Adultery, crime, and the “professedly obscene”: The beginnings of book bans in the United States

Book bans and challenges have been on the rise in libraries and schools across the United States: according to the American Library Association, who have tracked book censorship since 1982, over 1,600 titles have been affected in 2022 alone. These challenges, whether for political, legal, religious, or moral motivations, illuminate a variety of the nation’s current cultural anxieties, are not the first instances of books being banned in America. The American Antiquarian Society holds a panoply of materials that have been repressed, hidden, and censored, including a facsimile of the book which lit the flame of North America’s relationship with the concept of literary obscenity and government sanctioned censorship. In 1651, William Pynchon’s 1650 writing The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was publicly burned in Boston via court order for its perceived criticism of the Puritans, who dominated local governance; Boston’s common executioner personally carried out the order. The book was so efficiently destroyed that only four copies are known to be extant, and are held at the Congregational Library in Boston, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Connecticut Historical Society. 

Title page of a reproduction copy of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, including details of Pynchon’s main argument, directly opposing Calvinist theory of the time.

Over 200 years later, after an aggressive morality campaign led by Civil War veteran and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, the Comstock Laws of 1873 were passed in Congress which would effectively outlaw the distribution, sale, and possession of “obscene” materials, especially those solicited and sent through the U.S. Postal Service. U.S. obscenity laws were largely overturned through a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1950s, backed up by the First Amendment, which ended a nearly 90 year crusade on novels, valentines, song sheets, textbooks, contraception, newspapers, and erotica. Materials were confiscated and destroyed en masse during this time, significantly impacting the history of material culture in the United States.  

Evidence of the volume and variety of materials seized during this time can be found in an 1874 report of the Committee for the Suppression of Vice, which urges readers to destroy its words after reading, as it contains information on contraband seized in “the work of Mr. Comstock,” and such materials were “a fruitful source of demoralization and crime.” Listed alongside “indecent playing cards,” “rubber goods,” and abortifacients are not only books (134,000 lbs. worth, both bound and unbound), but materials and information used in their production, including names of “persons likely upon receipt of circulars, etc., to send orders.” AAS’s copy was personally given to the Society by Comstock in 1893.  


Full list of goods and their amounts seized and destroyed by Comstock roughly between 1872
and 1874.

Many of what are now to be considered classic works of Western fiction were affected by Comstock Laws, including John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Daniel DeFoe’s Roxana and Moll Flanders, Candide by Voltaire, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. 

The novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known simply as Fanny Hill, is considered to be one of the most prosecuted and banned books in United States history due to its overt representation of pornographic sex. It has been explicitly banned by the US government twice, once in 1821 and once in 1963 (both times for “obscenity”), before being legally cleared for publishing again in 1966. This 1820 copy lacks portions of the text, most of the plates, and is significantly worn. 

The only plate in the AAS 1820 copy.

Considered an essential text of Western canon, Voltaire’s literary satire Candide has been historically censored from the reading public in France, Switzerland, the United States, and by the Catholic Church since it was first published in 1759 for containing religious blasphemy and political sedition. Both the U.S. Customs and Post Offices have influenced circulation of Candide, from seizing inbound copies from France for obscenity to demanding the work be omitted from the shelves of major book retailers. 

Front matter from Candide, published in New York in 1864, marketed as “the spiciest, wittiest, and most exciting book in the French language.”

Throughout the 19th century, the Portsmouth Athenaeum, a membership library located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, regularly published advertisements in local newspapers with lists of books missing from their collections alongside a plea for their prompt return. Beginning in March of 1873 (just as Comstock Laws were being passed), Moll Flanders — rife with allusions to sex outside of wedlock, adultery, prostitution, and crime — populated that list for the first time. Its loss from the Athenaeum’s collections may have happened through honest mistake, political cowardice, or perhaps a patron looking to squirrel away a title that would prove harder and harder to come by, as Moll was banned from shipment in the US post, drastically affecting available supply.  

Title page of a well-worn copy of Moll Flanders, and advertisement listing missing books from the Portsmouth Athenaeum, published in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, March 15, 1873.

Described as “professedly obscene” and “objectionable” since its first publication in 1855, it wasn’t until the 1881 edition of Whitman’s magnum opus Leaves of Grass that its production was halted due to legal concerns. Under pressure by Comstock himself, Boston’s District Attorney advised Whitman’s publisher James R. Osgood that the book could not continue to be legally published without significant alterations to the text. Initially open to changes, Whitman later refused to revise his work due to the sheer volume of objections and was forced to find a new publisher. Due to the publicity this action caused— which increased further after the subsequent arrest of activist Ezra Heywood of Princeton, MA, for mailing excerpts of Leaves of Grass alongside other contraband—its popularity rose and under a different publisher the new edition’s first printing sold out in a single day. Heywood went on to publish a rebuke of both his treatment by Comstock’s goons and more broadly of federally backed, morality-based censorship titled “The Impolicy of Repression” in the Boston Commonwealth. Heywood was pardoned by President Harrison in 1878 after a successful, highly publicized petition and protest movement.  

