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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


War of the Dictionaries

The Georgian brick building of the Merriam-Webster company on Federal Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is considered by some world headquarters of the English language.  Scholars, heads of state and judges alike often deem the Merriam-Webster dictionary the final authority in spelling, pronunciation and definition.  That standing is the outcome of winning a long-fought conflict over a century ago. The company’s founders were brothers George and Charles Merriam, young printers who settled in Springfield in 1831 to print and sell books.  Their shop specialized in school books, Bibles and, curiously, wall papers.  The second-floor presses produced titles stocked by stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
War of the Dictionaries


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


Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner

If asked to name the first southern novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, most Americans might guess William Faulkner or Margaret Mitchell.  The honor actually belongs to Julia Peterkin (1880-1961), a largely forgotten, self-styled plantation mistress from South Carolina whose meteoric career rendered her name and novels household words for the better part of three decades.  Peterkin’s best-selling 1929 Pulitzer-prizewinner, Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), tells the story of Mary Pinesett, a spirited and rebellious—some said promiscuous—black woman who, having been abandoned by July, her “heart-love” husband, determines to have the family of her dreams—but on her own terms.  With the aid of a love charm, Mary lures unnamed partners into assignations, bears nine children of different paternity, and, by reveling in the arrival of each baby, spurns the condemnation of her tight knit community at Blue Brook Plantation.  Modernist critics greeted Scarlet Sister Mary as a masterpiece:  Lionel Trilling remarked on its “strength and dignity,” while Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, perceived in Peterkin’s “banishment of propaganda” a “new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.”  Conversely, the mainstream American media found the Pulitzer selection disturbing.  The Chicago Journal of Commerce declared, “[A] promiscuous Negress with seven [sic] illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards’” synonymous with the award.  A Georgia editor derided the novel as “sex exploitation” while a Carnegie library in Peterkin’s home state banned Mary from the shelves. 

Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner


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.

 From Early American Imprints, Series II

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


Student Scholars: Using Early American Imprints to Introduce Students to the Era and to the Field

In the English program in which I teach, majors are required to take one seminar in American literature before the Civil War, one option of which is Colonial American Literature. This course is not generally high on their list of priorities, and students grumble that the “early stuff” is inaccessible and boring—and, despite my love of the time period, I can see that Mary Rowlandson cannot quite compete, for sheer enjoyment, with writers they encounter elsewhere. However, I often find that what hooks students into an (occasionally begrudging) interest in colonial texts is the sense of the real people behind the words. In an effort to promote that interest in colonial people, and in the hope of encouraging them to think about themselves as budding scholars, I decided to make a recent Colonial American Literature class dive into the Early American Imprints collection.

Student Scholars: Using Early American Imprints to Introduce Students to the Era and to the Field


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


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