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Strange Red Cow

And Other Curious Classified Ads From The Past

by Sara Bader

Hardcover, 209 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $18 |


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Strange Red Cow
And Other Curious Classified Ads From The Past
Sara Bader

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Book Summary

Chronicles three hundred years in the evolution of the United States through an unusual compilation of personal ads, from the colonial period's earliest printed advertisements to today's Internet website postings.

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Excerpt: Strange Red Cow

Chapter One

Chapter 1

Lost and Found

In the large family of classified advertising, the lost and found advertisement stands out for its sincerity. Born out of the simple desire to reclaim or restore property, it is typically a genuine plea to the public that, even three centuries later, still resonates. Indeed, everyone can relate to the empty feeling of having lost something—a set of house keys, a dearly loved pet that strayed too far, or an irreplaceable family locket—and we all know the surge of relief that accompanies the safe return of an important belonging. People lose and find things every single day and, fortunately, bits of that history are recorded in our classifieds.

Lost and found notices leave behind a trail of artifacts, a catalog of possessions used over the last three hundred years. Pulled from the columns of countless pages, these postings tell us much about the shape, color, and relative value of our material past. There for the taking are precious historical details that require no fact checking: what a snuff box was made out of, the fabric used to line a nineteenth-century cloak, the contents of a soldier’s Civil War saddle bag, or the color of a 1949 Girl Scout pencil. But step back from this frenzy of detail and wider patterns of shifting cultural attitudes emerge.

The ad for the missing anvils, the colonies’ first lost and found insert, offers clues and raises questions. At more than a hundred pounds apiece, those tools didn’t fall out of someone’s pocket. They were difficult to transport, and the typical colonial-era blacksmith owned only one, maybe two. So how did two anvils go missing and who placed the ad in the newspaper for them? Did one or more blacksmiths leave them behind, perhaps while moving from one site to another? Or did a merchant import the tools from England, only to lose track of them on a Boston dock? What we do know is that a man named John Campbell, then the postmaster of Boston and the publisher of The Boston News-Letter, agreed to serve as the ad’s designated point person. His office doubled as a local lost and found department, where a finder could “bring or give true Intelligence” of found property, then collect “a sufficient reward.”

The reward set aside for the anvils was probably hefty: they were expensive to purchase, and critical to the growth of the colonies. An anvil made it possible for a smith to fashion any number of practical objects. With it, he could craft knives, forks, rakes, shovels, nails, hooks, latches, candlesticks, chains, hinges, scythes, an-chors, metal rims for wagons, shoes for horses and oxen, and almost anything else made out of metal that a colonist might need. He could also make and mend tools for his customers. But without an anvil—or a ready supply of flat smooth rocks—none of that work was possible: doors couldn’t be hung, fields couldn’t be plowed, and nails simply wouldn’t exist. What was once a costly and necessary item in any thriving colonial community holds little practical relevance for most of us today.

Tools and other functional wares played a starring role in early lost and found inserts. Stray pieces of finery also turned up—jeweled items, fancy watches, silver spoons, high-end imported fabrics, etc.—but eighteenth-century Americans depended heavily on their utilitarian belongings. Each posting is a fragment of material history unearthed; pieced together, a vivid picture of rustic eighteenth-century living takes shape.

A sense of closure is usually absent from lost and found advertisements. Occasionally, however, a subsequent posting provides another layer to the story. These ads ran one week apart, and by all appearances, seem to refer to the same set of saddle bags. We can only hope that Joseph Bernard read his local newspaper on New Year’s Day of 1778.

Although only a fraction of what Americans lost or found ended up as notices in the newspaper, the ones that did make it into print link us to the men and women who wrote those words and the people who happened to spot them in the paper that day. With just a few simple lines, it’s suddenly possible to glimpse an era, to witness, at least for just a moment, the habits and concerns of those who lived it. We can untie the twine that once wrapped up their parcels, rifle through satchels, empty out coat pockets; with little imagination, we can sort through it all and practically touch the contents. 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 behind. 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.

Victorian Objects of Desire

Before the Industrial Revolution took hold of America, things were made by hand. The concept of disposable goods, now commonplace, was simply inconceivable back then. Not only were a baby’s diapers (known then as napkins or clouts) washed and used again and again, each one was sewn by hand from pieces of absorbent mate-rial (the name diaper actually comes from the diaper linen once used to make them). Even something as small as a button, easily replaceable today, could have been worth its weight in gold or silver.

The Industrial Revolution expanded our material inventory and our material appetite. The era of handmade goods gave way to mass production. Factories churning out everything from shoes to clocks to plows enticed many Americans to trade their work on the farm for better-paying industrial jobs in or near metropolitan centers. Cities grew in size as these rural transplants were joined by a steady flow of newly arrived immigrants. Class formations took shape: the hardworking labor force that made factory production possible, wealthy industrialists who reaped the biggest financial rewards from the market economy, and a growing middle class of business owners, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and other white collar professionals.

Roam through nineteenth-century lost and found postings, particularly those that ran in big-city dailies, and you will inevitably run into the seemingly boundless material culture associated with this growing middle class. The Industrial Revolution sparked a consumer economy, and the middle-class American, with money in hand and thousands of new products to spend it on, was a perfect customer. Obsessed with gentility, physical appearance, and the accumulation of material possessions, men and women rushed to fill their homes with beautiful things. Ornamental objects took on symbolic meaning: they defined one’s financial standing and moral character within. During this Victorian period, manners were emphasized and a flurry of etiquette manuals advised men and women on virtually all aspects of daily living, including the proper attire for a day trip or an evening out on the town. Attending the right events and dressing the part became a collective middle-class priority.

