Error message

Notice: Undefined index: und in include() (line 169 of /var/www/vhosts/readex.com/httpdocs/sites/all/themes/newsbanktheme/templates/node--newsletter_article.tpl.php).

Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Tallest of the Tall Tales: Using Historical Newspapers to Unearth the Secrets of the Cardiff Giant's Success

Over the years, the Cardiff Giant has been called America's greatest hoax as well as the world's most successful scientific hoax. England's Piltdown Man—a purported evolutionary missing link—also lays claim to the latter distinction, but, really, in a head-to-head match, who's not going with a 10-foot, 3,000-pound giant?

Here's the story: In 1867, George Hull, a small-time rogue and avowed atheist from Binghamton, New York, got in a heated argument with a Methodist preacher, who maintained that every word in the Bible was literally true. Hull subsequently came up with a scheme to make pious Americans look like fools—and perhaps make himself some money along the way. Drawing inspiration from the passage in Genesis that “there were giants in the earth in those days,” Hull and his collaborators sculpted a giant out of a block of gypsum and staged its discovery on a relative's farm in Cardiff, New York.

 

(Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

The Tallest of the Tall Tales: Using Historical Newspapers to Unearth the Secrets of the Cardiff Giant's Success


Ford Fiasco: Tracking the Rise and Fall of the Edsel in American Newspaper Archives

Front view of a beautiful 1958 Edsel Citation convertible.Automotive sales tracker R. L. Polk & Co. recently announced that the Ford Focus was the best-selling passenger car in the world in 2012.  Impressive!

By contrast, Ford Motor Company’s ill-fated Edsel, sold for the 1958-1960 model years, is a dark icon of product failure even today.  Ford sunk $250 million into Edsel development; what on earth went wrong?

In 1948, Henry Ford II, Ford’s president and son of previous Ford president Edsel Ford, formed a committee to look into the viability of a new car in the expanding medium-priced segment of the automotive market.  General Motors, by far the largest of the Big Three auto makers, had Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick as entries in the medium-priced field, while Chrysler Corporation had Dodge, De Soto, and Chrysler.  Ford had only Mercury.

In April 1955, Ford’s board of directors approved a plan for a new medium-priced product line and created a Special Products Division.  To promote manufacturing efficiency and economy, the E-Car, as it was known internally at Ford (E for Experimental, not Edsel), would be built on both the Mercury and Ford platforms, and interchangeability of parts would be maximized.  In terms of design objectives, the E-Car would have strong and unique styling elements, making it easily recognizable from the front, side, and rear.  There would be unique functional aspects as well.

Ford Fiasco: Tracking the Rise and Fall of the Edsel in American Newspaper Archives


Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints

One of the challenges—but also one of the joys—of teaching classes on colonial American literature is that students often enter the classroom with few preconceived notions and little background knowledge in the period.  As my comments on my course evaluations have attested, students are often surprised to find that early American literary study involves not just the Puritans but also the study of authors of various genders and cultural and social backgrounds. Because most students have little prior exposure to early American literatures, my courses must address not only the content matter and themes of the texts but must also teach students to read texts written with unfamiliar literary strategies and for very different audiences than twenty-first century college students.  Early American Imprints, Series I (Evans) and II (Shaw-Shoemaker), offer a treasure trove of documents that introduce students not only to a wide range of texts and topics but also to research skills necessary to study in the Humanities.

Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints


Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice

When researching a topic such as the history of eighteenth-century hymnbooks, databases such as America’s Historical Imprints can greatly enhance access to rare materials, but I recently found that research questions also lurk in the digital archive.  Out of curiosity, I did a search for materials listing Isaac Watts (the century’s most popular hymn writer, starting in 1707) as an author in Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800, to see how early an American edition of Watts would be available in images.  The literature on American hymnody had led me to expect one or two printings in the 1720s, a few more in the 1730s, and an explosion in the 1740s in the wake of the Great Awakening.  My search, however, returned hits going back into the 1710s—with Cotton Mather listed as the author!  I was prepared for the bibliographies to miss a few titles, but how could the database think that Mather had written Watts’s hymns?  By the time I had answered this question, I was well on my way to an article.[i]

Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice


The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers

Visiting archives to view old documents can stir strange emotions. Handling manuscripts, the historian sees not only the private words of someone else but even a physical presence: the quiver of an elderly hand, the smudge of a young thumb, the jagged strokes of impatient fingers flying across a page during a few minutes of leisure. Reading old books, likewise, the historian sees not just printed words but also their readers, folding down page corners or arguing in the margins—or, in one case I found, pressing maple leaves in the fashion pages of Harper’s Magazine. This intimacy is unpredictable, like contact with living people.

Digitized sources, on the other hand, are uniquely democratic. They are available to researchers working from far away, and they lower barriers in other ways—allowing a scholar, for example, to quickly search mountains of text for a particular phrase, reducing the advantage of veterans who have spent years studying the same documents. The ease of manipulating digital sources makes it possible to study large subject populations and great periods of time. For this, we owe digital repositories a great debt. But it sometimes can be harder to feel the life in digital sources. They do not necessarily make it easy to understand the text as something fashioned and received by living people.

Fortunately, however, technological power also makes it easier to study the lives of particular individuals, including people who were obscure. It can let scholars discover unexpected sources and follow narrow trails through vast quantities of information. If digitized sources are less tangible, in other words, they can also be more biographical.

