Ad Infinitum

Lost anvils, fallen women, misplaced prosthetics, and other old classifieds

The classifieds were a haven for this dry British humor; the Pall Mall Gazette once ran an ad for a "DOG.—Required a kind master for an excellent black retriever dog. Owner parts with him on no other account than his savage tendencies." One can even find high-flown literature itself—of a sort—among the classifieds. Before the advent of display ads, commercial ads were crammed alongside everyone else's and merchants vied to outdo each other in the floridness and cleverness of their compositions. It was widely rumored in the early 1800s that Lord Byron was receiving a year to write verses praising Warren's Blacking Shoe Polish. To wit: "As I one morning shaving sat,/For dinner time preparing,/A dreadful howling from the cat/Set all the room a staring!/Sudden I turn'd—beheld a scene/ I could not but delight in,/For in my boot, so bright and clean,/The cat her face was fighting./Bright was the boot—its surface fair,/In lustre nothing lacking;/I never saw one half so clear,/Except by WARREN'S BLACKING."

You won't find that one in your Norton anthology. You will find it, though, in the classifieds.

Even as early as 1692, London had an entire newspaper containing nothing but ads—The City Mercury, the forerunner of the modern Pennysaver. Classifieds possess a fascination all their own; whole newspapers and books can be made of them. And that is what makes Bader's collection of American classifieds such a wonderful find. Strange Red Cow is quirky and entertaining, but it is also something more: It heralds a new genre in overlooked history.

Sara Bader: Lost anvils . . . and 500 live rats
Sara Bader: Lost anvils . . . and 500 live rats

Paul Collins's latest book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury).

Paul Collins's reads at the Housing Works Used Book Café November 9.

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