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


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


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


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


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


The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences

In the autumn of 1801, Susan Edwards Johnson of New Haven, Connecticut read several novels while visiting her cousin in New Bern, North Carolina. On November 27, Johnson recorded in her journal1: "Began to read the maid of the Hamlet an indifferent novel, by the author of the Children of the Abbey." She made this entry on December 2: "Passed our time principally in reading the beggar Girl; we got so much interested, that we sat up untill near one oclock, (reading) Saturday night—." In a December 6, 1801 letter, she wrote: "We ride, walk & read novels; last night we sat up until near one oclock & were then quite unwilling, to leave the interesting history of the beggar Girl—."

In mentioning these works, Johnson provides valuable insight into her contemporary literary world. In the summer of 1825, Olivia Caroline Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina who was visiting family in Pendleton also noted literary activities in her journal2, as on July 18: "Miss Hugers called to see us in the morning and promised to lend me 'Patronage', a tale by Maria Edgeworth" (222); and again, on August 25: "This morning I commenced reading Griscom's 'Year in Europe' find it extremely entertaining, it is in two thick octavo volumes 500 pages each" (226). In each instance, these allusions lend insight as to what women were reading and how they interacted with literature, thereby expanding our understanding of women's intellectual worlds and their contemporary literary tastes.

The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences


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


Making Books Out of Ether: The Next Generation of Historical Research

The Constitution crackled as it burned, fifty of its avowed enemies looking on with gleeful eyes, the sweet stench of freshly fired muskets filling their nostrils. People love to burn that which they hate. Flames regularly consume effigies, flags, draft cards, braziers, and despised decrees. As a corollary, people hate to see that which they love go up in flames. Americans alive in the tumultuous 1780s were no exception. So there would be hell to pay for those who dared to set a copy of America's proposed frame of government aflame.
—Draft, "Birth of a Capital Market: The Life and Death of the First U.S. National Debt, 1776-1836"

Librarians, archivists, books, bibliographies and microfilm machines have long been the research historian's best friends, but there is a new name on the A-list—the digital collection. And what a friend! The digital collection does not compete with the historian's older buddies but rather complements them, bringing out their best qualities. The resulting party promises to be the highlight of the season and could summon forth a new, more consilient generation of historical research.

Making Books Out of Ether: The Next Generation of Historical Research


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