I read nothing except the criminal news and the agony column,” Sherlock Holmes once mused. Personal ads—what the British call the “agony column”—were, Doyle’s detective observed, “surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual!” They lacked a modern-day Sherlock to decipher their intricacies—but no longer, thanks to Sara Bader’s new Strange Red Cow and Other Curious Classified Ads From the Past (Clarkson Potter).
America’s first classified ad appeared in 1704, seeking “Two Iron Anvils” lost by their owner. This begs the question: How do you lose an anvil? But classifieds thrived from that odd beginning, evolving into rhymed tradesmen ads, help-wanteds, barter ads, and—inevitably—the first personals ad in 1759. But among the quaint ads seeking a woman “who must love a mustache” or lost livestock—e.g., the “strange red cow” of the book’s title—you soon find notices like this in 1804: “Stop the Runaway. FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD. Eloped from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 25th of June last, a Mulatto Man Slave . . . ten dollars extra [reward], for every hundred lashes, any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.”
The cruel master who placed that ad? Andrew Jackson. The future president was not alone; Bader also reproduces runaway-slave newspaper ads by Washington in 1761 and Jefferson in 1769. Lost-and-found ads always give a telltale account of an era: After the Civil War one finds ads for missing lockets bearing the snips of hair of the departed, though sometimes other pieces went missing too. An 1866 Boston Evening Transcript carries the plea “LOST—On the Common, on the 23rd ult, an ARTIFICIAL HAND.” Bader also finds a surprising number—even one should be a surprising number—of Found ads for money. One advertiser seems so conscience stricken that he placed this ad in 1849, four years after finding the money: “FOUND, FOUR DOLLARS, WHILE LEAVING THE CARS at Paterson, in the summer of 1845.”
But the enduring charm of classifieds has always lain in the
personals. Not everyone was impressed: Missed Connection and I Saw You ads seemed just as faintly pathetic to Mark Twain in 1867 as they do today. “There seems to be a pack of wooden-headed louts about this town,” he snapped, “who fall in love with every strumpet who smiles a flabby smile at them in a street car, and forthwith they pop a personal into the Herald.”
The personals can also be a graveyard of romance; one uncovered by Bader from an 1862 [New York] Sunday Mercury reads:
“X.Z.—IF YOU MUST HAVE A REASON why I refuse you, understand, then that I cannot marry a man who wears soiled linen, has foul teeth and breath, and uses tobasco and whisky. Faugh!”
Sometimes the ad is the literal headstone of romance: Bader recounts the tale of Belle Gunness, a Norwegian woman who lured at least a dozen men and women to shallow backyard graves through personals in turn-of-the-century Indiana. She appears to have absconded and lived for perhaps another three decades in L.A., one suspects after permanenty ending the loneliness of California men through her nickel-a-word murder weapon.
Strange Red Cow is a book of American ads: The mind reels at the possibilities if anyone were to compile a companion volume of British ones. As early as 1843 a writer for the Edinburgh Review was digging up such agony column gems as “IF WILLIAM will return to his affectionate parents, he shall not be snubbed by his sister, and be allowed to sweeten his own tea.” Tea was no small matter over there; another ad simply read “TO
M.N.—If you don’t choose to come back, please to return the key of the tea-caddy.”
Pore over the classified columns in old British papers—and I recommend that you bring both a strong pair of reading glasses and a strong pair of eyeballs to the task—and you start discovering the news beneath the news, the vast depths of unplumbed minutiae. In the 1790s, for instance, we find tutoring in “The Digitalian Language,” apparently a fad for hand signaling among fashionable ladies—one imagines Georgian women throwing gang signs at each other. I’ve never found the phrase again in any other source. If only the man who placed the ad were still responding to enquiries at No. 11 St. Clement’s Churchyard . . . but no. The ad is all we have now, a tantalizing hint of a forgotten past.
Other ads, though, are reassuring in their timelessness. Sick of your landlord? Then read this ad from 1816:
“WANTED IMMEDIATELY, to enable me to leave the House which I have for these last five years inhabited, in the same plight and condition in which I found it, 500 LIVE RATS, for which I will gladly pay the sum of L.5 Sterling; and, as I cannot leave the Farm attached thereto in the same order as I got it without at least Five Millions of Docks, Dockens (weeds), I do hereby promise a further sum of L.5 sterling for said number of Dockens. . . .
N.B. The Rats must be full grown, and no cripples.”
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.
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 1, 2005