Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


"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


Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

"In the management of her household, she displayed every good quality necessary to form a prudent and beloved Mistress of a family—regularity and order, neatness and exactness," said the Pennsylvania Gazette about Ann Ross, who died in 1773.

Historical obituaries record what society deems to be of value in a person's life. Death may be the great equalizer but class and gender shape what is remembered and valued. Frederic Endres suggests that studying obituaries "may tell something about the cultural values of a given society, as well as something about the values and attitudes and vocational socialization of the editors who wrote and published the obituaries." [1] Although women's obituaries are generally shorter than men's and are shaped by gender stereotypes, they are one of the few sources that allow insight into the lives of women and their changing roles over time.

In the late 18th century, women were described mostly in terms of their domestic attributes and Christian virtue. Women were judged primarily in terms of three categories: as wives, mothers and as domestic managers. If a woman had a role outside of the home, it was primarily through church activities. It is common to find many obituaries where women are pictured as being blessed with many children, faithful, as a dutiful wife or daughter and praised for their regular church attendance.

Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers


Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815

While the Revolution may have secured Americans their political independence, economic independence remained elusive. As early as 1783, Americans realized that they had not extricated themselves in any meaningful way from the mercantile system of the Atlantic world, still dominated by European imperial might. 1 This realization cut especially deep as the Napoleonic Wars escalated. By 1805 American sailors were at risk of impressment by the British navy. Worse still, maritime commerce came under attack, as the British outlawed America’s lucrative carrying trade. By 1806, President Thomas Jefferson was forced to concede that many of the economic problems that America had faced as a colony still plagued the newly formed nation.2

In response, Jefferson fell back on pre-Revolutionary tactics to assert his nation’s strength. Imposing a highly unpopular non-importation law on Americans in 1806, he attempted to fashion grassroots non-consumption into a federally administered campaign of commercial retribution against the British. The law required that merchants refuse to ship certain British and French goods into the country. Although nominally enforced by an under-developed customs-house and the undermanned Coast Guard, in practice it was a law that relied on the patriotism of merchants and consumers to refuse to consume imported wares.3 The legislation re-politicized the consumption of imported goods in America. Indeed, Jefferson’s legislation was fiercely opposed. Federalists were furious to find themselves subject to Jefferson’s demands. Old guard Republicans were appalled that Jefferson should attempt to re-instate a mercantilist economy, only decades after Americans had fought so hard for free trade. Thus, Jefferson re-ignited a debate over the connection between consumption and patriotism that would endure all the way through the War of 1812 and on into the late 1820s.

Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815


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


Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians

Although the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set" is an extensive collection of documents that makes the history of the United States come alive, many librarians have been reluctant to highlight this resource at the reference desk or in their library instruction classes. Until a few years ago, the Serial Set had been available only in often-fragile printed volumes and in microfiche with limited indexing, which made identifying and then finding relevant materials challenging, even for experienced librarians. In this article, I will describe how a new Web-based edition of these historical U.S. government publications became available at San Jose State's King Library.

Formed by a unique collaboration between the public library of San Jose and San Jose State University, King Library serves the diverse research needs of students, faculty, staff and the community. Prior to this merger, the San Jose State University Library was the designated federal depository for San Jose. However, most inquiries for federal resources came from the University's faculty and students. For example, history and political science students were often required to analyze the evolution of U.S. legislation and policy.

Since the merger, our academic librarians have become aware of the public community's research interests. For example, the California Department of Education has provided social studies teachers with a new set of frameworks that incorporate the use of primary sources to develop historical literacy concepts (California, 1997). As a result, students from local high schools have started to visit our library to find primary resources for their social studies assignments, many of which could effectively utilize the Serial Set.

Serial Set, Breakfast of Champions: Setting the Table for Librarians


Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology

It was, announced one newspaper headline, "a great revolution approaching." A new communications technology threatened to create a dramatic upheaval in America's newspaper industry, disrupting the status quo and threatening the business model that had served the industry for years. This "great revolution," one editor warned, would mean that some publications "must submit to destiny, and go out of existence." 1 To modern ears, this all sounds familiar: America's newspapers are grappling with the advent of the internet, and several of them have declared bankruptcy or ceased publication. But this prediction was made in 1845, and the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet, but the electric telegraph.

Just a year earlier, in May 1844, Samuel Morse had first connected Washington and Baltimore by wire, and sent the first message, in dots and dashes: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT." The second message to be sent down Morse's line was of more practical value, however: "HAVE YOU ANY NEWS?" As a network of wires began to spread across the country, it was obvious that the technology would have a huge impact on the newspaper industry. But would the telegraph be friend or foe?

Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology


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


Images of American Historical Figures on 19th-Century Clipper Ship Cards

Most of us are familiar with clipper ships, if only from Currier & Ives prints. Beginning in the 1840s, these beautiful sailing ships plied the seas, bringing goods and people from coast to coast and often to other countries. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, the ensuing demand for speedy transit truly brought the clipper into its own.

In the mid-1850s, as the clipper industry became more competitive, clipper ship sailing cards replaced newspaper advertisements and broadsides as the preferred advertising medium. These cards were usually printed with a combination of letterpress and wood engraving on sturdy enameled card stock. Shipping managers sent cards by private courier to commission merchants and exporters and posted them in any place that might catch the eye of a potential customer.

The quality of clipper ship card design and printing increased from the late 1850s right through the 1860s. Ironically, the clipper ship industry was in decline for most of this period, and few cards were printed after about 1870.

While not all clipper cards were illustrated, many were, using a wide variety of dramatic images, including ships, knights, women, Native Americans, famous people, patriotic imagery, animals and landscape scenes. To verify this, peruse the nearly 400 cards in the American Antiquarian Society's diverse collection, available in the Readex digital edition of American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I. From the database's main page, select "Ship Cards" and set sail.

As an example of the knowledge you can glean from studying clipper ship cards, we'll focus on just one thematic aspect: images of American historical figures.

Andrew Jackson

Images of American Historical Figures on 19th-Century Clipper Ship Cards


A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America

The first entire mummy arrived in America in 1818 in the possession of Ward Nicholas Boylston as a souvenir of his travels. In an era of four-page weekly newspapers, this was such an important event that within six weeks of the mummy's original appearance in the Columbian Centinel of 16 May 1818 the news had spread from Syracuse, New York, to Columbus, Ohio, to Charleston, South Carolina.
A Few More of These Egyptian Carcasses: The Beginnings of Mummymania in Nineteenth-Century America


Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and "The Crisis": Reflections on Religion and American History

Introduction 

Historical anniversaries provide occasion to remember, to reflect, and to create meaning. The controversy surrounding the 1994 Enola Gay exhibit and the memory of World War II offers a case in point. Current debates about September 11 memorials, museums, and mosques in New York City serve as others. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrated its centennial in 2009, only months after America’s first black president Barack Obama was sworn in. The NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, turned 100 in November 2010 and thus provides an occasion to remember and to reflect.1

Still in print, The Crisis represents the struggle, the ingenuity, and the fruit of its founder W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois spent nearly twenty-five of his ninety-five years as its editor (1910-1934). Throughout his autobiographical writings Du Bois proudly reflected on this achievement. In Dusk of Dawn (1940), for example, Du Bois maintained that through the work of the NAACP and The Crisis he could “place consistently and continuously before the country a clear-cut statement of the legitimate aims of the American Negro and the facts concerning his condition.” In his 1968 Autobiography, published posthumously, Du Bois remembered that “With The Crisis, I essayed a new role of interpreting to the world the hindrances and aspirations of American Negroes.” 2

Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and "The Crisis": Reflections on Religion and American History


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