A Few Rhymes for the Carrier Boys
The Salem Register - A Few Rhymes...
By Bruce McKinney
In the 19th century it was not uncommon for newspapers to publish a 'Carrier Call' or 'Carrier's Address' on the first of the year. Carriers could give this ephemera to recipients in the hope, if not expectation, of a gift for their service. The form of request was humble, typically a single sheet covered on two sides with 6 point type, tightly leaded and quarter folded. The form was poetry, the subject, rhyme and meter probably beyond most recipient's capacity to enjoy, appreciate and may I suggest, even understand. This was not the breaking news. It was a trivial extravagance really, a high brow - low budget production that permitted newspapers, by providing some upscale trivia for their newsboys to give away, to suggest the newspaper's generosity and erudition. Hence 'Calls' tended to be long on historical allusions and literary references that might impress without suggesting the piece be actually read. In short, the 'call' was a 19th century equivalent of today's street newspaper that is proffered by the homeless and down-and-out for whatever the recipient judges it to be worth. For newsboys it was a once a year opportunity. For us today it's also a way to see literacy separate from the statistics that are often the way we understand education and the 'educated' in the 19th century. In school students read as required. In life they bought and read newspapers as they wished.
Progress in literacy has usually been measured by changes in attendance and graduation statistics. Towns and counties published such data, states aggregated and the nation collected the numbers into the once every ten year censuses. Less reported but probably more revealing, were statistics about newspapers - particularly the number of weeklies and dailies published. Small places such as Kingston-Rondout on the Hudson in New York reported more than thirty attempts at newspaper publishing by 1875, La Grange, Texas thirteen, Bedford, Indiana five. Where there was a steady population and a school there was probably a newspaper or at least an occasional effort at one. Newspapers sought to convert increasing literacy into viable business and thereby shape opinion and channel public demand. The steady drumbeat of new newspaper ventures tells us America was becoming literate even if the ability to read did not easily or necessarily convert into the reader response that later became the holy grail of the newspaper business. In the early 19th the next newspaper failure simply meant success was one attempt closer.
For perspective on newspaper publishing in the 19th [and early 20th] century we have Gregory's Union List of American Newspapers. We can tell that publishers were convinced there were enough readers because they started so many newspapers and no amount of failure deterred them. They didn't open schools, rather they opened newspapers that depended on the 'schooled.' They were confident that educated people were around. Rising literacy, the co-conspirator of the industrial revolution, is in fact nowhere more evident than in the relentless efforts to establish newspapers at every American crossroads. Literacy was the next big thing. Knowledge and information were turning out to be essential to economic progress and we can see the development of America in the emergence of its fifth estate.
That said, newspaper people are not of a single tribe. There are, and always have been romantics and bean counters. The bean counters wrote for such departments as 'business,' scribbled the everyday obituaries, and tracked the comings and goings of all things that ran on schedules.
A Few Rhymes for the Carrier Boys
An inexpensive eye chart
They carefully included the statistics of sunrise and sunset, recorded the inches of rain and gathered the statistics of harvest. These people liked, and still like, numbers. They co-existed under the newspaper's roof with the romantics who wrote the news that carried emotional content. The romantics owned the social pages and social events, wrote of crimes, fires and celebrations and battled the editor[s] for larger headlines and better placement on the front page for 'their' stories. Emotion sold papers, the bean counters paid the bills and the arguments never stopped.
Certain days and certain activities however belonged conclusively and irretrievably to the romantics. The 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Washington's birthday were theirs. They grudgingly gave the bean counters Ground Hog Day, Socrates' birthday and the anniversary of the invention of decimals while demanding Valentines Day, conceding Easter demanding April Fools and always acted [and it was acting] like all the events and occasions the bean counters received was much, much too much. Okay, you can have July 16th, the Battle of Baylen and June 13th, anniversary of the beheading of Anthony Widville at Pontefract. That left such holidays as New Year's the uncontested property and providence of the romantics, who when left unguarded, could wax poetic in ways that history has mostly and very mercifully decided to ignore.