See the full article here. 

For more information on the banned books discussed here, and others, check out the resources below. An exhibit featuring some of these works will be on display in the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society from November to December 2022.

Resources:  

American Library Association. (2022, September 16). American Library Association Releases Preliminary Data on 2022 Book Bans. News and Press Center. https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2022/09/ala-releases-preliminary-data-2022-book-bans 

Crown, D. (2015, November 15). The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. The Public Domain Review. https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/the-price-of-suffering-william-pynchon-and-the-meritorious-price-of-our-redemption#fn1 

Joseph P. Hammond, “Stevens, Oliver (b. 1825)” (Criticism) – The Walt Whitman Archive. (n.d.). Whitmanarchive.org. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_211.html 

Ockerbloom. (n.d.). Banned Books Online. Onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu. https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html 

Sohn, A. (2021, July 20). How Anthony Comstock, Enemy to Women of the Gilded Age, Attempted to Ban Contraception. Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/how-anthony-comstock-enemy-to-women-of-the-gilded-age-attempted-to-ban-contraception/ 

Stern, S. (n.d.). Fanny Hill. Www.mtsu.edu. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/808/fanny-hill#:~:text=Fanny%20Hill%20led%20to%20early 

Poetry (and Portraits) of the Past and Present

“The world is full of poetry, the air is living with its spirit, and the waves dance to the music of its melodies.” ~ James Gates Percival’s “Poetry” copied into Martha Ann Brown’s commonplace book from 1849.

Please join us at the American Antiquarian Society this Thursday, November 17, at 7 p.m. (register here to attend in-person or virtually) to explore the power of poetry and its role connecting us to the past. What did poetry mean to Martha Ann Brown, a nineteenth century woman of color integrally connected to the local Black and Indigenous communities, and what does poetry mean to us today? How did women in the Brown family pass along forms of artistic expression through generations, and how are similar generational connections maintained today?

In partnership with the Worcester Black History Project, Thursday evening’s event in the new AAS Learning Lab will be moderated by Deborah Hall and begin with a brief historical introduction to the Brown Family Collections at AAS by Kimberly Toney. Then we will hear new original poems from three Black women poets working in Worcester today – Rev. Catherine Reed, Xaulanda Thorpe, and Ashley Wonder – who will reflect on connections especially among the women of the Brown Family as well as in their own families and lives.

The women of the Brown family expressed themselves artistically in many ways.

→ Martha Ann Brown kept a commonplace book that included artistically arranged pressed flowers and poetry in the 1840s. (The entire book is digitized here thanks to funding from the Delmas Foundation.)

Page from Martha Ann Brown’s commonplace book.

→ Emma Griffin Brown (Martha Ann’s daughter-in-law) wrote her own penciled annotation into the margins of a printed book of “Moore’s Poems,” commenting on favorite poems or expressing philosophical angst, in the 1890s.

Page from Moore’s Poetry with annotations by Emma Griffin Brown.

→ Bernice Brown Goldsberry (Martha Ann’s granddaughter and Emma’s daughter) inked her own illustrations in a book in the family’s library and became a professional commercial artist producing Valentines and greeting cards in the 1910s-20s.

Page from novel with ink illustrations added by Bernice Brown Goldsberry.

BONUS EVENT: Intrigued by the Brown Family and interested in learning more about them and their descendants? There is another event you can attend in Worcester on Thursday, November 17 (learn more and register here). At 7 a.m. there will be a networking breakfast at Mechanics Hall to learn more about their Portraits Project, a plan to increase representation of women and people of color among the portraits on display at Mechanics Hall. Martha Ann Brown and William Brown are among those for whom new portraits are to be commissioned, and one of the descendants of the Brown family, James Goldsberry, will be speaking at the breakfast.

If you then come to the American Antiquarian Society at 185 Salisbury Street for the evening’s poetry event at 7 p.m., you will see on permanent display in the reading room a portrait of one of the Brown family’s ancestors, John Moore, Jr., as well as photographs brought out for this event of Martha Ann and William Brown, that will help provide inspiration for today’s artists to create new portraits of the family.

