Skip to main content

Shattered Nerves and Lethargic Stomachs: Highlights from American Pamphlets

Posted on 08/31/2015

This month’s release from the New-York Historical Society’s collection of American Pamphlets, 1820-1922, includes a sales pitch from an early American auto club which encourages prospective members to explore a country “almost as undiscovered as Africa,” an enthusiastic explanation of the moral and intellectual virtues of croquet, and colorful zoological descriptions of P.T. Barnum’s menagerie, complete with elegant illustrations.

Discover America (1910)

This pamphlet, produced by the Automobile Touring Club of America, is generously illustrated with photographs, beginning with the club’s four-story headquarters in New York City. The size and location of the building and the ambitious tenor of the text are testimony to how rapidly Americans were embracing the still new horseless carriages that were ushering in the age of the automobile.

Clearly, this publication was designed to promote the club by selling annual memberships and adding car insurance into the bargain. Annual dues are five dollars, and the insurance is promised to “save from $5 to $40 per year” meaning “you save at least as much as you pay in” and “you may even make a profit” which will mean that all of the expert advice on travel routes, road conditions, and accommodations along the way will cost the member nothing.

The author of the pamphlet claims that America is an undiscovered country, “almost as undiscovered as Africa.” Asserting that most people who have seen anything of this country have done so from the window of a train, he writes “America is not a country of coal yards, round houses, factories and slums,” rather, “It is as beautiful as Europe if you know where to go.”

In fact, he comes close to saying that Europe is old, tired, and over-exposed, but America is the future for discovery, and the automobile is making that possible. The reader is exhorted to get “Out into the open road you men of shattered nerves and lethargic stomachs—out into the fresh air, the sunshine and the glorious country. Get red blood, electricity in your veins—get the fire and the fight that come from the open road and the sunshine and fresh air of the countryside.”

Croquet; a treatise, with notes and commentaries (1869)
By Captain Mayne Reid

Captain Reid introduces his treatise by claiming that croquet is the finest game in the world, providing healthful benefits for players of all ages. He further argues that the game’s “intellectuality” surpasses all others, including “that silent and somewhat selfish duality—chess.” His “finest argument in favor of croquet—and certainly an important plea—is its morality. It has no taint attached to it, and never will. It is too refined, too intellectual, ever to become a gambler’s game.”

The pamphlet promises comprehensive coverage of the game’s origin, its nomenclature, and the rules and their reasons. Before getting down to business, the author begins with a poem entitled “The Croquet Queen, A Warning to Croquetters against Coquettes.” One verse tells us that:

Her figure was faultless—nor tall, nor petite—
      Her skirt barely touched the top lace of her boot;
I’ve seen in my time some remarkable feet,
      But never one equalling that little foot.
Its tournure was perfect, from ankle to toe—
      Praxiteles ne’er had such a model for art—
No arrow so sharp ever shot Cupid’s bow;
      When poised on the ball it seemed pressing you heart.

There follow several chapters of highly detailed croquet information complete with footnotes and diagrams. Care is taken to instruct on preparing the “Arena” or playing area with advice to include garden chairs and benches and to choose a spot with trees to provide shade since “Even croquet is not charming under a hot glaring sun.” Other sections are devoted to The Concussion, The Booby, and The Rover. As for the Booby and the Rover, we learn that the former is “A ball that has attempted to run the first bridge, and has failed. It has been so named, for the sake of a little jocularity, allowable on such occasions” while the latter is merely “a ball that has run all the bridges, in due course.”

There is much more for the author to explain, somehow complicating what for many has devolved into a slapdash backyard game. The Captain is having none of that. He presents a highly disciplined, strategically complex game with an extensive vocabulary of its own including “Climbing on the scape-goat.”

Illustrated history of wild animals and other curiosities contained in P.T. Barnum’s new and greatest show on earth, museum, menagerie, polytechnic institute, and international garden by Prof. S.S. Smith (1878)

Professor Smith states in his introduction that “an enormous expense…is entailed, in moving from point to point, in arranging and establishing the mammoth exhibition which this book describes. No man, except the great Barnum, would have dared to invest in such an enterprise….Three trains of over one hundred steel cars are required to transport the property of this prince of showmen. Over a thousand men are constantly employed.”

The author makes clear his unbounded admiration for Barnum:

He is, in point of health and vigor, in the very midst of his years. He is capable of bringing to his aid more experience and a riper judgment than ever….He appears on the theatre of life’s busy stage as modifier and purifier of many of the abuses which have crept into public amusements, and, through his persistent efforts to divest them of immoralities, will challenge the admiration of a carping world.

Having praised Barnum, Smith begins his descriptions of the animals in the exhibition with beautifully executed black-and-white illustrations. His section on the tiger is typical of his style and approach:

The Tiger is not an open, but a dangerous foe. Like the lion, it will stalk an unconscious prey, whether it be man or beast, stealing silently and treacherously upon the unwary victim, preferring a woman or a helpless child for the object of its attack….The Tiger is possessed of enormous paws. These are loaded with long, sickle-like talons, with which they deliver a rapid succession of blows, cutting like so many sharp knives, which enable it to strike to the earth the largest animals known to zoology….they are voracious eaters, preferring the fresh, warm blood as it flows from the wound….A strange polytheistic mythology has clothed this animal with a sacred mantle, so that it requires much nerve and enterprise to be able to secure them as specimens of zoology to be placed on exhibition.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Barnum is up to the task of procurement:

His agents in India engaged an army of Fakirs and Shikarries, who, with the aid of a herd of elephants trained for the purpose, succeeded in forcing a group into the jungles, which they entirely surrounded, and by a series of pitfalls, bamboo traps, and other devices…were enabled to secure alive…a pair of the finest Bengal Tigers ever imported.

For more information about American Pamphlets, 1820-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

Stay in Touch

Receive product news, special offers and invitations, or the acclaimed Readex Report

Sign Up

By clicking "Sign Up", you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.