December 21st, 2009 by Ashley Cataldo
Avis G. Clarke, cataloger-cum-researcher of early American imprints and printers, filled hundreds of AAS card catalogue drawers with the AAS printers’ file. Detailing the lives and works of virtually every printer working in America before 1820, the printers’ file is a masterpiece of indexing. Comprising 134 drawers of biographical, printing, and publication history for a vast number of printers before 1820, and 11 drawers for the post-1820 period, the printers’ file represents the perfect merger of detailed research and scholarly vision on the world of early American printing.
As I methodically enter Ms. Clarke’s carefully compiled data into a series of spreadsheets that translate her print index into digital format, I imagine that Ms. Clarke’s own curiosity must have been piqued by printers like James Draper Bemis. Sued for libel by Micah Brooks in 1811, Brooks was one of the earliest surveyors of New York state and would go on to become U.S. Representative in the Fourteenth Congress. Bemis’ own newspapers, the Western Repository (1804-1809), the Ontario Repository (1809-1828), and the Onandaga Register (1814-1817), all at AAS, leave no record of the libel suit. (For further information on the libel suit, click here). Just as mysterious is Bemis’ commitment to the Utica State Hospital in 1848, release in 1849, and re-commitment to the Vermont Asylum for the Insane in 1850, where he died in November of 1857. Clarke never pried into Bemis’ life, yet her cards consistently tug at the curious researcher.
Ms. Clarke had to combine the skills of historian, genealogist, and bibliographer as she created the printers’ file. She never judged or discriminated against the printers: each printer received his own set of cards, in some cases one or two and in others a half-drawer full. Ms. Clarke had to sort through some complex histories of printing families, such as the Adams family. James Adams, patriarch and first printer in Wilmington, DE, was father to John Adams, publisher of the Delaware Courant. James Adams’ firm, James Adams & Sons, comprised James, John, James Jr. and Samuel. Samuel and John published the Delaware and Eastern-Shore Advertiser from 1794-1799, while Samuel and James Jr. printer together in 1786. The whole family printed together from 1788-1789. Sorting through the interwoven histories of family history and newspaper publishing seemed to become one, but only one, of Ms. Clarke’s specialties.
The printers’ file is an AAS treasure, and Ms. Clarke’s excruciatingly detailed work remains an exemplar of AAS cataloging, scholarship, and research. Keep reading PastisPresent for more from Type Findings.