Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Recovering Memories of a Defining Local Event: A Revolutionary-Era Tea Burning

In the 18th century, it was not unusual for a ship to dock at John Shepherd’s landing in the tiny village of Greenwich, New Jersey. The town, located on the Cohansey River about six miles from Delaware Bay, was an official British customs port. But it was not a very busy port town, and its population was small enough to make any vessel’s arrival worthy of conversation. One ship in particular—which arrived sometime in the second week of December 1774—was even more newsworthy because of its cargo.

For the past year, the British-American colonies had been resisting England’s efforts to flood their markets with cheap tea from India. The colonists had been forced to pay a tax on tea since 1767—the year the commodity was included on a list of luxury items levied as part of the Townshend Duties. When the Townshend Duties were repealed in 1770, however, the tax on tea continued, causing the product to become the object of many colonial boycotts during the seven years that preceded the dreaded Tea Act of 1773. This spirit of resistance was not lost on the inhabitants of Greenwich. The brig that had just pulled into their port was filled with tea from the East India Company.

Recovering Memories of a Defining Local Event: A Revolutionary-Era Tea Burning


Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

For many, the American Revolution represents the beginning of our history as a society. In the public memory of the past, the preceding colonial years are relegated to Puritan pre-history, as if only after 1776 we began to walk upright. This assertion of public sentiment can be traced through diverse sources, including civic commemorations, historical fiction and America's early newspapers.

This pre-history was not akin to a period of prelapsarian innocence. There is evidence that America's newly minted citizens were reluctant to embrace their Puritan heritage. A unique feature of American newspaper accounts in the years between 1776 and 1784 is the absence of any allusion to that biblical and metaphorical "city on a hill" invoked by John Winthrop, incoming governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his 1630 sermon preached on board the Arbella bound for New England. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop said, and warned that if the Puritans made a mess of things, they would become global laughingstocks. 1

If the "eyes of all people" were upon the colonies in 1776, the colonists—at least those whose letters and opinions appeared in the papers—were not interested in having that gaze cast backward at their Puritan forebears. Francis J. Bremer, who detected a similar evolving pattern of Puritan neglect in Boston's civic commemorations, concluded that "the first symptoms of Winthrop amnesia emerged as early as 1905." 2 Judging from the manner in which Winthrop and the Puritans were treated—or not—by the revolutionary press, amnesia set in significantly earlier than that.

Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America


100 Years Ago in Baseball: Dead Balls, Spitters and No-Hitters

For baseball fans, 1908 is a year to remember. That September, in a pennant race that has not been replicated since, four teams in the American League were separated by a only few percentage points. For three teams in the National League, the race to the World Series was even closer.

Click here to see full pdf documentThe season came down to the very last weekend. In the American League, Detroit barely held off Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox to clinch the pennant by the smallest margin of victory in baseball history—.004 percentage points. In the National League, a miscue of mythical proportions helped decide the pennant: in a game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants, Giant rookie Fred Merkle failed to tag second and nullified his team's winning run. A season-ending playoff game ensued, and—anomaly of all 20th-century anomalies—the Cubs took the game from the Giants and proceeded to go on to beat Detroit and win the World Series for the second straight year.

100 Years Ago in Baseball: Dead Balls, Spitters and No-Hitters


The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold

When I began work on a history of American counterfeiting between the Revolution and the Civil War, I was faced with some peculiar research problems. With a few rare exceptions, counterfeiting during this period was a crime that was not prosecuted by federal authorities. The problem was instead left to state and local law enforcement officials who were often outnumbered and incompetent. This was partly a consequence of the fact that the paper money in circulation originated not with the federal government, but with hundreds of state-chartered banks. But it was also a reflection of the relative weakness of the federal government's policing.

And therein lay a serious problem, not only for the police of the day, but for the historian who would attempt to reconstruct this kind of criminal activity. Counterfeiting involved vast numbers of players spread out across state and even national lines. This meant that local law enforcement officials often operated in the dark as to the scope and scale of the network of manufacturers, distributors, retailers and passers of bogus bills. Local law enforcement records—what few have survived—often provide but a fleeting snapshot of an individual counterfeiter who typically posted bail and fled, never to be seen again. What, then, is a historian to do, particularly a historian who wants to reconstruct the entire criminal careers of some of these colorful individuals?

The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold


Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?

When I set out to write a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man known by the informal title of "Commodore," I faced one mystery after another. Even though he was one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in American history, he conducted most of his operations in secret. He left no diary, no collection of papers, and carried out many transactions orally, without committing them to paper. But perhaps no period of his life was more bewildering than the Civil War.

Congress bequeathed a gold medal upon the Commodore for donating his largest steamship (the Vanderbilt) to the Union navy—but he did so only after leasing it to the War Department for many weeks, until the bill reached $300,000, nearly a third of what it cost to build. He refused to take any compensation when he organized a massive flotilla to transport an expedition to New Orleans led by General Nathaniel Banks—yet the press was scandalized by stories of decrepit, unseaworthy vessels that he hired for the fleet. It was said that Vanderbilt used an agent who extracted outrageous commissions from shipowners, suggesting the Commodore had received some of the gains as well.

Was Vanderbilt a noble patriot, or a war profiteer? Most histories of the period that mention him list him as an example of the latter, alongside men who sold the government rotten shoes and shoddy uniforms that fell apart in the first rain. Yet Vanderbilt named two of his sons after national heroes (William Henry Harrison and George Washington), and seems to have taken great pride in his country.

Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?


Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers

Among the various types of writing in early-20th century Hispanic American immigrant newspapers was a genre essential in forming and reinforcing the attitudes of Hispanic communities. It was the crónica, or chronicle, a short, weekly column that humorously and satirically commented on current topics and social habits. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, the crónica had already been cultivated extensively and had helped to define national identity over the course of the 19th century.

In America, however, the crónica came to serve purposes never imagined in Mexico or Spain. From Los Angeles to San Antonio and even up to Chicago, Mexican moralists assumed pseudonyms (in keeping with the tradition of the crónica) and, from this masked perspective, wrote scathing satirical commentaries in the first person. As witnesses to both American and Mexican culture, the cronistas were greatly influenced by popular jokes, anecdotes and speech, and in general, their columns were a mirror of the surrounding social environment.

Cronistas battled with religious fervor to protect Spanish language and Mexican culture against what they saw as Anglo Saxon immorality. This was done not from the bully pulpit but rather through sly humor and a burlesque of fictional characters.

Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers


Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox

When I began work several years ago on my in-progress biography of William Fox (1879–1952), founder of Twentieth Century Fox, I knew I was in for trouble. Although Fox was arguably the most important of all the early movie moguls because of his foundational contributions to the art, technology and business of movies, he seemed to have largely disappeared from history. No serious biography of him yet existed, and most movie history overviews made only scant, passing reference to him. Personal papers? Fox left none. Studio archives? Successive management regimes threw away almost everything except minutiae from Fox's regime—keeping extras' contracts and the like, but none of the founder's correspondence or business files. As if all that weren't bad enough, the general field of early film history, especially from 1900 through the mid-1920s when Fox was highly active, was woefully under-cultivated. No wonder no one had ever written a William Fox biography.

Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox


Assessing the Map Trade in 18th-Century America

The consumer behavior of 18th-century Americans has been well-documented in regard to tastes in clothing and furniture, the social acts of dining and tea drinking, and pursuits such as book buying. Benjamin Franklin, for example, records how he purchased a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress as a young man, then later sold it to buy Burton's Historical Collections from one of Boston's numerous booksellers. Yet in comparison to the study of early Americans' literary purchases, few efforts have attempted to understand how Americans acquired cartographic products, or what choices the market offered. My research has focused on determining the composition of the map trade, the vendors involved and the availability of their products, including maps, charts, atlases and globes.

Trade with England and Western Europe supplied many of the manufactured goods that populated the colonial American economy. Among those goods were prints, books and maps that appeared in prodigious numbers in American marketplaces. Several types of sources record the inventory and sale of maps, charts, atlases and globes. Account books and correspondence between merchants and their customers can be fruitful, albeit labor-intensive, avenues of inquiry in manuscript repositories. The printed catalogues of booksellers, only a handful of which include cartographic products, also offer a narrow window on the market. Far more numerous than those research staples—and now far more accessible—are early American newspapers. Advertisements and notices from newspapers provide indispensable documentation of the map trade, and America's Historical Newspapers, part of the Readex Archive of Americana, greatly facilitates the task of locating that evidence.

Assessing the Map Trade in 18th-Century America


Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

The Golden Age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American journalism. It seems a remarkable paradox. And the Founding Fathers were both the perpetrators and the victims of this brand of journalism.

The Declaration of Independence was literature, but the New England Courant talked trash.

The Constitution of the United States was philosophy, but the Boston Gazette slung mud.

Its chief mud-slinger was Samuel Adams, whose name has become far more credible as a brand of beer than it ever was as a brand of reporting. Adams wanted the colonies to be free from British rule—legislatively if possible, militarily if need be. And toward that end he not only wrote lies about egregious behavior on the part of British soldiers and diplomats stationed in Boston, behavior that never happened, but urged violence to punish them.

In at least two cases, the violence was carried out: against Andrew Oliver, who was appointed to collect taxes in Boston under the Stamp Act, and against Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whom Adams accused, falsely, of being one of the architects of the Stamp Act. Adams seems as well to have been one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party, and it was probably in the back room of the Boston Gazette that the colonial marauders applied their Indian makeup and took their bows to one another when the tea had been dumped into the harbor.

Other newspapers took their cue from Adams, the Pennsylvania Journal publishing a list of punitive measures being considered by Parliament in the wake of American opposition to the so-called Intolerable Acts. None of it was true; all of it was incendiary, Sam Adams-inspired journalism for the purpose of rousing public opinion, not reporting the facts.

Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism


This Headache Is Killing Me: The Bromo-Seltzer Poisonings of 1898

Isaac E. Emerson, the man who patented the formula for Bromo-Seltzer, was as well-known in the late-19th century as Bill Gates is today. Bromo-Seltzer was billed as a cure for exhaustion, headache, insomnia, brain fatigue, loss of appetite and other common complaints. Sold in distinctive little blue bottles, it became a household word through extensive newspaper advertising that extolled its virtues, often in poetic verse:

With nerves unstrung and heads that ache.
Wise women Bromo Seltzer take.

The day before Christmas 1898, a pasteboard box marked Tiffany & Co., addressed to Mr. Harry Cornish and wrapped in plain paper, arrived at the New York Knickerbocker Athletic Club where Mr. Cornish worked. Inside were a two-inch high, sterling candlestick-shaped bottle holder and a blue bottle of what appeared to be a trial-size sample of Bromo-Seltzer. The package bore no mark of the sender. Cornish took the box home and showed the gift to Mrs. Florence Rogers and her daughter Mrs. Kate Adams, who was his aunt. Mrs. Rogers thought it must have been sent by a bashful girl. Cornish left the present in his room and thought no more of it.

This Headache Is Killing Me: The Bromo-Seltzer Poisonings of 1898


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