William Stearns


About Author: 

William is Senior Editor, Readex Digital Collections. He has been Editor of the Readex edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set since its early days. Previously, he was Editor of NewsBank Global Products and Assistant Vocabulary Editor. For the past ten years, he has also trained numerous NewsBank and Readex indexers.

Posts by this Author

'Free Talk About Free Books': Tracing the evolution of America’s libraries through primary source documents

1. From private collections to public repositories

The first libraries in the United States were largely private, the realm of wealthy and learned men. During the Colonial Era, these men bequeathed books to educational institutions, establishing early college libraries. They also initiated subscription libraries, which were private collections funded by memberships and dues. While such institutions weren’t available to the general public, they laid the foundation for the public lending libraries that soon became a hallmark of American civic and intellectual life.

One of the earlier imprints chronicling this evolution is a broadside dated 1741, found in Readex’s Early American Imprints, notifying the public of a meeting “in order to consider the Proposal of applying for a CHARTER, to incorporate the said Company.”

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That company was the Library Company of Philadelphia, the inspiration of Benjamin Franklin. The same year, Franklin published “a catalogue of books belonging to the company…” which members could borrow to read at their leisure—a rare luxury in a time when books were expensive and difficult to come by.

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Thirteen years later another broadside, this time from New York City, proposed a subscription program to finance a public library. These important institutions were still not free, although their fees were relatively modest for Americans of comfortable financial means.

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'Free Talk About Free Books': Tracing the evolution of America’s libraries through primary source documents

“An equality of wages”: The Evolution of Working Women’s Rights, as Captured by Early American Publications

Among the United States’ earliest and most fervent supporters of working women’s rights was an Irish immigrant named Mathew Carey, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1784. In that city he established a publishing business and a book store, and used his expertise to print broadsides and pamphlets that advocated for progressive causes.

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Toward the end of his life, Carey became a champion of poor seamstresses and spoolers, the women who wound cotton or yarn onto spools. In 1831 he wrote a pamphlet titled “Address to the Wealthy of the Land, Ladies as Well as Gentlemen, on the Character, Conduct, Situation, and Prospects, of those Whose Sole Dependence for Subsistence, is on the Labour of their Hands.” The title page includes a quote from “Barton’s Essay on the Progressive Depreciation of Agricultural Labour:”

We must never forget that THE LOW RATE OF WAGES IS THE ROOT OF THE MISCHIEF, and that unless we can succeed in raising the price of [their] labour, our utmost efforts will do little towards effectually bettering their condition….The increasing necessities of the poor [women] arise from the depreciation of labour, and consequently EVERY REMEDY WHICH FAILS TO COUNTERACT THIS DEPRECIATION, does no more than skim over the wound, without reaching the seat of the disease.

“An equality of wages”: The Evolution of Working Women’s Rights, as Captured by Early American Publications

“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

This final release of plays from Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes a devastating assault on Abraham Lincoln, an all-female cast in a courtroom drama meant to ridicule women, and a “Negro sketch in two scenes.”


The Royal Ape. By William Russell Smith (1863)

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William Russell Smith was a U.S. congressman from Alabama who served from 1851 to 1857. He subsequently served as a member of the first and second Confederate Congresses. Smith was not the first, nor the last, to describe Lincoln as a simian. He wrote this “dramatic poem” after the Union’s defeat in the Battle of Manassas as the South preferred to call what the North called the First Battle of Bull Run. It is dated January 1, 1863, in anticipation of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Smith’s cast of characters—with the exception of two former slaves, two White House maids, and extras including officers, soldiers, citizens, and senators—are all prominent politicians and generals of the time. In following the action of the play, knowledge of the actual events of the time provides some perspective.

Act I, Scene I, occurs in the White House on the eve of the battle which Smith refers to as Manassas. We discover Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert who would have been age 20. He has just returned from the House of Representatives and describes with gusto a physical fight that had broken out there.

