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