From left to right: Oil on canvas portrait of John Moore, Jr. (b. c. 1800) and carte-de-visite photographs of his nephew, William Brown (1824-1892), and William’s wife Martha Ann (Tulip/Lee/Lewis/Lewey?) Brown (1818-1889).

EXTRA BONUS EVENT (not related to the Brown Family): As if that weren’t enough, AAS also will be holding a virtual book talk on Thursday, November 17, at 2pm. Marcy J. Dinius will talk about her book, The Textual Effects of David Walker’s “Appeal”: Print-Based Activism Against Slavery, Racism, and Discrimination, 1829-1851 (learn more and register here).

So consider bookending your day on Thursday, November 17, with the amazing Brown Family: 7 a.m. at Mechanics Hall for breakfast and 7 p.m. at AAS for poetry!

This Day in History: Great Chicago Fire Erupts

October 8, 1871 – On this day in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire erupted. The fire burned for two days, destroying buildings, claiming about 300 lives, and causing an estimated $200 million in damages. In all, the fire decimated a four-by-one-mile area of Chicago, including the city’s business district. The city quickly began reconstruction efforts, fostering a newly booming economy and a population to match.

Map from Hartford Fire Insurance Co. showing the burned area of Chicago.

On October 18, 1871, The Chicago Times reported on the fire and the destruction it caused, as well as the rescue and reconstruction which was already underway. Continue reading This Day in History: Great Chicago Fire Erupts

This Day in History: Stamp Act Congress Convenes in Protest

October 7, 1765 – On this day in 1765, the Stamp Act Congress convened in New York City. Representatives from nine colonies met to protest the Stamp Act, which imposed the first direct tax by the British Crown on American colonies. The passage of the Stamp Act is often cited as one of the first catalysts of the American Revolution, as some people living in the colonies felt they were being unfairly taxed without representation in Parliament.

The Boston Gazette and Country Journal published a page-long criticism of the Stamp Act on that day. The newspaper reads, in part:

“AWAKE! – Awake, my Countrymen, and, by a regular & legal Opposition, defeat the Designs of those who enslave us and our Posterity. Nothing is wanting but your own Resolution…Be Men, and make the Experiment. This is your Duty, your bounden, your indispensable Duty.” Continue reading This Day in History: Stamp Act Congress Convenes in Protest

This Day in History: Lincoln Proclaims, ‘Turkey Day!’

October 3, 1863 – On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation designating the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. The proclamation came in the midst of the Civil War. In his address, Lincoln chose to focus on the country’s prosperity:

Closeup of the text of Lincoln’s proclamation as published in the Evening Star.

“[T]he country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

His words throughout the address encourage unity during the Civil War.

Continue reading This Day in History: Lincoln Proclaims, ‘Turkey Day!’

In-person & Hands-on Early Worcester History, Featuring the Brown Family

Who and what springs to mind when you reflect on early Worcester history?

Figure 1: Portrait of Brown family ancestor John Moore, Jr.

Isaiah Thomas & his printing press? Major Taylor & his bicycle? Esther Howland & her Valentines? These classic Worcester historical figures will all be represented at AAS’s upcoming Chat with a Curator open house this Wednesday, but we hope many of the materials and stories are new to you. We are especially excited to feature items related to the Brown Family Collections from one of Worcester’s early Black families. Of particular interest books from the family’s library, which is one of the earliest and largest intact nineteenth-century Black family’s libraries in existence. Continue reading In-person & Hands-on Early Worcester History, Featuring the Brown Family

A Snapshot of the Past: Celebrating Worcester’s 300th Anniversary

The Court House and second American Antiquarian Society building on Main Street, ca. 1905-1910.
Traffic at the intersection of Main Street, Front Street, and Pleasant Street, 2022

 

 

 

 

 

In 1900, Theodore Clemens Wohlbrück, a professional photographer from New Jersey, moved to Worcester and opened a small but successful photo studio on Main Street. Known for his city views and postcards, Wohlbrück left Worcester in 1910, but his photographs of the city remained. The collection, now housed at the American Antiquarian Society, contains over 180 glass plate negatives of views of businesses in downtown Worcester, City Hall and the Common, churches, houses, Memorial Hospital, and Lake Quinsigamond. A handful of images also capture President William Howard Taft’s visit to Worcester in April 1910. Browsing through the now-digitized collection,  I wondered how much the streets of Worcester have changed over the past one-hundred and twelve years. So, with camera in hand, I made it my mission to trace Wohlbrück’s footsteps and capture modern-day views of the city.

