The Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project: Now Featuring Comprehensive Transcriptions!

The transcriptions can be found at the bottom of the entry for each ballad, as indicated by the arrow.

The Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project has been fully transcribed! Each of the more than three hundred ballads in the collection now has a text-searchable transcription, as well as the option to download an XML file of the document that includes tags related to the subject matter contained within the text (both can be found at the bottom of the page for each individual ballad).

Previous blog posts have detailed the unique place this project holds at the Society, the many features the website offers to help the reader navigate the holdings of the project, and how the Society collaborated with students of Assumption college to begin transcribing these documents to make them more accessible to all. An original member of this group of students, I fell in love with this project, and it has been my duty and pleasure to continue transcribing these ballads for AAS over the last year and a half. Having the chance to continue working so closely with the ballads has also made me think differently about the history of printing.

When we consume written words today, we don’t think of the way in which they are being provided to us. They simply come over on a screen or through mass-produced books likely printed via automation. Connections we feel to the words most likely link us to the author and the author alone.

Examples of “n” and “u” inversed

Not so for the ballads. Sure, I read the content of each ballad as I was transcribing it, and I felt I could appreciate the emotions coming through the words themselves. More often, I found myself feeling more and more connected to Nathaniel Coverly, the printer of many of these documents. There are many aspects of the printing process that would be foreign to us. Think about actually having to lay out (backwards and upside down) every character you wanted someone to read. It seems almost miraculous that there are so few typos in the ballads to begin with, but it makes Coverly seem more human, more real, whenever you come across one. Some of my favorite typos to find when transcribing were when he would accidentally forget to invert an “n” or a “u,” creating words such as “turuing” instead of “turning.” I purposefully left these typos in the transcriptions both to more accurately reflect the physical printed words on the page, as well as to convey this same sentiment to the reader.

My other favorite “Easter egg” found in the ballads is also reflective of an aspect of the printing process that I believe would occur to very few of us. Typing with digital files, we have a limitless number of characters before us. We have no finite amount of the letter “A” or symbols such as a semicolon. Not true for printers such as Coverly. The ballads in the collection range from 200 to 1,000+ words, with most averaging somewhere around 500 to 600. Often, the lines in the ballad start with the same capital letter, often a “T” or an “I”. If you look closely enough, in many of the ballads you can see where Coverly ran out of capital “T”s (for example) and had to start using the italic versions of the characters simply to complete printing the ballad. I often liked to imagine Coverly mentally budgeting his use of different characters as he prepared the type for the ballad.

Examples of arbitrary roman and italic “T”s

This is what makes this collection so unique. The ballads certainly give us the chance to catch a glimpse into the life of the “common person” in Boston during the early nineteenth century, getting to see and hear the songs that would have been playing in the streets, pubs, and homes of the city. They also give us the chance to peek into the life of a particular and important profession of the time and allow us to feel like we know one of those professionals just a little bit better. I found this to be both an interesting and rewarding part of working with these ballads, and I hope as you explore and enjoy them you find rewards of your own.

An AAS Curiosity: The Puzzle of the Mayan Mural Drawings

Emily Isakson is a senior at Mount Holyoke College and was a Readers’ Services page this past summer. As an ancient studies major with a focus in art history and archaeology, Emily has always been interested in what has shaped the society we know today. Her time at AAS has only furthered her curiosity about the world.

My interest in the museum world has stemmed from many different places—one of which is my love of history. Though my focus is on the ancient Mediterranean, I believe that to truly understand history one must not limit oneself to a single perspective. Because of this, I find myself digging through the AAS’s collections for histories that do not come from the United States. This is how I came across the vibrant drawings of Mayan images by Worcester resident Edward Herbert Thompson.

Before the American Antiquarian Society became a research library focused specifically on collecting printed material related to pre-twentieth-century American history and culture, the Society also collected antiquities of the world and AAS served as a place where these curiosities could be interacted with and researched. When the Society’s collecting focus shifted in the early twentieth century, most of the antiquities were deaccessioned and given to places like such as the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.

I enjoyed being able to handle the original materials, which are oversized. I felt like Indiana Jones!

However, some curious items still remain in the Society’s collection (one of the most popular being the vial of tea from the Boston Tea Party). With the help of Graphic Arts Curator Lauren Hewes, I was able to uncover some of these remaining curiosities. To me, the most curious of all is E. H. Thompson’s set of mural drawings and glyph replicas, both made to scale. In this post, I’m going to focus on the mural reproductions.

Thompson, originally from Worcester, made the drawings on one of his many archaeological trips to Mexico. Thompson served as American consul for Yucatȧn in Mexico in 1885, the same year he befriended Stephen Salisbury III, who was AAS’s president at the time and also had a keen interest in archaeology. Thompson’s mural drawings were made from a building at Chichén Itzá around 1890. Chichén Itzá, a major Pre-Columbian city built by the Mayan People, is located in the Yucatȧn State and remains today one of the most visited archaeological and tourist sites in Mexico.

The drawings are important because the murals are no longer visible in their original state. Due to damage from a number of sources including archaeological excavation, exposure to nature and weather, and continuous tourism, the colors have faded and so have the pictures themselves. From the remaining evidence, the murals seem to depict an allegory of sorts—a look into daily life, war, and religion—but their meaning is up for debate. Even with information deduced from the drawings and other historical accounts, the story can mean different things to different people.

 Much of the information available on what the original murals looked like is represented through Thompson’s drawings and those of one of his contemporaries, Adela Breton, an archaeologist well known for her vivid drawings of the same site. Thompson and Breton even conversed and sent letters back and forth to each other. In one letter that was reproduced in the AAS Proceedings, Thompson believed that the building the murals were in was a temple, while Breton believed it was a ball court.

I wanted to piece together Thompson’s drawings to see the recreation of the mural as a whole. By using a photograph of Breton’s painting of the same wall scenes for reference, I attempted to piece together Thompson’s drawings, which AAS has digitized. As his drawings are made to scale they are quite large, so I printed color-copies of them on 8×10” paper and fit them all together like a puzzle.

My brother, Joshua, helped me to sort through copies of the images on my living room floor.

I quickly ran into some issues during this process. Thompson and Breton, even though they were painting the same mural, had different perspectives on them. There are many similarities between the two, but the main difference lies in color choice. Where Breton may use red, Thompson uses blue, etc. There is no way for me to tell what color the original was, so I am left to wonder whether when the walls were copied down the color was missing or indecipherably faded from these spots. The biggest similarities can be seen in the yellow rooftops. In my own puzzling, these rooftops stood as the main markers for putting Thompson’s drawings in order.

The yellow-roofed buildings depicted in the mural drawings.

