Written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian
It still happens at this time of year, a holiday greeting is slipped under the door from a service provider offering good wishes and a subtle hint to be remembered with an end-of-the-year gratuity. The practice is an old one, but was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, carried off most artfully by newspaper deliverers.
Newspaper workers were literate, clever, and had access to a printing press, so it is fitting that their end-of-the-year greetings were the most elaborate, a genre unto themselves known as “Carriers’ Addresses.” The carrier’s address was usually a poem on a single sheet of paper, embellished with printed ornaments. They were distributed by the deliverers, usually printers’ apprentices, around New Year’s time, traditionally a more public holiday of gift-giving than Christmas. A source of pride for the printer, the address was decorated with an abundance of fine cuts and designs that demonstrated the improvement of printing techniques over the years. A local poet or talented print-shop hand usually composed the unsigned verse recounting the past year’s events and expressing hopes for the future. Invariably, the poem concluded with an appeal for donations, often accompanied by a description of the hardships a carrier would endure.
A typical carriers’ address from the Connecticut Courant of 1789 begins with the news summary of an important American event — namely, ratification of the United States Constitution — and concludes with a plea to be rewarded with a little “pelf”:
Deep into the next century, an 1871 address grimly summarizes the news of war and civil strife from France and Prussia to Mexico and China. Meanwhile, “in our land,” peace “reigns with prosperous grace.” With unaffected New York boosterism, it asserts:
The negro votes, with all a white man’s right,
And women cry for suffrage with all their might.
Our city changes with these prosperous times
From far off Harlem to Trinity’s glad chimes.
Streets there are now, where streets were none before,
Parks grow apace with many a gorgeous store.
The earliest carriers’ addresses in North America date back to the 1720s. The New-York Historical Society’s collection of about 800 of these broadsides mostly ceases with the turn of the 20th century, but the quaint tradition has not entirely disappeared. Here is what was distributed with a suburban newspaper just this year: