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, December 31, 2013

From the News Boys of the Massachusetts Mercury

It’s a Boston 1775 tradition around New Year’s to quote from the verses that newspaper apprentices printed and sold around that holiday. This year’s lines come out of a rather long piece of poetry set by the youth of the Massachusetts Mercury to greet the new year of 1800.

Looking at other verses from that year shows it had become common for the apprentices to work their employer’s address into their verse. The Massachusetts Mercury was published out of State Street, as you’ll be able to guess. This poem also alluded to a landmark on Beacon Hill—the memorial column with an eagle at the top—before drawing a helpful picture of how Bostonians consumed their newspapers in 1799:
Each proper morn, in routine way,
When Beacon’s EAGLE spies the day,
We sally forth from Street of State,
And as at breakfast board you set,
Present the sheet, t’inform, amuse—
You coffee sip and read the News.
Reclin’d at ease in elbow chair,
You smile at this, at that you stare;
And as the columns you pursue,
Lo, the whole World comes in review.
You, like the SUN, o’er Nations glance,
Nor rest at Russian, Britain, France.
You soon discern who basely Prints,
That “RORA’s” cloudy, “ARGUS” squints;
That the pert “BEE”’s a worthless dunce,
Sans sting or honey of his own.
But dropping anger, loud you laugh,
At signals false of “TELEGRAPH.”
Those latter lines look like trash-talking about Jeffersonian rivals. Boston had a new newspaper called The Constitutional Telegraphe, discussed back here. The other references appear to be to Philadelphia’s American Aurora, New London’s Bee, and New York’s Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, which had Argus on its masthead. Others Boston carrier verses for this year also refer to their rivals or the pseudonyms of their usual contributors; before the war, such verses usually bad-mouthed foreign enemies and extolled patriotic unity rather than playing out domestic political quarrels.

The Mercury boys’ verse continues:
Perhaps at Store our sheet you view,
Or in some Office learn what’s New
—To us the toils the same—the treat to you.

Say, who besides, for Public Good,
Like the News Boys have yet withstood
The fretting Snows—the bruising Hail,
And the North-wester’s freezing Gale?
The drenching Rain—the sultry Air,
The Thunder’s Roar—the Light’nings Glare?
Too much for us small Lads to bear,
Did not HOPE lend her potent cheer.
She points us to your purse and face—
There’s pence, she cries, and there is grace.
The purpose of these broadsides, you may remember, was to remind customers that New Year’s was the traditional time to tip one’s newspaper carriers.

But the turn of the year 1800 wasn’t just any year.

TOMORROW: A hastily written extra.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see them trash-talking newspapers from other cities. How long would it take a Philadelphia or New York paper to reach Bostonians in 1799?
Will Hickox

J. L. Bell said...

It would take days for a newspaper to travel from Philadelphia to Boston. But its most biting essays would probably be reprinted locally, amplifying its voice. So a leading partisan newspaper probably functioned more like a national magazine in those days.