I ran into some other issues as well. Thompson redrew many scenes with only small discrepancies in color between the versions. He drew and redrew the same image, leading me to speculate as to why he felt he needed a second go at capturing the image. This practice, combined with the color differences between his drawings and those of Adela Breton, suggests that neither truly knew the color of certain parts of the mural. Chichén Itzá was settled in the 400s, making the site almost 1,500 years old when the paintings were created. Even at the time the mural reproductions were painted, the original murals had already begun to fade, while other areas may have already disappeared completely.d

Some of the drawings depict symbols or people. This man appeared when I pieced four drawings together.

Another valuable source of information for me was the Society’s own Proceedings, where Stephen Salisbury III reported on Thompson’s findings and excavations. It appears that Salisbury funded Thompson’s trips to Yucatȧn because of his own interest in archaeology. Salisbury seemed to have a vision for the direction he felt AAS should move in. During the late 1800s, the fascination with archaeology was growing, and Salisbury was following suit with the latest trend in the academic world.

Using letters from Thompson to Salisbury in the AAS manuscript collection, I was able to find out details about Thompson’s encounters with Mayan people still living around Chichén Itzá, several of whom assisted Thompson in his excavations of the site. I also found a list of the objects and items that Thompson uncovered and sent back to America. Thompson was greatly indebted to Salisbury. He was constantly asking Salisbury for money, but always insisted he would pay it back. In 1906, almost a year after Stephen Salisbury’s death, Thompson wrote to an acquaintance that “by the direction of Mr Salisbury…who furnished me with the funds with which to take them [artifacts] out were turned over by me to the Peabody Museum.” Even after Salisbury’s passing, Thompson recognized how much was owed to him.

Regardless of the inaccuracies of his drawings, E. H. Thompson helped to contribute to preserving a visual representation of the art that once appeared on the walls of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Alongside Adela Breton’s drawings, the pictures give amazing insight into how the Mayan people once lived and what they valued. There are still questions to be answered in terms of the accuracy of the drawings and who they should be attributed to, as in an account of her experiences in Chichén Itzá, Adela Breton mentions that Thompson hired indigenous people to create some drawings for him.* But the drawings are just one piece of the puzzle. To fully understand the drawings and Mayan culture—as with any historical topic or culture—one must look at other sources of information as well. I am fortunate to be able to work, live, and learn in environments that help to foster my understanding of the many perspectives of the past and present.


Further Reading:

American Antiquarian Society. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, New Series Vol. VIII (October 1892): 262-273. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1893.

Gura, Philip F. The American Antiquarian Society, 1812-2012, A Bicentennial History. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 2012.

*McVicker, Mary Frech. Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Thompson, Edward H. People of the Serpent: Life and Adventure Among the Mayas. Boston & NY. 1932. Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1932.

 A bibliographic coincidence, or Does anyone know what these are?

PART I, by Doris O’Keefe, AAS Senior Cataloger

Several weeks ago Brenna Bychowski, one of the Society’s former catalogers who is now at the Beinecke Library at Yale, posted a short video on Facebook and described a book she had recently cataloged:

Two volumes of a James Fenimore Cooper novel (The spy: a tale of the neutral ground. By James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Bowling Green Press, 1929) that end abruptly on page 32, followed by partially written on blank pages that fill the rest of the volume. It’s unclear quite what the original intention was. Repurposed publisher’s dummies? Intentionally created hidden journals? Who knows!

The bindings of the facsimile edition of Martineau’s work, one with dust jacket and one without.

I “liked” her post, made a comment about invisible ink, and turned my attention to the volumes on my book truck. At the moment those books are some of the approximately 750 titles (1,000 volumes) in the bindings collection put together by the late antiquarian bookseller Kenneth G. Leach and purchased by the Society in 1989. Other than some annotations on the slips accompanying each title, made by former AAS president Marcus A. McCorison and the acquisitions staff soon after the collection arrived in Worcester, these books have remained virtually untouched until now. Support from AAS members William S. Reese and Michael Zinman has now made it possible for us to give the collection visibility in the online catalog.

In a great bibliographic coincidence, on the same day I read and commented on the above post, my book truck full of this collection held a two-volume set, in dust jackets, purporting to be Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel (London: Published by Saunders and Otley. New York: Sold by Harper & Brothers, 1838). When I opened the first volume I saw the title page, the first page of text, and page 15. The rest of the first volume and all of the second volume consisted entirely of blank pages.

Blank pages in the facsimile edition of Martineau’s work.

I contacted Brenna and after a series of exchanges we agreed that these were intentionally published with blank pages, but probably not as publishers’ dummies. So what then?

When I compared these volumes with our copy of Martineau’s 1838 edition, it was obvious that the Leach copy was not published in 1838. The three pages of text are photographically reproduced and the paper is of a distinctly later production, though how much later I wasn’t sure.

Title page of original 1838 edition (left) and the title page of the facsimile edition.

Dust jacket of the facsimile with the Blackstone Bond watermark.

The next week, I showed the volumes to Lauren Hewes, AAS curator of graphic arts, who noticed a watermark in the book jacket for Blackstone Bond paper, which was produced by the Byron Weston Company in Dalton, Massachusetts. A bit of googling and I learned that this paper was introduced in 1923. Armed with this information I created a brief catalog record. So while my work is done, the other half of the mystery remains unanswered. I can’t help but think that there are people who have seen these kinds of books before and know why they were published, and perhaps by whom. Through the power of social media perhaps we’ll get an answer.

PART II, by Elizabeth Watts Pope, Curator of Books

Few things pique the curiosity of a rare book person more than a good biblio-mystery. So when I heard about the remarkable coincidence described in Doris O’Keefe’s part above, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about the copy of Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel in the Leach bindings collection at AAS.

I picked up the investigation where my colleagues had left off. Thanks to their research into the watermark, I knew this photo-reproduced book was published sometime after 1923, but it remained a mystery exactly who issued it, when, and why it would be issued almost entirely blank. (Salesman’s sample books or canvassing books were usually issued with blank pages, but they usually had a more substantial portion of the text to appeal to potential buyers and the blank pages were usually lined to be filled in with subscribers’ names.)

To further complicate matters, the fact that this photo-reproduced edition of Retrospect of Western Travel was published after 1923 presented two problems:

  • Twentieth-century publishing history is not our area of expertise at AAS—you might say everything after 1900 is a bit of a blur to us.
  • Most post-1923 imprints are not freely available online due to potential copyright issues. This greatly limited the utility of that essential first step of all modern sleuthing—a keyword search in Google.

My first guess was perhaps this photo-reproduction was published to mark the centennial of Martineau’s work in 1938. I tried searching Google and various databases for keywords “1938” and “Martineau.” When this hypothesis didn’t pan out, I turned to that refuge of librarians everywhere: WorldCat. (WorldCat is a “master” catalog that includes library resources from around the world maintained by the Online Computer Library Center, or OCLC.)

I searched OCLC’s WorldCat for “Retrospect of Western Travel” and browsed the results for twentieth-century dates of publication. The best lead I came out with was a rather nondescript catalog record for a “Facsimile reprint, 1942.”

