J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

“For Carriers must sing, whether female or male”

Each New Year’s season Boston 1775 has shared an example of a newspaper carrier’s verse—topical lines printed, sung, and sold for the benefit of the apprentices who delivered newspapers in colonial and early federal America. The carriers got to keep the tips they collected on New Year’s, as other apprentices collected tips in their workshops around the same time.

This year’s example comes from the American Telegraphe of Newfield (later Bridgeport), Connecticut, as printed at the end of 1798:
ADDRESS of the Carrier of the American Telegraphe to its PATRONS.
January 1, 1799.

Ye friends of good order, ye men of reflection,
(On whom the press rests for support and protection)
Whose judgments are candid, whose censures well founded,
Who never revenge, although injured and wounded,
Who claim no perfection, while on earth you may live.
Who, seeing your own faults, can a neighbour forgive;
To you, generous PATRONS, see Polly appear,
To congratulate you on the birth of a Year.
A Song—a mixture of humour and folly,
At a season like this, is expected from Polly;
For Carriers must sing, whether female or male,
On a New-Year’s-Day morn, or their purses will fail.—
Here then I present it—and I shall depend
That you will excuse where you cannot commend.
If a line does not please you, why skip it and say,
“This does not please me, but others it may.”
You’ll doubtless find something to pay for your treasure,
So please—give—you know what—and read at your leisure.
Two things are notable about this verse. First, the carrier was a (gulp) girl. Or perhaps a woman. Either way, she was definitely a “female” named Polly.

The printer of the American Telegraphe was Lazarus Beach (1760-1816). In August 1797 he married Polly Hall, born Thompson (1764-1824), widow of Dr. Charles Hall. As 1799 began, Polly Beach was probably raising the three surviving children of her first marriage and mourning the loss, at the end of November 1798, of a stillborn son.

It looks like Polly Beach was also delivering her husband’s newspapers and asking its readers for a little cash. Alternatively, her daughter Maria Hall (1784-1849) could have been nicknamed “Polly” and handling the delivery chores for her stepfather. To confuse matters further, the poet later refers to “we children” and writes of retiring from the job of “Post-boy” in favor of someone else.

Another striking quality of this carrier verse is how apologetic it was.

TOMORROW: What was Polly apologizing for?

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