Continue reading A Snapshot of the Past: Celebrating Worcester’s 300th Anniversary

Major Taylor letters featured in new video

In 2020, letters from a young Marshall “Major” Taylor were donated to the American Antiquarian Society by Constance L. Whitehead Hanks. Taylor, a Worcester resident, was the first African American to win the title of cycling world champion, in 1899, and the second Black athlete to win a world championship in any sport. He is considered by many to be the greatest American sprint cyclist of all time. Continue reading Major Taylor letters featured in new video

Discovery: Herald of Freedom and Peter H. Clark

Newspapers are a huge and important part of our collection here at the American Antiquarian Society. They take up over five miles of shelving here. From establishment papers like the New York Times to amateur prints, preserving newspapers gives readers a glimpse into the mundane and day-to-day, as well as insight on relevant social issues during the centuries where there was no Twitter to catch up on the world’s goings on. But newspapers during the nineteenth century also served as a platform for social change and activists, including for African American abolitionists like Peter Humphries Clark. The Newspapers and Periodicals Department at the Society has discovered what is believed to be the only known copies of Clark’s newspaper, Herald of Freedom. These issues were published on June 2 (Volume 1, Number 1) and June 23 (Volume 1, Number 3), 1855.

Peter H. Clark is most known for his abolitionist speaking and writing. Born on March 29, 1829, in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was the son of a successful barber and became the first teacher hired to Cincinnati’s independent Black public schools in 1849. In 1866, Clark founded Ohio’s first public high school for Black students, Gaines High School, where he served as principal and educated a generation of Black teachers. He also ran for Congress in 1878, representing the Socialist Labor Party for America. For this reason, he is remembered as the United States’ first Black socialist.[i]

The masthead of the Herald of Freedom. / Nate Fiske, AAS

Continue reading Discovery: Herald of Freedom and Peter H. Clark

Worcester Review Showcases Work of Creative Fellows

In its most recent issue, The Worcester Review featured original poetry and artwork by AAS creative artist fellows. Edited by Kevin Wisniewski, Director of Book History and Digital Initiatives, the feature is the first of a two-part series to be included in the print literary/art journal.

Founded in 1972, The Worcester Review is published annually by the Worcester County Poetry Association (WCPA). The journal has evolved to celebrate the rich literary history of Central Massachusetts, to enhance it with work from beyond that region, and to serve as a conduit to promote that richness to a national audience. For this issue, Wisniewski collaborated with outgoing editor Kate McIntyre and incoming editor Carolyn Oliver.

This feature is a continuation of our celebration of the 25th anniversary of Creative and Performing Artists & Writers Fellowships here at AAS and our Artists in the Archive showcase. Along with original work that was the product of fellows’ time under the generous dome, each fellow also includes a personal statement or reflection about their time at AAS. Former fellows appearing in this issue are Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon (Wallace Fellow, 1996), Tess Taylor (Baron Fellow, 2006), Margaret V. Rozga (Baron Fellow, 2014), Catherine Sasanov (Baron, Fellow, 2016), Marianne R. Petit (Jay and Deborah Last Fellow, 2020) with collaborator Laurel Daen, and David Mills (Hearst Fellow, 2019).

The second part of the feature appear in the 2022 issue of the journal later this year.


Here’s a sample of the wonderful work included in the issue, as well as recent videos from fellows Catherine Sasanov, Tess Taylor, and David Mills:

At the Archives
Margaret V. Rozga (2014 AAS fellow)

I read school catalogs. Campaign pamphlets.
Cartoons. Popular magazines. Newspaper
advice columns, lists, humor, editorials.

Congressional speeches: background
facts, extravagant praise, skillful
concessions, biting satire, caricature,

long balanced, rhythmic sentences,
quick left jab of understated insult,
the cause, the effect, the reiteration.

Documents covered in faded blue-gray
or tan-yellow paper. Hand-stitched binding,
resilient thread. Or perfect bound and crumbling.

Pages thin as dust,
dust, maybe mold: sneeze.

Sneeze: quick intake of something in the air
the body can’t yet process

Videos

The Acquisitions Table: Turner & Fisher’s Infant Primer

Turner & Fisher’s Infant Primer. Philadelphia & New York: Turner & Fisher; Boston: J. Fisher; Baltimore: H. Turner, ca. 1843-1849.

Multi-city firm Turner & Fisher was a major American picture book publisher in the 1840s and the look of firm’s output is similar to that of its competitor McLoughlin Brothers in the 1850s. Turner & Fisher issued hundreds of children’s titles, mainly in either the small rectangular format of the chapbook or the larger square size seen here.