With a more definite date to go by, I now searched in Google for “Retrospect of Western Travel” and “1942” and was able to confirm the publication of the facsimile edition with a number of articles in periodicals, such as this Publishers’ Weekly article:

“In selecting for facsimile publication Harriet Martineau’s diary of American travel in 1834, ‘Retrospect of western travel,’ Harper & Brothers has made a particularly welcome choice of a book to help mark the firm’s 125th anniversary. Harper’s facsimile, boxed at $4, is a faithful reproduction … of the two handy volumes issued in New York by Harper & Brothers in 1838.” –The Publishers Weekly, v. 142, p. 2137, 1942

The Leach collection copy (left) and the newly acquired full facsimile (right) showing the same bindings.

With the date and publisher now established, I was able to locate a complete copy of the two-volume set with the full text on eBay. AAS acquired it in order to determine definitively that it has the same binding, book jacket, and printed spine label as the copy with blank pages already at AAS in the Leach bindings collection (which it does).

Reviewers in the 1940s had commented on how closely the facsimile copied the original, so the Leach bindings copy at AAS could very well be a binding dummy to demonstrate how exact a replica it would be. This is our current best guess as to what we have at AAS, though this doesn’t help explain the original example of The Spy at the Beinecke. Was this a common practice of the time? Do other examples exist? Perhaps you have the clues to help us clear up the remaining questions of this biblio-mystery.

AAS Catalog Is an Award-Winner!

On May 17, 2018, during the annual meeting of the American Historical Print Collector’s Society (AHPCS) in California, the American Antiquarian Society received the Ewell L. Newman Book Award for our exhibition catalog Radiant with Color & Art: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books, 1858–1920. The Newman Book Award recognizes and encourages outstanding publications that enhance the appreciation of American prints. The selection committee considers “original research, fresh assessments, and the fluent synthesis of known material” when making the award.

During the presentation of the award in Sacramento, California, Sally Pierce, retired curator of prints and photographs at the Boston Athenaeum (and an AAS member), noted, “The award is well deserved. The committee was excited by the illustrations and descriptions of the printing processes contained in the catalog. Jackie Penny did a great job with the design and production values. Your AAS team did an outstanding job.” The head of the Newman Book Award committee, Thomas Bruhn, wrote his congratulations, stating, “The McLoughlin Brothers catalogue is a really good piece of work, and as an investigation into mechanisms of 19th-century children’s book publishing very informative. Also, its design and production values are very high which makes it so appealing visually. AAS should be very pleased.” The award was gratefully accepted on behalf of AAS by Lauren Hewes, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts.

Hewes with the AHPCS group inside Yosemite National Park, May 2018.

In winning the Newman Book Award, Radiant with Color & Art joins a long list of prestigious publications on American printmaking, including 1995’s winner, Ron Tyler’s Prints of the West; Jane R. Pomeroy’s Alexander Anderson, 1775-1870, Wood Engraver and Illustrator, an Annotated Bibliography, which won in 2007; and Michael Twyman’s important tome on lithography, A History Of Chromolithography: Printed Colour for All, which took the award in 2015.

“A Lot of Handsome Badges”: A New Illustrated Inventory

Grand Army of the Republic Veterans from Ohio gathered at Mount Vernon, 1890. (Detail)

AAS collects American printed materials of all kinds, including multiple types of ephemera, from broadsides to tickets to ribbon badges. We have recently completed an illustrated inventory of the Society’s collection of more than 170 ribbon badges, ranging in date from 1824 to 1900. The inventory includes ribbons worn during political campaigns and civic events as well as badges worn by women fighting for the right to vote, children attending school activities, and citizens attending events such as fairs, dedications, and parades. These objects were intended to be worn on the clothing, usually pinned to a lapel, shirt front, or dress. Several pre-1900 photographs in the Society’s collection feature people proudly wearing ribbon badges at reunions, field days, and sporting events.

Advertising ribbon for C.S. Martindell, Philadelphia, ca. 1887.

In the nineteenth century, ribbon badges were engraved, lithographed, or run through relief letterpress presses; all of these printing processes are represented in the collection. Some printers, after seeing the profitability of printing on silk and other fabrics, specialized in the trade and hired skilled artists to create the visual designs that characterize many of the earliest examples. During the nineteenth century, ribbon printers offered pictures, gilt lettering, fringe options, and more, often creating advertisements for their services in the form of a ribbon. Demand increased steadily as the century progressed. In August 1872 an article in a St. Louis newspaper documented the craze for political ribbons in that city, noting “The sales are large and increasing. The St. Louis dealers disburse on average of 1,000 or 1,600 a day. The demand is largest in the country, although large amounts are sold by canvassers on the streets and on trains.”[1] By 1910, a well-equipped printing shop could create 4,000 ribbons per hour.[2]

W. H. Harrison mourning ribbon. Baltimore: Edward Weber & Co., 1841.

Customers would acquire ribbons in various ways.  For events at fraternal organizations and schools, ribbons were distributed directly to membership and students. For public events, such as dedications, parades, and funerals of important individuals, printers would place advertisements in local newspapers to let people know special printed badges were available. After the sudden death of President William Henry Harrison on April 4, 1841, for example, many printers quickly offered ribbons for sale. An April 20th advertisement in a Baltimore newspaper promoted mourning badges for the president offered by local publisher H. A. Turner priced between twelve and nineteen cents per piece.[3]

American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, Maryland (April 20, 1841).

Henry Clay, Democratic Whig National Convention, Philadelphia: John B. Keller, 1844.

Printed ribbons were used for all kinds of special events and promotions throughout the nineteenth century. Many ribbons that survive today were used during political campaigns. An affordable way for candidates to rally their constituents, ribbon badges were first used in the 1820s and 30s during the presidential campaigns of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Thousands of ribbons were also created to promote social causes such as temperance and women’s suffrage, to mark local and regional celebrations, and to celebrate anniversaries. They were given out in schools for good attendance or behavior, used as awards at sporting events and fairs, and were worn by trade groups and firemen marching in parades. By 1875, printed ribbon badges had become nearly ubiquitous at most civic events across the country from New York to California.

Judge’s ribbon, State Agricultural Society of New Jersey, 1858.
Reward ribbon for good attendance, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1868.

Schoolchildren wearing ribbons at a potato race, Worcester, Massachusetts, ca. 1890.

New England Laundrymen’s and Allied Trades Association, Boston meeting. Newark, New Jersey: Whitehead & Hoag Co., 1897.

Printed ribbon badges started to decline in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century due to the development of the celluloid button, first patented by Whitehead Hoag & Co. in 1896. The buttons were sturdier, cheaper to produce, and provided better quality images that were less fragile than silk ribbons. Several examples of early buttons are also found within this collection and can be seen in the inventory.

