The News’ New Years Verses
It is the custom for my newspaper carrier to insert a Christmas card in my paper in the days preceding the holiday; I take the hint, and send him a return card with a gift of money. In the early days of the republic, the custom was for the newspaper editors to strike off a sheet of New Year’s Verses, for their carriers to give to their customers. These sheets were rarely saved; those that remain are as varied in their content as their authors were varied in their personalities.
Philip Freneau, “the poet of the revolution,” was also the strongly partisan editor of the Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal. His “New Years Verses,” at least for the year 1783, were merely philosophical: “Let Seasons vary as they will / Contentment leaves us happy still,/ Makes life itself pass smooth away,/ Makes every hour a New Year’s day.”
The “New Year’s Verses” for 1786 in the Columbian Herald are also attributed to Freneau; his conclusion more distinctly refers to the purpose of the verses: “One simple word we mean to say,/ ‘This is our joyful NEW YEAR’s DAY,/ And now–our toils reward.'”
More direct was the conclusion of the “New Year’s Verses” of the Maryland Journal, of 1794: “Ere I conclude, a moment hear,/ Your honest New-Boy’s anxious prayer–/ May heaven, e’er right willing, / Give you each bliss, to crown your lives, / good wine, and cash, and health and wives– / If you give me a Shilling.”
But some editors felt the need to mingle politics with poetry. One such was the Tory editor of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, who summoned Jove to honor Howe: “The THUNDERER spoke–and the Muse from above/ Descended his Speech to repeat. / Ye know, all ye Powers that attend on my Throne, / Your Will to my Pleasure must bow; / I will that those Gifts which you prize as your own, / Shall now be bestow’d on my Howe.”
Other “New Year’s Verses” concentrated on the virtues of the press, such as this stanza from Charleston’s Daily Advertiser of 1788: “In ships of war since they are prais’d / Who constantly keep up a firing, / Not such as now and then have blaz’d / And often rest, as often tiring; / Our perseverance you must think/ Deserves the better share of CHINK.”
Further virtues of the newspaper are extolled in the Boston Gazette’s 1790 verses: “Like MERCURY now, with agile wing, / He’ll cleave the air, and tidings bring/ Of wars abroad, and peace at home, / From Field of MARS, and PALLAS’ Dome. / How WASHINGTON, supremely great, / Presides in justice o’er the State. /How Europe’s Monarchs all combine / ‘Gainst freedom’s Goddess–all divine!”
Gradually, the convention evolved, that the New Year’s Verses should recount the news of the year that had passed. Isaac Hill, in his New Hampshire Patriot, published in the newspaper, not in a handbill, as was the usual custom, “The Post Boy’s Review and New Year’s Address, for 1827.” In the verses he surveys the state of the various nations of Europe, and notes especially, Greece’s revolt against Turkey: Land of Leonidas!–be strong– / The palm is yet for thee, / Land of th’everawing song, / thou must, thou shalt be free!”
He then surveys England, Russia and Spain, but concludes: “Deem’st thou we talk of trifling things? / We’ve nam’d the realms of mighty kings / Where mortals stalk in majesty: / Dwell there who will. The West for me!”
In times of political controversy, the New Year’s Verses became political. In “The New Year’s Address of the carrier of the St. Louis Free Press, on the commencement of the New-Year, 1833’, he begins neutrally: “Good Friends, to all I give my cheer;/ On this young morn’s a new-born year:/ Come then, take this, ‘tis my Address,/ Just from your friend the faithful ‘PRESS.’ But, by the last verse, he rephrases the newspaper’s slogan, which is “Union without Consolidation–State Rights without Nullificaton”: “Let a CONVENTION be our course,/ whilst Jackson does the laws enforece./ Support State Rights, as the better plan,/ To save the UNION from a selfish clan! / Now longer here I cannot dwell,/ Therefore my friends, I say Farewell./ But one thing more I should have said—/ The news-boy thinks he will be paid.”
By 1827, at least in Virginia, the shift had begun to shift the gift of verses to Christmas instead of New Year’s, for, on November 2, the following advertisement appeared in the pages of the Richmond Enquirer. “TO POETS –The Enquirer Carriers respectfully solicit from that talented part of society, a CHRISTMAS ADDRESS; which, as is the customary practice, they wish to present to their Patrons on the ensuing Christmas. Those who may write, will direct their several effusions, to the Editor, from which a selection will be made–and the Author will be acquainted with that selection, on receiving several Copies of the Address, printed on Satin, merely as an expression of gratitude for the services rendered.” I wonder how many of those verses on satin survived.
“I have been inspired
By all the poets past
To issue to you a plea
To help these newspapers last.
Please contribute you mite
To help us give respite
To aid these newspapers live
Forever and forever, amen.”
If you are interested in contributing funds to speed The University of Texas’ massive project of scanning and putting on-line historic newspapers online, please contact Linda Abbey, of UT’s General Libraries, phone (512) 795-4366 or online to the Historic Newspapers Preservation link.
About the Author
Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.