GUEST CURATOR: Maia Campbell
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“CASH is given for clean Linen RAGS, Old Sail-Cloth and Junk, at the Printing-Office in New-London.”
What struck me about this advertisement is the need expressed by the New-London Printing-Office for “Linen RAGS, Old Sail-Cloth and Junk.” At first glance, it might seem perplexing that the New-London Printing-Office would be interested in acquiring such objects. However, during the colonial time period these objects were directly associated with the printing universe. In opposition to paper today that is made from wood, all of these types of items would be used in the composition of the paper used for the newspaper. Junk most likely refers to scrap rope that would be used along with the rags and old sail-cloth.
Also, the New-London Printing-Office could attract a surplus of “Old Sail-Cloth.” New London, Connecticut, was a sea town, making it easy for sailors to give their unneeded materials to the New-London Gazette.
I was intrigued by this clever and efficient way to use old cloth instead of simply disposing of it.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
I have previously passed over similar advertisements dozens of times when I made my selections about which to feature. I didn’t think that there was much especially interesting or noteworthy about printers’ ubiquitous call for rags. Maia helped me to realize why this advertisement merits a second glance and further examination.
I work with eighteenth-century newspapers on a regular basis. I am accustomed to both their appearance and the way they feel in my hands. I also know a little bit more about the histories of printing and papermaking in early America than the average person off the street.
But for Maia and the other students in my Public History class, this is all new! This advertisement presented an opportunity to talk about the origins of the materials that printers used, including paper made from rags rather than wood (a transition that did not take place until well into the nineteenth century). Just as eighteenth-century newspapers look a bit different than their twenty-first-century counterparts, they were created from different materials.
This advertisement also prompted us to talk about eighteenth-century lexicon versus modern meanings of words. I suggested to Maia, based on context in the advertisement, that “Junk” likely referred to other textile scraps. I was close, but further research revealed that “Junk” meant “an old rope” in the eighteenth century, at least according to the Royal Standard English Dictionary published in 1788.
 William Perry, Royal Standard English Dictionary (Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 1788), 313.