Our hope is that the new illustrated inventory will bring these fragile, ephemeral objects to the attention of scholars and collectors. We continue to add printed ribbons to the collection, so be sure to check back now and then to see the latest acquisitions.


[1] Daily Missouri Democrat, St. Louis, Missouri (August 15, 1872): 4.

[2] Charles S. Anderson, “Printing Ribbon Badges,” The Practical Printer vol. 13 no. 1 (January 1911): 7.

[3] “Mourning Badges,” American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, Maryland (April 20, 1841): 3.

Join AAS This Summer On a Social Media Road Trip

You might want to pick up one of these “drummer’s valises,” advertised here by the U.S. Tea Co. circa 1883. They even give you some great ideas about what to pack – don’t forget your tooth powder and whiskey!

For many people, Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. As we antiquarians here at AAS began thinking about summer in the collections, we started to imagine how wonderful it might be to go on a road trip and visit every state represented in our collections—that’s all fifty, of course!

Since the feasibility of a national road trip seems a bit out of reach, we decided to quell our wanderlust in another way. Beginning on June 18 using #AASroadtrip, our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds will take you on a journey through the collections and the United States, highlighting items from one state every week day. To up the nerd factor just a tad further, we’ve decided to post in the order that each state entered the Union. We’ll be looking at you first, Delaware!

Road trips always bring some surprises, and this one will be no different. Perhaps you’ll run into Davy Crockett on your way south or hook up with a dogsled team around the northern border. Games are necessary entertainment on any road trip, and don’t forget to record your trip with photos, poems, and watercolors.

So grab your device and antiquarian curiosity and tune into #AASroadtrip starting June 18!

It’s also always handy to have some traveler’s checks on hand, like the ones advertised here by American Express in 1893.

Help us Fund-a-Book!

Many of you are familiar with our popular Adopt-A-Book fundraiser, an event that made it possible for our patrons to sponsor the acquisition of particular items in our collections—manuscripts, books, newspapers, children’s literature, or graphic arts materials such s photographs and ephemera. If you have donated in the past, thank you for your generosity!

Now it’s that time again, but this year’s fundraiser is a little different. We are calling it Fund-A-Book because rather than adopting a specific item, we are asking you for assistance with acquisitions across all of our collecting areas. This is our eleventh time sponsoring this acquisitions fundraiser, and it just so happens that eleven is a lucky number for some of us at the American Antiquarian Society—including our newly appointed eleventh head librarian!

We have chosen eleven representative items from the collection featuring our lucky number to inspire your donations, hoping that will extend our good fortune. See, for example, this map of New York, the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution. In the past fifteen years, our curator of newspapers has added to the library almost 60,000 issues and 1,248 titles of newspapers from 160 New York towns such as Albany, Cooperstown, Poughkeepsie, Skaneateles, and Utica. Your donation will help us acquire additional material about the Empire State—and the other forty-nine, too!

A donation in the amount of your choice will be put toward a future purchase when funds are running short in the eleventh hour. Our goal? To raise eleven thousand dollars between May 11 and June 11!

Head over to the Fund-a-Book page, now live, for more fun highlights from the collections and to make a contribution. Who knows—some of those new purchases could even end up here on the blog as Acquisitions Table features!

The Acquisitions Table: The White Horse by Bertha Johnston

I recently purchased from booksellers David Szewczyk and Cynthia Davis Buffington a copy of what might very well be the first children’s book printed in Vermillion, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota). This 1876 piece of juvenilia is titled The White Horse and written by one Bertha Johnston, who is described on the title page as nine years old and living across the country at 113 East 10th Street, New York.  How her work caught the attention of the publisher Owens & Smith is not clear. Perhaps she sent her work out to various newspaper and periodical publishers for possible publication, and since Owens & Smith published the local paper in Vermillion it may be that her piece was initially published in an eastern paper and the Vermillion publisher decided to reissue it in chapbook format as a novelty.  The White Horse is a short story about a poor man of great Christian faith who has a beautiful white horse that captivates the interest of his wealthy neighbor who is not a believer.  Although the poor man refuses to sell the horse, the two men become friends and their shared love for the horse eventually brings the wealthy man to believe in God.

The second story in the collection, “The Whale,” does not end quite so happily.  Here it is, in its breathless entirety:

The Whale. Once a man was on a ship, when he saw a whale quite far off.  He then told the other men, who at once got their weapons.  And it was so large that they all jumped overboard.  And the whale had a good dinner of men.  The End.

In an era when didactic children’s stories played out in long-winded prose, the brevity of the “The Whale” is stunning, and it is the whale that emerges the victor. One wonders whether she was familiar with that most famous of whales, Moby Dick.

And what about the author, Bertha Johnston?  Using the genealogical database Ancestry, I found a likely match in one Bertha Johnston who was born circa 1868 in New York, the daughter of Alma Ann Calder and John Henry Johnston.  The 1910 United States Census lists the same Bertha Johnston, aged forty-two, living in Brooklyn and employed as a magazine editor. The 1940 census reveals that Bertha had attended college for two years. This humble chapbook represents the genesis of what ultimately became a career in the burgeoning field of periodical publishing, with its new opportunities for the growing ranks of formally educated American women.

The Acquisitions Table: The Countryman  

The Countryman (Turnwold, Georgia), 1862–1866. 163 issues.

The Countryman is the only newspaper published on a Southern plantation. The owner of the plantation, Joseph Turner, started this paper on March 4, 1862. In advertisements he placed in various newspapers he wrote, “We do not profess to publish a NEWS paper, for, under the circumstances, that is impossible. Our aim is to model our journal after Addison’s Little Paper, The Spectator, Steele’s Little Paper, The [sic] Tatler, Johnson’s Little Papers, The Rambler and The Adventurer, and Goldsmith’s Little Paper, The Bee; neither of which, we believe, was as large as the Countryman. It is our aim to fill our Little Paper with Wit, Essays, Poems, Sketches, Agricultural Articles, and Choice Miscellany. We do not intend to publish anything that is dull, didactic, or prosy.”[1]

While Turner professed he was not publishing a newspaper, it did contain both local and national news concerning the war. He also promoted causes that helped the Confederacy in fighting the Union. For example, in the issue of March 25, 1862, he wrote an article promoting the Ladies’ Gun-boat Fund, which encouraged women of Putnam County to donate money towards the building of a gun-boat for the defense of the Georgian coast. Throughout the life of the paper, Turner also attacked Abraham Lincoln and Yankees and strongly advocated for a separate Southern identity in politics, culture, and literature. The end of the war struck him hard, but Turner blamed the defeat of the South on God and not the North.

Turner also employed a bright young local lad as a printer’s devil in his printing shop. He gave the youth access to his extensive library and encouraged him to write stories, essays, and jokes for the paper. That apprentice was Joel Chandler Harris, who later became famous for his Uncle Remus tales. By 1863 Harris was writing little pieces and jokes, signing them as “Countryman’s Devil.” For example, in the April 14, 1863, issue he wrote:

“What key is it that has sought to lock up Southern ports to the commerce of the world?

