Today, a wide range of online resources are available to people looking to find items for sale or to sell items themselves—from Craigslist to Facebook and beyond. But up until about twenty years ago, they usually turned to one place: their local newspaper classifieds. Newspaper classifieds provided a centralized location for individuals to make transactions: buyers could buy, sellers could sell, job seekers could find employment, and employers could find employees.
When we read classified ads in newspapers from decades and centuries past, it gives us a glimpse into what life was like in other times. For instance, one city government ad in a classified section of an 1859 Australian newspaper paints a picture of what the streets of Melbourne must have been like at that time when it notifies its readers that “all Cows, Pigs, or Goats found Straying on any of the streets of the city after Wednesday next […] will be impounded.”
Similarly, the plethora of ads in a Philadelphia paper in 1784 offering rewards for runaway indentured servants hints at the prevalence of this type of labor in the city at the time. One such ad offers a reward for a runaway “Irish servant woman, named Sarah Welsh,” described as being “of a swarthy complexion, dark brown hair, mixed with grey, pitted a little with the smallpox, has a reserved dark look, and a remarkable protuberance or lump on her windpipe.”
Classified ads can also teach us about social attitudes of the time, through the types of employees requested in job ads. Job ads were historically quite specific in the gender, race, or religion requirements for potential employees. For example one job ad in 1867 New York paper requested a “girl, Protestant preferred, to do general housework,” while another ad in the same issue asked for “a colored woman to do housework,” and yet another from that issue stipulated “an American boy, one that is strong and not afraid to work.”
If you’re curious about what life was like in the town or city an ancestor lived in, try looking through the local paper’s classified ads to gain interesting insights. Who knows? You might even find a relative’s name in one of the ads!
Get started reading the classifieds on Newspapers.com!