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 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.


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

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.


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,

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,

Frencia, Cintia, and Daniel Gaido. “The Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day.” Jacobin, 8 March 2017,






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:

[2] Sheila Blair, “Making and Mutilating Manuscripts of the Shahnama,” in Smarthistory, July 27, 2020, accessed October 6, 2021,

[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).

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.

The Acquisitions Table: Rosanna Sizer’s Female Whig of ’76

Rosanna Sizer. Female Whig of ’76. New London, Conn.: Jonathan Sizer, 2nd., 1840.

According to the imprint on this 1840 broadside, Rosanna Sizer wrote this poem in 1777, shortly after Danbury, Connecticut, was burned by the British in April of that year. A family connection between Rosanna and the publisher, Jonathan Sizer, appears likely (he may be a descendent) but has not yet been determined. Rosanna captures the patriotic outrage of American women, many of whom were running households and farms while British troops roamed the countryside.

Her poem also appears in an 1840 volume of eye-witness accounts of Revolutionary War events. Jonathan Sizer was involved with the production of a third 1840 printing of the 1781 Battle of Groton Heights. With the addition of the broadside, all three of these “memory of the Revolution” printings are now part of the Society’s collection.


Quicken the Thought — The Game of Authors

AAS houses a representative collection of American games, from board games inspired by the adventures of Nellie Bly to educational puzzles and fancy paper dolls, but one fascinating subgroup of this collection harnesses the popularity of one entertainment option of the 1800s: reading.

Before the world ogled over athletes and movie stars, the greatest celebrities were authors. People traveled far and wide to see the performances of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain as they read their stories aloud, complete with character voices and, in Dickens’ case, such taxing physicality that some believe it may have hastened his death.[1] Fans of literature could get their fix of their favorite authors outside of theater appearances by purchasing carte-de-visite or cabinet photographs, or products branded with their names. The Game of Authors, however, took the entertainment of nineteenth-century readers to the next level.

First appearing in an advertisement in December 1861, The Game of Authors boasted fun for all ages, intended to “amuse, instruct, and quicken the thought” of anyone who played.[2] Though each iteration of the game included slightly different types of cards and variations of the rules, the general premise followed a similar process to Go Fish. The cards typically consisted of portrait cards of famous authors (sometimes as many as 34 of them as in “The Game of Star Authors” from 1887), along with separate cards featuring titles of their popular works. Players were dealt hands from a shuffled deck with the goal of making as many “books” as possible, matching the portrait of the author with all of the accompanying title cards.

Advertisers insisted that “this game should be in every family” and, as its success grew, so did the number of derivative games trying to capitalize on the model. In 1863, an updated version of the game was released, being advertised outside of the holiday season and seeping into the entertainment of the every day. In that same year, stores began marketing “The Commanders of Our Forces” for children to “learn about our present war,” as an extension of the tried-and-true format.  Following that release came an iteration based on children’s authors, then, in 1866, a version focused solely on Shakespeare and another on musical celebrities made their debut.

Although initially created by women in Salem, Massachusetts, the authors depicted in the game were typically male [3]. Of the eleven most represented authors, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Dickens among others, only one—Louisa May Alcott—is a woman. Of the sixteen different editions of the game in the AAS collection, seven include women authors as part of the set. It seems like manufacturers began to take note of this imbalance though, as in 1887, McLoughlin Brothers in New York issued two versions of the game – one with an all-male group of writers and then an “improved” version that featured eleven women out of a total of eighteen-represented authors.

While this blog post was in production, the Society’s curator of Graphic Arts acquired another version of the game entitled “The Queens of Literature,” published in 1885. Featuring all women, there are a handful of lesser-known writers whose histories I briefly explored as I created the catalog record for the game.

Much like the variety shown in the original games, this set of cards depicted women from every part of the “moral” spectrum: from the corset-burning suffragette Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to Adeline Whitney who fore-fronted traditional values and the importance of traditional gender roles in her writing.

As a game marketed as both entertaining and instructive for children and adults alike, The Game of Authors, in all its variations, was incredibly popular in its time and is still printed in some form today. Maybe consider buying a copy for yourself to see what all the fuss is about!

[1] “Charles Dickens on Stage,” The Charles Dickens Page, 1997-2021.

