Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


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


"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


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


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


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


Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture


Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies

A few years ago, a graduate student told me, "I'm changing fields. I'm switching to the wacky world of Early American Studies."

A few weeks earlier, I had sent her to the microfilm rooms in the University of Minnesota's library with assignments she could complete only by plunging into documents she found there in the two Early American Imprints microfiche series. Commonly called "Evans" or "Shaw-Shoemaker" after the authors of the authoritative bibliographies on which the series were created, they include more than 70,000 items—all extant material printed in the colonies and early republic from 1639 to 1819.

After many hours peering at those curious old documents and their funny typefaces, she surfaced and announced that, despite expecting a wasteland of dry and stupefyingly boring texts, she had discovered in the microfiche a nearly unexplored world of writing that she called wacky but nevertheless found oddly wonderful. Her phrase recalls a famous article about student reaction to early American studies that Daniel Williams published in "Early American Literature": "Not enough Rambo Action."

I find that if I can get students into the actual early documents, they discover that it's all Rambo Action: pirates, soldiers, spies, kings, queens, revolutions, dark nights of the soul, invasions, war and peace, politics, captures and escapes and what we too casually would call religious fanatics. I could have told her so beforehand, but she probably wouldn't have believed me.

Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies


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


The Silence of the Suffragettes: Women's Right to Vote in Congressional Publications

The English word "suffrage" is derived from the Latin "suffragium," meaning a "voting tablet"—by extension a "vote," and by further extension a "voice" or "say" in government. It probably comes as no surprise that in the publications of the U.S. Congress it took a long time for the voice of women to be heard and women's suffrage to become a significant issue.

In the publications that comprise the "American State Papers"—the public papers of the first 14 Congresses and a bit beyond—as well as in the Reports and Documents of the "U.S. Congressional Serial Set," there is much discussion of suffrage. However, this discussion is most often in reference to white and male suffrage.

Consider this text from Miscellaneous Publication 141 in the American State Papers on the political status of the city of Washington, in which women are placed between children and persons non compos mentis (that is, exhibiting mental unsoundness):

And be it enacted, That all the lands belonging to minors, persons absent out of the State, married women, and persons non compos mentis

The grounds for denying suffrage to women are, alas, a legacy of prejudice for which an appeal to the "natural order," precedence, practical considerations and even to the Almighty was in this case, as in many others, sought as a justification for something that reason itself could not justify. In Serial Set Report 546 on political conditions in Rhode Island in 1844, we read:

The Silence of the Suffragettes: Women's Right to Vote in Congressional Publications


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