March 6

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-Hampshire Gazette (March 6, 1767).

“CASH will be given for any Quantity of Linnen, Cotton, or Sail Cloth RAGS.”

Printers regularly issued calls for rags in their newspapers throughout the eighteenth century. Most were brief, consisting of just a few lines announcing “cash for rags.” Others, like today’s advertisement, were more extensive, specifying which types of rags were desired and the prices awarded for each.

The shorter advertisements often flummox my students. The longer ones, on the other hand, provide sufficient context for figuring out why printers in early America so valued rags, one of the most important raw materials for creating the supplies they needed to pursue their trade. Encountering such notices provides wonderful opportunities for discussing how we are removed from the eighteenth century in a variety of ways.

First, we live in a world in which most paper we use was manufactured from wood pulp. Most students have not even conceived of an alternative prior to reading advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette and other newspapers from colonial and Revolutionary America. Here it becomes important to note that even though students are reading these advertisements, they are consulting digital surrogates to do so, keeping them removed from the eighteenth century in important ways even as they seek to better understand the period. Although they have access to the text printed in newspapers – and can even see its format and layout on the page thanks to digital images that provide more than mere transcriptions – they do not actually touch any of the pages from the original publication. In the absence of the material text they miss out on the tactile sensations that would provide clues that paper production has significantly changed in the past quarter millennium.

The more extensive calls for rags also demonstrate how we are removed from the language of consumer culture so fluently spoken in the eighteenth century. Today’s advertisement advised that “CASH will be given for any Quantity of Linnen, Cotton, or Sail Cloth RAGS, at the Rate of one Copper a Pound for all coarse and Check, and two Coppers a Pound for white RAGS, any Thing finer than Oznabrigs.” The printers assumed that readers could identify the many different kinds of fabrics used in early America and advertised for sale elsewhere in their newspapers. They assumed that readers could make distinctions among them, such as determining which were “finer than Oznabrigs.” Although today’s notice did not attempt to sell any goods or services it depended in part on familiarity with consumer culture.