Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice

When researching a topic such as the history of eighteenth-century hymnbooks, databases such as America’s Historical Imprints can greatly enhance access to rare materials, but I recently found that research questions also lurk in the digital archive.  Out of curiosity, I did a search for materials listing Isaac Watts (the century’s most popular hymn writer, starting in 1707) as an author in Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800, to see how early an American edition of Watts would be available in images.  The literature on American hymnody had led me to expect one or two printings in the 1720s, a few more in the 1730s, and an explosion in the 1740s in the wake of the Great Awakening.  My search, however, returned hits going back into the 1710s—with Cotton Mather listed as the author!  I was prepared for the bibliographies to miss a few titles, but how could the database think that Mather had written Watts’s hymns?  By the time I had answered this question, I was well on my way to an article.[i]
Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice


The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers

Visiting archives to view old documents can stir strange emotions. Handling manuscripts, the historian sees not only the private words of someone else but even a physical presence: the quiver of an elderly hand, the smudge of a young thumb, the jagged strokes of impatient fingers flying across a page during a few minutes of leisure. Reading old books, likewise, the historian sees not just printed words but also their readers, folding down page corners or arguing in the margins—or, in one case I found, pressing maple leaves in the fashion pages of Harper’s Magazine. This intimacy is unpredictable, like contact with living people.

Digitized sources, on the other hand, are uniquely democratic. They are available to researchers working from far away, and they lower barriers in other ways—allowing a scholar, for example, to quickly search mountains of text for a particular phrase, reducing the advantage of veterans who have spent years studying the same documents. The ease of manipulating digital sources makes it possible to study large subject populations and great periods of time. For this, we owe digital repositories a great debt. But it sometimes can be harder to feel the life in digital sources. They do not necessarily make it easy to understand the text as something fashioned and received by living people.

The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers


A Patron-Grown Reference Tool: The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database

Photo from Kentuckian Digital Library

The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (NKAA) is a continuously updated reference tool for studying African Americans in and from Kentucky from the 1700s to the present day.  The database is freely available online, and receives well over 100,000 hits each year.  It was created by librarians Rob Aken and Reinette Jones, both at the University of Kentucky Libraries.  Entries focus on relevant people, places, events, or activities.  The database research is completed by Rob and Reinette as well as volunteers in Kentucky and other locations across the United States.  In addition to the entries, the database provides the titles of sources where additional information may be found, and the homepage offers other links of interest.

A Patron-Grown Reference Tool: The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database


The Female Marine

In 1814, Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly Jr. published a pamphlet entitled An Affecting Narrative of Louisa Baker, which became an immediate bestseller in New England. It is an autobiography in which Miss Baker relates the story of her journey from idyllic rural Massachusetts to the depths of urban degradation in Boston to military glory on the deck of a Navy frigate during the War of 1812. She served as a seaman in the American Navy, dressed as a man for three years, never revealing her secret.

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The notion of the “female warrior,” a woman fighting in the army or navy dressed in men’s attire was not new to popular literature. The ballad “Mary Ambree,” in which the heroine disguises herself as a man and goes to war to avenge her lover’s death, was first published as a broadside in London around 1600 and presumably had an oral tradition even older. “Mary Ambree” was the first of hundreds of ballads published before 1800 involving women dressing as men and distinguishing themselves in battle. The genre was as popular in America as it was in England, and some well-known female warrior songs such as “Jack Monroe” and “The Cruel War” were sung in rural Appalachia into the twentieth century.

The Female Marine


The Index of Virginia Printing: Building an Online Reference with Print and Digital Resources

How does a researcher handle dated reference works still in print and still widely used?

 

From the masthead of a Virginia newspaper

This has been a recurring challenge in my twenty years of research into Virginia’s early printing trade. Historians of the Old Dominion have long repeated the assertions of their predecessors with a certain reverence for their closer proximity to the historical past, and so of their forebears’ intrinsic authority. Names like Lyon G. Tyler, Earle Gregg Swem, William G. Stanard, and Lester J. Cappon carry considerable authority among Virginia’s historians, just as those of Charles Evans, Clarence Brigham, Roger P. Bristol, and Winifred Gregory do among bibliographers of early American imprints and newspapers. Their works are magisterial efforts from a time when the now-common computerized collecting and sorting of bibliographic and biographic data was not just unknown, it was unfathomable.

The Index of Virginia Printing: Building an Online Reference with Print and Digital Resources


Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar

As a librarian, I love to recommend the perfect Boolean search phrase to unearth the exact documents wanted, but as a writer who digs up stories from America’s criminal past, I generally find myself using simple search phrases. This search strategy, however, does not mean that I conduct simple searches.

In seeking primary source material, I inevitably find myself trying to answer one or a combination of four basic questions: who? what? where? and when? (“how” and “why” are more the province of secondary sources). By combining these basic questions with knowledge of the peculiarities of how information in eighteenth-century America was published and distributed, I have a better chance of finding the information I need.

