Mike Storms was walking among the crowded shelves of the New Jersey Goodwill facility where he works when something yellow and faded caught his eye. He paused and pulled from the thrift-store jumble a framed sheet of newsprint, dense columns of tiny text topped by a small engraving of a dismembered snake.
The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, it read. The date? Dec. 28, 1774.
It had been sitting there for months, ignored or dismissed as a worthless reproduction. But Storms, a vintage watch collector and self-described “lover of old things,” was intrigued. If it really was an 18th century newspaper, he loved thinking of the craftsmanship that went into hand setting all that type, the clunky screw press that would have produced it, one inky broadsheet at a time.
The three holes he saw punched in the center fold made him think the paper had once been bound with other editions, something that was not likely with a cheap copy.
“I went to my boss and said ‘Look, do you mind if I research this a little more,’” Storms said.
The boss said yes and was glad she did. It took Storms only a few minutes of searching “Unite or Die masthead” in Google to learn that such an edition of the paper, if genuine, could fetch upward of $18,000 on the collector’s market. It took only a few weeks to confirm that Goodwill had indeed lucked into one of only four known copies of that day’s paper, still perfectly readable 244 years after it rolled — or rather, was peeled — off the press.
“The fact that it survived is just amazing” Storms said.
The most dangerous stretch of its quarter-millennium existence, Storms said, may have been its months in the hands of Goodwill. The charity handles thousands of tons of donated merchandise, he noted, but with something less than museum care. There’s a good chance the piece spent some time in a collection bin under garbage bags filled with old shoes and broken bikes.
How and when the paper — which is bound on both sides by glass — arrived at a Goodwill collection point in Woodbury, N.J., is unknown. But rather than going straight out to the sales floor, a sorter must have tossed it onto the pile of items considered too weird or too valuable for the standard thrift-store shopper.
Those objects are trucked to a Goodwill office in Bellmawr, just over the river from Philadelphia, where the best of the junk is put up for sale on shopgoodwill.com, the online auction wing of the nonprofit. It’s mostly an inventory of old jewelry, dubious paintings and played-out trumpets. But there are treasures, too.
“We just sold some Native American harvest baskets for about $9,000,” said e-commerce manager Heather Randall. “The lady gave them to a museum.”
The “Unite or Die” paper hadn’t made the cut until Storms took up its case. He immediately contacted Timothy Hughes, a rare newspaper dealer in Williamsport, Pa., who has two day editions of the same paper for sale, for $15,500 and $18,500 respectively. He was surprised to realize that the Goodwill was on to something similar.
“We get a lot of calls about historic newspapers, and I’m usually skeptical,” Hughes said. “I’ve been dealing newspapers for 42 years, and we’ve probably had five or six pop up with that particular snake engraving. But this was the real thing.”
It’s that segmented snake image that will be catnip to collectors, Hughes said. The engraving — a hissing snake divided into parts that, labeled with the initials of the various colonies and the exhortation “Unite or Die” beneath it — was originally designed by Benjamin Franklin. He ran it in his own Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754 as a way of ginning up patriotic fervor during the French and Indian War.
“It’s considered to be the first American political cartoon,” Hughes said.
Twenty years later, publisher William Bradford slapped the image atop his paper (subscriptions: 10 shillings a year) to fire up patriots months before the opening shots of the Revolutionary War at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Dec. 28, 1774, edition of the paper is filled with long s’s that look like f’s, fiery invective against the English, including condemnations of the tea tax (which would be a cause for tea being dumped into the Boston Harbor) and dispatches from a delegates meeting in Massachusetts, “Signed by Order of the Provincial Congrefs, JOHN HANCOCK, Prefident.”
It also includes such daily business as the shipping notices for vessels to London and Belfast, a Cape May husband who declares himself not responsible for the debts of his wife, Phebe, “who has very much mifbehaved herfelf” and a position-wanted ad for a wet nurse “with a good breaft of milk.”
“It’s all so interesting,” said Storms, who has pored over much of the tightly packed Colonial English. (His favorites: the $6 reward for the runaway apprentice and the for-sale ad for the house of noted physician Benjamin Rush, with its “excellent pump of water before the door.”)
A New York auction house has authenticated the paper and appraised its value at between $6,000 and $16,000. Goodwill hasn’t decided on how to sell it, although they’ve been getting a lot of calls since a local blog, NJ Pen, wrote about the find. They hope it will land in a museum or archive near its home of Philadelphia.
“Ultimately, we do want to get it to a place where it can be shared with the public,” Storms said.
For Storms, it was one of the beft days ever.
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