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.