The monkey – Abraham Lincoln.”[2]

It isn’t until the issue of September 27, 1864, that we find a poem attributed to Harris under his own name.

This collection of issues is of further significance to AAS because it belonged to Joel Chandler Harris himself and was passed down his family. Timothy Hughes, the dealer who sold us the file, provided the following details:

“As for ‘The Countryman’ newspaper from Turnwold Plantation, Georgia, which now resides in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, the collection was purchased by us within the last month from a family in Georgia….In corresponding with them the following information was provided….

‘I inherited these issues from my mother…after her death in 1989. Her mother, my grandmother…was Joel Chandler Harris’ youngest daughter. These newspapers belonged to Joel Chandler Harris, and were saved by my grandmother after his death.'”

Including the issues already in the collection, AAS now has 172 issues. The second largest collection is located at the Boston Athenaeum with thirty issues. We are just fourteen issues shy of having a complete run. This is definitely one of the top newspaper acquisitions for AAS in the past fifteen years.


[1] Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), April 22, 1862.

[2] Turner had also written pieces in earlier issues regularly comparing Lincoln to a baboon.

The newest issue of Almanac is here!

The newest issue of Almanac really has us energized about everything happening at the Society this year! Here are some of the highlights:

  • A closer look at the new multipurpose room that will be housed on the ground floor of the Antiquarian Hall addition
  • A thorough evaluation of all of our programming initiatives
  • Updates on construction progress
  • The spring public program lineup
  • New digital humanities collaborations that are capitalizing on AAS data and projects

Aside from new happenings, this issue also includes a feature about unexpected donations of collection material; a reflective interview between outgoing Marcus A. McCorison Librarian Thomas Knoles and his successor, Megan Hahn Fraser (also featured in a previous blog post); and more.

Flip through the whole issue below or download here.

An Interview with the Librarian

At the end of August 2018, long-time Marcus A. McCorison Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts Thomas G. Knoles will be retiring from AAS. After almost twenty-nine years at the Society, we wanted to be sure to tap Tom’s long institutional knowledge and his experiences in the library world. There was none better to do this than the incoming Marcus A. McCorison Librarian, Megan Hahn Fraser, who began that position on April 2. A truncated version of this interview also appears in the March 2018 issue of Almanac.

MHF: What was your career path before coming to the American Antiquarian Society?

TGK: Slightly crooked, I guess. When I was in college I was interested in the classics but also in library work. I’ve always been fascinated by libraries. Approaching graduation, I was torn about going to grad school in classics or library school. I decided on classics and went to Rutgers for graduate school. While I was working on my dissertation, I got a work study job in the special collections department at Rutgers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was what I wanted to do. While I was finishing my dissertation, I also got a Master’s in Library Science and started thinking about library jobs in general. About a year after that, my wife got a job teaching at Assumption College here in Worcester. We agreed that whoever got a job first, that was where we would go. I worked for about five years in the reference department at the Worcester Public Library. It was not the sort of work that I thought I wanted to do, but it was great experience. Having to work in a busy reference environment with a diverse population was good for learning interpersonal skills and helping readers find what it is they’re actually looking for. I applied for the job of curator of manuscripts when it came along in 1990, got the job, and have been here almost twenty-nine years.

MHF: Since your arrival at AAS in 1990, what would you say is the biggest change that you’ve led or observed?

TGK: The two biggest—number one: computers. When I started to work here there was not a personal computer in the whole building. I don’t think we got our first set of computers institution-wide until 1992. We all spend our whole days at computers now and they are absolutely indispensable. They are such terrific tools for searching in the collections. And having the Internet and the entire catalog and all of the related material available to the whole world online has been a huge change.

The other thing is the progress we’ve made in terms of access to the materials. When I came there were dozens of collections that were completely uncataloged. That number has dwindled dramatically. There is still a lot of work to be done that will keep us busy for a while, but the ability for non-staff people to be able to find material using the online catalog has changed dramatically. When I came there was no online catalog. We were still using just the card catalog—so it was impossible for anyone offsite to know much about what we had or didn’t have.

MHF: I’m especially interested in libraries such as this one making every effort to increase public access to special collections. What are your thoughts about how access to collections has improved or changed during your tenure?

TGK: We’ve digitized fifteen or sixteen million pages of collection material in partnerships with vendors, and that has made collections much more broadly available than they were and, in the fullness of time, all of that material will be offered freely on the internet as well. When I came to AAS, the model was: you came into the library, there was the catalog, there was the staff, and there were the books in the back. The card catalog and the staff were the two ways people could find out about the material in the back. Now it’s a totally different world than it was because so much is available online, and things are cataloged when they weren’t before.

MHF: How do you think research might have changed due to increased access?

TGK: On the positive side, research tools are much better for people than they used to be. A knowledgeable researcher can glean a lot more without ever coming into the building. The negative side is that if a person looks in the catalog and doesn’t find something, they may too quickly assume that we don’t have it, but it may be because of the way they looked or because it’s not cataloged.

MHF: In your time here, you’ve managed two positions: head of the library and curator of manuscripts.

TGK: Actually I’ve had three positions—from 1995 to 1999 I was also head of reader services.

MHF: My question was going to be “what are some things you enjoy about both of those jobs,” but if you’d like to talk about all three?

TGK: Yes. The thing that drew me to the work in the first place and that made being curator of manuscripts so attractive and so enjoyable is both working with the material, which is endlessly fascinating, and also working with people who are working with the material. In the process of helping people, there’s the satisfaction that comes from that, and you and the reader often learn things together about the collections that you didn’t know before. I’ve gotten increasingly interested in the physicality of manuscripts—why do they look the way they do, why do people keep them that way as opposed to some other way. I think sometimes people use manuscripts without understanding how they are different from books.

In reader services, I had a much more continuous role in working with people and talking daily about their research, though I’d always done that with people using manuscript collections. So actually seeing things through and eventually seeing a book come out, is really deeply satisfying. That was one of the things I was always a little frustrated by at the [Worcester] Public Library. You would talk with someone about what was really quite an interesting question and you might never see the person again. Here much more often you see people through the years and even through the decades as they keep coming back, and you build personal relationships in addition to ones that come from interacting over the materials.

In terms of the librarian position, I’ve really enjoyed being able to play a role in setting priorities, and also in helping staff grow in their work. It’s been wonderful to assist in the development of junior staff. We have a long tradition here of finding new opportunities and challenges for people to match their abilities. We have many people on the staff who started in much less senior positions than they’re in now. Our curator of books started as a clerk in the acquisitions department. Our head of cataloging services started as a page in reader services. And I can tell that story over and over again. Being part of that process has been very satisfying.

A page from one of William Bentley’s diaries.

MHF: I dread when people ask me this, because it is always so hard to choose, but if you had to say, do you have a favorite collection and why?

