As Sara Bader reminds us in her new book, Strange Red Cow, And Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past, newspapers have been the information clearinghouse of choice for most of America's history -- and much of that time can be unexpectedly illuminated by a survey of classified ads. A related story, of newspaper's changing place in our everyday lives, also emerges from within Bader's selective survey of classified ads from America's first paper, in 1704, to online services like Craigslist and ISawYou.com.
While researching the Declaration of Independence, Bader came across a classified ad for an errant "strange red cow." When brought to mind years later, it drove her to the library on weekends to see if she could ferret out other idiosyncratic ads. She soon discovered that the cow example "was one of millions of amazing ads out there," says Bader, 35. "I could spend the rest of my life, literally, looking for ads and never even scratch the surface."
Utilizing skills honed as a freelance researcher and associate producer for A&E and The History Channel, Bader soon found herself neck-deep in alternately fascinating and quirky classifieds. So as not to drown in their sheer volume, she limited her search to the New York area (she lives in Long Island) and a few historical moments. The tome is organized by themes: Lost and Found, The Runaway Slave Notice, Information Wanted, Personals, Help Wanted, and Swap.
In each section of the book, published by Clarkson & Potter, Bader unpacks classifieds' historical context and highlights famous moments in ads, such as rewards for an eyewitness to Lincoln's assassination and the original posting for 4-year-old Charley Ross, America's first high-profile kidnapping in July 1874.
Bader reveals that readers did not immediately view papers as a worthwhile place to advertise. But once they caught on, classifieds became a huge source of newspaper revenue and people's first choice for information. By the Civil War era, classifieds had moved to the front pages, expanded to several pages, and proved extremely lucrative. During waves of immigration to the United States, especially during Ireland's potato famine between 1845 and 1855, immigrants would spend the meager change they carried with them on ads to find family members already established in the new country.
"That was a really good way to spend your money," Bader explains. "There was a huge dependence on these columns ... it was a place everybody raced to for information." Although Bader did not keep notes on ad prices or the dollar's buying power, she says that judging from wages listed for 19th-century railroad workers, an ad at that time cost about a day's hard labor. …