Newsday op-ed.

December 18, 2005

Wanted: U.S. classified ads
Historians seek notices that Google could send to electronic oblivion

by Sara Bader
Sara Bader is the author of Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past

Google's latest venture, Google Base, offers free space on the Internet to anyone with information to upload. Google will happily post family recipes, camp photographs, homeopathic remedies, poems you wrote to your girlfriend in high school - and classified ads about almost anything.

Analysts predict that, with its finely tuned search engine, Google's new service will draw significant revenue from online classified listing sites that charge a fee, as well as newspaper classified columns.

This has me worried. But not for the same reason that the newspaper industry is on edge. I'm worried about the fate of these digital messages: Will they be stored so future generations can read them?

You see, I'm obsessed with the classifieds. These small, simple notices leave behind a trail of overlooked history, a chronicle of our needs and wants - petty and profound - day in and day out. I've spent the last several years browsing American want ads from the last three centuries and have found enough odd, tragic, sometimes beautiful postings to fill a book, and more.

The earliest classifieds appeared in the colonies in 1704 in the Boston News-Letter, the first regularly published newspaper in America. The first real-estate listing ran in the third issue of that paper, offering property for sale or lease on Long Island's Oyster Bay.

Ever since, classifieds have served an important role in the pursuits of daily living: the job hunt, or the search for romance, housing or a lost pet. But the format also has proven essential in times of widespread panic and destruction.

Take, for example, the Civil War. We know that roughly 620,000 Union and Confederate troops died, but one simple classified ad, posted by a soldier's desperate parent, communicates the chaos and emotional fallout that must have accompanied each battle.

LOST SON – My son, J.J. Foster, was wounded in the battle of Saturday, and it is said that he was brought with other wounded to this city. I have, however, thus far failed to find him. Any information of his whereabouts will be most thankfully received. Address Dr. E.H. Smith, Surgeon No. 3 Chimborazo Hospital. W.H. FOSTER.

Richmond Daily Dispatch, June 18, 1862

Or, we can listen to the soldier's side of the story:

An officer, who is suffering from a wound, and who has recently been released from Richmond, is desirous of forming a correspondence with some lady for the purpose of cheering his drooping spirits. Address Lieut. H.V.A., Fortress Monroe, Va.

The New York Herald, Jan. 22, 1862

Choose any dramatic moment in U.S. history and there's a chance you'll find an evocative response to it in the classifieds.

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre. The War Department offered massive rewards - $100,000 collectively - for the arrests of John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. That same week, this Long Islander felt compelled to sweeten the pot:

A reward of $75 will be paid, in addition to the sum already offered, for the arrest of the villain J. Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States, at Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C., on the evening of the 14th of April, 1865. GEORGE WM. MATTHEWS, Williamsburg, L.I., N.Y.

The New York Herald, April 19, 1865

A few years after the Civil War, the Great Chicago Fire left roughly 100,000 city dwellers homeless and between 200 and 300 dead. Some 18,000 buildings were destroyed. Desperate and disoriented, Chicagoans sought aid in the classifieds.

LOST PONY — Taken by some one from Flagg & Smith's stable, on Indiana-st., early on the morning of the great fire, a small brown mare, handsome and quite fast. I sincerely hope that she has been of service to whoever has had her in saving life and property; but as I now need her, and she is much valued by my family, I shall be quite obliged by whoever now has her leaving her with Flagg & Smith, on corner of State and Twenty-fifth-sts., or notifying me by mail where she can be found. W.K. NIXON.

The Chicago Tribune, Oct. 20, 1871

In the 18th century, ads for missing tools, essential belongings in those days, were ubiquitous:

Lost on the 10. of April last off of Mr. Shippen's Wharff in Boston, Two Iron Anvils, weighing between 120 and 140 pound each: Whoever has taken them up, and will bring or give true Intelligence of them to John Campbel Post-master, shall have a sufficient reward.

The Boston News-Letter, April 24-May 1, 1704

We may not find contemporary listings as quaint or compelling, but that is precisely the beauty of the classifieds: Over time, ordinary words gather historical weight and significance.

Notices for MP3 players, cell phones, palm organizers and computers - our 21st century anvils, compasses, cross-cut saws and spurs - will one day offer important clues to our habits and priorities, and our fast-changing material culture.

LOST: LAPTOP, case & adaptor, 10/24 in Islandia. Reward for return of laptop and/or case. No questions.

Newsday, Nov. 6, 2005

WILL SWAP: My Web Design and Web Development services. WANTED: An adult full sized violin in good working/playing condition, with bow and case.

Yankee (Dublin, N.H.), July 14, 2005

Day after day, with little fanfare, these brief notices keep a running record of our desires, our behavior and our lives. Generations from now, a classified for a hybrid car may be as telling as an ad placed in 1925 for a used Model T Ford, a car that got 25 miles per gallon and exponentially increased the world's thirst for fossil fuel.

I discovered these ads, and thousands of others, while browsing through back issues of America's classified columns. With some effort, it's possible to track down vintage postings in a library or an archive and read them as they once appeared, in the context of so many others.

That may not be the case for the new generation of digital listings. Will a future researcher, intent on understanding daily life in the early 21st century, have a chance to locate and learn from our online postings? Or will they be deleted and vanish into cyberspace?

What will she miss if these notices are eventually deleted? A primary resource, the fine grain, the raw materials of everyday life. Without access to archived ads from preceding centuries, how would we know the precise contents of a Civil War saddlebag, lost on a battlefield in 1862? Or the specific clothing that a slave called Sandy chose to wear the day he took flight from his master (and the country's future president, Thomas Jefferson) in 1763? Or the qualifications for a wet nurse position in 1859?

How will some future historian know that of the thousands of Gulf Coast residents reported missing after Hurricane Katrina, one was an 85-year-old woman who wore a simple gold wedding ring, visited her husband every day at his New Orleans nursing home and "was called 'Freddie' by her close friends"? The ad searching for her ran on, the Web site connected to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Classified advertisers do not set out to make history, and that's why their unfiltered voices are worth preserving. Their words humanize the past and connect us emotionally and physically to the people who lived it.

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