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


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


"Forever Bear In Mind:" Spreading the News of Lexington and Concord

Important figures in the distribution of information in Colonial America were the post riders who carried both mail and printed materials. Because many postmasters were also printers, they relied heavily on these horseback-riding carriers to deliver the mail as well as the labors of their presses.

The efforts of post riders often intersected with those of two other groups: expresses, who were couriers engaged to deliver urgent materials to another party as fast as possible, and the various committees of correspondence, the organized groups set up by local governments to exchange intelligence and defend colonial rights. Together, they created a vast information network within and between the thirteen American colonies. By using the Archive of Americana to examine the work of one Colonial postmaster and printer, we can see how this intricate web of communication extended from publisher to publisher.

Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) often employed his post riders in the cause of American liberty. In his History of Printing, Thomas described how shortly after he removed his famous printing press—"Old Number One"—from Boston to Worcester in April 1775, "he was concerned, with others, in giving the alarm" about the Royal troop movement on Lexington and Concord during the night of April 18th. 1



Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology

It was, announced one newspaper headline, "a great revolution approaching." A new communications technology threatened to create a dramatic upheaval in America's newspaper industry, disrupting the status quo and threatening the business model that had served the industry for years. This "great revolution," one editor warned, would mean that some publications "must submit to destiny, and go out of existence." 1 To modern ears, this all sounds familiar: America's newspapers are grappling with the advent of the internet, and several of them have declared bankruptcy or ceased publication. But this prediction was made in 1845, and the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet, but the electric telegraph.

Just a year earlier, in May 1844, Samuel Morse had first connected Washington and Baltimore by wire, and sent the first message, in dots and dashes: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT." The second message to be sent down Morse's line was of more practical value, however: "HAVE YOU ANY NEWS?" As a network of wires began to spread across the country, it was obvious that the technology would have a huge impact on the newspaper industry. But would the telegraph be friend or foe?

Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology


From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing"

Readers of the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Daily National Intelligencer witnessed a strange and disturbing transformation in 1847, when the nation’s most popular literary character freely admitted that he had become a greedy, cynical killer. Soon enough this beloved American hero, whose name was synonymous with Yankee Doodle, would threaten to stage a military coup to seize the Capitol and overthrow Congress! Readers of the Early American Newspapers archive can follow along, gleaning important hints to decoding contemporary political rhetoric.


Major Jack Downing.
(Portrait credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)

The Intelligencer, formerly a nonpartisan legislative record, became the flagship of the Whig Party when it split from Andrew Jackson’s Democrats in the early 1830s. But it was during the second year of the war between the United States and Mexico that the newspaper would green-light one of the most audacious political satires in U.S. history. If you imagine a sequel to Forrest Gump in which the benign protagonist masterminds the torture of the Abu Ghraib detainees, you might gather some sense of the controversy produced by the corruption of Seba Smith’s iconic everyman, Major Jack Downing.


Seba Smith (1792-1868).
American humorist and writer.

From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's


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


The Connecticut Webster on Slavery

The pure-bred New Englander revered the Constitution. Though the eloquent statesman hated slavery, he sought to eradicate this evil without destroying the union. Division was anathema to him, as could perhaps be guessed from his ancestral name, Webster, which means “uniter” in Anglo-Saxon. And some three score and eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War, whose 150th anniversary we commemorated last spring, he advocated a moderate course designed to steer clear of bloodshed.

The man’s first name was Noah—not Daniel—and he hailed from Hartford. While his younger cousin, the Massachusetts legislator, would repeatedly take up the same mantle on the Senate floor, most notably in an impassioned speech on behalf of the Missouri Compromise in 1850, Noah Webster first spoke out against “the violated rights of humanity” back when Daniel was still in grade school.

The Connecticut Webster on Slavery


Early Radio Broadcasting: Solving Mysteries with America's Historical Newspapers

I have been a media historian for several decades, with expertise in the history of broadcasting. For years, I did my research the traditional way, using old magazines, old newspapers, and lots of old microfilm. It was fun, but often very tedious, since few of those materials were indexed, and I had to go page by page to find the information I was seeking. Still, I managed to write three books and a number of articles that way. But as I did my research, I accumulated a long list of unanswered questions. Sometimes I would find an article that mentioned a person or an event well-known in a given city, but not well-known enough to be explained in any resources available to me. I hoped that at some future time I might solve some of those mysteries, so that I could write a more accurate piece and tell the full story.

Early Radio Broadcasting: Solving Mysteries with America's Historical Newspapers


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


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