Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

"In the management of her household, she displayed every good quality necessary to form a prudent and beloved Mistress of a family—regularity and order, neatness and exactness," said the Pennsylvania Gazette about Ann Ross, who died in 1773.

Historical obituaries record what society deems to be of value in a person's life. Death may be the great equalizer but class and gender shape what is remembered and valued. Frederic Endres suggests that studying obituaries "may tell something about the cultural values of a given society, as well as something about the values and attitudes and vocational socialization of the editors who wrote and published the obituaries." [1] Although women's obituaries are generally shorter than men's and are shaped by gender stereotypes, they are one of the few sources that allow insight into the lives of women and their changing roles over time.

In the late 18th century, women were described mostly in terms of their domestic attributes and Christian virtue. Women were judged primarily in terms of three categories: as wives, mothers and as domestic managers. If a woman had a role outside of the home, it was primarily through church activities. It is common to find many obituaries where women are pictured as being blessed with many children, faithful, as a dutiful wife or daughter and praised for their regular church attendance.

Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers


Exploring the 'Boston Foster' Map Mystery: Using Current Writings to Discover the American Past

In the October 17, 2005 issue of "The New Yorker," William Finnegan writes about a man who walked into the Beinecke Library at Yale University in June of 2005 and left shortly afterwards in handcuffs. Finnegan's fascinating article, "Annals of Crime—A Theft in the Library," details the case of noted map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III, who was arrested and charged with three counts of larceny earlier that year for slicing several maps from rare books in a Beinecke reading room.

At the time of his arrest, Smiley had in his possession eight maps, four of which Yale immediately claimed were from its holdings and were valued at more than $328,000. Among the other four was the first map printed in North America. Drawn by John Foster in 1677 and known as the "Boston Foster," this famous map had originally been folded into a copy of William Hubbard's book "A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians." Without the map, the book is worth about $35,000; with the map, it is worth more than $250,000, according to William Reese, an expert on early Americana. Smiley's copy, it later turned out, was not an original but a facsimile, further adding to the mystery.

Eager to know more, I wondered whether the Hubbard book and possibly even the map would have been included in Readex digital edition of Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Based on Charles Evans' "American Bibliography of Early American Imprints (1639-1800)," Early American Imprints, Series I includes virtually every book, pamphlet and broadside printed in America over this 160-year period. With Web-based access to this digital edition, I thought I would find out.

Exploring the 'Boston Foster' Map Mystery: Using Current Writings to Discover the American Past


Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Although John C. Frémont faded into relative obscurity in the 20th century, he was without question one of the best known public figures of his time. He may also be one of the few individuals not a president, cabinet member or longtime member of Congress whose career is so fully documented in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. More importantly, he may be the only 19th-century figure whose public career was launched and sustained by Serial Set publications.

Frémont was an explorer and cartographer, an author, a Civil War general and departmental commander, a wealthy entrepreneur and railroad speculator, not to mention a senator, presidential candidate and territorial governor. However, today his name is perhaps best known to Americans for the 2.1 million lights that are part of the sound and light show on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, the home of the much-broadcast World Series of Poker.

Frémont's military career began when a family friend obtained for him a commission from President Van Buren as a Second Lieutenant in the newly organized Corps of Topographical Engineers with an assignment to accompany the French émigré astronomer and cartographer Joseph N. Nicollet on an expedition to map the upper Mississippi drainage.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Avoiding Errors, Fopperies, and Follies: How to be a Good Wife

Anyone who’s planned a wedding has probably dealt with unsolicited advice: everything from what drinks to serve, how long (or short) the ceremony should be, how the couple should deal with name changes, and, not least, rules and tips for creating, maintaining, and sustaining a successful marriage.

Although I tried to compartmentalize my upcoming wedding plans far, far away from the bounds of the English department and scholarly research, it just so happened that the peculiarities of wedding/wedded life intersected, oddly enough, with archival research. What follows are portions of a news/opinion piece submitted to The New-England Weekly Journal (Containing the Most Remarkable Occurrences Foreign & Domestic) on February 15, 1731. It is part one of a two-parter called “A Letter to a Lady on her Marriage.” Written by a gentleman who was concerned with communicating ideals of conduct and virtue for the young New England woman, the article lists several follies that the wedded woman must necessarily avoid in order to make “a good Figure in the World.” Brides-to-be, be aware: perhaps we can learn a thing or two about how we ought to govern ourselves after we’ve snagged that husband.

Avoiding Errors, Fopperies, and Follies: How to be a Good Wife


Writing the David Ruggles Biography: Newspapers Help Complete the Portrait of a Radical Black Abolitionist

David Ruggles (1810-1849) was a brilliant, intrepid, multi-talented soul who devoted his time and health to “practical abolitionism.” This term, Ruggles argued, meant that abolitionists should not just philosophize about the day when slavery would end, but strive to help the everyday victims of human bondage.

