Friday, March 16th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: “Excuse the Unpoliteness of a Printed Letter”

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Portrait of Sir John Fielding, MS Hyde 76 (1.6.422.1)A new acquisition in in the Early Modern Books and Manuscripts Department shows the inner workings of what one might think of as the 18th century precursor to Craigslist: the Universal Register Office. The Office was founded in 1751 by Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate who played a crucial role in creating London’s first professional police force, the Bow Street Runners, and his half-brother Henry Fielding, the prolific writer best known as the author of Tom Jones, and Sir John’s predecessor as Chief Magistrate.

The purpose of the Universal Register Office was to act as clearinghouse for many of the functions that would later be served by newspaper classified ads: listings of places for rent, job placement, auction listings, and facilitating connections between wholesalers and retailers. Its existence is a reflection of the difficulties at that time of transactions which we take for granted in the information era.

At the Universal Register Office, opposite Cecil-street, in the Strand, all persons who have any lodgings to lett... *95-260 PF(br)

One of the services the Office provided was vetting the references of servants with their previous employers. In this newly acquired form letter, Fielding’s successor, John Hutchinson, inquires of Charles Moor about the work done for him by a gardener named Robert Monro:

Universal Register Office printed letter, 1762. 2011-580

As you must be sensible that we cannot be too cautious on these Occasions, we beg, for the Sake of that Family whom this Person may next yet offer to serve; for the Welfare of our Undertaking; nay for the Sake of Public Justice, that you would indulge us with an immediate Answer to the following Queries.

Moor notes on the back that he did in fact reply that Monro was “Sober & honest & tolerable good gardener.”

Universal Register Office printed letter (verso), 1762. 2011-580

Fielding, Henry. A Plan of the Universal Register Office, 1751. *EC7.F460.751p

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[This post was contributed by John Overholt, Acting Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts.]

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