TGK: I actually have an answer to that question: our William Bentley papers. He was a minister in Salem from the 1780s until his death in 1819. Soon after I started working here I recognized that not only was there his wonderful diary, but this incredible record of his book world, the collecting he did, his network of exchanges and gifts in both directions, lending and borrowing books, so well recorded and scarcely looked at by anybody in the 150 years the papers have been here at AAS. I started getting quite interested in his book accounts in the early ’90s, but other things intervened. A few years ago, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts asked me if I was interested in doing a new edition of the diaries, and by then I had realized that the edition of a century ago had left out about half the original material. I’m so excited about working on this project in the years to come.

MHF: What are some projects or accomplishments that you hope to be remembered for?

TGK: I could point at collections I’ve processed, or readers I’ve helped, and it is always nice to see your name in acknowledgements, but the things I’m proudest of have happened since I’ve been librarian and they have to do with the staff.

An example is the curators. Until I became librarian, curators needed approval before purchasing anything. I wanted to give them more agency, so now each of the curators has a defined budget every year and autonomy in spending it. The curators have also been very successful at working collegially to make major decisions.

It has also meant a lot to me to look for opportunities for staff to grow professionally and to further their careers. We have a wonderful group of people working here, and I’m always trying to sustain the idea of what we’re trying to accomplish, but that’s not difficult because of the shared sense of excitement about the work of the Society and about the materials we’re handling all the time. It’s really quite remarkable.

MHF: It’s easy to become jaded in this business and the fact that we all still find something to find wonder in is great.

TGK: This is a great institution for that because things to wonder at are all around us every day, and are continually coming in, being discovered as things get cataloged, or as staff comes across them, or as readers use them. I’ve said to so many people here you will never get bored working here, and if you do, you really don’t belong here.

MHF: Your colleagues appreciate you as a strong advocate for superior reader services. How did you set the tone for how the reading room works?

TGK: I should say up front, this was not new with me. We’ve had a long and stellar reputation as the library where you get better service than you do anyplace else. You can look in acknowledgements of scholarly books and you’ll see this over and over again, us singled out, but that was happening long before I became librarian. So I’ve seen my role as mostly working to continue and improve on that tradition.

When people begin to work in reader services, I stress how important the work is: it’s not just fetching books, but you are an agent in the process of doing research. That means being open and proactive and interested in helping. Readers appreciate that. Choosing people who already have that helpful attitude to start with is key. Staff on the desk need to continually remember that the reader in the reading room is the most important thing they’re responsible for when they’re on the desk. We want to ensure that the research experience is as productive and positive as it can be.

MHF: What types of things do you personally collect?  

TGK: I don’t collect anything!

MHF: Excellent! [Laughs.] How do you manage that?

TGK: I mean, accumulate, yes—I’ve got a lot of books, music, and so forth, but in the sense of collecting, I really don’t collect anything. This is going to sound clichéd, but I find this collection here and adding to it and helping people with it so satisfying that it kind of seems silly to me to collect things on the kind of scale that I’d be able to do it. For me the satisfaction isn’t in having it in my possession and being able to look at it, it’s really that being part of an enterprise like this is much more satisfying to me than actually collecting would be. Maybe I’m kind of an outlier on that—I think most of the people who do this kind of work do collect something, whether it’s stamps or whatever, it’s just not really an impulse that’s in me in that sense.

MHF: That’s so interesting to hear you say that because since I’ve come here it’s a question that I get a lot, and I struggle with it, because I feel as if people want me to say that I’m a collector. But I don’t either – I think it’s partly because I have an obsessive personality, and if I tried to be a completest, it would drive me crazy, and also I have very expensive tastes, so if I can’t collect, say, Fabergé eggs, or something…?

TGK: I totally understand. For me, too, having the material in its context and aggregated as part of something bigger to me seems much more enjoyable than having a little bit in my closet. But I don’t fault anyone who is a collector.

MHF: No, of course not!

TGK: I totally understand the impulse but my collecting desires are satisfied by seeing the Society build its collections and by acquiring manuscripts for AAS —and I don’t have to pay for them! [Laughs.]

MHF: That does help! It’s interesting to me because you suggested that I ask you this question and I thought, “Oh, he wants to talk about some great stuff that he has…”

TGK: [Joking] My collection of Hummel figurines?

MHF: Right! So, what do you plan to do once you leave us?

William Bentley! I’ve been working on the new edition of the diaries for a couple years now. AAS has generously let me work half my time as librarian and the other half on the Bentley diaries. The Bentley project is absolutely perfect for me. It’s the kind of work that I really enjoy; it’s also very educational, with never-ending intellectual interest. It will be satisfying to see them appear and become useful for other people.

I think it is going to be great to be retired. My wife and I will do some traveling and hiking but we’re not moving to Arizona to sit in the sun.

MHF: Do you have any words of wisdom for the staff?

TGK: The thing about AAS is that the shared sense of mission here is just incredible. People have different approaches, but we all understand why we’re here and value the same things. The advice to the staff is just keep doing the great stuff you’re doing and hand it on to the next generation. None of this is really ours. The place and the collection is here—we’re just passing through—and it’s is going to keep going.

MHF: There’s something comforting about that.

TGK: There is. It’s not like you build up this thing that’s going to go away when you’re not there anymore.

If you’ve been Concord, you should be Worcestered

I take this title from the eminently quotable Thoreau, who once quipped to his Worcester friend Harrison Gray Otis Blake in April 1857, “Come & be Concord, as I have been Worcestered.” Thoreau had already lectured in Worcester several times and had been visiting the city for over seven years when he wrote to Blake.  

So I say the same thing to readers of this blog: If you saw the recent exhibit of Thoreau’s journals at the Concord Museum, featuring collections from both the Morgan Library & Museum and the Concord Museum, you should visit AAS and Worcester. Even if you didn’t see the exhibit, you should still visit Worcester. After all, Thoreau’s journals did spend thirty years in the city.

After Thoreau died in 1862, his sister Sophia first inherited the manuscripts. She eventually deposited them at the Concord town library where they were under Ralph Waldo Emerson’s trusteeship. After Sophia died in 1876, her will stated that Harrison Gray Otis Blake, the Worcester friend to whom Thoreau wrote in 1857, should receive the two trunks of manuscripts containing the journals. Blake published several volumes of excerpts from the journals, arranged seasonally (one for summer, one for spring, one for autumn, and one for winter). When Blake died in 1898, most of the journals passed to the director of the Worcester State Normal School, Edward Harlow Russell, before Russell eventually sold them to a New York dealer, George S. Hellman.  When Russell owned Thoreau’s journals, he allowed Houghton Mifflin to publish the manuscript edition of Thoreau’s works, with each copy containing an original Thoreau manuscript. Hellman sold the manuscripts to Stephen Wakeman, who in turn sold them to J. P. Morgan. The journals remain at the Morgan today.

