Monday, March 06, 2006

Ingenious Monkey

A small, neat book on classified advertising, Strange Red Cow is a compendium of “curious classified ads from the past” by Sara Bader. A researcher and producer, Bader adventured among classifieds from the 1700s to the present while working on a documentary about the Declaration of Independence. Since, in her own words, classified advertising is US newspapers was worth $16 billion in 2004, it’s another slice of the ad marketplace that’s worth at least a book – so she wrote one. You should buy a copy for your own library. The title comes from the May 1, 1776 issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette:

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.

Now you know the cliché: those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it.

Apparently, even those who do study history are going to suffer repeats. The first compendium (to my knowledge) that covers classified advertising is A History of Advertising from the Earliest Times, published by Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly, London, in 1874. The author was Henry Sampson.

It’s Number 13 on the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School reading list (thank you, Internet). It was reprinted by Gale Research Company in 1974, though it is no longer in its catalogue. Even more amazing, you can get a fresh copy as part of a recently published eight-volume set for just $895. (See the four-color frontispiece from Sampson’s book here – along with publication details.)

I have an original copy, a stunning gift from Mark Self many years back. It’s quite an old-fashioned sort of book and a ponderous read, especially since old Henry felt a bit censorious about our profession: “Advertising has, of course, within the last fifty years, developed entirely new courses…its growth has been attended by an almost entire revulsion of mode…” Gimme some ‘tude there, Hank.

I’ll match Bader’s cow with one of my favorites in Sampson’s book, from the March 1, 1681 issue of an English paper called Heraclitus Ridens:

A MOST ingenious monkey, who can both write, read, and speak as good sense as his master, nursed in the kitchen of the late Commonwealth, and when they broke up housekeeping entertained by Nol Protector, may be seen do all his old tricks over again, for a pence apiece, every Wednesday, at his new master’s, Ben. Harris, In Cornhill.

A Restoration-era classified ad – actually political satire. Do, do write if you’re unclear about Nol.

Book cover © 2005, Clarkson Potter/Publishers.

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