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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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Laws Concerning Town Criers

A few years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, its General Court authorized towns to appoint public criers to announce the loss of property or the sale of goods. Making official government announcements and spreading the news were not listed among the public criers’ duties.

In 1642, the legislature further clarified the duty of a town crier when it came to lost things:

Ordered that hee who is to cry things lost shal keepe a booke, wherein hee shall write downe faithfully all such things, wth. the markes, the p’ties names & the dayes of crying it, for w’ch he shall have 2d. Hee is to crye at 3 severall times: & this order is to be observed in every towne.
When Boston’s selectmen appointed John Crosse the town crier in 1666, they also set his prices: “2d. for what he cryeth att the meeting house. And what he Crye upp & downe from street to street is to be allowed 6d.”

By designating one man to handle this job in each town, the Puritan society’s leaders accomplished two things. First, they made it easier for everyone to know how to handle lost things. Second, authorizing one man to yell about goods for sale at a set price made it possible to stop other people from doing so, and thus kept the peace.

Boston’s first town crier was William Corser, chosen by the town meeting in 1640 alongside other elected officials for a one-year term. Newport, Rhode Island, appears to have continued to use that system through the Revolutionary period.

But in Boston, the size of the town and its commercial activity apparently forced the system to evolve. In the 1690s the town meetings were designating two criers. Then those men seem to have faced unofficial competition. In June 1724 a Boston town meeting adopted this resolution to regulate the system further:
For Preventing the many Irregularities & Inconveniences that may happen through the Mutiplicity of Comon Cryers, every one that pleases takes upon him to Cry Lost and Stolen Goods &c.

It is therfore ordered

That no person whatsoever presume to be a Common Cryer, or Cry any Sort of Goods wares or Merchandize Lost or Found or Stolen goods, Strays, Publick Sales &c, within any of the Streets Lands, Alleys, or Market place or places of this Town, on Penalty of ten Shillings for every offence, Except only Such Person or Persons as Shall be Licenced by the Selectmen,

And every Person so Licenced Shall keep a true and perfect List of all matters and things by him so Cryed, and give into the Town Clerk once every month a true and perfect copy therof with the things by him Cryed, and the names of the Person that ordered him to Cry the Same,

And if the Cryer or Cryers Shall Cry any vain foolish prophain or Obscene matter, He Shal forfeit and pay Ten Shillings fine, and be Discharged from his Place or Office, And the Person that ordered the Crying thereof, Shall pay a fine of Twenty Shillings:
TOMORROW: Glimpses of Boston’s town criers through the years.


Chaucerian said...

I guess issues of Free Speech and Restraint of Trade, which come up a lot these days in reference to "government interference," were not big deals at the time? (I capitalize because when people speak about those issues these days, they always sound as if the concepts are capitalized.)

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the Puritan government, and even the Boston and Massachusetts governments in the 1770s, spent a lot of their time restraining “disruptive” speech and regulating trade.

Though “freedom of the press” was already a social value, Boston didn’t allow any theater until several years after the Revolution. Most town offices were involved in overseeing different types of commerce, and the selectmen regularly set prices for bread.