The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers


A Patron-Grown Reference Tool: The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database

Photo from Kentuckian Digital Library

The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (NKAA) is a continuously updated reference tool for studying African Americans in and from Kentucky from the 1700s to the present day.  The database is freely available online, and receives well over 100,000 hits each year.  It was created by librarians Rob Aken and Reinette Jones, both at the University of Kentucky Libraries.  Entries focus on relevant people, places, events, or activities.  The database research is completed by Rob and Reinette as well as volunteers in Kentucky and other locations across the United States.  In addition to the entries, the database provides the titles of sources where additional information may be found, and the homepage offers other links of interest.

NKAA started as a simple web page in 2003 and became a robust database in 2007.  It took nearly a decade of discussion about creating an in-house African American database before it actually happened.  Reference statistics, regarded as an indication of insufficient demand and support; were the main hurdle.  While the number of reference questions received had remained consistent over several decades, they were consistently unfulfilled.  There was also the assumption that not enough published literature existed to support such a project.  (For greater detail about the development of the NKAA Database, please see the article “Creating a Web Resource: African American Kentuckian Profiles” in the Journal of Library Administration, 2005.)

A Patron-Grown Reference Tool: The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database


The Female Marine

In 1814, Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly Jr. published a pamphlet entitled An Affecting Narrative of Louisa Baker, which became an immediate bestseller in New England. It is an autobiography in which Miss Baker relates the story of her journey from idyllic rural Massachusetts to the depths of urban degradation in Boston to military glory on the deck of a Navy frigate during the War of 1812. She served as a seaman in the American Navy, dressed as a man for three years, never revealing her secret.

 From Early American Imprints, Series II

The notion of the “female warrior,” a woman fighting in the army or navy dressed in men’s attire was not new to popular literature. The ballad “Mary Ambree,” in which the heroine disguises herself as a man and goes to war to avenge her lover’s death, was first published as a broadside in London around 1600 and presumably had an oral tradition even older. “Mary Ambree” was the first of hundreds of ballads published before 1800 involving women dressing as men and distinguishing themselves in battle. The genre was as popular in America as it was in England, and some well-known female warrior songs such as “Jack Monroe” and “The Cruel War” were sung in rural Appalachia into the twentieth century.

The Female Marine


The Index of Virginia Printing: Building an Online Reference with Print and Digital Resources

How does a researcher handle dated reference works still in print and still widely used?

 

From the masthead of a Virginia newspaper

This has been a recurring challenge in my twenty years of research into Virginia’s early printing trade. Historians of the Old Dominion have long repeated the assertions of their predecessors with a certain reverence for their closer proximity to the historical past, and so of their forebears’ intrinsic authority. Names like Lyon G. Tyler, Earle Gregg Swem, William G. Stanard, and Lester J. Cappon carry considerable authority among Virginia’s historians, just as those of Charles Evans, Clarence Brigham, Roger P. Bristol, and Winifred Gregory do among bibliographers of early American imprints and newspapers. Their works are magisterial efforts from a time when the now-common computerized collecting and sorting of bibliographic and biographic data was not just unknown, it was unfathomable.

Volumes from Charles Evans'
American Bibliography

The Index of Virginia Printing: Building an Online Reference with Print and Digital Resources


Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar

As a librarian, I love to recommend the perfect Boolean search phrase to unearth the exact documents wanted, but as a writer who digs up stories from America’s criminal past, I generally find myself using simple search phrases. This search strategy, however, does not mean that I conduct simple searches.

In seeking primary source material, I inevitably find myself trying to answer one or a combination of four basic questions: who? what? where? and when? (“how” and “why” are more the province of secondary sources). By combining these basic questions with knowledge of the peculiarities of how information in eighteenth-century America was published and distributed, I have a better chance of finding the information I need.

Who? In writing about crime in early America, I am interested in the lives of criminals, especially if they have a compelling story to tell. But early American sources can be frustrating in their lack of detail. The Boston News-Letter reports that in New York on June 9, 1718, “Three men are condemned here for Burglary and Felony and are to be Executed on Saturday next.” That is all. No names. No details. I can waste a lot of time in an attempt to track down more news reports about this execution, but I will find no more information than what is offered in this one newspaper.

Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar


The American Peregrinations of a Blockhead Mummy: A Not So Eternal Rest

Click to viewThe first Egyptian mummy to be exhibited commercially in America was a stonecutter from Thebes named Padihershef. This ancient gentleman arrived in Boston in early May 1823 and was exhibited up and down the East Coast, visiting twelve different cities in 1823 and 1824. By the end of 1824 several more mummies had arrived, museum proprietors having determined that a mummy was a great money-making attraction, even at the small admission charge of “twenty-five cents; children half-price.”

On 15 February 1826 an article appeared in the New York Commercial Advertiser announcing the arrival of two Egyptian mummies, aboard the ship Hannibal, consigned to George Barclay of that city. They had been sent from Trieste by consul John Kearney, and were guaranteed to be genuine. Shortly after their arrival, they were bought by Rubens Peale for his New York Museum for the sum of about $2,000. Although Peale had previously made a profit of almost $750 exhibiting Padihershef for six weeks, his father, Charles Willson Peale, thought he had made a bad bargain, believing these new mummies would not draw enough interest to offset their cost. But Peale needed a spectacular attraction to compete with John Scudder’s American Museum, which had an Egyptian mummy of its own.

The American Peregrinations of a Blockhead Mummy: A Not So Eternal Rest


Pages

Welcome to The Readex Report

This online publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insight into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana and Archive of International Studies.

Recent Issues

Twitter @Readex


Back to top