The common wisdom about newspapers is that old ones are good primarily for wrapping fish. (Obviously, this wisdom dates from the pre-Internet era. Just try wrapping a fish in a laptop.) But I’ve found that old newspapers–at least, really old ones–are good for lots of other things as well.
Right now I’m trying to write a novel that’s set in Baltimore in 1807. Some of my characters are based on real people who lived in Baltimore at the time, and who sometimes got their names mentioned in the paper. It’s a thrill to come across them in the Baltimore Federal Gazette or American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, even more of a thrill than it is to come across the names of people I know in the paper today. Not only are the newspaper mentions independent corroboration that these people really existed 200 years ago (although I have plenty of other evidence for that), they’re also clues to who they were and how they were perceived, clues for which I’m desperately hungry.
Beyond that, old newspapers, like old letters, are invaluable windows into another era, unmediated by scholarly interpretation or contemporary filter. Sometimes the most fascinating items are the ones that readers of the time must have taken for granted but strike us as bizarre. For instance, almost every issue of the Baltimore papers seems to contain at least one notice that stray cows have appeared on someone’s property. This is a problem that rarely gets mentioned in the history books, but it was obviously of some concern at the time, even in the environs of what was then the country’s third largest city.
More troubling are the notices about stray people. Ads offering rewards for runaway slaves are frequent, and the descriptions–at least to our modern eyes–can make these people come alive as human beings at the same time that they’re being advertised as lost (or escaped) property. Here’s one from July of 1807:
“FIFTEEN DOLLARS REWARD
Ran off from the subscriber’s farm … a NEGRO MAN, named ANTHONY, about 24 years old, about five feet nine or ten inches high, pretty well made, and very black. The little finger of one of his hands has a scar on it, occasioned by a burn, and his buttocks has been scalded in a remarkable manner; he has lost one of his upper fore teeth, and has three small scars on the back of his neck, occasioned by cupping. He had on and took with him a new Osnaburg shirt and trowsers, a brown Flushing over jacket, one calico waistcoat, one old blue half-thick do. [i.e., ditto], a new wool hat, and old shoes: he has taken a reap hook with him, and it is probable that he will change his name, and try to pass as a free man, and want employ as a reaper. …”
As a 21st-century reader, I can’t help but wonder how Anthony’s buttocks got scalded “in a remarkable manner,” and what sort of treatment awaited him if he got caught and sent back to his owner. But did such thoughts cross the mind of most early 19th-century readers? I doubt it.
Occasionally you’ll find an ad offering slaves for sale, like the one I came across offering “A Negro woman and her Child, one year old–the price 250 dollars, and not to leave the state.” (This last provision may have been a sign of that the owner was trying to keep the woman and her child within visiting distance of the father–but of course, there were parts of Maryland that wouldn’t have been particularly accessible to a slave in or near Baltimore, so perhaps not.) And then there are the ones that advertise Negroes who “claim” they’re free but who are being held in jail pending proof–which must have been difficult for many of them to provide.
Not all these notices concern Negroes or slaves. Some offer rewards for the return of indentured servants, many of whom were presumably white. I came across one that seemed distinctly half-hearted: it offered a reward of only one cent for the return of an indentured young woman, who was apparently not much of a worker. Then there was the sad notice addressed “To the Parents of a certain Child, called MARIAH, that has been left with me for better than thirteen months past, and the parents of this child have but twice come forward to render any subsistence for the infant.” The woman who posted the ad threatened to send the child to the poor house unless the parents coughed up some support.
All these notices conjure up the reality of a harsher world than our own, a world where human beings were bought and sold and captured much like cattle, who could apparently be seen roaming the outskirts of the city, and where some parents were either unable or unwilling to protect their children from the horrors of the poor house.
Old newspapers also tell us about what people thought was important at the time, which doesn’t always correspond with what posterity has deemed worthy of attention. In the summer of 1807, newspapers were preoccupied with speculation about whether war with the British was imminent, because of a now mostly forgotten incident in the Chesapeake Bay in June in which an American ship was fired upon by a British one. We now know that war wouldn’t come for another five years, but the Baltimoreans of 1807 were busy forming regiments and buying uniforms and arms (soldiers had to provide their own). The papers were full of notices calling for volunteers to attend meetings in taverns to elect officers, or to practice their drills on open spaces around the city.
In the midst of all this preparation for war, though, the newspapers make it clear that life went on. There are ads for fireworks displays on July 4th–which seem far more elaborate than the ones we see now, with one boasting a depiction of Don Quixote battling the windmill, as well as “The Bombardment of Tripoli.” Acrobats were performing, pleasure boats were plying the Baltimore Harbor, and a male and a female tiger were being displayed for 25 cents in a cage that readers were assured was quite secure.
All of these things are valuable grist for my novelist’s mill: I’ve just written a chapter that takes place at that 4th of July fireworks display, and in my next a character may well pass a volunteer regiment drilling on the green. Those tigers and acrobats and pleasure boats might even show up at some point.
And then there are, as I mentioned before, the items that are thrillingly relevant to the real people I’m trying to write about: a skeptical summary of a controversial theory of the cause of disease put forward by one of my characters, a doctor; a notice that the magazine another character writes for has been sold; an ad placed by a third character–an artist–for his “infallible” toothache cure. Discovering each of these is like uncovering a small, rough gemstone, which I need to figure out how to polish and add to my narrative so that it fits in with the plot I’ve created.
It’s not always easy. For one thing, reality isn’t always as believable as fiction. A case in point is a scene in last week’s season premiere of “Mad Men,” which featured a group of black protesters who invade the front office of a Madison Avenue ad agency after they’ve been pelted with water bombs that seem to have come from the agency’s windows. “And they call us savages,” one of the protesters says in disgust.
Some critics found the scene, and particularly that line, wooden and unbelievable. I have to admit the same thoughts crossed my mind as I watched it. It turns out, though, that the incident really happened, and the line was really uttered–according to a story in a recent issue of the New York Times, a researcher for the show came across a Times story from May 1966 that laid out the whole incident.
Doesn’t matter, said the critics. If it doesn’t ring true, the writers of “Mad Men” shouldn’t have included it. I can understand their point of view. But if I’d been Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, I don’t think I could have resisted putting it in either.