This title page wood-engraving features a compact view of a school room, with a male teacher listening to three standing schoolboys recite. Boys are seated at desks on the top row, while a group of girls are cordoned off to the right. Most of the children appear to be reading, but one girl clearly has a pen in her hand, reflecting the acceptance of writing as a literacy function taught to girls – not always a given a century prior in Colonial America.

New AAS Videos Provide Primer on Colonial Printing

Have you ever wondered when and how printing arrived in colonial British North America? Who were these early printers, and what did they print? How did printing change throughout the course of the colonial period? What were early newspapers like? How were images produced?

You can find the answers to these questions and more in our recently launched suite of educational videos! These brief films were created as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute for K-12 Educators, “The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1800,” held virtually this past summer.

Originally scheduled as an in-person program for the summer of 2020, this institute was postponed a year and shifted to a virtual format. One of the silver linings to this adjustment was the need to create new ways to share information about our collections with the twenty-five participants joining from all over the country. These videos were one of several ways we accomplished that.

In addition to being available on our YouTube channel, these videos have been added as a new section to an online exhibition, The News Media and the Making of America, 1730–1865, which was originally created in 2015 as part of a previous NEH Summer Institute. This exhibition broadly explores the interconnectedness of American news media, in all its formats, with changes in technology, business, politics, society, and community from 1730 to 1865.

To make these new films as useful as possible for educators and researchers, we also created a resource page for each one. These pages include the embedded video and links out to the catalog record for each collection item featured in the video, as well as digital images of those items if they’re available.

Follow these links to view each video and their associated resources:

“The When and Where of American Print Culture in the 1700s”

“The Who and What of American Print Culture in the 1700s”

“Printmaking in Eighteenth-Century America”

“American Broadsides & Ephemera Before 1800”

“The Format of Colonial American Newspapers”

“Some Characteristics of Colonial American Newspapers”

“Isaiah Thomas’s Printing Press at the American Antiquarian Society”

We hope you enjoy these films! As we consider ideas for future educational films, we encourage you to provide feedback on these and suggest topics. Drop a comment below or email us at library@mwa.org with your thoughts!

2022 Summer Seminars at AAS

It is with great pleasure to announce that two AAS signature programs will return this summer! Sponsored by Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) and the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture, AAS summer seminars will be held over the 2022 summer, and we are now accepting applications!

These annual seminars have been successful in assembling a stimulating range of persons as both faculty and matriculants and putting them in touch with AAS library collections, staff, and, just as importantly, with each other. The History of the Book program was founded in 1985 (faculty and participants of the first summer seminar are pictured below), and CHAViC’s seminar was started in 2006. Each offers short-term, intensive training in methodologies and concepts to teachers and working professionals on all levels to make materials more accessible to them and their students and patrons.

These seminars were temporarily placed on hold due to construction on Antiquarian Hall and continued through the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are excited to recommence with these programs this year!


2022 CHAViC Summer Seminar

On Stage: Spectacle in Nineteenth-Century America

Sunday, June 26, through Friday, July 1, 2022

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare, and so it seemed across the cultural landscape of the nineteenth-century United States. The 2022 Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) seminar will focus on visual and material cultures of theater and related histories of spectacle and spectatorship. Interdisciplinary in subject and scope, the seminar welcomes emerging and senior scholars across multiple fields.

Seminar participants will explore theater as a lens for understanding larger practices and ideas of performance and related subjects, including labor, technology, race, and print culture. Workshops and guest lectures will highlight the extraordinary collections at AAS, including engravings, lithographs, photographs, promptbooks, playbills, musical scores, broadsides, periodicals, and ephemera such as theater tickets and trade cards.

Topics will include the spaces, sites, and mechanics of theatrical spectacle, including playhouses, museums, panoramas, public streets, optical technologies, set design, costume design, historical reenactments, and tableau vivants.

The seminar will be held from Sunday, June 26, through Friday, July 1, 2022, at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Participation is intended for college and university faculty as well as graduate students and museum professionals.

Faculty

The seminar leader will be Wendy Bellion, Sewell C. Biggs Chair of American Art History and Director, Center for Material Culture Studies, University of Delaware. She is the author of the award-winning Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011) and Iconoclasm in New York: Revolution to Reenactment (2019).

Guest faculty will include:
Bethany Hughes, Assistant Professor, Native American Studies, Department of American Culture, University of Michigan
Douglas A. Jones, Jr., Associate Professor of English and Theater Studies, Duke University
Joseph Roach, Sterling Emeritus Professor of Theater, Emeritus Professor of English, Yale University

Applications are due April 5, 2022, and may be found on our website.

For further information on the seminar, please contact Nan Wolverton, Vice President of Programs and Director of CHAViC, at nwolverton@mwa.org.


