Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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 Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America

The first entire mummy arrived in America in 1818 in the possession of Ward Nicholas Boylston as a souvenir of his travels. In an era of four-page weekly newspapers, this was such an important event that within six weeks of the mummy's original appearance in the Columbian Centinel of 16 May 1818 the news had spread from Syracuse, New York, to Columbus, Ohio, to Charleston, South Carolina.

It would be five more years before another mummy arrived. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser of 3 May 1823, the Yankee brig Sally Ann sailed into Boston with a mummy that was presented as a gift to the city from a merchant in Smyrna. Officials quickly decided that the Massachusetts General Hospital was the logical spot for the artifact, and it was promptly used as "an appropriate ornament of the operating theater." The mummy's name was Padihershef and he had been a stonecutter at Thebes, although these facts were not known until well into the following century.

A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America


Measuring Time in a Blissful Dawn: William Wordsworth and American Newspapers during the French Revolution

In The Prelude, English poet William Wordsworth—who spent extended time in France during the 1790s—recounted his enthrallment with the French Revolution. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," reads a passage from Book Ten. "But to be young was very heaven! O times . . . When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights/ When most intent on making of herself/ A prime enchanter to assist the work/ Which then was going forwards in her name."1 As these famous lines make clear, The Prelude's power stems in large part from the way in which it evokes the experience of living through the French Revolution. During the Age of Enlightenment, "Reason" inevitably shaped the articulation of "rights." Yet the meaning of Gallic political upheaval cannot be fully understood without examining the emotional journey of those who lived through the 1790s. For sympathetic observers like Wordsworth, that journey encompassed an incredible sense of rapture, and the author frequently likened support of the French Revolution to an intense love affair.

Measuring Time in a Blissful Dawn: William Wordsworth and American Newspapers during the French Revolution


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


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


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


A Reverend Revealed: The Real Identity of One of the Most Influential (and Simplistic) Thinkers of the 19th Century

Pulitzer Prize winner William H. Goetzmann of Yale and the University of Texas was secure enough in his scholarship to be his own severest critic. About Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, the last book he wrote before his death in September 2010, Goetzmann lamented to this writer (who contributed one of the book’s backcover dust jacket reviews) shortly after its publication that he had forgotten to include a few thinkers he had intended to discuss. For a second editon, I would have suggested to him that he slightly modify the subtitle to read “...from Paine to Premillenialism,” and to have dedicated a chapter at least as long as that on Paine to a relatively unknown but enormously influential character called Cyrus Ingerson Scofield—when he wasn’t being called by his criminal alias “Charlie Ingerson.”

A Reverend Revealed: The Real Identity of One of the Most Influential (and Simplistic) Thinkers of the 19th Century


Playing Hardball: Brushing Off the Memory of a Civil Rights Giant

Many scholars consider Rube Foster’s impact on the civil rights movement as important as that of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any other early twentieth-century figure. Today, with the exception of diehard baseball fans, few people recognize his name. However, Foster earned a mild resurrection with the recent release of his portrait as part of a U.S. Postal Service set of stamps honoring early Negro Leagues players.

Rube Foster Negro League Baseball Stamp - 2009
© USPS. All Rights Reserved.

In 1920, World War I was drawing to a close, fueling the first indicators of a looming Great Depression. Unshaken, baseball player and entrepreneur Foster braved a forbidding business climate and launched his Negro National League in Chicago. Born in 1879 in the cotton-belt region of Texas, Foster had already learned the tough lessons of an unfavorable economy.

Photo courtesy of the 
Negro League Baseball Museum

Playing Hardball: Brushing Off the Memory of a Civil Rights Giant


"Thrills and Funerals": Researching the Board Track Era of Motorcycle Racing in America's Historical Newspapers

Motorcycle board track racing was the deadliest form of racing in the history of motorsports. Hundreds of lives were lost, both racers and spectators, during the relatively short-lived era of the boards. Yet in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the dangers, motorcycle board track racing in the 1910s was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Races attracted crowds of up to 10,000 fans. Young riders knew of the dangers, but chose to ignore them because the payoffs were so lucrative. Top racers could make $20,000 per year racing the board tracks, nearly a half-million dollars in today’s currency.


Click to view large pdf image
From America's Historical Newspapers.

The reasons for the lethal nature of motorcycle board track racing were easy to understand. Motorcycles, even in the 1910s, the heyday of the board track era, were capable of speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. The boards were oil soaked and slick due to the engines being of “total loss” design, meaning oil pumped by the riders to lubricate exposed valves and springs sprayed freely into the air behind the speeding bikes. Riders raced with just inches between them, sometimes even touching as riders jockeyed for position. The machines had no brakes, and spectators were separated from the speeding machines by just couple of 2x4 boards nailed between fragile posts.




Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards

Gallant warriors charging into battle. Frontier conquerors. Wild landscapes. Noble Savages. Patriotic images from the early republic. Glorious clipper ships sailing to distant lands. Such visions might resemble sensational Hollywood depictions of the wild United States frontier. In fact, they represent one of Readex’s most interesting collections of nineteenth-century ephemera. Known as Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, they offer scholars a myriad of opportunities to explore relationships between maritime commerce, cultural representations of U.S. expansionist policies, and mid-nineteenth constructions of gender.

When gold was discovered on the American River near Sacramento, California, in January of 1848, news spread quickly and northeastern clipper ship companies scrambled to transport large numbers of prospectors to the west coast as fast as possible. Scholars estimate that within ten years, well over 500,000 men made the trip, with most braving the long voyage in clipper ships sailing around the tip of South America. In order to compete for passengers, ship companies began promoting the size, weight and speed of their ships by displaying 4 x 6 inch, vividly illustrated cards in office windows throughout port districts of cities such as Boston and New York.

Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards


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