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'Strange Red Cow': A History of Classified Ads


One way of looking for a job is, of course, to scan the classified ads. Here's one for someone seeking work in the New York fashion industry: `Wanted: A young lady of German parentage, must be a 36-inch bust and understand bookkeeping on a small scale. Apply Neubauer & Pleyweis(ph), Ladies & Mrs. Cloaks(ph), 419 Broadway.' However, you'd be a bit late if you answer that ad because it was posted in the New York World in 1892. It's one of hundreds of classified ads collected by researcher and writer Sara Bader, who joins us now. She's the author of the book "Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past."

Thanks for joining us, Sara Bader.

Ms. SARA BADER (Author, "Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past"): Hello, there.

LYDEN: Hello.

Well, "Strange Red Cow," and then the tag line, "And Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past," is really a time-traveling journey. Could you start with the story behind "Strange Red Cow"?

Ms. BADER: Sure. I was working as a researcher for a documentary film on the Declaration of Independence, and I was spending a lot of time looking through The Pennsylvania Gazette, old microfilm reels. And I came upon--I was actually looking through 1776 and I was sort of paging through it, and I came upon an ad for `Found: Strange red cow.'

LYDEN: Could you read it for us?

Ms. BADER: Sure, absolutely.

(Reading) `Came to my plantation in Springfield Township, Philadelphia County, near Flourtown, the 26th of March, 1776, a strange red cow. The owner may have her again on proving its property and paying charges. Philip Miller.'

LYDEN: May 1st, 1776. We're looking at an ad that advertised for employment. However, as the ad we read in the introduction to this conversation with you, people seemed to have had different sorts of standards when it came to asking for things, specifically by bust size or race or--there's one we encountered: `Wanted: A 4 1/2' tall colored boy for office work.' Whatever the aesthetic of the time, in terms of asking by race, which would certainly be offensive today, why 4 1/2' tall?

Ms. BADER: Yeah, a lot of the prerequisites for these old ads are baffling actually at this point. I think that's part of the charm of these ads, that you don't quite have the full picture. They bring us back and they give us a window into the past, but we don't really know why that person needed a 4 1/2' tall employee. You know, maybe for shelving, maybe for running errands; I have no idea. But it kind of gets your mind wondering.

LYDEN: There's a personal I just loved on Page 108 from Mae Minnie(ph)--or to Mae Minnie. Would you read it?

Ms. BADER: Sure.

(Reading) `Mae Minnie: Farewell, cruel girl. If not drafted, I will go as a substitute. Your scorn is harder and more pitiless to me than any Southern bullet could possibly be. John number one(ph).'

LYDEN: Wow, that just says it all.

Ms. BADER: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Well, speaking of the Civil War era, the most heartbreaking ads in here comes from former slaves, and you write that the number of these was a surprise to you when you began to do your research.

Ms. BADER: Yeah. You find they turned to the classified, which had been a real tool for slave owners to advertise for runaway slaves. And then after the Civil War, what is just heartbreaking is the now-freed slaves would turn to the classifieds and look for each other.

LYDEN: Would you read one for us? I do think that they are eloquent and elegiac at the same time.

Ms. BADER: Sure.

(Reading) `Information wanted by a mother concerning her children. Mrs. Elizabeth Williams(ph), who now resides in Marysville, California, was formerly owned, together with her children--Lydia(ph), William, Alan(ph) and Parker--by one John Petty(ph), who lived about six miles from the town of Woodbury, Franklin County, Tennessee. About 25 years ago, the mother was sold to Mr. Marshall Stroud(ph) by whom, some 12 or 14 years later, she was, for the second time, purchased by him and taken to Arkansas. She has never seen the above-named children since. Any information given concerning them, however, will be gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery. Preachers in the neighborhood of Woodbury, Tennessee, are especially requested to make inquiries and communicate any information they may deem valuable either by letter or through the columns of The Recorder.'

LYDEN: Sara Bader, thanks a lot.

Ms. BADER: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Sara Bader is the author and collector of the ads found in "Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.