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Book Review: Strange Red Cow

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Are classified ads literature? Working at newspapers for the last decade, I hadn’t typically thought so. But some of them stick with you, in the odd stories they tell or the simple yearning. I remember one I kept seeing over and over again at one paper I worked at, something along the lines of: “I would like to take a woman on a date. Bill.” How can you not read that and come up with a little story about who Bill is and what his sad tale was?

Sara Bader is a student of history, and she too found the classifieds oddly fascinating. She’s come up with Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads From The Past — an entire book about them. It delves into the esoteric and trivial ads that chronicle America’s wants and wishes over the past three centuries. Digging back into musty copies of 1700s and 1800s newspapers, Bader has come up with a tidy, extremely well-researched little book that shows how those tiny lines of text in the back pages can tell compelling human stories. Featuring plenty of ad reproductions and Bader’s adept essays establishing some context for these fragments from the past, Strange Red Cow (named after the topic of one of those antique ads Bader found) is a whirlwind tour of our obsessions.

Bader focuses heavily on eighteenth and nineteenth-century advertising, a world quite different from our own needs. “Two Iron Anvils, weighing between 120 and 140 pound each; whoever had taken them up … shall have a sufficient reward,” reads one 1704 post in the Boston News-Letter.
Other ads are just as curious:
“Twenty dollar reward – escaped from my room … one grey squirrel. The above reward will be paid for his delivery.” – 1864 advertisement. Imagine paying $20 for a squirrel back then!
Or “swap ads,” featuring all kinds of curiosities:
“One mandolin, with all its strings, dulcet tone for basket of vegetables.” – 1935 ad.

An entire chapter is devoted to the historical shame that is runaway slave advertising. It’s hard to imagine now human beings being advertised for as chattel, and some of these ads are chilling in their clinical, remorseless tone:
“Twenty dollars reward will be paid for the return or for information resulting in the return to me of my cook, Harriet. … She is a bright, thin-breasted, tall, sneaking mulatto. She can read, is a Methodist, sings very loud and is disposed to argue. Was severely whipped August 1st. …”

While Bader mostly eyes the distant past, she does offer excerpts from modern-day classifieds from craigslist.org and other Web sites to show us that despite the differences in society, loss, love and wants remain at their core remain similar over the years. As an aside, Strange Red Cow is also a finely designed little book, with cleanly reproduced ads and illustrations from the papers of the time.

For any lover of historical curiosity or anyone who simply likes plowing through the classified seeking odd stories, Strange Red Cow is worth responding to.

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About Nik Dirga