Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution

I used to think I knew quite a bit about the American Revolution—until I became a re-enactor. I certainly knew that the war consisted of more than the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton, Saratoga, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown. I soon learned that even the most detailed history books don’t cover all the military engagements.

When I participated in the 225th anniversary re-enactments, I overheard fellow interpreters commenting about some of these events they knew nothing about. There had been no guidebooks published about the Revolutionary War since the nation’s bicentennial in 1975. Moreover, those guidebooks only covered the major, better known events. This compelled me to begin work on what I intended as a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, military history of the American War for Independence.

The Importance of Newspapers in Chronicling the American Revolution


Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


Adam Smith (1723-1790) predicted the financial crisis of 2008. Well, sort of. He favored numerous small producers over a few large ones, especially where the big companies were corporations, which he loathed because they were generally so poorly governed. After examining the historical record and thinking through the economic incentives involved, Smith concluded that corporations would strive to become monopolies and that they would suffer chronically from agency problems, including the ability of corporate managers to bilk customers and stockholders. Smith would have seen the subprime mortgage and concomitant crises as simply the latest battle in a centuries-long war between principals (owners) and their agents (employees, in this case management). Managers won this time by paying themselves huge irrevocable bonuses on the basis of ephemeral paper profits. It was not the first time managers were able to expropriate significant value from stockholders and it certainly will not be the last.

Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards

Gallant warriors charging into battle. Frontier conquerors. Wild landscapes. Noble Savages. Patriotic images from the early republic. Glorious clipper ships sailing to distant lands. Such visions might resemble sensational Hollywood depictions of the wild United States frontier. In fact, they represent one of Readex’s most interesting collections of nineteenth-century ephemera. Known as Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, they offer scholars a myriad of opportunities to explore relationships between maritime commerce, cultural representations of U.S. expansionist policies, and mid-nineteenth constructions of gender.

When gold was discovered on the American River near Sacramento, California, in January of 1848, news spread quickly and northeastern clipper ship companies scrambled to transport large numbers of prospectors to the west coast as fast as possible. Scholars estimate that within ten years, well over 500,000 men made the trip, with most braving the long voyage in clipper ships sailing around the tip of South America. In order to compete for passengers, ship companies began promoting the size, weight and speed of their ships by displaying 4 x 6 inch, vividly illustrated cards in office windows throughout port districts of cities such as Boston and New York.

Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards


"Thrills and Funerals": Researching the Board Track Era of Motorcycle Racing in America's Historical Newspapers


Motorcycle board track racing was the deadliest form of racing in the history of motorsports. Hundreds of lives were lost, both racers and spectators, during the relatively short-lived era of the boards. Yet in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the dangers, motorcycle board track racing in the 1910s was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Races attracted crowds of up to 10,000 fans. Young riders knew of the dangers, but chose to ignore them because the payoffs were so lucrative. Top racers could make $20,000 per year racing the board tracks, nearly a half-million dollars in today’s currency.



Click to view large pdf image
From America's Historical Newspapers.

The reasons for the lethal nature of motorcycle board track racing were easy to understand. Motorcycles, even in the 1910s, the heyday of the board track era, were capable of speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. The boards were oil soaked and slick due to the engines being of “total loss” design, meaning oil pumped by the riders to lubricate exposed valves and springs sprayed freely into the air behind the speeding bikes. Riders raced with just inches between them, sometimes even touching as riders jockeyed for position. The machines had no brakes, and spectators were separated from the speeding machines by just couple of 2x4 boards nailed between fragile posts.



"Thrills and Funerals": Researching the Board Track Era of Motorcycle Racing in America's Historical Newspapers


Playing Hardball: Brushing Off the Memory of a Civil Rights Giant

Many scholars consider Rube Foster’s impact on the civil rights movement as important as that of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any other early twentieth-century figure. Today, with the exception of diehard baseball fans, few people recognize his name. However, Foster earned a mild resurrection with the recent release of his portrait as part of a U.S. Postal Service set of stamps honoring early Negro Leagues players.

Rube Foster Negro League Baseball Stamp - 2009
© USPS. All Rights Reserved.

In 1920, World War I was drawing to a close, fueling the first indicators of a looming Great Depression. Unshaken, baseball player and entrepreneur Foster braved a forbidding business climate and launched his Negro National League in Chicago. Born in 1879 in the cotton-belt region of Texas, Foster had already learned the tough lessons of an unfavorable economy.