In Ruggles’ home city of New York, such assistance included blocking kidnappers who stole young black children from the streets under the pretense that they were fugitive slaves. It meant providing succor for self-emancipated slaves. Frederick Douglass arrived in New York on September 3, 1838, penniless, lonely, and frightened. He spent a night sleeping among the barrels on the docks of the harbor. A kind sailor took him to Ruggles’ house where he learned about anti-slavery activities, was married to his fiancé, and then was sent off to New Bedford, Massachusetts armed with a five-dollar bill and a letter of recommendation.

Writing the David Ruggles Biography: Newspapers Help Complete the Portrait of a Radical Black Abolitionist


An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study

Of all the events that occurred during America’s colonial era perhaps none more immediately conjures up images than the Boston Tea Party, when patriots boarded English ships to destroy taxed tea. Nearly a year and a half later, on April 19, 1775, the skirmish between those patriots and British Regulars at Lexington and Concord provoked the shot that was heard “around the world,” a story with which many Americans are also familiar. Undoubtedly, these events merit widespread recognition, for both were key developments in the establishment of the United States. However, by moving immediately from the Tea Party to the beginning of the Revolution, one neglects crucial moments during those intervening sixteen months that helped develop a pervasive unity necessary for a successful war with Britain. That unity derived in part from responses to the Tea Act of 1773, efforts that were spearheaded in Boston but not isolated there. Indeed, reactions throughout the colonies testify to Massachusetts’ importance as the first colony to act decisively in response to the tea’s arrival. That significance is manifested most clearly in the inspired attitudes of New Yorkers, whose actions affirm the influence of the Bostonians’ decision. 1

An Undergraduate's Reflections on Original American History Research: How Online Access to Historical Newspapers Helped Prepare an Award-Winning Tea Party Study


Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and "The Crisis": Reflections on Religion and American History

Introduction 

Historical anniversaries provide occasion to remember, to reflect, and to create meaning. The controversy surrounding the 1994 Enola Gay exhibit and the memory of World War II offers a case in point. Current debates about September 11 memorials, museums, and mosques in New York City serve as others. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrated its centennial in 2009, only months after America’s first black president Barack Obama was sworn in. The NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, turned 100 in November 2010 and thus provides an occasion to remember and to reflect.1

Still in print, The Crisis represents the struggle, the ingenuity, and the fruit of its founder W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois spent nearly twenty-five of his ninety-five years as its editor (1910-1934). Throughout his autobiographical writings Du Bois proudly reflected on this achievement. In Dusk of Dawn (1940), for example, Du Bois maintained that through the work of the NAACP and The Crisis he could “place consistently and continuously before the country a clear-cut statement of the legitimate aims of the American Negro and the facts concerning his condition.” In his 1968 Autobiography, published posthumously, Du Bois remembered that “With The Crisis, I essayed a new role of interpreting to the world the hindrances and aspirations of American Negroes.” 2

Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and


A Light on Past Lives: The Illuminating Effects of Electronic Resources on Biographical Research

The most revolutionary change in biography writing is the advent of digitized newspapers. Unlike microfilm, which simply reproduced newspapers on film, these new electronic records provide what we biographers and historians have long dreamed for—a means of finding a needle in the haystack.

Let me explain. For years folks like me have been using the great newspaper collections in our nation’s libraries, archives, and other repositories. The contemporaneous accounts are like gold. But as with the pursuit of this precious metal, we have not been able to mine all of it. In fact, using our previously inadequate research tools, many of the best veins have remained untapped.

Essentially our choice was to read every page of a newspaper’s run or use dates to guide our research. So, for instance, if I wanted to discover what was said about a particular artist, I might have looked at issues of a newspaper published around the opening date of an exhibit. But if an art critic wrote a review several weeks later, the likelihood was that I would miss it.

Lacking dates, I could alternatively turn to a newspaper index such as the one produced by the venerable New York Times. However, unbeknownst to many researchers, this index is not complete. In keeping with the newspaper’s motto “All the News Fit to Print,” its indexers only included those items they judged fit to be indexed. A lot never earned a reference.

So without a date or without an index entry, the millions of pages of newspapers have remained as inaccessible to writers as the Manhattan white pages would be if one had little more than a first name—a lot of great information, but unreachable.

A Light on Past Lives: The Illuminating Effects of Electronic Resources on Biographical Research


Supplementing Early American Imprints: The Extraordinary Collection of Michael Zinman

Many of the hitherto unknown early American imprints now being digitized by Readex at the Library Company of Philadelphia were acquired in 2000, a mere ten years ago, from Michael Zinman, a private collector who surely ranks among the greatest Americana collectors of all time. Zinman’s collection of some 11,500 books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed in the thirteen colonies and the United States through the year 1800 was the largest such collection assembled in the 20th century, and larger than all but a handful of institutional collections. Not counting a great many duplicates, the Zinman collection added roughly 5,000 imprints to the collections of the Library Company. Including materials on deposit from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, its holdings then stood at over 17, 500 imprints, second only to the American Antiquarian Society, which has about 22,000. The total number known is over 45,000.


At a Council held in Boston January 8. 1679. The Council doth upon further Consideration judge meet to alter the day of Thanksgiving. [Boston: J. Foster, 1679]

Supplementing Early American Imprints: The Extraordinary Collection of Michael Zinman


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