What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“CASH is given for clean Linen RAGS.”
Eighteenth-century newspapers were peppered with calls for rags. In any given issue, the printer might insert this sort of notice among the advertisements or use it to complete a page featuring primarily news items. These pleas for rags, however, were not merely filler. They played a vital role in the production of paper in colonial America. At the time, paper was made of linen rather than wood pulp. As a result, the rags that colonists turned over to the “Paper Manufactory” became the paper printers used to publish books, newspapers, almanacs, and anything else that came off their presses.
In 1767, printers throughout New England dressed up their usually plain calls for rags with a short poem that extolled the virtues of rags. In four rhyming couplets, it explained:
- RAGS are as Beauties, which concealed lie,
- But when in Paper, how it charms the Eye!
- Pray save your Rags, new Beauties to discover,
- For Paper truly, every one’s a Lover.
- By th’ Pen and Press such Knowledge is display’d,
- As wou’dn’t exist if Paper was not made.
- Wisdom of Things, mysterious, divine,
- Illustriously doth as PAPER shine!
Every rag possessed hidden beauty just waiting to emerge when rags were transformed into paper. In their current form, rags were deceptive, hiding their potential to convey the “Wisdom of Things” far and wide once they became paper. Not to be discarded as trash, rags were actually a treasure beyond value.
Rags currently in the possession of readers of the New-London Gazette could eventually become future issues delivered to them, but only if subscribers turned their rags over to one of the many men listed in the extensive network of local agents who collected rags for the Paper Manufactory. Colonists who wished to continue receiving news and advertisements via the New-London Gazette (or any of the other newspapers that published this poem along with a similar announcement) had to assume responsibility for that portion of the paper production process.
Although printers exercised considerable discretion in the content of newspapers, their readers played a significant part in producing the material that became the text. The dissemination of print in early America depended in part on average colonists surrendering their rags, a rather humble start considering the tapestry of colonial life recorded in the pages of newspapers and other publications that came off American presses in the eighteenth century.