Combining History, Graphic Art, and Modern America in the Classroom

Recent researchers and other visitors to the American Antiquarian Society have had an opportunity to view a special exhibit: “From Frederick Douglass to Ferguson: Graphic Design Projects on Race in Modern America Inspired by the Collections of the American Antiquarian Society.” This is the story of the origins of that exhibit as the result of collaborative efforts between the American Antiquarian Society and two professors from Assumption College: Carl Robert Keyes (History) (AAS member, 2015) and Lynn Simmons (Graphic Design).

For the 2015-16 academic year, we are teaching two linked courses that form the “Express Yourself: Visual Messages and Historical Narratives” learning community for first-year students at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Students simultaneously enrolled in U.S. History to 1877 and Graphic Design 1 in the fall semester and continued in U.S. History, 1877-present and Graphic Design 2 in the spring.

Although the courses meet separately, we pursue common themes important to both historians and graphic designers, thus helping students to identify interdisciplinary connections between subjects they likely considered unrelated. Two questions have guided our learning community throughout both semesters: How do we use both images and text to understand the world around us? What can we learn about American culture by studying two different kinds of communication: graphic design and history?

Our learning community also gathers outside of class to participate in co-curricular programs that further underscore the connections between the content in the two courses. Recently, we visited Firefly Letterpress in Boston, where printer John Kristensen demonstrated how several historic presses operated before giving students an opportunity to gain some hands-on experience.

This broadside was one of the items the students viewed during their visit to AAS. "Now completed and for sale! An impartial and correct history of the vigilantes of Montana Territory!" Virginia City, Mont.: D.W. Tilton & Co., 1866.
This broadside was one of the items the students viewed during their visit to AAS. “Now completed and for sale! An impartial and correct history of the vigilantes of Montana Territory!” Virginia City, Mont.: D.W. Tilton & Co., 1866.

Last semester, we visited the American Antiquarian Society for a behind-the-scenes tour—including an examination of founder Isaiah Thomas’s eighteenth-century printing press—led by Kimberly Toney, head of readers’ services. We then gathered in the Council Room for a hands-on workshop with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century graphic arts materials selected by Curator of Graphic Arts Lauren Hewes. Students spent approximately an hour comparing and contrasting broadsides, advertising ephemera, specimen books, and a variety of other items from the collections. Lauren Hewes, Kimberly Toney, and Marie Lamoreaux, the collections manager, all fielded questions and participated in discussions with our students.

We also viewed a first edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), which the students read and discussed as part of their history course. Each also composed an essay in which they tested the claim by historians and other scholars that the Narrative is not solely a work of African American history but rather a broader and more general view of nineteenth-century American history. In the process of reading, writing, and discussing, students interrogated broader histories of slavery and abolition as well as race relations in American history.

As a companion assignment, students pursued a project that combined images and text in the graphic design course. By its very nature visual communication in all its forms offers us an opportunity to take a look at ourselves and the world around us from a different perspective. There are many examples to draw from, such as an interpretation of nature in the form of landscape painting, the use of photography in studying and documenting the world around us, the construction of sculptural forms to sit in our interior and exterior landscapes, and the use of moving images and sound to make visual narratives. We are still influenced by the impact of the use of typography and photographs from the early-twentieth-century European avant garde movements. Additionally significant is the mid-twentieth-century collage and printmaking of popular visual culture and American abstract expressionism as we’ve moved into our digital age, where the influence and practice of graphic design is exploding with advances in technology. Visual communication is a major player in the construction of our expression, sense of reality, and communication.

Another example of an AAS collection item used as inspiration. "Cheap printing at the north-east corner of Calvert and Market Streets." Baltimore: Printed by B. Edes, between 1827 and 1831.
Another example of an AAS collection item used as inspiration. “Cheap printing at the north-east corner of Calvert and Market Streets.” Baltimore: Printed by B. Edes, between 1827 and 1831.

One of the most socially engaging types of visual communication is in the form of the poster through the use of typographic elements and images. As a vehicle for delivering messages and information, the poster has its roots in the broadsides of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which were mostly type-based, using large-sized type to draw the attention of people passing by in public spaces. Broadsides are generally printed on one side of a piece of paper and distributed for a variety of public and commercial announcements, as well as government notifications. Posters continue to be a widely effective use of communication for the graphic designer and illustrator. From advocacy of social and political causes to advertising, propaganda, event announcements, and self-expression, posters are a voice for public address.

A student poster designed by Suzanne Pepe
A student poster designed by Suzanne Pepe

Through the pairing of our two courses, U.S. History to 1877 and Graphic Design 1, an opportunity to speak about contemporary issues through the visual messaging of the mid-1800s could not be ignored. As mentioned above, students read and wrote about Douglass’s Narrative for their history course. In keeping with our goal of presenting connections between visual messages and historical narratives, each student created a poster by appropriating the form for the poster from broadsides of the nineteenth century through visual composition, layout, and use of typography. The content of the poster referenced graphic arts materials from the AAS collections, contemporary news quotes, excerpts from Douglass’s Narrative, quotations from Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s article “The Worth of Black Men, from Slavery to Ferguson,” and/or the Black Lives Matter website describing the escalating violence and discrimination toward African Americans during the last few years.

In preparation for this assignment students spent time learning about the history and anatomy of typography, as well as a brief introduction to the history of movable type and poster culture. There was also discussion about the importance of appropriate research and audience/viewer considerations for graphic design/visual communication projects. Our visit to AAS in November gave the students a rich exposure to actual broadsides from the nineteenth century, which allowed them to pay close attention to details in the compositions and to make sketches prior to developing their own poster for this project. Choosing the appropriate typefaces and layout was critical to these posters evoking cues and connections, creating a visual historical bridge between the period of American history when slavery was legal and the recent rise in racial conflicts in the U.S.Specimen book collage 1

Specimen book collage 2
One of the students’ favorite items from AAS was this specimen book, used to sell type to printers. “Chromatic Specimens from the Wm. H. Page Wood Type Co.” Norwich, Conn., not before 1876.

In planning for our visit to the American Antiquarian Society, Lauren Hewes was aware of these complementary assignments—essay and poster—and selected graphic arts materials intended to inspire creativity as well as educate. In consultation with other staff, after the projects had been completed, she endorsed a Black History Month exhibit in the display cases in the reading room. For much of the month of February, all fourteen posters created by our students, each accompanied by an abstract written by its designer, have been on view. They have been joined by Douglass’s Narrative, open to the title page and accompanying frontispiece featuring an engraving of the author, one of the most influential Americans of the nineteenth century.

Student posters by Hope Sutton and Julie Carpino.
Student posters by Hope Sutton and Julie Carpino.

We very much appreciate everything that the American Antiquarian Society has done to make our exhibit possible. This has been a rewarding experience for us as instructors and an even more rewarding experience for our students.

Published by

Carl Keyes

Associate Professor of History, Assumption College

One thought on “Combining History, Graphic Art, and Modern America in the Classroom”

  1. The exhibition is wonderful! The graphic artists really learned a great deal from looking at the AAS collections. Thanks to all!

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