Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays

"Twas founded be th' Puritans to give thanks f'r bein presarved fr'm
th' Indyans, an' . . . we keep it to give thanks we are presarved fr'm th' Puritans."

—Finley Peter Dunne, "'Thanksgiving,' Mr. Dooley's Opinions" (1901)

Holidays are like peaks in a nation's topography. Without them, the landscape would be flat and monotonous; with them, we find places that rise above the everyday world and give us lofty views and broader perspectives. America's national holidays are the extraordinary annual events that help define the United States and its people. On such occasions, Americans tell themselves and the world who they are. They commemorate their origins, call attention to their basic values and ideals, celebrate their good fortune and express thanks to those who created, nurtured and protected their nation. All these qualities make Thanksgiving especially promising terrain for American historians, ground that's easy to chart because historical actors have left such prominent signposts—documentary records—of their festivity.

Thanksgiving is America's most cherished holiday. The autumn festival's nearly universal appeal comes peculiarly from its elasticity and ambiguity. Invented in the 17th century, Thanksgiving has been continually reinvented ever since. Though it began as an exclusive tribal rite for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant New Englanders, Thanksgiving has been appropriated generally by Americans of various tribes well beyond the New England Pale. Some might quibble with Mr. Dooley's historical analysis, but he was surely correct in noticing the value—to immigrants and other marginalized Americans—in the creative recycling of this vital American tradition.

Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays


"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

"We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the war—perhaps history." 1 So wrote General George McClellan to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln before the telegraph wires went dead the morning of September 17, 1862. The wires would remain dead all day, as the battle of Antietam consumed the lives of 6,000 men and the fate of the nation lay in the balance.

Indeed, the first report of Antietam's outcome to reach Lincoln would come not from his generals, but from a reporter, George Smalley of the New York Tribune. Smalley had guessed where the two massive armies would converge, and was there from the beginning, joining General Hooker on horseback. During a crisis early in the battle, Hooker's attention was drawn to Smalley, who was gazing at the battle around him with cool aplomb. "In all the experience which I have had of war," Hooker would later write, "I never saw the most experienced and veteran soldier exhibit more tranquil fortitude and unshaken valor than was exhibited by that young man." 2

Early in the fighting Hooker turned to Smalley and enlisted him as his official messenger to his officers, which put Smalley in one of the most dangerous and important roles on the battlefield. Smalley had two horses shot out from under him, but lived to not only deliver Hooker's orders but to observe the entire battle so keenly that his published report in the Tribune came to be known as the standard against which all battlefield reporting would be measured.

That Smalley managed to do this at all is surprising enough, but that he did it so well almost defies belief. A sample:

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War


From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer

As a lexicographer, dictionary web site editor and co-host of the KBPS radio show "A Way With Words," I receive a large number of questions from the public about word histories.

Many of these queries come from students who want help with their studies. As long as I'm not asked to research the entirety of an assignment, I try to provide a few key sources, a few examples of useful searches and to warn them off of sources I know to be misleading or wrong. My overall intent is to educate these students on how to better find digital data for all of their research, that is, to help them become careful scholars.

For example, I can see in the logs of my dictionary web site that some web searchers share the characteristics of bad drivers: either they are too timid or they are too aggressive. The ability of Google to turn up excellent results no matter how poorly a query is composed seems to bring on a high level of impatience. While conducting searches on sites other than Google, these hurried searchers rarely try alternative approaches like breaking compounds up into two words or making two words a single-word compound, using plurals or conjugated forms, or looking for intentional misspellings, such as eye dialect. They also search as if all query functions on all web sites can handle natural language queries, when, in fact, few can. Searchers often misspell words and don't notice. (When they do, I see the correctly spelled word appear immediately after in a new search). So, I tell these students that becoming a careful scholar means to search with an eye for error—his or hers and others'—and to keep in mind the variety and variability of English orthography.

