GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Waters
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“CASH is given for clean Linen Rags, coarse and fine.”
This was a common advertisement seen in newspapers throughout the eighteenth century. This advertisement published in the Essex Gazette on May 2, 1769, attempted to get people to save their rags. It was a common practice to simply throw away old linen rags; however, they were extremely important in the creation of paper. As the American colonies began boycotting goods from Great Britain, they needed to create their own paper instead of importing it. This put a great stress on newspaper printers who needed sources for paper.
It is easy to take for granted how accessible perfectly white paper is today, but 250 years ago it was not easy to create. In order to produce a piece of paper that was free from spots and speckles, according to “Paper Through Time,” papermakers needed crystal clear water that was free from metals like iron and other debris. In order to filter the water, papermakers needed an abundance of clean linen rags to act as filters. This was the first reason that they needed so many rags; the second is that the rags were also used as part of the paper. Paper products 250 years ago were not wood products as much as they were linen. This makes the advertisement so interesting in American history because it not only shows the types of products they were producing, but also the extent that people were going to in order to keep their money out of English hands.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Advertisements calling on readers to collect clean linen rags did indeed appear in newspapers throughout the eighteenth century, but these familiar notices, as Patrick notes, took on new significance during the imperial crisis. The Revenue Acts of 1767, one of the Townshend Acts, taxed paper, along with glass, paint, and lead. In the late 1760s, collecting rags to produce paper became a political act.
The day before this advertisement ran in the Essex Gazette, a similar notice appeared on the first page of the Newport Mercury. “CASH is given,” it stated, “for clean Linen RAGS, at the Printing-Office, For the PAPER-MANUFACTURE in this Colony.” This advertisement more explicitly invoked local production, perhaps hoping that an additional nudge would prompt greater diligence on the part of concerned readers looking for ways to resist ongoing abuses by Parliament.
A couple of days later, an overview of a nonimportation agreement then in effect ran on the front page of the May 4 edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. It reminded readers that the “Merchants & Traders in the Town of BOSTON” had met the previous August and “entered into an Agreement not to send for or import any Good from Great-Britain … from January 1769 to January 1770.” Furthermore, the “Merchants and Traders in other Towns in this Province, and at New-York” had devised similar agreements. Draper reprinted the original “ARTICLES of the Agreement entered into by the Merchants in August last,” concluding with the fifth article. It stated, “That we will not from and after the First of January 1769, import into this Province any Tea, Paper, Glass, or Painters Colours, until the Act imposing Duties on those Articles shall be repealed.”
In this context, linen rags were not merely trash to be discarded. They became political symbols. Collecting them allowed colonists from various backgrounds to express political views as they engaged in an act of resistance. Although the gentry dominated colonial assemblies, the laboring poor found their political voices through other means, including collecting rags to encourage the production and consumption of paper produced in the colonies. Women also embraced this means of supporting American interests, transforming mundane housework into acts that reverberated with political meaning. A two-line notice about rags might appear insignificant at first glance, but it was enmeshed in expansive debates about the relationship between Parliament and the colonies.