2022 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book

Black Print, Black Activism, Black Study

Monday, July 25 – Friday, July 29, 2022

This seminar will explore the relationship between Black print and Black activism during the long nineteenth century, focusing simultaneously on Black print practices and the ethics of studying Black print and life. How did African Americans use a variety of print forms to share and advance issues of import to Black life in the United States? How did the specific print forms they chose to work in and with influence such issues? We will concentrate on a small number of Black authors (e.g., Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Jarena Lee, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper) and collectives (e.g., colored conventions, committees, newspapers) to trace how they engaged with multiple forms of print. Drawing on the American Antiquarian Society’s extensive collection, we will focus our attention on four primary formats: the pamphlet, the newspaper, the records of the Colored Conventions, and the book.

In addition to offering an opportunity to work closely with primary materials, this seminar will provide participants with an introduction to Black Print Culture Studies. Our archival work will be supplemented by scholarship, some of which may be quite recent, but much of which is foundational to this well-established field. We will also learn from scholars in the field through guest lectures and roundtables. All of the writer/activists we will learn from, be they working in the nineteenth century or the twenty first, require readers to reckon with a series of ethical concerns that remain deeply relevant to our world and our work. The study of African American print culture is also an inquiry into citational practices, the institutional forces that have tended to obscure Black print and elide Black scholarship, and the processes and ethics by which Black study compels us to change these structures. Through our readings and discussions, we will not only explore fascinating materials produced by a community of powerful writers, but also cultivate the practices required for engaging with these communities with an eye towards archives, power, and our relation to them.

This seminar will be of interest to graduate students, librarians, archivists, curators, and college and university faculty.

Faculty

The seminar leader will be Derrick R. Spires and Benjamin Fagan.  Spires is Associate Professor of Literatures in English and affiliate faculty in American Studies, Visual Studies, and Media Studies at Cornell University. His first book, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), won the Modern Language Association Prize for First Book and the Bibliographical Society/St. Louis Mercantile Library Prize. Fagan is Associate Professor of English at Auburn University. He is the author of The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (2016), co-editor (with Kathleen Diffley) of Visions of Glory: The Civil War in Word and Image (2019), and editor of African American Literature in Transition, 1830-1850 (2021).

Guest faculty will include:

Nicole Aljoe, Professor of English and Africana Studies, Northeastern University
Elizabeth McHenry, Professor of English, New York University
Kristin Moriah, Assistant Professor of English, Queen’s University

There will also be a special Rountable Presentation on Black Digital Humanities and Archives. Participants include

  • Dorothy Berry, Harvard University
  • Jim Casey, Pennsylvania State University
  • Elizabeth Pope, American Antiquarian Society
  • Jewon Woo, Lorain County Community College

Applications are due April 1, 2022, and may be found on our website.

For further information, please contact Kevin Wisniewski, Director of Book History and Digital Initiatives, kwisniewski@mwa.org

Women’s History Exhibits at the AAS

While March has been federally and culturally recognized as Women’s History Month in the United States since 1987, International Women’s Day, celebrated globally each year on March 8 (which, coincidentally, is my birthday), has been around for well over a century. With roots in the suffrage and socialist movements of the early 20th century which focused on the immediate intersection of class and gender, the modern celebration of International Women’s Day aims to celebrate and promote the achievements of women and generally advocate for universal gender equity. The American Antiquarian Society hosts many collections and online resources like exhibits which support the study of women’s history, several of which can be accessed virtually at anytime, anywhere.

Art is a medium that has been long used in historical studies as a visual indicator for changes in social and political landscapes – in the exhibit Beauty, Virtue & Vice: Images of Women in 19c American Prints, graphic arts representations of women are used to examine and understand how audiences of the day viewed women and their perceived place in society. From examining cultural beauty expectations to conceptualizations of how womanhood is defined, this exhibit puts on display how and why the aesthetics of the female image are created and disseminated.

Similarly, in Women and the World of Dime Novels, the art of fiction creates powerful heroines that inhabit fantastical spaces, providing entertainment alongside necessary centering of women’s experiences in literature. Dime novels see an extraordinary amount of female characters in positions of power or exhibiting overt agency over their lives and influencing the lives of others. Although they were published as cheap paperbacks, and not regarded as especially high-quality, their value in demonstrating the reading public’s interests and perceptions of women over time has endured.

Mill Girls in Nineteenth Century Print uses evidence of both artistic works and the printed word to feature materials concerning the young women who made up the majority of the workforce during the American textile boom of the mid-nineteenth century. While the conception of the “mill girl” was proliferated through these works, they also describe and pay homage to the sometimes-grim reality of the working industrial class through the lens of gender.