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“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

“The Drama Is—Rubbish”: The Early Impact of ‘The Black Crook,’ the Shocking and Scandalous American Musical

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“The Black Crook”—the progenitor of spectacular theater in the United States—opened at Niblo’s Garden, a 3,000-seat New York City playhouse, on September 12, 1866. Whether this American musical can be called the country’s first, “The Black Crook” had an immense impact on the future of popular entertainment in the U.S.  Its initial production ran for nearly 500 performances and created a nationwide mania, stimulated by the clergy who railed against its abundant display of female pulchritude.

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In his preface to “The Naked Truth!”: An Inside History of The Black Crook (1897), digitized from the holdings of the New-York Historical Society and found in American Pamphlets, Joseph Whitton wrote:

It is curious that the history of the Black Crook—the pioneer of the American Spectacular Drama, and greater in tinseled gorgeousness and money-drawing power than any of its followers—should never have been told, or, rather, truthfully told.

Whitton by his own account had a “connection with the financial department of Niblo’s Garden, previous to the production and during the run of the Crook,” which “enables him to know the facts…”

“The Drama Is—Rubbish”: The Early Impact of ‘The Black Crook,’ the Shocking and Scandalous American Musical

Secrets, Deception and Thwarted Love: Comediettas in Nineteenth-Century American Drama

Hundreds of plays in Nineteenth-Century American Drama are designated as comedies in their titles. Of these, there are scores of scripts subtitled as comedietta which oxforddictionaries.com defines as “a short comedy, typically light-hearted or farcical in tone or subject matter.” Some common themes are entwined in most comediettas. As seen in these examples, these themes include mistaken identity (accidental or deliberate), talking at cross purposes and other miscommunications, inheritances with conditions, and love triumphant.


Miss Madcap: A Comedietta in One Act

By Charles Townsend

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This comedy concerns a will with conditions that necessitate deception. When the curtain rises, Clara is sorting through her mail, opening a letter from her father. She reads it aloud.

“My dear daughter. Your aunt Charlotte is dead. She leaves her fortune to your cousin, Augustus Everson, and yourself—provided you two marry. If either of you refuse to marry, the property goes to the other. I have just seen Augustus. He looks like a dude, but he will hardly throw away a fortune by refusing to marry you, and, although he is a bitter pill—well, suit yourself. He is coming to see you. As ever, your loving father.”

Secrets, Deception and Thwarted Love: Comediettas in Nineteenth-Century American Drama

“He saw the folly of it, and died”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

There are over 200 scripts whose authorship is credited to Anonymous in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900. An examination of these titles suggests several categories into which many of these can be sorted. Thirty of these are “Ethiopian” or other less cautious euphemisms. Others are meant for school exercises or home entertainment, while still others are the scripts of unique college or club, church, and charity productions. Some of the dramas seem to have been commissioned for specific celebrations, usually political or historical. There are also scripts that deal with sensitive or social issues that were controversial in their time. These are among the most interesting plays attributed to Anonymous.


The Lost Spade; or, The Grave Digger’s Revenge (1864)

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This political drama was published when the American Civil War still raged. The title page offers a further subtitle: “A great political, martial, serio-comic legendary, romantic and farcial [sic] drama.” It also notes that it was “Written by the Happy Democratic Family, expressly for the Peace Democracy.” The Peace Democracy refers to the Copperheads who were also called Peace Democrats. These Democrats were opposed to the war and favored appeasing the Confederacy. In 1864 prominent Copperheads were put on trial for treason.

Because this script focuses on this dissident bloc of northern Democrats, some of whom were prone to violence, the author may well have had sufficient reason to write anonymously. He provides staging directions and a cast list.

“He saw the folly of it, and died”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

'Great Suds and Seeds!' Three Full-Length Plays by American Writers

 

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Previous monthly release announcements of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, have primarily highlighted one-act plays. This has not been by design. Although there are hundreds of short works in this digital collection—including farces, comediettas, black sketches, and plays intended for home or private performances—many multi-act plays may also be found. Three longer scripts are highlighted below.


