Under the Influence

This was the first classified ad ever published in North America

It may have been the 1700s, but the early days of the classified ads were surprisingly relatable.
The classified section is an incredible chronicle of our existence. (The National/CBC Archives)

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 we courted. From "Lost and Found" to "Help Wanted" to "Runaway Slaves" to the first "Real Estate" to "Ransom Notes" to the wild and wacky world of current "personal" ads, the classified section is an incredible chronicle of our existence.

Classified ads began appearing in England in the 1600s. They were handwritten, and nailed to posts.

Some of the first copywriters in recorded history appeared at this time. Except they weren't called copywriters, they were called scribes.

They made their living writing announcements, which were, for all intents and purposes, classified ads. And these ads weren't called ads — they were called Si quis.

That term was borrowed from ancient Rome where most posted notices began with the words Si quis — meaning "If anybody knows of…"

Skip ahead to 17th-century America.

As Sara Bader tells the story, in her excellent history of the classifieds, titled, Strange Red Cow, the first printing press in America arrived in Cambridge, Mass., in 1638, but the first successful newspaper wasn't established until 1704, called the Boston News-Letter.

America's very first classified ad appeared in its debut issue, and was written by the publisher himself: "To all persons who have any houses, lands, tenements, farms, ships, vessels, goods, wares or merchandises to be sold or let, may have the same inserted at a reasonable rate."

It worked.

In the next issue, a reader placed an ad for two lost anvils.

It was a very revealing ad for the times — because anvils were critical to life and progress in 1704. Without an anvil, a blacksmith couldn't fashion a number of practical objects — like knives and forks, shovels, latches, nails, chains, anchors, wagon rims, and horseshoes. That meant doors couldn't be hung, fields couldn't be plowed and hammers lay silent.

The third issue of the Boston News-Letter attracted two more classified ads — one for stolen clothing, and another that would signal the start of what would eventually become the biggest of all classified columns: the first real estate ad.

It offered to sell or lease property on Long Island's Oyster Bay.

By 1765, 11 of 13 colonies boasted 23 weekly newspapers, and classified ads were a popular feature of the back page.

Lost and Found soon became one of the biggest columns. As Sara Bader notes, classified ads give us precious details  — about the shape, colour, size and value of items of every era, like what a snuff box was made of, what kind of fabric was used to line a 19th-century cloak, and what the contents were of a Civil War soldier's saddle bag.

Remarkably, so much of what was advertised in those early classifieds is amusingly familiar.

People forgot books in carriages, left coats in theatres, umbrellas in bars, and dropped keys from their pockets.

For more stories about The Classified Ads, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)