Building on themes of gendered labor, A Woman’s Work is Never Done explores the realms where women worked between the onset of the American Revolution to the end of the Industrial Revolution. Whether it was domestic work or paid employment, this exhibit and the Society’s collections at large represent a variety of materials such as advertisements, lithographs, newspaper clippings, trade cards, etc. all depicting the environments where and how various women worked.

One of the most prevalent jobs women held outside the home was in education, whether it was in the home, in classrooms, or as private tutors. Day in the Life of a Schoolmarm is a blog which provides an intimate look into the diaries of female schoolteachers (primarily Mary L. Bower) and their daily thoughts, feelings, comings and goings. Without the expectation of being read by others or publicly released in any manner, diarists are often frank and descriptive, and provide information often unrepresented in other written mediums.

Like diaries, letters provide intimate perspectives into the internal and relational lives of their authors. The Letters of Abigail Adams: An AAS Illustrated Inventory contains letters between Abigail Adams, her sister Mary, and Mary’s daughter Lucy Cranch Greenleaf, and cover a variety of personal and historical topics. This online collection is a representative selection of the 200+ letters held at the Society and includes transcriptions and brief abstracts alongside digital images of the letters themselves.

Additional Sources:

“About International Women’s Day.” International Women’s Day, https://www.internationalwomensday.com/About.

Frencia, Cintia, and Daniel Gaido. “The Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day.” Jacobin, 8 March 2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/international-womens-day-clara-zetkin-working-class-socialist/.

 

 

 

 

 

Splitting Paper in the AAS Conservation Lab

During my internship this summer in the conservation lab at AAS, Chief Conservator Babette Gehnrich and I worked through several treatments one often sees in a paper conservation lab: mending, washing, pulp fills, and backing removals, among others. However, we also took a deep dive into the science and craft of a less frequently encountered treatment: paper splitting.

Paper splitting, as unlikely as it may seem, is exactly what it sounds like: one sheet of paper is separated along its thickness to form two sheets, which each have the same length and width as the original but are about half as thick. This may sound like an impossible magic trick, but with extensive knowledge of the properties of paper and many hours of careful practice, paper splitting is well within reach.

Chief Conservator Babette Gehnrich splits a sheet of paper in the AAS Conservation Lab

The reasons one might split paper depend on who’s doing the splitting. Dealers and collectors have split works of art on paper since at least the eighteenth century, most often to separate the front and back of a double-sided drawing. [1] This allows the front and back to be mounted or displayed simultaneously, each as a separate work. One could also sell each side separately as two unique works, generating larger profits, as was the case with the Great Mongol Shahnama, a celebrated fourteenth-century painted manuscript. [2] The prominent twentieth-century German restorer Max Schweidler even suggested that one might split a print to thin it for use as a lampshade! [3] As conservators, to the extent possible, we are tasked with preserving the material qualities of a work, guided by the American Institute for Conservation’s Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. These applications of paper splitting, which result in a significant change to the work of art with no apparent preservation benefits fall well outside of our ethical bounds.

However, paper splitting does have some limited applications in the conservation lab. Splitting was adapted as a preservation technique in East Germany in the twentieth century, particularly to stabilize very brittle newspapers. At that time it was difficult to acquire necessary conservation supplies, particularly Japanese papers and tissues, which conservators frequently use for stabilization treatments. Splitting treatments became a useful workaround for these supply issues, and the process then was mechanized for bulk treatments. [4]

Brittle papers have long posed a challenge to collection caretakers, and numerous methods have been developed to stabilize them, each with varying degrees of success. Some of these methods, like plastic lamination, have (thankfully!) fallen out of fashion, but the problem of brittle papers remains. When faced with papers in this condition, conservators have limited options, as it is not possible to reverse the chemical processes that give rise to brittle paper once they’ve occurred. We might add support by lining one side with a lightweight, Japanese tissue, but this will obscure that side of the sheet, which is especially undesirable for papers with media on both sides. We might also simply place the paper into a chemically inert plastic sleeve, but this may not offer enough support for extremely damaged papers.

Splitting such a damaged paper might seem counterintuitive, but it gives conservators another option for treatment. Once the sheet is split, a conservator can insert and adhere a strong, high-quality tissue between the front and back sides of the original sheet. The two sides can then be rejoined, creating a kind of paper sandwich: the original front and back are the bread, and the new tissue is the filling. This tissue acts as a stabilizing core, offering support to the original paper without obscuring the front or back surfaces with a lining or lamination.

