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.

May 23

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

May 23 - 5:23:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 23, 1767).

“WILLIAM ROGERS, Of Newport, Rhode-Island … has newly furnished his Shop with a neat Assortment of GOODS.”

In general, eighteenth-century advertisers tended to place notices only in their local newspapers, though members of the book trades sometimes accounted for exceptions as they cooperated with colleagues to create larger markets for promoting and distributing reading materials. What qualified as a local newspaper depended on the perspective of readers and advertisers since newspapers were printed only in slightly more than a dozen cities and towns in 1767. Most publications thus served an extensive hinterland, often an entire colony and sometimes a region that included portions of other colonies as well. The Pennsylvania Gazette, for instance, had subscribers throughout the colony as well as Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. In the absence of local newspapers to carry their marketing messages, shopkeepers and others in those colonies sometimes advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the other newspapers printed in Philadelphia but distributed widely.

William Rogers “Of Newport, Rhode-Island, on the Parade opposite the Custom-House” did not want for a local newspaper to carry his advertisements. Samuel Hall published the Newport Mercury from his printing shop on Thames Street. The Mercury was Newport’s only newspaper. This did not, however, prevent Rogers from advertising in multiple publications. He took the rather extraordinary action of injecting himself into the Providence market when he placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. Several shopkeepers who advertised regularly in the Gazette (including Thompson and Arnold, Joseph and William Russell, Benjamin and Edward Thurber, and James Green) already competed with each other to gain both attention in the public prints and customers in their shops. Rogers presented the “neat Assortment of GOODS” in his shop as a viable alternative, especially since “he intends to sell as cheap as can be bought at any Shop in PROVIDENCE.” In the course of the week, Rogers’ advertisement appeared in both the Providence Gazette and the Newport Mercury.

Rogers may not have expected to garner many customers from Providence, but he almost certainly aimed to attract readers of the Providence Gazette elsewhere in Rhode Island, especially those who lived between Providence and Newport. Shopkeepers in Providence served the city’s hinterland as well as their neighbors in the city. William Rogers wanted some of that business for himself.