Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star

From late 1877 until his death in early 1895, Frederick Douglass was the most prominent resident of Anacostia, the historic area located in Washington, D.C.’s Southeast quadrant. An internationally known writer, lecturer, newspaper editor, and social reformer, Douglass was a man of his neighborhood. He spoke regularly at nearby churches, invested in the area’s first street car line, and opened his Victorian mansion, Cedar Hill, to students from Howard University, where Douglass served on the Board of Trustees. Douglass’s many contributions to Washington, D.C. have been overlooked for too long.

With the digitization of the Washington Evening Star, researchers can now systemically track the growth of Anacostia, which became D.C.’s first subdivision in 1854, and the life and times of Frederick Douglass in the nation’s capital. Douglass moved from Rochester, New York, to Washington, D.C. in the early 1870s to publish and edit The New National Era, a weekly newspaper devoted to covering Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and black Washington.

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The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star


Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion

When the ship Beaver departed New York harbor bound for the China coast in August 1808, the United States was fully embargoed. For over six months the country’s trade had been at a standstill, and all the ports idled. The livelihoods of America’s maritime workers had been sacrificed to the greater good by Jeffersonian Republicans, in the White House and the Congress, who hoped that an extreme form of commercial warfare—a wholesale ban on international trade—would force Great Britain and France to respect American neutrality without any shots fired.[1]

Though it sailed out as an exception to the embargo, the Beaver was no smuggler, and its owner, fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor, was no scofflaw—not this time, at least. The ship was one of the few granted official permission to sail beyond coastal waters—and in this case, that grant came from the President himself, Thomas Jefferson. How did the Beaver and Astor manage this good fortune, one that all the merchants and sailors in America languishing under the embargo desperately desired? The answer lies in the Beaver’s most important passenger: “Jefferson’s mandarin,” a man named Punqua Wingchong.[2]

Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion


Celestial Vision: China’s Scholars in the Connecticut Valley

In September 1872, Yung Wing escorted a delegation of young students from China to Springfield, Massachusetts, under the auspices of an unprecedented enterprise—the Chinese Educational Mission.  Wing’s all-male contingent attracted attention throughout the United States.  Rumors had circulated for months that in order to bring its isolated nation into the 19th century, the Chinese government would finance the American education of gifted children.  The Hartford Daily Courant (May 7, 1872, p. 5) explained that “Mr. Wing has finally…prevailed upon his government to select thirty boys each year for the next five years…through which China should be able to profit by an acquaintance with the ways of modern civilization.” 

Often described by journalists as the young Celestials, the boys, none of whom was older than 14, would achieve high rank working for Chinese authorities upon completion of their studies upon completion of their studies.  The students endured a six-week voyage across the Pacific Ocean and a lengthy train ride from San Francisco to their New England destination.  They were disbursed from Springfield to host families throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Prominent citizens were selected to welcome the Chinese boys into their homes and provide a period of home schooling.  When the students had sufficiently grasped the English language and become acclimated to American culture, they would proceed to public schools.  Three more delegations of young scholars would follow a similar regimen over the next few years. 

Celestial Vision: China’s Scholars in the Connecticut Valley


“The Great Upheaval”: Tracking Jim Thorpe’s Swift Fall from Grace after the 1912 Olympics

Click for larger imageOne hundred and one years ago this past summer, American Indian athlete Jim Thorpe was acclaimed around the world for winning, by huge margins, both the classic pentathlon and the decathlon at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm. The King of Sweden famously declared him “the most wonderful athlete in the world.”

Six months later, on January 22, 1913, a newspaper scoop in The Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts revealed that Thorpe had played minor league professional baseball in 1909 and 1910. Back then, “professional” was a dirty word because it meant money had changed hands. Only “simon-pure” amateurs were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. Thorpe had signed the official International Olympic Committee (IOC) Entry Form, attesting that he had never played any sport for money and therefore qualified as an amateur.

At a time when so many organized sports were in their infancy, the ensuing reaction and repercussions, worldwide, would cause the Thorpe revelation to be dubbed the mother of all sports scandals. The modern Olympic movement was brand new; its first Olympiad had been in 1896. The identity and credibility of the struggling IOC as an amateur organization were seen to be at stake.

“The Great Upheaval”: Tracking Jim Thorpe’s Swift Fall from Grace after the 1912 Olympics


“A Family Newspaper”: Pearl Rivers and the Rebirth of the New Orleans Daily Picayune

Though no one would have realized it at the time, October 17th 1866 was an auspicious date in the long history of the New Orleans Daily Picayune (founded in 1837). The city was recovering from Civil War: Federal troops still occupied the humbled “Queen of the South,” and political and racial tensions simmered, sometimes exploding into violence on the streets. In such a climate, the slight poem entitled “A Little Bunch of Roses” that appeared on the front page of the evening edition might have escaped the attention of some readers.

 

 

 

 

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The paper even got the poet’s nom de plume wrong, attributing it to “Pearl River” instead of “Pearl Rivers.” But however unheralded, this would prove to be the first appearance in the pages of the Picayune of a young woman who would go on to have an extraordinary influence on its development. Before too many years had passed, Pearl Rivers—really Eliza Jane Poitevent—would be the first woman to run a daily metropolitan newspaper in the United States. Her extraordinary achievements can be traced through the digitized pages of the Picayune in America’s Historical Newspapers.

“A Family Newspaper”: Pearl Rivers and the Rebirth of the New Orleans Daily Picayune


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


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


War of the Dictionaries

The Georgian brick building of the Merriam-Webster company on Federal Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is considered by some world headquarters of the English language.  Scholars, heads of state and judges alike often deem the Merriam-Webster dictionary the final authority in spelling, pronunciation and definition.  That standing is the outcome of winning a long-fought conflict over a century ago. The company’s founders were brothers George and Charles Merriam, young printers who settled in Springfield in 1831 to print and sell books.  Their shop specialized in school books, Bibles and, curiously, wall papers.  The second-floor presses produced titles stocked by stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

A short distance down the Connecticut River from Springfield, Noah Webster of Hartford, Connecticut, had published his American Dictionary of the English Language.  His unwieldy two-volume set was not well received; the figures of intellect in Boston balked at the author’s vision of an American representation of the English language.  With guarded optimism Webster tried a second edition, but found himself with a stack of unsold books and mounting debt.  After his death, his heirs sold the remaining copies and all rights to Webster’s white elephant.  The buyers, the savvy booksellers Merriam, promptly reduced the price.  The move was applauded by the Springfield Daily Republican on January 10, 1845:

War of the Dictionaries


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


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