Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past

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9781400051205: Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past

Came to my plantation, in Springfield township, Philadelphia county, near Flour-town, the 26th of March 1776, A STRANGE RED COW. The owner may have her again, on proving his property, and paying charges. PHILIP MILLER. —May 1, 1776, The Pennsylvania Gazette
To sift through classifieds from any era is to uncover the practical needs or urgent desires of a community during a particular period of time. By definition, the classified advertisement is released for public consumption, yet often it tells a very private story: a precious keepsake misplaced, an intimate relationship sought, even a young child kidnapped. At times shocking, often amusing, and always enlightening, these brief notices offer rare glimpses into who we are, what we value, and where we’re going. And yet they have always been the most ephemeral of artifacts, tossed and forgotten without a second thought. Until now.

While researching a historical documentary, Sara Bader stumbled upon something that transported her back in time: an eighteenth-century classified ad about a lost red cow. Authentic and evocative, this discovery inspired a search for more of these vivid scenes from everyday life, past and present. In Strange Red Cow, Bader presents a sampling of ads from as far back as 1704 up through contemporary Internet postings, sorted and assembled thematically. She places these micro messages in a broader context, revealing intimate stories of American history and popular culture.

By turns humorous, heartbreaking, and insightful, Strange Red Cow offers a new lens through which to observe our evolution as a nation and a people.

From America’s first newspaper classified in 1704 to today’s online postings, Strange Red Cow captures, in colorful detail, scenes of everyday life in the first-ever overview of the nation’s unofficial history text: the classified ads.
“If we strain to identify with those who commuted in horse-drawn carriages and depended on candles to light their corridors, these ads can personally introduce us. They had good days and bad days; they got distracted, disorganized, and like us, left important things be-hind. That our collective ancestors forgot their books in carriages, left their capes on battlefields, and dropped their keys and their cash is oddly reassuring. We are still losing our stuff today, though what we own and wear and carry with us—and what we decide to return and retrieve—inevitably changes over time.” —From Strange Red Cow

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About the Author:

Sara Bader is a freelance researcher and associate producer who has worked on historical documentary films for both A&E and The History Channel. Previously, she worked on the public affairs series Frontline and MSNBC’s Edgewise with John Hockenberry. This is her first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

About this Book

I came to appreciate the classified advertisement by chance, just a few years ago, while researching a documentary on the Declaration of Independence. My research brought me to the microfilm room at the New York Public Library where I scanned eighteenth-century newspapers looking for clues that could help tell the story of our nation’s treasured document. There I was, making my way through 1776, one page at a time, when I spotted this ad:

Came to my plantation, in Springfield Township, Philadelphia county, near Flour-town, the 26th of March 1776, A STRANGE RED COW. The owner may have her again, on proving his property, and paying charges. Philip Miller. —May 1, 1776, Pennsylvania Gazette


While it didn’t say much about the Declaration of Independence, it did say something about a man named Philip Miller and what life was like in Springfield Township in the spring of 1776. I pictured Mr. Miller discovering that stray cow on his plantation, sizing her up, and checking for any identifying marks. Perhaps he went straight home, sat down at a writing table, and with the tip of his quill wet with ink, composed those lines. I’ve worked on historical reenactments, so I might be quick to dress a set, but those few simple lines transported me back in time more quickly than any formal document or history textbook could.

Philip Miller’s ad got me thinking about classifieds, past and present. Like him, many of us, for one reason or another, have put our faith in those small boxes of text. We’ve scoured the columns, some of us religiously, for good jobs, new lovers, lost pets, used cars, secondhand stuff, better living arrangements, upcoming garage sales, and various other day-to-day needs and wants. And over the years, we’ve contributed our share of advertising to the pool of offerings. According to the Newspaper Association of America, classified advertising in the country’s daily papers raked in more than $16 billion in 2004 alone.

But though classifieds are clearly a useful tool in our lives—some might argue essential—we rarely file them away for future reference. Like a “to do” list, a column’s practical relevance can fade by the day. Such a short-term life span blesses the format with a precious low profile, at least historically speaking. The average advertiser composes a notice for the here and now, paying no attention to the document’s potential archival value. Indeed, because postings are time-sensitive, they make known immediate desires with particular clarity. It is that sense of immediacy—a scene as simple and as complicated as a man with a trespassing cow on his hands—that inspired me to look for more.

When I set out to dig up vintage ads, I didn’t know the character of the trails I would travel or the content of the postings I would find along the way. I did mark out particular plots for excavation—Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War, for example—but I also roamed freely and let the ads lead the way. With the “strange red cow” in my mind’s eye, I looked forward to excavating and reassembling a lost and found section. Other categories organically fell into place: personals, information wanted, help wanted, swaps.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the number of runaway-slave advertisements that saturated the columns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers. You can’t move very far in any one direction without coming across one of these notices, written and posted by owners, overseers, jail wardens, and others when a slave couldn’t be accounted for or was found somewhere en route. We have come to think of the classifieds as the people’s marketplace. In the late nineteenth century, the Rockland Courier-Gazette, a Maine newspaper, referred to its advertising section as “Everybody’s Column”; in the early twentieth century, the Marion Daily Star, an Ohio paper, coined it the “People’s Column.” Indeed, the classified section has evolved into a profoundly public bulletin board. But it wasn’t always that way. For slaves living in America, the notice columns belonged to their masters, who sought, bought, and sold them through the printed word.

The classifieds chosen for this book have been lifted primarily from newspapers, but also a handful of magazines, booklets, and online sources, all published in America over the last three hundred years. Ads reproduced as they originally appeared give us a sense of how their first readers experienced them; all others have been reset with an eye to preserving archaic grammar, spellings, and, indeed, typos. For every advertisement included, there are thousands I could have selected and millions more that I have yet to discover. This compilation is a personal tour, based on the regions and time frames I chose to research. New York City served as my main base camp, though I ventured as far west as California and as far south as Florida.

As this book goes to press, the classified archive continues to grow: Every day brand-new postings are created—online and on paper. With such a plentiful resource in perpetual growth, an exhaustive collection of classifieds can never exist. In the pages of Strange Red Cow, I present a sample. The ads here are organized by category, then broken down further into brief vignettes. Each cluster of ads, set into context with commentary, reveals a chapter of the larger American story. From the same newsprint that lined cupboard shelves, lit the evening fire, and helped housebreak puppies comes an intricate map of cultural history.

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