This quarterly e-publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insights into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana.

Early American Newspapers and the Adverts 250 Project: Integrating Primary Sources into the Undergraduate History Classroom

In January 2016 I launched the Adverts 250 Project, a daily blog that features an advertisement published 250 years ago along with analysis and historical context.  This project grew out of my current research, a book tentatively titled Advertising in Early America: Marketing Media and Messages in the Eighteenth Century.  Publishing a blog as a supplement to the book offers several advantages, including the ability to share more of my work more frequently and to broader audiences.  It also opened up new opportunities for integrating my research into the undergraduate classroom, enriching both my scholarship and my teaching.

 

 

Early American Newspapers and the Adverts 250 Project: Integrating Primary Sources into the Undergraduate History Classroom


Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers

Born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, John Singer Sargent—one of the most important portrait painters of his time—lived all his life in Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He did not touch U.S. soil until 1876 when he was 20. However, his U.S. citizenship and his ancestral roots in New England were sufficient enough for historians to classify him as a prominent American artist. More importantly, Sargent himself considered it an honor to be American; he remained an American citizen all his life, although he chose to live in Great Britain from 1884 until his death in 1925. In 1912 American newspapers reported that he would have received the British Order of Merit had he become a British subject. [1]

Largely due to his American identity, in particular after he attained distinction as a portrait painter of upper-class Europeans, United States newspapers continuously carried news about Sargent during his lifetime. They were, for the most part, generous with their praise of his achievements and success, regarding him as “a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation.”[2] When Sargent was elected a full member of the British Royal Academy in 1897, the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as telling its readers that “Sargent has beaten his master, Carolus Duran, on his own ground. He has surpassed Romney in a painter’s skill, while his vivacity is only equaled by Millais. He is almost worthy of the jealousy of Velasquez.”[3]

Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers


Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?

As an older man writing his life’s story, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned that, in his youth, when he’d “had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way.”[1] The books on his family’s shelves were mostly in “polemic Divinity,” he said, and as we know from how his life played out, Franklin’s inclinations tended more toward physics than metaphysics. To make up for the absence of useful reading in his own home, Franklin borrowed books, read widely, and famously practiced writing based on articles in the news journal, The Spectator. At merely thirteen years old, Franklin entered the printing world himself in his brother’s printshop.

Eager to bring Britain’s (especially London’s) cosmopolitan culture to Boston, the Franklin brothers set out to use James Franklin’s printing house and especially his New-England Courant to set a higher standard for learning and culture in Boston. James Franklin also used the Courant to test the limits of press freedom in Boston. (He discovered there wasn’t much, and he was jailed for a month for contempt of court.[2] Benjamin became the publisher while James was in jail, and he published in the newspaper—in case people might like to borrow or buy them—a list of books available in the Courant’s printshop. The books in Franklin’s list suggest the worldliness of the Franklin press, and they indicate the brothers’ interest in views of political freedom being articulated and published in Britain. Indeed, the list provides invaluable insight into the worldly design behind the newspaper and its publishers and friends.

Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?


Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers

I am finishing a history of antebellum black politics, a little-studied topic for which many of the usual sources are unavailable: white politicians did not record their correspondence with black men, and the latter rarely donated personal papers to libraries, for obvious reasons. However, America’s Historical Newspapers (AHN), used with precision, can produce extraordinary insights into the quotidian fabric of American politics and culture, evidence otherwise unavailable. 

Three examples illustrate its unique capacities.  First, AHN can be extremely productive in combination with another archival base—the decennial manuscript census of the U.S. The latter can be searched online to locate name, state, county, and municipality going back to 1790 (I use archives.com, but there are other genealogical databases).  Prior to 1850, the information is very limited, in that only heads of households were named, with numbers of household members distributed by sex and age range; race is indicated in various ways. Starting in 1850, however, much more information is available: full names of all family members, house numbers, exact ages, employment, real property, literacy, place of birth, and more. The census, combined with hundreds of individual name searches in AHN, has allowed me to construct a prosopography of the black political class in Portland, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers



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