June 22

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

Jun 22 - 6:22:1769 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (June 22, 1769).

“BETWEEN the sixth and seventh day, / MARY NOWLAND ran away.”

Advertisements for runaway servants and slaves regularly appeared in the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette in the 1760s. The June 22, 1769, edition, for instance, featured several such advertisements. To distinguish his notice from others, Abraham Emmit opted for a format other than the usual dense block of text that provided a description. Instead, he published a poem about Mary Nowland, deploying a style intended to encourage readers to give the advertisement more than a cursory glance and, as a result, better remember how to recognize this particular runaway. In addition, the novelty of his poem imbued his advertisement with greater entertainment value, further contributing to the likelihood that readers would take note.

Among the rhyming couplets, Emmit provided a physical description of Nowland. Although in verse, it simultaneously described and denigrated the runaway servant. She had “Brown hair, red face, short nose, thick lips” and was “large and round from neck to hips.” Indeed, the aggrieved Emmit suggested that Nowland was so chubby that it affected her movement – “Short, thick, and clumsy, in her jog” – so much so that he compared her to a “fatten’d hog.” Like many other advertisements for servants, this one reported Nowland’s origins as a means of helping readers identify her. Emmit did not, however, simply state that Nowland had been born in Ireland. Instead, he mentioned that she was “The same religion with the Pope” and “Upon her tongue she wears a brogue,” expecting readers to reach the conclusion that Nowland was an Irish Catholic. In presenting this puzzle, albeit not a particularly difficult one, Emmit encouraged greater participation by readers from their first encounter with the text than most runaway advertisements expected of them. This notice did not merely charge readers with reporting or capturing a runaway if they happened to spot her; it invited them first to engage with the printed page much more actively than they would have when perusing other advertisements concerning runaways.

The clever Emmit did not merely sign his verse. He incorporated his own name into the final couplet, promising a reward of forty shillings to anyone who delivered Nowland to him: for any reader “Who brings her home I will give them it, / Your humble servant, ABRAHAM EMMIT.” These last lines were just as stilted as the rest of the poem, but composing a piece of great literature had not been Emmit’s purpose. Given how many notices about runaway servants and other advertisements ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, he sought a means to differentiate his advertisement and draw greater attention from readers. The format of the poem alone, compared to dense paragraphs of text in other advertisements, separated it from others on the page, encouraging readers to have a closer look. Emmit speculated that once they discovered the novelty he had composed that they would pay more attention to his description of the runaway Nowland. Providing this simple entertainment increased the chances that someone would recognize Nowland and either return her to Emmit’s household or send word of her whereabouts.

February 3

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

New-London Gazette (February 3, 1769).

“LAST Wednesday morn, at break of day, / From Philadelphia run away, / An Irish man, nam’d John M‘Keoghn, / To fraud and imposition prone.”

The “Poets Corner” was a regular feature in the New-London Gazette in the late 1760s. It frequently ran in the first column on the final page, appearing alongside advertisements and, on occasion, news items. When readers perused the February 3, 1769, edition, they encountered a relatively short poem in the “Poets Corner” and a much lengthier one among the advertisements. This second poem, bearing the title “ADVERTISEMENT,” told the story of John McKeoghn, an Irish indentured servant who ran away from Mary Nelson in Philadelphia on January 10.

The poem told a cautionary tale about how looks and actions could be deceiving. “He oft in conversation chatters, / Of scripture and religious matters, / And fain would to the world impart, / That virtue lodges in his heart; / But take the rogue from stem to stern, / The hypocrite you’ll soon discern, / And find (tho’ his deportment’s civil) / A saint without, within a devil.” Not only had McKeoghn run away, he had also stolen several textiles and garments from Nelson. In addition, he “Can curse and swear as well as lie.” The poem warned colonists to assess inner character rather than rely on outward appearances. Just because McKeoghn possessed goods that testified to a particular status, just because he often comported himself in a particular way, did not mean that he truly belonged among the ranks of the genteel that he so successfully imitated. With sufficient observation, anyone who met him should have been able to recognize him for the fraud he was.

It seems unlikely that Nelson paid to place this advertisement in the New-London Gazette. More likely, Timothy Green, the printer, spotted the poem among the advertisements in the January 16 edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle and decided to reprint it as an entertaining piece for his readers. The poem did not mention any suspicions that McKeoghn was headed to Connecticut in particular. If Nelson had intended to place the advertisement in newspapers beyond Philadelphia, she certainly could have chosen others with more extensive circulation and more readers, especially newspapers published in Boston and New York. Although printers did not usually reprint advertisements free of charge, Green may have made an exception in this case, seizing an opportunity to present a curiosity to his readers.

Pennsylvania Chronicle (January 16, 1769).

July 19

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

Jul 19 - 7:17:1767 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (July 17, 1767).

“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.