Getting Personal in the Classified Ads

Get this episode from Under the Influence: Getting Personal in the Classified Ads (Season 1, Episode 5) - EP - CBC Radio

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This week we explore the fascinating history of the classified ads.

We start with the very first classified ad in North America, and trace its history through to the explosion of online classified columns today. At any given time, a glance at the classifieds tells us exactly what we were wearing, what we had lost, what we wanted to find and how some of us search for love. We'll look at the phenomenon of "Runaway Slave" ads - and the fact that nine of the first twelve U.S. Presidents owned slaves. From "Lost and Found" to "Help Wanted" to the first "Real Estate" ad to the wild and sometimes funny world of contemporary "Personal" ads, the classified section is an incredible chronicle of our existence.

A small classified ad was to be the beginning of one of the most famous child abduction cases of all time - because it was to be the first recorded demand for a ransom.

Charley Ross photo.jpgSource: Google Images

On July 1st, 1874, four year-old Charley Ross and his older brother Walter were playing in their front yard in Philadelphia. A horse-drawn carriage ridden by two men offered the boys candy and fireworks if they would take a ride with them, so the boys did. The men would later let Walter go, but little Charley was not so fortunate.

Soon after, Christian Ross, Charley's father, received America's first recorded ransom note, asking for $20 thousand dollars.

First Ransom Note.jpgSource: Google Images

Ross would receive a series of crude, hand-scrawled ransom letters through the mail, where he was always instructed to respond in a very specific way:

Through the classified ads.

Even as America held its breath, little Charley Ross was never found.

The case would haunt America for decades.

It would also inspire many screenwriters and authors, as ransom notes in the classified ads would become a staple dramatic device from that day forward.

Classified ads began appearing in England in the 1600s. They were handwritten, and nailed to posts. Early copywriters, called Scribes, made their living writing "announcements," an historical form of classified ads. And these ads weren't called "ads" - they were called "Si Quis."

Si Quis notice.pngSource: Google Images

That term was borrowed from ancient Rome where most posted notices began with the words, "Si Quis" - meaning "If anybody knows of..."

Author Sara Bader tells the history of classified ads in her excellent book, titled, "Strange Red Cow."

Strange red cow #2.jpgSource: Google Images

The first printing press in America arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638, but the first successful newspaper wasn't established until 1704, called the "Boston News-Letter."

Boston News letter.jpgSource: Google Images

America's very first classified ad appeared in its debut issue, and was written by the publisher himself - which was an ad that solicited classified ads.

It worked.

In the next issue, a reader placed an ad... for two lost anvils. By 1765, eleven of thirteen colonies boasted 23 weekly newspapers, and classified ads were a popular feature of the back page.

classified ad 1776.jpgSource: Google Images

Next came "Lost & Found" ads, followed by "Lost Animal" ads.

Then came the next explosion in the classifieds - "Runaway Slave" ads.

Historians generally agree that, in the year 1619, a Dutch warship carrying African slaves docked in Jamestown, Virginia. The crew of the ship was starving, so colonist John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, traded 20 African slaves for food and supplies.

These twenty Africans were considered the first permanent slaves in North America. By 1800, there were over one million slaves living in the United States. Slavery would mark the cultural, economic and political underpinnings of American life for more than two and a half centuries.

As a matter of fact, nine of the first twelve Presidents owned slaves, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Here's an ad President Thomas Jefferson placed:

Jefferson #2.jpgSource: Google Images

By the eve of the Civil War, there were over 4 million slaves in America, and with constant runaways, the classified ads burst at the seams.

More than 40 million immigrants poured into Canada and the U.S. between 1820 and 1930. Thus began an explosion in "Help Wanted" ads.

help wanted 1840.jpgSource: Google Images

And along with that swelling population, came a need to court. The first "personal ad" had actually appeared back in 1759:

First personal ad.jpgSource: Google Images

But maybe above all, personal ads are the greatest bridge to the present.

And some of the most amusing are found in the London Review of Books, or the L-R-B. Established in 1979, it's a bi-weekly British magazine of literary and intellectual essays, with contributors such as Martin Amis, Tony Blair and Salmon Rushdie.

In 1998, the LRB began offering personal ads, with the simple thought of helping people with similar literary and cultural tastes get together.

In his hilarious book, titled "Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland," LRB editor David Rose published the best personal ads from his publication.

switzerland_.jpgSource: Google Images

The first ad they received was from a man looking for, quote: "A female contortionist who plays the trumpet."

So much for "similar literary and cultural tastes."

While other personal ads seem populated by those who like "long romantic walks on the beach," the readers of the LRB are... different. They instinctively know that the mere 30 words they are allotted have to capture one thing above all:

A glimpse of their personality.

LRB personal ads.jpgSource: Google Images

Today, the classifieds have undergone a huge transformation - thanks to the Internet.

Sites like Craigslist have crippled newspapers. As the 9th most visited site on the web, Craigslist attracts over 80 million new classified ads each month - making it the leading classified service in the world.

Craigs List.jpgSource: Google Images

As for personal ads, sites like eHarmony boast over 33 million members, with 15,000 signing up every day.

Source: YouTube

Their website says 542 people marry every day after meeting on eHarmony. Revenue tops $1 billion dollars.

Contrast that to Ashley Madison, the classified website for those who want to cheat on their partners. Slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair."

Source: Google Images

They claim 10 million very discreet members. CEO Noel Biderman chose the name Ashley Madison based on the fact Ashley and Madison are two of the top ranked girls names.

But the migration of classified ads to online over the last 10 years has had a profound effect on the newspaper industry.

Nearly $14 billion in ads vapourized between 2005 and 2010. Resulting in a staggering 90% drop in classified business.

It's a full-circle moment for newspapers - the pioneering medium that spawned the classified columns as we know it. The foundation of those small space ads that under-pinned the newspaper industry is now crumbling beneath those mighty institutions.

But one thing is for sure... if advertising is the big mirror of our society, then the classifieds are the microscopes... when you're under the influence.

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