Among women, this craving for fashionable goods paralleled a preoccupation with making crafts at home. Industrialization, with its labor-saving mechanisms, had begun to alleviate a number of household chores. Long used to hand-sewing entire wardrobes for their families, for example, mothers could now buy sewing machines (Isaac Singer introduced his to the market in 1851), or purchase ready-made clothing. Women suddenly contended with leisure time and the cultural pressure to spend it productively. Catharine Beecher, an advice writer in the nineteenth century, urged women to “have some regular plan for employment of your time, and in this plan have a chief reference to making home pleasant to your husband and children.” Parlor crafts, or “fancywork,” were widely sanctioned as a useful way to pass the hours after completing the daily round of domestic chores. “If one wanted to appear both busy and genteel,” writes Beverly Gordon in Making the American Home, “it was especially appropriate to be seen doing ornamental or fancy work.”

The popular magazines of the day offered practical tips and words of inspiration, expounding on the pleasures of embroidery, knitting, crocheting, leather work, shell art, lace work, beading, and other artistic endeavors. Those who showed talent were considered competent and well bred. It wasn’t enough to own a cache of store-bought goods: women added artistic homemade touches whenever possible, stitching patterns, names and mottos into bedding, bookmarks, screens, and any other plain surface that could showcase decorative work. A hand-sewn name, worked in the corner of a handkerchief, was a simple way to add virtue and meaning to an otherwise ordinary scrap of linen or cotton. These ornamental squares of fabric became popular gifts, given to close friends and family. Such fancywork paid homage to an earlier time, when the work of a needle was a daily necessity, not a pastime for the parlor.

Another popular form of fancywork, also given away as sentimental offerings, was hair jewelry. Now curious relics from the past, these odd little pieces were once a rage. Hair, a symbol of life, was encased in lockets, rings, brooches, bracelets, pins, and other settings, as romantic tokens of love or mementos of grief. Hair jewelry had long commemorated deaths, engagements, weddings, acts of heroism, and other moments, both public and private. When Charles I died in 1649, for example, hair jewelry was made to commemorate his passing. More than two hundred years later, in 1861, when Queen Victoria lost her husband, Prince Albert, hair jewelry became part of her daily mourning attire. She coveted those pieces and helped turn the long tradition of hairwork into a widespread fashion statement.

Some women taught themselves the patient art of hair work. A how-to book from 1876, complete with diagrams and step-by-step instructions, articulates the benefits of making these sentimental objects yourself: “The professional hair-manufacturers can doubtless perform this work more artistically, and bring it to a far higher degree of perfection than the mere amateur; but when we take into consideration the liability of having the hair of some other person substituted for that of our own cherished friend, or that careless hands have idly drawn through their fingers the tresses which it appears almost sacrilegious to have even looked upon with a cold glance, the thought is repugnant.”

Still, some preferred to commission professional jewelers to custom design these one-of-a-kind relics. Strands were braided, plaited, coiled, twisted, knitted, and formed into long watch chains, bracelets, even chandelier-shaped earrings.

Hair jewelry offered comfort during the Civil War years when more and more soldiers kissed their friends and families good-bye, leaving behind a lock or curl. An estimated 620,000 Americans never made it back home from that war; this gift may have memorialized one of those soldiers:

By the end of the nineteenth century, hair jewelry lost its widespread appeal: the act of mourning, once displayed publicly through fashion, took a more private role in people’s lives. Instead, the photograph took over as the sentimental souvenir of the masses. In 1888, when George Eastman offered his compact, affordable Kodak camera for sale, preloaded with film and ready to shoot, he democratized the technology and changed the way people chose to remember their lives and their loved ones.

The hair relic, the opera glass, the embroidered handkerchief, tickets to an upcoming ball—these artifacts reveal how a growing number of Americans opted to spend their money and, for many, their newly acquired pockets of leisure time. Genteel objects stand out for their increased presence in Victorian-era papers—clearly these objects held a widespread social currency—but they appeared in the notice columns next to an odd assortment of everyday stuff. Indeed, part of the beauty of these lost and found postings is their serendipitous placement in the printed column. Nineteenth-century newspapers shoved missing and discovered belongings into one generic “Lost and Found” category. Tossed under the heading in no logical order, a missing sleeve button sits near an abandoned sailboat; seven thousand feet of pine board picked up at sea shares print space with four lost jeweled pins, one gentleman’s shawl, and a veil. At

times, less savory items could be found wedged between two elegantly refined ones. For all the tight controls that Victorian Americans imposed on their day-to-day lives, polite and thoughtful seating arrangements are refreshingly absent from the lost and found layout.

The Spoils of War

“Fairs, holidays, fair-weather Sundays, and especially the Christmas season, are the occasions when the greatest number of losses occur. Promotion in the news pages and a notation in the ‘Found’ group should remind all readers to advertise.” This piece of advice came from Morton J.A. McDonald, the author of Getting and Keeping Classified Advertising, a manual published in 1936. Had McDonald written his book during the Civil War years, he could have added warfare to that list of potential high-loss occasions. Stressed out, sleep deprived, often on the move or under fire, soldiers had plenty of opportunities to get separated from their stuff. These ads, printed in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper, represent just a few of the items lost by Union and Confederate troops.

The matter-of-fact tone runs chillingly counter to the dramatic circumstances surrounding them. The location of the battlefield is tossed off casually, equivalent in print to Main Street or the market square. Drama may be absent from these postings, but not hope: soldiers who lost personal items during the Civil War banked heavily on the decency of the finders, including, in some cases, the moral makeup of the enemy.