When Blake owned the journals, he marked off many sections of Thoreau’s journals in blue pencil, which you’ll see if you read the original journals. Blake also pasted (sometimes inaccurate) dated labels on their covers. Unfortunately, Blake also inaccurately transcribed some passages and often omitted whole passages.

In his effort to universalize Thoreau’s experiences, Blake disregarded the specifics of Thoreau’s local conditions. He omitted Thoreau’s description of his neighbor, the faint warbling of sparrows, and the world that immediately surrounded him. In favor of Thoreau’s general and quotable quotes, Blake erased the specifics of Thoreau’s microcosm and, with them, one could argue, the man himself. So, I say, come, be Worcestered, take a look at some of the original editions of Thoreau’s works (seen above), and be more thoroughly thorough than Blake.

Blake omitted all italicized sections below; passage taken from the 1861 Thoreau journals online.

Mar 18th– Tree sparrows have warbled faintly for a week.

When I pass by a twig of willow, though of the slenderest & d kind, rising above the sedge in some dry hollow early in Dec. or in mid-winter above the snow–my spirits rise as if it were an oasis in the desert– The very name sallow — from the Celtic sal. lis near water suggests that there is some natural sap or blood flowing there. It is a divining wand that has not failed but stands with its root in the fountain.

The fertile willow catkin are these green caterpillar-like ones–commonly an inch or more in length–which develop themselves rapidly after the sterile yellow ones which we had so admired are fallen or effete, arranged around the bare twigs, they often form green wands 8 to 18 inches long–

A single catkin consists of from 25 to 100 little pods–more or less ovate & beaked–each of which is closely packed with cotton, in which are numerous seeds so small that they are scarcely discernable by ordinary eyes. I do not know what they mean who call it the emblem of despairing this love–!

“The willow, worn by forlorn paramour–“! It is rather the emblem of triumphant & never dying love–a sympathy with all nature. It may droop–it is so lithe & supple–but it never weeps. The willow of Babylon–flourishes with us–trailing its slender branches perchance in N.E. streams–& it blooms not the less hopefully–though its other half is not in the new-world at all, & never has been. (Nor were poplars ever the weeping sisters of phaeton–for nothing rejoices them more than the sight of the Sun’s chariot, & little reck they who drives it)

They droop, not to represent Davids tears but rather to rival the crown for Alexander’s head. Ah willow willow–

No wonder its wood was anciently in demand for buckles, for like the whole tree, it is not only soft & pliant, but tough & resilient (as Pliny says?) closing not splitting at the first blow–but closing its wounds at once & refusing to transmit its hurts

I know of one foreign species which introduced itself into Concord–as withe used to be of  a bundle of trees. A gardener–stuck it in the  ground & it lived–& has its descendants–

Herodotus says that the Scythians divined by the help of hollow rods–I do not know any better twigs for this purpose.

How various are the habits of men– Mother says that her father-in Law–Capt. Minott–not only used to roast & cut a long row of little wild apples–reaching in a semicircicle from jam to jam under the andirons on the reddened hearth– (I used to buy many a pound of spanish brown at the stores for mother to redden the jams & hearth with) but he had a quart of new milk regularly placed at the head of his bed which he drank at many draughts in the course of the night– It was so the night he died–& my Grandmother discovered that he was dying, by his not turning over to reach his milk, I asked what he died of, & Mother answered apoplexy–! at which I did not wonder– still this habit may not have caused it–

I have a cousin, also, who regularly eats his bowl of bread & milk just before going to bed–however late– He is a very stirring man.

You cant read any germaine [Blake has “genuine”] history –as that of Herodotus, or the Venerable Bede–without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject–but on the man, on the manner in which he treats the subject & the importance he gives it. A feeble writer & without genius must have what he thinks a great theme–which we are already interested in through the accounts of others–but a genius–a shakespeare for instance–would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world.

Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told–& it depends chiefly on the story-teller or –historian whether that is interesting or not–

You are simply a witness on the stand to tell what you know about your neighbors & neighborhood– Your account of foreign parts which you have never seen should by good sights be less interesting.

Worcester’s “Garden City”

My favorite part of cataloging is figuring out a mystery. When little information is given with an object and I am able to solve that mystery, I’m a happy camper. So when a set of three photographs came across my desk, one of them a very sweet image of children holding rabbits and chickens, I wanted to find out the story behind it. Written in pencil on the back of all three photographs was “Garden City group (c1905).” This caption doesn’t help me much. Garden City? Well, New Jersey is the garden state, so maybe there’s a connection there. A little Googling didn’t turn up anything. I then thought, maybe, because many of the other photographs in this miscellaneous box contained views of Worcester, these photos may be from Worcester, too. At least, I wanted it to be of Worcester. Some more Googling and I found it. Garden City was in fact in Worcester.

Citizens of Garden City, along with their mayor, at center, holding some of the many animals kept in their zoo. Rabbits, guinea pigs, and a white rat were kept among foxes, a raccoon, and a hawk.

Garden City was the brain child of Dr. James G. Floody, a progressive pastor born in Canada, who preached in Gladwin, Michigan, and Boston, Massachusetts, before coming to Worcester where he is most remembered for his work in social services. Dr. Floody, seeing the petty crimes taking place by some of the adolescent boys in the city’s Island District (South Worcester and Green Island), he sought to help them change their ways. He said he “came to the conclusion that the only way to teach a boy respect for another’s property was to let him have property of his own.”[1] Possibly influenced by the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and 1900s, Dr. Floody set to work to help revamp at least one parcel in the city. In 1907 he obtained a dump, not so affectionately known as “Dead Cat Dump,” which was owned by Crompton Mills and is today known as Crompton Park. He enlisted the help of the boys and girls of the Island District, ages six to sixteen, many of whom were immigrants of different faiths from Poland, Lithuania, Ireland, Sweden, and France. They completely cleared the more than four-acre lot of old mattresses, bricks, and yes, dead cats. One young girl was reported to have won a prize for carrying out 217 bricks from the dump. The city of Worcester then came and helped prepare the lot for small gardens. Each child was given one of six hundred 10×20-foot plots, five cents, five packets of seeds, and a deed to their garden. Each pathway in the Garden City was named after a prominent Worcester citizen, and two city squares were decorated with flowers and named in honor of Senator George Frisbee Hoar and philanthropist Lucretia Graton.

Citizens of Garden City pose with founder Robert J. Floody, at center, wearing a bowler hat. The children sitting in the front row hold some of the vegetables grown in their gardens. The first mayor of the city is seen standing in the back row, wearing a dark-colored cap, with his friend’s hand seen on his shoulder.

