of the missing items, warned against anybody purchasing the stolen goods, and offered a reward for their return and the capture of the culprits.

In today’s advertisement, Habijah Savage offered a similar story out of Boston. In this case, however, the thieves “broke open” Savage’s store, rather than his house, and made off with a significant amount of merchandise, amounting to “Forty Pounds Lawful Money.” This was a quite a loss for Savage’s business. Indeed, his list of stolen merchandise was as extensive as those that frequently appeared in advertisements placed by merchants and shopkeepers seeking to sell new goods and auctioneers sponsoring vendue sales.

Despite Savage’s announcement about the theft in the public prints, it seems unlikely that he would have been able to recover all (or any) of the stolen goods. For the most part, they were fairly common items that would have been easily absorbed into an underground economy that paralleled the more legitimate means of acquiring goods. In a fascinating chapter on “The Informal Economy” in Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York, Serena R. Zabin has traced how many marginalized colonists – the poor, slaves and free blacks, women – participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century through alternative means that worried authorities and elites. This was an economy that incorporated crime and threatened to disrupt traditional social and economic hierarchies.

The goods stolen from Habijah Savage’s store likely became part of that informal economy. Who might have ended up wearing that “new Beaver Hatt” or making clothes from the “English Stone Sleeve Buttons” and assorted textiles?

August 15

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

Aug 15 - 8:15:1766 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (August 15, 1766).

“STOLEN out of the Subscriber’s House in the Night … Two silver Watches.”

As a general rule, most advertisements featured on the Adverts 250 Project promoted consumer goods and services. As its primary purpose, the project explores how eighteenth-century advertising incited consumer demand and convinced colonists to purchase an expanding array of goods and services.

Today’s advertisement, however, demonstrates that buying new goods from shopkeepers and merchants was not the only way that colonists could participate in the consumer economy. Some purchased used goods (which were sometimes advertised, but also changed hands in an informal economy that did not rely on public commercial notices), but others resorted to theft to obtain the items they desired or intended to sell for their own gain.

In Simon Rhodes’ case, a thief made off with “Two Silver Watches” and “a pair of Silver wrought Buckles with Steel Chapes and Tongues.”

Rhodes wanted his watches and buckles back, so much so that he paid to insert this advertisement in the New-London Gazette at least three times. (It appeared on August 15, 22, and 29. It may have appeared in earlier issues, but they are no longer extant.) He also offered a reward of five dollars to anybody who captured “the Thief or Thieves, so that the above things may be had, and he or they brought to Justice.” At the very least, Rhodes wanted to make it difficult for the thief or thieves to benefit from the crime. He requested that if any readers noticed his stolen property “offered for Sale” that “they may be stopped.” In addition, his descriptions of the stolen goods, including their flaws and repairs, were designed to make it more difficult to sell them.