Formats Unpacked: The Classifieds

How a limited format exposes our deepest desires

Hi All,

Thanks for taking the time to open the email or click the link. Whatever the route you took, I’m glad you came.

Today’s unpacking is an absolute delight, especially for those of us who read newspapers cover to cover knowing that the best bits are usually the parts most skim over. I’m talking about the classifieds of course.

The famous ‘shortest story ever told’ was based on the format, whilst the world of comedy has used it to great effect. Do check out the Framley Examiner and Bob Mortimer’s frequent cat name ads.

The unpacking comes from Grace Dobush. Grace is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She has written about design, tech and cities for publications including WIRED, Quartz and Fortune. We’re incredibly lucky to have her working with us on a new magazine we’re producing for a client at the moment. Say hello to Grace at @gracedobushtogo.

Over to Grace…

What's it called?

The classifieds, the micro-advertisements found in the back of any print newspaper. Often limited in character length, they were like proto-tweets.

What’s the format? 

Just a few lines of plain text, often with copious abbreviations to save money. Within the subcategories of jobs, merchandise, services and personals, there are wants and needs. Things lost, things found. Things you want to be rid of, things you would like to find. When the geographic reach of a newspaper is small, it gives you a real sense of the flow of commerce and connections.

Early forms of classified ads were handwritten notes nailed to posts in Europe. The first classified ad printed in a U.S. newspaper was a notification about two lost anvils in Boston, Sara Bader wrote in her history of classified ads, Strange Red Cow. The name is taken from this 1776 advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette

“Came to my plantation, in Springfield Township, Philadelphia county, near Flour-town, the 26th of March 1776, A STRANGE RED COW. The owner may have her again, on proving his property, and paying charges. Philip Miller.” 

What drama! I want so badly to know whose cow it was, and whether Philip Miller gave its owner a good talking-to. 

What’s the magic that makes it special? 

Reading classified ads is like reading an agony aunt advice column or rifling through someone’s medicine cabinet while you’re at a party. It’s mostly just boring human stuff, mild drama and beige bandages, but sometimes you find something really juicy, like this personal ad Bader found from the U.S. Civil War: 

“Mae Minnie: Farewell, cruel girl. If not drafted, I will go as a substitute. Your scorn is harder and more pitiless to me than any Southern bullet could possibly be. John No. 1.”

It’s voyeuristic, getting a glimpse into other people’s deepest desires. We’re all nosy when it comes down to it, and we want to know if any of the missed connections might be about us. 

Once free online classifieds such as Craigslist became popular around the turn of the century, the need to pay for attention rapidly declined. It’s estimated that Craigslist was responsible for a $5 billion drop in classifieds revenue between 2000 and 2007.

In Germany, where I live, the personal ads in local and national newspapers are much more active than they are in the U.S. The weekly news magazine Die Zeit has an especially educated audience, with an active personals section. I recently read this lovely ad:

“I am looking for a dream grandma near Berlin for my 5-year-old beloved son, to share the lovely and also sometimes difficult times with me, to take day trips with him and show him another side of life. An enthusiastic occasional grandma, who enjoys seeing small people grow up and being a part of it.” 

Some popular email newsletters are bringing back the text classified ad — by limiting the number of spots and the length, distributors are creating value from scarcity. When Ann Friedman offered a $50 special on classifieds in her newsletter a few years ago, I bought one for the hell of it and created a treasure hunt of code-cracking puzzles. One person figured it all out and emailed me that they’d solved it. Worth it.

Favourite episode?

I love it when a classified ad is a catalyst for the action in a film. In “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” the main character, a 17-year-old girl in charge of providing for her brothers and sisters for the summer, fakes her way into a fashion job she found in the newspaper job ads. In “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a bored housewife reading the personal ads becomes embroiled in a mistaken-identity adventure. In “Single White Female,” a woman answering an ad looking for a roommate has her identity stolen.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve been subscribing to the online edition of my hometown newspaper in Ohio, which is delivered to me every morning as a PDF. The classifieds section is much smaller than it used to be, but I still keep reading it. I’m not in the market for any of the advertised services, and I can’t help with any lost pets from thousands of miles away, but I read them anyway, for sometimes I find gems like this one from the Lost and Found:

“Trying to locate Grandpa’s 1949 Farmall H, was sold at his auction in 1974 in Eaton Twp to a man living on Indian Hollow Road, Grafton. Was there as of 1995 but have lost track. Want to restore it and give it to my dad. Contact my Uncle with any information.” 

I desperately need to know — why call his uncle instead of the writer himself? Did he ever find the tractor? Perhaps I’ll place an ad to ask.


Thanks Grace.

Thank you all for reading and subscribing. If you think your friends might be interested in Formats Unpacked please share this with them.

If you’d like to write an episode of Formats Unpacked I’d love to hear from you. Contact my Uncle with any information.

See you all next week.