Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox

When I began work several years ago on my in-progress biography of William Fox (1879–1952), founder of Twentieth Century Fox, I knew I was in for trouble. Although Fox was arguably the most important of all the early movie moguls because of his foundational contributions to the art, technology and business of movies, he seemed to have largely disappeared from history. No serious biography of him yet existed, and most movie history overviews made only scant, passing reference to him. Personal papers? Fox left none. Studio archives? Successive management regimes threw away almost everything except minutiae from Fox's regime—keeping extras' contracts and the like, but none of the founder's correspondence or business files. As if all that weren't bad enough, the general field of early film history, especially from 1900 through the mid-1920s when Fox was highly active, was woefully under-cultivated. No wonder no one had ever written a William Fox biography.

Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox


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


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