This broadside, published in early 1854, solicits aid for Silas Crane of Charlestown, who “hath become infirm and incapacitated for labor.”
Beginning in the early years of the 18th century and gaining popularity through the 19th, annual solicitations from newspaper carriers for a New Year’s gift were a familiar part of the holiday season. Through these single-sheet verses, newsboys reminded their clients of faithful deliveries, offered wishes for the new year, and even summarized the year’s events. At the end, always, there was the coy reminder to tip the newsboy, lest your newspaper somehow go astray. Such solicitations also became popular among the members of other thankless but essential professions—dry dirtmen, watchmen, lamplighters, and street sweepers to name just a few. In 1834, a watchman reminded his friends that in his daily rounds “he sometimes gets a broken head.” Surely, that was well worth a few coins at the New Year.
Since most New Year’s addresses represent occupational groups, rather than individuals, this broadside seeking support for Silas Crane of Charlestown seemed curious. Who was Silas Crane and why would people be seeking support for him? The 1855 Massachusetts census lists 77-year-old Crane as an occupant of the Almshouse, but he was only one of many Charlestown residents there. The answer became clear upon inspection of Charlestown directories where in 1845 and 1848, he is listed as the Town (and later City) Crier. The broadside even hints at this profession in the lines “The bell of one Silas, was wont for to chime; The mother’s last hope, of her child when astray, That echoed around, and e’en welcomed the day.” Clearly Silas was a familiar figure around Charlestown and news of his precarious situation might inspire acts of generosity on his behalf.
Silas Crane was born in Canton, Massachusetts, to Silas, a minuteman at the Lexington alarm, and his wife Jemima Kenney Crane. As an adult, he worked as a Morocco dresser—a leather worker involved in the tanning of skins—physically demanding and unpleasant work. In June of 1846, he seems to have lost everything in a fire of unknown origin that began in an oil factory and quickly engulfed the surrounding homes. According to the account in the Boston Atlas, Crane’s loss was uninsured. Was this the event that precipitated Silas’s downfall or just another in a line of misfortunes? In any event, the first of Crane’s four admissions to the Almshouse can be found in the Boston Overseers of the Poor Records, in 1850 and again in 1852 and 1854. His final admission was in August of 1855 and he died there on 10 April 1860.
Archival resources at the MHS for the history of economically disenfranchised people have been gathered into a collection guide. The Society has also digitized several relevant collections including the Boston Overseers of the Poor Records, Home for Aged Colored Women Records, and records of the Roxbury and Charlestown Overseers of the Poor.
For more information about the history of New Year’s addresses and carrier’s addresses in particular:
Georgini, Sara, “Begging for bounty,” The Junto, a Group Blog on American History, Jan. 2, 2017
Jackson, Leon, “We won’t leave until we get some,” in Commonplace, vol. 8, no. 2 (Jan. 2008)