What weas advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Prevail upon our LADIES to grant us a little of their industry and assistance.”
Women played a vital role in supporting the early American press. So claimed John Dunlap, printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, in a notice calling on colonizers to exchange “CLEAN LINEN RAGS” for “READY MONEY” at his printing office on Market Street in Philadelphia. What was the connection between rags and newspapers? Printers produced their publications on paper made from linen. The papermakers who supplied them needed “CLEAN LINEN RAGS” to transform into paper for printing items of “Instruction and Amusement” for the public.
Dunlap commenced his notice by addressing “the Public in general, and his Fellow-citizens in particular,” suggesting that colonizers had a civic responsibility to support the press by participating in the production of paper through collecting rags. He claimed that until recently papermakers in Pennsylvania not only produced enough “Printing-Paper” to serve that colony “but likewise had the glory and emolument of furnishing some of the other Colonies, and West India Islands” with a significant amount of their “Printing-Paper.” Recently, however, the “Paper-Mills about this city are almost idle for want of RAGS,” thus putting printing offices in danger of a similar fate.
He then pivoted to addressing the “LADIES,” the “FAIR READERS” of the Pennsylvania Packet, imploring them “to grant us a little of their industry and assistance” by collecting rags to recycle into paper. Dunlap reminded that that paper “was a main article in the late unconstitutional Taxes, which have been so nobly parried by the AMERICANS.” Readers, both women and men, needed little reminder that Parliament imposed duties on imported paper and other goods in the Townshend Acts. In response, American merchants and shopkeepers coordinated nonimportation agreements, leveraging commerce into acts of protests. At the same time, colonizers promoted “domestic manufactures,” including paper, to replace imported goods they refused to consume. Such protests played a role in convincing Parliament to repeal most of the import duties.
Yet readers of the Pennsylvania Packet still had a responsibility in maintaining the press. “FAIR READERS” acted as “Fellow-citizens” when they gave their “kind attention” to Dunlap’s “complaint” about the scarcity of rags. Women could attend to “the welfare of their country,” Dunlap asserted, by heeding his request. Just as decisions about consumption became political acts for women during the imperial crisis that led to the American Revolution so too did mundane chores like collecting rags. Women’s work in that regard became imperative to the continued operation of American presses in the era of the American Revolution.