For the newspapers and newspapermen [and it was mostly men then] that waxed poetic on New Year's Day, the Carrier Address was on the short annual list of opportunities to wax poetic without provoking a riot among the bean counters who were sure to calculate to the last sou, the cost and benefit of such printing. Given the investment to set the type, buy the paper, ink the form, roll the roller and later gather, organize, fold, count and distribute such productions, it's surprising that any newspaper survived the extravagance. What inevitably saved the newspaper from bankruptcy was the piece's diminutive size - a single sheet 9 x 12.5" quarter folded to a quite manageable 4.5 x 6.25 inches. The type selected was a tasteful if minute 4 point that employed the same spacing as the car-packers on the Tokyo Metro at rush hour. Space should not be wasted! To further reduce burden to the firm and avoid all need for punches, staples and threads the piece was folded but not cut. For the recipient to then take this eye test required flipping the sheet back and forth, over and back and side to side to continue reading in page order.
Alas, the example that accompanies this article, is one hundred and forty years old today, remains a virgin, no burrs, tears or marks of any kind to suggest it has been out into the world. It probably hasn't and one suspects that would surprise no long-gone editor, delivery boy or reader. The piece was simply a convenience for encouraging tips and an opportunity for us today to speculate upon some of the underlying assumptions afoot and at work on January 1st, 1869.
Whatever else this 'carrier call' does it suggests a bustling community of newspaper readers thus confirming the national statistics that showed literacy approaching 90% in 1870. The printed word was becoming the currency of information, the great newspapers beginning their extended runs.
A Few Rhymes for the Carrier Boys
An opportunity for erudition
Today newspapers are cutting back. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News recently announced they are reducing home delivery to three days a week. That provides perspective on that moment on January 1st, 1869 when all the world looked open. It now gives way to an era of consolidation and closure where newspapers fight to live long enough to mutate into electronic publications with advertising and subscription formulas that support the reporting, analysis and news gathering we have, these past one hundred and forty years, come to rely on. It's a very different world we live in today.
Now, for those who wish a go at the ancient prose of this "Few Rhymes" we provide the first and last pages [of 7] that you may breath deeply of these memories, sense the day - January 1, 1869 and do what few if any souls did that day - read the piece.
A Few Rhymes
And by them presented,
With the compliments of the Season
To their Patrons, January 1, 1869
Another year, kind friends, hath come and gone;
Another wave of Time hath drifted on
Into the shoreless waters, spreading grand, and vast, -
The Dim, mysterious ocean of the Past -
Bearing all things, of evil and good,
Upon the bosom of the rushing flood.
Now, standing on the shore, good friends, this gladsome day,
We stop, and look afar on either way: -
Back, with sad retrospects of the past,
On faded joys too beautiful to last;
On happy days that fled, alas! A precious boon;
On works and deeds regretted soon as done;
On acts committed, better ne'er begun;
Yet, from the past, and from the devious ways,
We gather wisdom for the coming days;
Learn from experience, till the victory's won
The good to imitate, the evil to shun.
The final page concludes -
But here we halt, for our broken muse,
Rearing and plunging, has kicked off his shoes,
And now stands snorting and completely blown,
While we, who came within an inch of being thrown,
Must take a brick and rub our poor back-bone.
Our Rosinante is an antique roan,
And troubled with the springhalt, wind and stone.
And makes a sorry pacer, as we think we've shown;
And that's the very reason our remarks, in tone,
And sometimes very flat and sometimes quite high flown,
The truth is, standing all the year alone.
And dragged out in December, he will kick and groan,
But please don't pick us as you would a bone.
We're full of faults and imperfections we will own;
But are there any perfect? And we answer none,
And no man lives but should confess before God's throne.
We here to beg leave to say, if faults of speech or press,
To any one occasion much distress,
We'll fix it up all right in the next year's Address.
The American Antiquarian Society has a very nice collection of Carrier Calls that suggests some newspapers published a call every year while other newspapers apparently never did.