Or, The Damn Thing Is All Ads Anyway
As those of you who are so unlucky as to follow me on Twitter know already (twitter being what I’ve been distracting myself in between bouts of what I’ll call, for the sake of argument “writing”), of late I’ve been mucking through Congressional records.
Yes, yes, I see you nodding off, but listen: this time it’s different. This time I’m bushwhacking through the annals of the First Congress. The beginning one!
The timing lends the even the most boring speeches and bills a brassy burnished halo. The Era of Washington! The birth of our empire, and all our liberties! Days when spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real [republican] men, women were real [republican] mothers, and small furry creatures from [the Indies] were real small furry creatures from [the Indies], to paraphrase my favorite Adams.
Right, where was I? Ah yes, mucking through annals. Well, today I ran across something that makes me think that — age of heroes or no — there never was a newspaper printer with sound marketing sense.
Consider, if you will, the following passage from the journal of William Maclay, a delightfully cantankerous one-term U.S. senator from Pennsylvania:
Maybe I’m misunderstanding Maclay here, but were the local printers really trying to drum up business by scamming members of Congress? Hoping a politician will pay you for services unordered…well that seems a bit daft. Moreover, there’s the question of subscriber base. The combined houses of Congress, at this point, consisted of about ninety members* — hardly a sustainable audience. And once the House voted down subscribing to anything…this seems like it got perverse right quick, no? And if cash wasn’t the goal, that’s even worse; this was decidedly not the group most likely to be swayed by hacky political commentary — or interested in advertisements, either.
Seems to me like the printers of the Early Republic operated on the same principle as all the (failing) local newspaper publishers who insist on stacking eternally unread issues like cord-wood on my stoop every morning. I doubt it worked any better then…
*It was early days. Not every state got their act together to send representatives on time…
William Maclay, Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791, ed. Edgar S. Maclay (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), 64. The passage appears in the entry for June 3, 1790.