What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He most humbly addresses the Fair Sex, requesting their aid.”
John Keating regularly offered “READY MONEY … for CLEAN LINEN RAGS” in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in the late 1760s and early 1770s. The papermaker needed as many rags as he could gather to supply his mill with raw materials. To convince readers to make an effort to collect and submit rags, he developed appeals that emphasized both commerce and devotion to the best interests of the colonies.
In an advertisement that ran on February 1, 1773, for instance, Keating stated that the “advantages that must result to this colony from the establishment of manufactories in it, are so obvious that the subject needs no elucidation.” Then he elucidated. “Since paper manufactories were established in Pennsylvania, the money saved and brought into that province, the money saved and brought into the province” amounted to “the many thousand pounds of which is annually drained of[f] by purchasing paper in England.” Supporting domestic manufactures, goods produced in the colonies, helped to address the trade imbalance with Great Britain. Keating challenged readers to think about what more they accomplish by working together. “Might not every shilling of this money be saved? Have we not materials amongst ourselves? Is our patriotism all pretence …?”
New Yorkers did indeed already have the materials necessary for making paper, clean linen rags. Keating suggested that women played a vital role in sustaining the patriotic project that he pursued, declaring that he “most humbly addressed the Fair Sex, requesting their aid, without which it will be impossible for him to establish this manufactory upon a respectable or prudent footing.” He requested that every “frugal matron … hang up a bag … and take care to put every piece of linen that is unfit for any other use, in it.” When the bag was full, the frugal matron would sell the contents to Keating in an eighteenth-century version of recycling to support a good cause. The papermaker indicated that in return for the clean linen rags the frugal matron would receive enough money to “supply herself and family with the very essential article of pins.” Just as significantly, “she will have the satisfaction of being conscious of contributing her part to the advancement of her country.” Women’s industry served a dual purpose when it manifested patriotism.
The project did not depend solely on those frugal matrons. Keating also asked “young ladies to co-operate … in saving rags,” though he presented a more romantic rationale to them. The papermaker asked young women to “observe a very curious remark made by the celebrated Mr. Addison in the Spectator, ‘That a young lady who sends her shift to the paper mill, may very possibly in less than six months, have it returned made into a piece of fair paper, upon which her lover has written a billet doux.’” Although Keating (and Addision) asked young women to imagine love letters, their shifts and other linen garments may just as likely been transformed into newspapers that kept their households informed about the imperial crisis that faced New York and other colonies.
Women, both “frugal matrons” and “young ladies,” participated in politics and expressed their patriotism when they heeded the call of papermakers who encouraged them to collect clean linen rags. Similarly, their actions and decisions made an impact when they produced homespun textiles and garments and participated in nonconsumption agreements. During the era of the American Revolution, both men and women understood that the personal was political. That included gathering clean linen rags in “a bag in some convenient part of the house.”