Playing Hardball: Brushing Off the Memory of a Civil Rights Giant


A Reverend Revealed: The Real Identity of One of the Most Influential (and Simplistic) Thinkers of the 19th Century

Pulitzer Prize winner William H. Goetzmann of Yale and the University of Texas was secure enough in his scholarship to be his own severest critic. About Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, the last book he wrote before his death in September 2010, Goetzmann lamented to this writer (who contributed one of the book’s backcover dust jacket reviews) shortly after its publication that he had forgotten to include a few thinkers he had intended to discuss. For a second editon, I would have suggested to him that he slightly modify the subtitle to read “...from Paine to Premillenialism,” and to have dedicated a chapter at least as long as that on Paine to a relatively unknown but enormously influential character called Cyrus Ingerson Scofield—when he wasn’t being called by his criminal alias “Charlie Ingerson.”

A Reverend Revealed: The Real Identity of One of the Most Influential (and Simplistic) Thinkers of the 19th Century


Exploring the 'Boston Foster' Map Mystery: Using Current Writings to Discover the American Past

In the October 17, 2005 issue of "The New Yorker," William Finnegan writes about a man who walked into the Beinecke Library at Yale University in June of 2005 and left shortly afterwards in handcuffs. Finnegan's fascinating article, "Annals of Crime—A Theft in the Library," details the case of noted map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III, who was arrested and charged with three counts of larceny earlier that year for slicing several maps from rare books in a Beinecke reading room.

At the time of his arrest, Smiley had in his possession eight maps, four of which Yale immediately claimed were from its holdings and were valued at more than $328,000. Among the other four was the first map printed in North America. Drawn by John Foster in 1677 and known as the "Boston Foster," this famous map had originally been folded into a copy of William Hubbard's book "A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians." Without the map, the book is worth about $35,000; with the map, it is worth more than $250,000, according to William Reese, an expert on early Americana. Smiley's copy, it later turned out, was not an original but a facsimile, further adding to the mystery.

Eager to know more, I wondered whether the Hubbard book and possibly even the map would have been included in Readex digital edition of Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Based on Charles Evans' "American Bibliography of Early American Imprints (1639-1800)," Early American Imprints, Series I includes virtually every book, pamphlet and broadside printed in America over this 160-year period. With Web-based access to this digital edition, I thought I would find out.

Exploring the 'Boston Foster' Map Mystery: Using Current Writings to Discover the American Past


Academic Networking 2.0: Historians and Social Media


As the academic job market in history continues to shrink, networking has become something no tenure-track hopeful can afford to ignore. At the same time, the rise of social media has afforded historians with new and inventive ways to network with colleagues from around the world. Whether posting from conferences in real-time on Twitter, connecting with fellow historians on Facebook, or playing active roles in the blogosphere, younger historians are utilizing social media for both professional networking and scholarly development.

Social media is well on its way to fundamentally changing the dynamics of academic networking. Before the internet age, historians generally developed connections either through their mentors’ participation in a kind of academic “old-boy” network or their own efforts a few times a year at large conferences. In the internet’s early days, historians connected with each other on Usenet groups or listservs such as H-Net, an antecedent of today’s academic online networking tools.

Academic Networking 2.0: Historians and Social Media


Understanding the Contexts of African American Abolitionist Writings: Suggestions for Teachers, Librarians and Students Using Web-based Resources

Text-searchable historical resources provide students in African American studies classes with new techniques and opportunities to explore black-authored writings. Most early black Anglophone authors (1760 to 1860) wrote in a complex, allusive style, referring commonly to the King James Bible and contemporary Protestant sermons and less commonly, but still in important ways, to hymns, histories, travelogues, the classics and political tracts.

One tendency among both scholars and students has been to read black-authored documents hermetically, without regard for their discursive contexts. Another tendency has been to read black-authored documents as intertextual, that is, drawing from other texts and responding to them. Early black authors typically mined white-authored writings for the ideas, values, rhetoric, and, more fundamentally, the structures of thought that helped argue against the slave trade and slavery. Black abolitionists usually borrowed from white authors, yet corrected them or disagreed with them on racial matters. Without some awareness of the intertextual strategies of its authors, early black abolitionist writings are often all but incomprehensible and their authors alien to our students.

Before offering some suggestions for teachers, librarians and students, let us look at two ways of considering the intertextuality of early black-authored writings.

One way is exemplified in the editorial and scholarly writings of Vincent Carretta. Among his books are editions of Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano and a biography of Equiano.[1] Carretta has set the gold standard for the discursive context of early black authors, attempting to reconstruct their very own libraries. Many of the footnotes in his editions connect for twenty-first-century readers the reading and the writing of the first black Anglophone authors.

Understanding the Contexts of African American Abolitionist Writings: Suggestions for Teachers, Librarians and Students Using Web-based Resources


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