Steps in splitting paper as a conservation treatment

Here at the American Antiquarian Society, we had a perfect candidate in the lab for this technique: an early nineteenth-century pamphlet that appeared to have suffered extreme mold and water damage. The pamphlet arrived in the lab as a series of loose leaves, and the paper itself had lost all its internal strength, rendering it vulnerable to both surface abrasion and tears or fractures. Its condition made it nearly impossible to handle without causing further damage, even from within a protective plastic sleeve. The pages were also printed on both sides, and so we were hesitant to line them, as even very thin lining tissues would obscure the text and surface. Given these factors, the insertion of a paper core via splitting was an attractive solution.

Three leaves of the damaged pamphlet before treatment

Paper splitting is a dramatic act, and it can be rather destructive if attempted by an untrained practitioner. Sheets might split unevenly or not at all, leaving irreparable holes, tears, and skinning of the paper surface. To predict how this pamphlet would respond to a splitting treatment, we conducted a series of tests and mock-ups that simulated the conditions we planned to use. Conservators often conduct these types of tests before attempting complex treatments. After all, though our work is always designed to be re-treatable, each intervention by a conservator will inevitably leave a lasting trace in the life of an artifact. It is crucial to take that responsibility seriously!

Practitioners of paper splitting have followed the same general procedure for several centuries. In general, it works something like this:

  1. A strong facing paper is applied to the front and the back of the sheet of paper to be split using a strong, thick adhesive (in this case, gelatin).

    Applying adhesive to the first facing paper
  2. The whole package is pressed until nearly dry (usually overnight).
  3. The package is nicked at an upper corner and carefully pulled apart at that corner, initiating the splitting.

    Initiating the split along the top edge of the sheet
  4. The two sides are pulled apart from each other at 90-degree angle from the original sheet (forming a “T” shape) until the entire sheet has been split. The splitting is possible because the bonds between the paper and the thick gelatin used in step 1 are stronger than the internal bonds in the paper itself.

    Splitting the sheet
  5. At this point, a conservator will insert the supportive tissue core between the two split sides using methyl cellulose as an adhesive, rejoin them, and press the package again.

    A split sheet ready for insertion of the core tissue
  6. The facing paper and gelatin are washed off the front and back in a hot water bath, revealing the front and back paper surfaces once more! The core remains in place during this step because methyl cellulose is less soluble in hot water.

    Washing facing papers and adhesive off of the split paper and core

Once we were able to produce even, consistent, and reproducible results in our splitting tests, we were finally able to transfer this treatment method to the pamphlet in the AAS collection. Clearly, there are many variables in this process that one might manipulate: the type of papers used as the facing and the core, the amount of pressing time, the concentration of the adhesive solutions, and the moisture content of the papers are just a few one might consider. While we modified several of these variables during our initial tests to determine an optimal treatment method, it was important to keep them as consistent as possible during the actual treatment to minimize risk.

Two views of the pamphlet after treatment

In the end, these careful preparations and consistent working methods resulted in a very successful treatment: all ten pages of the pamphlet split evenly and were rejoined with thin, strong paper cores. Once all the sheets were treated, Babette sewed them together into a pamphlet as was originally intended for this text. The paper regained significant flexibility and can now withstand some gentle, occasional handling, all without obscuring the front or back with linings or lamination. We considered this treatment a win-win for both the conservators and the object: we in the lab gained a new skill and an appreciation for the historic art of paper splitting, and the pamphlet can now leave the lab and serve the lively community of researchers at AAS!

Another view of the pamphlet after treatment

[1] For more on this, see the video produced by the Morgan Library on the eighteenth-century collector Pierre-Jean Mariette and his potential paper splitting method: https://www.themorgan.org/videos/pierre-jean-mariette-and-splitting-drawings

[2] Sheila Blair, “Making and Mutilating Manuscripts of the Shahnama,” in Smarthistory, July 27, 2020, accessed October 6, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/making-mutilating-shahnama/.

[3] Max Schweidler and Roy L. Perkinson. 2006. The restoration of engravings, drawings, books, and other works on paper. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 105.

[4] Wächter, W., J. Liers, and E. Becker. “Paper Splitting at the German Library in Leipzig — Development from Craftmanship to Full Mechanisation.” Restaurator 17, no. 1 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1515/rest.1996.17.1.32.


Emma Hartman was a Conservation Intern at AAS in 2021. She is currently the Antoinette King Fellow in Paper Conservation at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, where she is in her second year of the MA/MS program in art history and art conservation. She received her B.A. in art history and chemistry from Amherst College in 2017 and was a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Fellow at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, India from 2017-2018. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a conservation technician at the New York Public Library.