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Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner

If asked to name the first southern novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, most Americans might guess William Faulkner or Margaret Mitchell.  The honor actually belongs to Julia Peterkin (1880-1961), a largely forgotten, self-styled plantation mistress from South Carolina whose meteoric career rendered her name and novels household words for the better part of three decades.  Peterkin’s best-selling 1929 Pulitzer-prizewinner, Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), tells the story of Mary Pinesett, a spirited and rebellious—some said promiscuous—black woman who, having been abandoned by July, her “heart-love” husband, determines to have the family of her dreams—but on her own terms.  With the aid of a love charm, Mary lures unnamed partners into assignations, bears nine children of different paternity, and, by reveling in the arrival of each baby, spurns the condemnation of her tight knit community at Blue Brook Plantation.  Modernist critics greeted Scarlet Sister Mary as a masterpiece:  Lionel Trilling remarked on its “strength and dignity,” while Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, perceived in Peterkin’s “banishment of propaganda” a “new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.”  Conversely, the mainstream American media found the Pulitzer selection disturbing.  The Chicago Journal of Commerce declared, “[A] promiscuous Negress with seven [sic] illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards’” synonymous with the award.  A Georgia editor derided the novel as “sex exploitation” while a Carnegie library in Peterkin’s home state banned Mary from the shelves. 


Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner


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


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


Student Scholars: Using Early American Imprints to Introduce Students to the Era and to the Field

In the English program in which I teach, majors are required to take one seminar in American literature before the Civil War, one option of which is Colonial American Literature. This course is not generally high on their list of priorities, and students grumble that the “early stuff” is inaccessible and boring—and, despite my love of the time period, I can see that Mary Rowlandson cannot quite compete, for sheer enjoyment, with writers they encounter elsewhere. However, I often find that what hooks students into an (occasionally begrudging) interest in colonial texts is the sense of the real people behind the words. In an effort to promote that interest in colonial people, and in the hope of encouraging them to think about themselves as budding scholars, I decided to make a recent Colonial American Literature class dive into the Early American Imprints collection.

Student Scholars: Using Early American Imprints to Introduce Students to the Era and to the Field


Cycling Champion Major Taylor and the African American Press

As a superstar athlete in the most popular sport of his era, 1899 world bicycling champion Major Taylor saw his racing victories well chronicled in mainstream newspapers as well as cycling publications. But it was the African American press, less concerned with the play by play, which revealed a more layered portrait of the black rider balancing on the knife edge of Jim Crow racial segregation.

Born in 1878 in Indiana, Marshall W. “Major” Taylor moved as a teenager to Worcester, Massachusetts, with his cycling mentor and employer, who was opening a bicycle factory there. Although “whites only” policies kept Taylor off certain racetracks and hindered him while traveling on the national circuit—he couldn’t always get a hotel room or a meal—“the Worcester whirlwind” was popular with spectators, and promoters cashed in on his box-office draw.

The 1890s bicycle boom preceded the advent of automobiles and airplanes, and sports fans were thrilled by the sheer speed of cyclists. Hostility toward Taylor from some white riders—dirty and dangerous tactics, threats, and even physical assault—only heightened the drama.

Cycling Champion Major Taylor and the African American Press


Images of Women on Clipper Ship Sailing Cards

Introduction

In the mid-nineteenth century, ship owners and shipping lines used sailing cards to advertise voyages of clipper ships. These cards, slightly larger than today’s postcards, announced that Ship A would leave Departure Point B for Destination C on or about Date D, and that you should contact Agent E if you had goods and/or yourself to transport. Shipping managers sent cards by private courier to commission merchants and exporters, and these cards were posted any place that might catch the eye of a potential customer. Most clipper cards advertised sailings from New York and Boston to San Francisco.

The casual observer might associate clipper cards with the California Gold Rush. While the discovery of gold had certainly kicked the building of clipper ships into high gear, the Gold Rush ended in the early 1850s. People and goods continued to come to California, but increasingly this was by steamship and, later, railroads. The heyday of the clipper card was between about 1856 and 1868, a time when the clipper ship industry was actually in decline.

Just about anything imaginable was pictured on a clipper ship sailing card at some time or other. Illustrated cards often sported nautical imagery, knights and warriors, characters from mythology, patriotic scenes, historical figures, and Native Americans.

And, there were women. Sometimes they assumed one of the roles just listed; often, they were just . . . women.

Images of Women on Clipper Ship Sailing Cards


Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


As a full-time high school teacher who aspires to be an independent scholar and a mom, I am always multitasking. My lesson plan for teaching about the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era was conceived to serve more than one purpose. On the one hand, it would provide the core of our class discussion and individual engagement with the subject of the Civil War Era. Students would employ and develop their skills for research, writing, and presentation. They would work alone and in groups. Best of all, they would make contributions to my own research project—about Radical Republicans—turning up original documents and making connections that I can hope to include in my forthcoming book, The Revolutionary Republicans, which will be published in 2014 by Hill and Wang.

Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


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