Who? In writing about crime in early America, I am interested in the lives of criminals, especially if they have a compelling story to tell. But early American sources can be frustrating in their lack of detail. The Boston News-Letter reports that in New York on June 9, 1718, “Three men are condemned here for Burglary and Felony and are to be Executed on Saturday next.” That is all. No names. No details. I can waste a lot of time in an attempt to track down more news reports about this execution, but I will find no more information than what is offered in this one newspaper.

Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar


The American Peregrinations of a Blockhead Mummy: A Not So Eternal Rest

Click to viewThe first Egyptian mummy to be exhibited commercially in America was a stonecutter from Thebes named Padihershef. This ancient gentleman arrived in Boston in early May 1823 and was exhibited up and down the East Coast, visiting twelve different cities in 1823 and 1824. By the end of 1824 several more mummies had arrived, museum proprietors having determined that a mummy was a great money-making attraction, even at the small admission charge of “twenty-five cents; children half-price.”

On 15 February 1826 an article appeared in the New York Commercial Advertiser announcing the arrival of two Egyptian mummies, aboard the ship Hannibal, consigned to George Barclay of that city. They had been sent from Trieste by consul John Kearney, and were guaranteed to be genuine. Shortly after their arrival, they were bought by Rubens Peale for his New York Museum for the sum of about $2,000. Although Peale had previously made a profit of almost $750 exhibiting Padihershef for six weeks, his father, Charles Willson Peale, thought he had made a bad bargain, believing these new mummies would not draw enough interest to offset their cost. But Peale needed a spectacular attraction to compete with John Scudder’s American Museum, which had an Egyptian mummy of its own.

The American Peregrinations of a Blockhead Mummy: A Not So Eternal Rest


Cycling Champion Major Taylor and the African American Press

 

As a superstar athlete in the most popular sport of his era, 1899 world bicycling champion Major Taylor saw his racing victories well chronicled in mainstream newspapers as well as cycling publications. But it was the African American press, less concerned with the play by play, which revealed a more layered portrait of the black rider balancing on the knife edge of Jim Crow racial segregation.

Born in 1878 in Indiana, Marshall W. “Major” Taylor moved as a teenager to Worcester, Massachusetts, with his cycling mentor and employer, who was opening a bicycle factory there. Although “whites only” policies kept Taylor off certain racetracks and hindered him while traveling on the national circuit—he couldn’t always get a hotel room or a meal—“the Worcester whirlwind” was popular with spectators, and promoters cashed in on his box-office draw.

The 1890s bicycle boom preceded the advent of automobiles and airplanes, and sports fans were thrilled by the sheer speed of cyclists. Hostility toward Taylor from some white riders—dirty and dangerous tactics, threats, and even physical assault—only heightened the drama.

Cycling Champion Major Taylor and the African American Press


The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert

The ability to access newspaper databases such as America’s Historical Newspapers has revolutionized research in the history and culture of chess. Some aspects of this research require detailed chess knowledge; for example, finding specific games of old masters or tracking changes in chess styles over the years. Other aspects of chess research require no specialized knowledge to appreciate: the atmosphere of chess clubs; rivalries between players, nationalities, and ethnic groups; and the often peculiar personalities of individual players.

Some interesting traits of individual chess players fit with common stereotypes; great masters frequently combine brilliance and unworldliness in a fascinating mixture. As James Mortimer, a 19th-century chess writer, said: "It will be cheering to know that many people are skillful chess players, though in many instances their brains, in a general way, compare unfavourably with the cognitive facilities of a rabbit." Thus, it is said (I believe apocryphally) that world champion Emanuel Lasker's attempt to run a poultry farm failed because he did not realize that this required animals of both sexes.

With access to America’s Historical Newspapers, I sought to learn about chess players who made news in areas ignored by the chess press. Chess was popular in the 19th century, but there were few opportunities for players from different parts of the United States to compete against each other. It was believed that except for a handful of players who would visit the East Coast, all the best players lived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Players occasionally found surprisingly strong opponents in Chicago, New Orleans, and St Louis, but these were considered exceptions.

The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert


Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives

Many years ago my first drive through the residential neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts, hooked me into a lifelong passion to know more of her and her people. From viewing the 1870’s brick row houses on Mattoon Street to the gilded age mansions of Ridgewood and Maple Hill, it did not take a lot of imagination to conjure up a vision of the city’s glory days. The architecture and beauty of the homes spoke clearly. My research began.


Court Square, c. 1910, the downtown heart of the City of Homes

The Registry of Deeds launched my exploration with a legal skeleton of house information: names, dates and land descriptions. The local history room at the Carnegie-built public library offered a variety of volumes, but, best of all, scrapbooks. History buffs and library staff over the decades had filled un-indexed volumes with clippings from newspapers. Browsing through the random pages, I became acquainted with the individuals that gave the city life. Microfiche of newspapers were then available on bulky readers, and occasionally I stumbled upon specific information I sought, but Lady Luck played a large role in such fortuitous events. Eventually the computer age came to the rescue with digitized records, search engines and printing capabilities.

Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives


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