A city government for Garden City was soon instituted, with the young men being elected to positions as mayor and commissioners of the gardens, streets, tools, and water. (The girls were allowed to vote in the second election, still more than ten years before the rest of the country!) There was also a young police force of forty boys. It was reported that more than five thousand spectators came to Garden City the day the first mayor was inaugurated. Dr. Floody helped the children establish a zoo within the city, and the image here shows some of the citizens holding the animals they kept: rabbits, chickens, a white rat, a hawk, and a raccoon that was supposedly given to the children from Clark University. After the accidental death of the raccoon, the children’s sorrow led them to start a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Garden City not only helped the children learn about the value of property and civic engagement, but it also brought the rest of the neighborhood together. Parents of the children were often found tending to their child’s garden or aiding with the animals. The produce grown in the gardens not only helped feed the families of the gardeners, but many were also able to sell the extra for added household income.

Two young citizens are seen standing outside of the fox den in the city’s zoo. All of the zoo’s structures were built by the children, often with help from their parents.

After the success of the Garden City in the Island District, at least three more of these cities were started in other areas of Worcester, including one at Beaver Brook and one in a neighborhood referred to as the Meadows (possibly Broad Meadow Brook in the eastern part of the city). Dr. Floody and his wife Adeline oversaw all of the operations of the cities and lectured throughout New England on the success of the project and the importance of their work. Dr. Floody’s cities were known and copied throughout the country; when he died in 1915, his death was reported in newspapers as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii. After Dr. Floody’s death, Adeline Floody took charge of the project until it became too overwhelming, at which point the City of Worcester took over the projects. Although I could not find a date at which the Garden Cities ended, the Island District city has become a large park named Crompton Park, as has Beaver Brook Park, which today also houses one of the city’s many community gardens.


[1] Ethel G. Rockwell, “Worcester’s Garden City,” Our Boys (Milwaukee: October 1910), 12.

How to Sing the Isaiah Thomas Ballads?

David Hildebrand, Ph.D., specializes in researching, recording, and performing early American music. He presents concerts and educational programs throughout the country for museums, universities, and historical organizations, and has consulted for and provided soundtrack materials for numerous documentaries, such as the PBS series Liberty!—the American Revolution, Rediscovering George Washington, and Anthem. He also teaches at the Peabody Conservatory and has worked closely with AAS to record broadside ballads as part of the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project.

Single-sheet broadsides printed over two hundred years ago are quiet things. The 298 sheets amassed by Isaiah Thomas in 1814 were designed to communicate stories and opinions, and many of them were no doubt read quietly by individuals while others were read aloud, proclaiming that text in public. This post concerns those clearly intended to be sung, 37 of which are now recorded and available for listening through the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project.

How does one accurately interpret the style of singing these ballads? Better, is there one “historically accurate” manner in which they were sung in their day? I believe the answer to be no, there was no clearly defined group of people who purchased and sang these; rather those early nineteenth-century American singers were diverse. Some were wealthy and could afford musical training, but most probably didn’t. And regardless of training, people’s ability to carry a tune well, at pitch and with proper rhythm, probably varied more according to their natural musical talent and practice than whether they had taken lessons or not. The same is surely true today as well!

Hopefully, whoever sang about Thomas Jefferson’s ill-advised trade embargo (The Embargo. A Favorite New Song ) would allow the biting satire and harsh accusations within the lyrics to come out with force and heartfelt anger. President Jefferson ironically thought an embargo would convince the British in 1806 to respect our right to free trade, but it was an economic disaster, hated by nearly all. And these same citizens, greatly relieved at the embargo’s repeal, celebrated mirthfully by singing Thomas’s The Death of the Embargo to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

As a singer with practically no formal vocal training yet decades of practical experience interpreting songs of all sorts, I put myself in the mindset of those vociferating their convictions, for or against the topic at hand. When singing a narrative ballad, like The Death of General Wolfe, I become a storyteller, pretending to be the first to deliver, to eager ears, the dramatic account of the Battle of Quebec. This means throwing extra energy into such lines as “when shot from off his horse,” where clearly the accent falls on the word SHOT with its abrupt finial consonant. Similarly, in Massachusetts Song of Liberty such lines as these require vituperative delivery:

The italics and exclamations in the text emphasize the word Tyrants! These are clearly guidelines for the singer to follow: spit such words out, sneeringly!

Other questions I had to ask in bringing music to life from a centuries-old page: in which key do I sing it? I chose to pick the one that best suits my vocal range. How fast or slow should it be? Slow enough to enunciate and communicate the text, yet fast enough to catch and keep a listener’s interest. Should I use vibrato? I don’t think much should be used; a mild, natural vibrato works, but certainly not a big, wobbly operatic one.

For comic songs, and there are plenty, I chose to include a chuckle in my voice on the punch-lines—why not?  Lawyers and Bullfrogs is simply silly; the listener has even more fun hearing it sung with gusto and some lines delivered deadpan for extra emphasis. The Frog and Mouse, or the Frog He Would a Wooing Go involves such a jaunty nonsense chorus it’s hard not to have fun singing it. Francis Hopkinson’s famed Battle of the Kegs reminds me of the writings of Dr. Seuss; the words are so clever, imaginative, and well-crafted rhythmically.

At the other end of the spectrum are the serious and moving “Indian Speeches,” in which the horrific impact of alcohol upon Native Americans is denounced, along with the belligerent and cruel behavior of white Americans towards them. Five of these are recorded, including Indian Letter and Indian Speech, Delivered before a Gentleman. These all stand out from the others as being spoken rather than sung. My brother Mark Hildebrand declaims these with a dark foreboding.

Try a few yourselfthere is a huge variety of topics. You’ll discover, as I did, that the chief obstacle to making them work smoothly is determining which syllables within each line fall on the musical accents of the indicated tune.  Making a printout and adding underlines helps, such as the following verse and chorus of Nancy Dawson, seen here as marked for recording next to a detail of the original broadside:

See how she comes to give surprise,
With joy and pleasure in her eyes:
To give delight she always tries,
So means my Nancy Dawson.

Was there no task, to obstruct the way,
No shutter bold, nor house so gay,
A bett of fifty pounds I’ll lay,
That I gain’d Nancy Dawson.

In some cases, when no tune is indicated, try to find one that works in terms of number of lines and syllables per line. So listen, learn, re-create, and celebrate this amazing slice of U.S. history. You may just find yourself humming on the way out the door.

2017 Annual Report Now Available

We’re always looking forward to the next exciting thing happening here at the Society (especially with a soon-to-be-completed building addition in the works!). But as archivists and historians we also know how important it is to take a look back. This past year’s annual report serves to remind us how strong our core functions have remained, even as we look to the future. Fellowships, seminars, public programs, acquisitions, digital projects—all are integral to fulfilling our mission and will serve as the strong base for all of our future plans.

As much as we love reliving the record of the year, we also enjoy a little fun, which is why we’ve included lots of beautiful images (those watch papers!) and some word games from the collections. Some of the rebuses on the back cover—pulled from each of the Society’s collecting areas—had us stumped. See if you have better luck!

You can view the entire issue here.