From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer


American Mystery Meat: Unriddling the Mince Pie

I first became attuned to the historical enigma of mince pie in the mid-1990s while doing research for my book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2005), a study of forgotten independent (i.e. non-corporate) radio stations of the 1920s and early '30s. This was way back in pre-digital times, and I was spending countless hours at the helm of a microfilm reader, blindly trolling through the period press for references to my subjects. My progress would have been slow even if my magpie brain hadn't been continually distracted by newspaper stories and memes unrelated to my task.

Chief among said distractions were references to mince pie. These I found everywhere, and always in contexts that baffled me. I still have photocopies of two exemplary items. One is a 1924 cartoon entitled “Movie of a Man and a Hot Mince Pie,” which depicts a middle-class diner in a pince-nez happily tucking into a steaming slice of mince, then going into convulsions and being whisked away in an ambulance.

The other is a 1925 profile of a doughty centenarian bearing the headline “At 107 She Is Fond of Hot Mince Pie”

American Mystery Meat: Unriddling the Mince Pie


Exploring the Explorers: Government-Sponsored Expeditions in the 19th Century

The nineteenth century was the last great age of exploration on the earth. …American exploration, in particular federally sponsored exploration, began in the nineteenth century at an advanced level as the beneficiary of the developments in the arts and science of exploration of proceeding centuries, but developed some special characteristics of its own.
– Spy Out the Land [1]

In the 19th-century, the United States government spearheaded hundreds of exploring expeditions throughout America and around the world. To record the many works published about those trips, Adelaide R. Hasse—the first Superintendent of Documents librarian—compiled Reports of Explorations Printed in the Documents of the United States Government [2] in 1899. This bibliography is not only a "who's who" of 19th-century explorers but also a travel guide to the many places the government sent these expeditions, including the Amazon, the Arctic, Japan, Mexico, Mississippi River, Yellowstone and many other locations. This article will provide tips on finding a few of the fascinating works cited by Hasse and published in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980 and other Archive of Americana collections.

Adelaide R. Hasse (1868-1953) Superintendent of Documents Librarian (1895-1897)Adelaide R. Hasse (1868-1953) Superintendent of Documents Librarian (1895-1897)

Exploring the Explorers: Government-Sponsored Expeditions in the 19th Century


The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold

When I began work on a history of American counterfeiting between the Revolution and the Civil War, I was faced with some peculiar research problems. With a few rare exceptions, counterfeiting during this period was a crime that was not prosecuted by federal authorities. The problem was instead left to state and local law enforcement officials who were often outnumbered and incompetent. This was partly a consequence of the fact that the paper money in circulation originated not with the federal government, but with hundreds of state-chartered banks. But it was also a reflection of the relative weakness of the federal government's policing.

And therein lay a serious problem, not only for the police of the day, but for the historian who would attempt to reconstruct this kind of criminal activity. Counterfeiting involved vast numbers of players spread out across state and even national lines. This meant that local law enforcement officials often operated in the dark as to the scope and scale of the network of manufacturers, distributors, retailers and passers of bogus bills. Local law enforcement records—what few have survived—often provide but a fleeting snapshot of an individual counterfeiter who typically posted bail and fled, never to be seen again. What, then, is a historian to do, particularly a historian who wants to reconstruct the entire criminal careers of some of these colorful individuals?

The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold


Whitman in Wisconsin: Uncovering his Legacy with "Labor-Saving Machines"

No labor-saving machine,
Nor discovery have I made;
Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to found a hospital or library,
Nor reminiscence of any deed of courage, for America,
Nor literary success, nor intellect—nor book for the book-shelf;
Only a few carols, vibrating through the air, I leave,
For comrades and lovers.

—Walt Whitman, "No Labor-Saving Machine," 1867.

