‘He thought they were handy for wrapping purposes’

“In the important town of Charlotte, North Carolina, I found a white man who owned the comfortable house in which he lived, who had a wife and three half-grown children, and yet had never taken a newspaper in his life. He thought they were handy for wrapping purposes, but he couldn’t see why anybody wanted to bother with the reading of them. He knew some folks spent money for them, but he also knew a-many houses where none had ever been seen….

“I found several persons — whites, and not of the ‘clay-eater’ class, either — who never had been inside a school-house, and who didn’t mean to ‘low their children to go inside one.”

— From “Three Months Among the Reconstructionists” by correspondent Sidney Andrews in The Atlantic (February 1866)

About that “clay-eater” reference: In 1866, a dispatch in The New York Times  described “the notorious clay-eaters [as] the lowest representatives of the United States … little more than mere animals … strange, undeveloped [and] repulsive…. For the most part, however, they are long-lived and rarely ill, realizing the old notion that dirt is extremely healthy.”   

By 1984 the Times was regarding the practice less with disgust than with clinical curiosity.