The County Fair: A Comedy in Four Acts

By Charles Barnard and Neil Burgess

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Substantial biographical information about Charles Barnard is not readily found. Bartleby.com provides the following: “Barnard, Charles. An American journalist and author; born in Boston, Feb. 13, 1838; died in 1920. His most popular play is ‘The County Fair’ (1888). Author of ‘The Tone-Masters’ (New York, 1871); ‘Knights of Today’ (1881); ‘The Whistling Buoy’ (1887); dramas, and books on gardening and electricity.” The Library of Congress does not reference his playwriting but credits him with a book entitled Mozart and Mendelssohn.

'Great Suds and Seeds!' Three Full-Length Plays by American Writers

Female Playwrights in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Works by Clara Harriet Sherwood, Nellie H. Bradley, and More Than 100 Other Women Dramatists

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Among the playwrights in Nineteenth-Century American Drama there are scores of women. The genres of their plays are as varied as those of their male counterparts, although more of the works for children and classrooms are by women. Many of the temperance plays are by women which is not surprising given the prominent role of women in the temperance movement. Some of the women were prolific. Still, it is more difficult to find biographical information about many of the female playwrights.


Little seems to be recorded about the life of Clara Harriet Sherwood, author of three plays included in this digital collection. These three plays all signal an acute social awareness and a ready wit. As with many other women dramatists, Sherwood is concerned with the social nuances of courtship.

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Female Playwrights in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Works by Clara Harriet Sherwood, Nellie H. Bradley, and More Than 100 Other Women Dramatists

“Those who are only comfortably sick…”: Highlights from the Newest Supplement to Early American Imprints, Series II

The November release of Early American Imprints, Series II: Supplement 3 from the American Antiquity Society includes an olio of rare imprints which are representative of the overall collection. Highlighted here are an advertisement for a mineral springs resort, a broadside promoting an evening’s theatrical entertainment, and another broadside reporting on the meeting of the Republican Party in New York City and county.


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The proprietor of the beautiful and interesting situation above represented, and of the mineral springs connected with it, informs his friends and the public at large, that he has in the course of the last season, greatly extended his establishment. (1815)

This imprint is adorned with a handsome intaglio print which presents a restful view of the Connecticut resort. The proprietor, Samuel Willard, has made what may be extravagant claims about the efficacy of his mineral springs.

For nearly fifty years past, the Mineral Waters of Stafford have been held in high estimation as a remedy in various complaints, affecting the human body. They are a rich and powerful chalybeate.

Willard details the curative power of the waters.

“Those who are only comfortably sick…”: Highlights from the Newest Supplement to Early American Imprints, Series II

Prime Bang Up: Three of the Rarest American Broadsides Published Two Centuries Ago

Shaw Supp 3 Nov 2018 3_Page_2 Image only.jpgThis most recent release of Early American Imprints, Series II: Supplement 3 from the American Antiquarian Society includes a number of the rarest American broadsides from 200 years ago. These range from the pathos of an honorable man’s petition to the court for protection from his creditors to a peculiar promotion for an evening of entertainment in Augusta, Georgia.


To the Honorable Superior Court to be held at Hartford....The Petition of George Robinson, of Marlborough, in the County of Hartford, humbly sheweth— (1817)

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In the early 19th century it was not unusual for an indebted person to publish a broadside acknowledging his debts and his creditors. George Robinson of Connecticut did exactly that in 1817. Of interest is his specificity and the striking contrasts in the amounts he owed to contemporary creditor. The largest debts were “Orlando Raymond two thousand five hundred dollars” and several for one or two hundred dollars. Many of his obligations were for a few dollars and sometimes for ten and twenty dollars. Robinson appears to support his claim to integrity in the details he provides.

Prime Bang Up: Three of the Rarest American Broadsides Published Two Centuries Ago

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