In a rare moment of humility recorded in this poem, Walt Whitman was circumspect about his legacy. His lasting contribution to the world would be no "labor-saving machine," or act of philanthropy. Even Leaves of Grass, into which he had collected a lifetime of reflections and assertions about democracy, the body, the spirit, the physical world, seemed transient. Earlier Whitman had predicted a demand for "copious thousands of copies"1 of Leaves of Grass, but here sees no "literary success" as his lasting achievement. Whitman instead saw his legacy as a ripple in the zeitgeist, "a few carols vibrating through the air" to perhaps be tuned in later by likeminded souls.

Whitman in Wisconsin: Uncovering his Legacy with "Labor-Saving Machines"


Assessing the Map Trade in 18th-Century America

The consumer behavior of 18th-century Americans has been well-documented in regard to tastes in clothing and furniture, the social acts of dining and tea drinking, and pursuits such as book buying. Benjamin Franklin, for example, records how he purchased a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress as a young man, then later sold it to buy Burton's Historical Collections from one of Boston's numerous booksellers. Yet in comparison to the study of early Americans' literary purchases, few efforts have attempted to understand how Americans acquired cartographic products, or what choices the market offered. My research has focused on determining the composition of the map trade, the vendors involved and the availability of their products, including maps, charts, atlases and globes.

Trade with England and Western Europe supplied many of the manufactured goods that populated the colonial American economy. Among those goods were prints, books and maps that appeared in prodigious numbers in American marketplaces. Several types of sources record the inventory and sale of maps, charts, atlases and globes. Account books and correspondence between merchants and their customers can be fruitful, albeit labor-intensive, avenues of inquiry in manuscript repositories. The printed catalogues of booksellers, only a handful of which include cartographic products, also offer a narrow window on the market. Far more numerous than those research staples—and now far more accessible—are early American newspapers. Advertisements and notices from newspapers provide indispensable documentation of the map trade, and America's Historical Newspapers, part of the Readex Archive of Americana, greatly facilitates the task of locating that evidence.

Assessing the Map Trade in 18th-Century America


"Countess" Ida von Claussen: Woman of Convictions

It is futile to attempt to become invisible if you are a beautiful titian-haired heiress standing 5 feet, 10 inches tall. You can't alter your Junoesque stature, so you defiantly raise your height even further by wearing three-inch heels and enormous plumed hats. You sweep into countless courtrooms, elegantly gowned, a white dog under your arm. Rather than running from the press, you actively summon them. Your impudent grin brazenly answers headlines that, with both awe and derision, report on your escapades for over three decades.

The world first came to know Ida Marie von Claussen-Raynor-Honan-Davis-Dona-Maybury in 1907 when, at the age of 32, she attempted to sue Theodore Roosevelt and the American Ambassador to Sweden for one million dollars. Her claim? The men broke her heart by refusing to allow her presentation at the court of her new personal friend, King Oscar II.

"Countess" Ida von Claussen: Woman of Convictions


Reading Between the Lines: Rediscovering the Home of a Founding Father

In 2004, the Pennsylvania home of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801)—first and third Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—was saved from the wrecking ball by a grassroots effort. The Speaker's House, as it is known today, was built in 1763-64 and is located in the historic colonial village of Trappe, Montgomery County. Together with two acres of grounds, this landmark was saved by a non-profit organization bearing the house's name. Since its heroic success in rescuing the property, The Speaker's House has undertaken an intensive effort to research both Muhlenberg himself and the house's complex evolution over time. Using archival, architectural and archaeological evidence, the organization has sought to understand how the building looked and was used during Muhlenberg's occupancy.

Volunteer researchers have undertaken an intensive study of deeds, tax lists, census and probate records and Muhlenberg family papers, in particular the voluminous journals and correspondence of renowned Lutheran minister Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787), Frederick's father and nearest neighbor. A vital part of the archival research effort was aided by the digitized newspapers available in America's Historical Newspapers. Articles found in the database have provided invaluable clues to the house's past.

Reading Between the Lines: Rediscovering the Home of a Founding Father


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