[2] “New Games,” Salem Gazette (Dec 12, 1861): 2.

[3] Rick Russack, “Who Invented the Game of Authors?”  Game Times, Journal of the American Game Collectors Association, No 17 (April 1992): 351.  The original creator of the Game of Authors could have been local game designer and author Anne W. Abbot (1808-1908) or a group of unidentified young women in Salem.

2021 Seiler Intern Sienna McCulley will be graduating in December 2021 with a BA in English from Amherst College, where she spent multiple semesters working in both the campus library and special collections.  Her experience working with historic material at Amherst and this past summer at AAS has fueled her interest in a future career in the field. 

A Puzzle No More: Charles C. Green and The Nubian Slave

The catalog records that a library user sees in the course of searching often belie a considerable underlying complexity. At AAS, maximizing access to our collections through the creation of accurate, clear and concise catalog records is a high priority. However, the true extent of the effort required to create and maintain these records may not be readily apparent from their often brief and streamlined appearance.

One very particular aspect of this work that users of the online catalog may understandably not think much about is name authority control. The creation of a unique access point (or “heading”) to represent each individual whose name appears in a catalog record is important no matter who they are or what their role might be. Although authors, editors, booksellers, printers, publishers, artists, engravers, illustrators, lithographers, and the personal subjects of works might spring to mind most readily, other associated persons for whom we routinely create access points include dedicatees, translators and the former owners of AAS copies.

For well-known persons either living or dead (and even for some not so well-known), coming up with a unique access point might not be much of a challenge if they have been clearly documented in the collective historical record. But for others, especially the vast majority of the often-elusive historical figures who are of interest to us at AAS, devising a unique access point can be a circuitous and sometimes frustrating journey.

Basically, the goal of name authority control is three-fold: the first is establishing an individual’s identity clearly and unambiguously; the second is determining exactly what the form of the name ought to be; and the third is formulating some sort of qualifier—ideally birth and/or death dates—to differentiate the individual from others who may have the same name. The presence of vital dates in an access point also helps to situate a person within a particular historical context and increases the likelihood that users of the catalog will be able to zero in on what they are looking for as efficiently and quickly as possible.

One such elusive person who came to our attention recently was a Charles C. Green, whose proposal to publish “a series of anti-slavery designs . . . to be called, The Nubian slave” appeared in the March 14, 1845 issue of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s Boston-based abolitionist newspaper. In the prospectus, Green explains that the work will include seven lithographs, each complemented by a poem designed to unite the whole, and that he believes the “application of pictorial art to moral truth is capable of producing a great, and, as yet, almost untried force, which the friends of human freedom have now an opportunity to test.” Green himself was both artist and poet.

The Nubian slave was soon published in Boston by Bela Marsh, and its stark depiction of an African family as its members are brutally enslaved elicited immediate comment. The first image shows the family living in freedom in Africa, but the others present an unflinching view of the father, mother and their small son as they are auctioned, sold, branded, and hunted down after attempting to escape. On June 11, 1845 the Emancipator and weekly chronicle included a staunchly positive review:

“All these horrid facts, the existence of which we all know, and to hide which baptized sophistry has for these hundreds of years been bestowing its paint and varnish and fig leaves, Mr. Green has made to stand out in living reality upon his page. He shows not only what they are, but how they are. With a genius that can transfer to a simple surface of white paper the lineaments and living expression of god-like humanity, he shows us its deep passions, while it undergoes the varied torture of being brutalized at the behest of Mammon, Moloch, Belial & Co. These passions, truly expressed, must awaken sympathy. They must. That is the eternal God’s decree. Let them be placed before every free American, and then let him decide, in view of the last picture of the poor fugitive, with his dead wife on his arm, battling with a pack of hounds and receiving the balls of a company of slaveholders, as if he were a wild beast, which side he will take in this war. He cannot look at this picture and not know which side God takes.” 

The lithographs may also have served as inspiration for Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery, a moving panorama created by Henry Box Brown. An enslaved man from Louisa County, Virginia, Brown escaped in 1849 by having himself shipped in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia. He eventually made his way to Boston and exhibited the panorama in New England for several years until moving to Great Britain following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

But what about Charles C. Green himself? Aside from the fact that he had created what was clearly a transformative work, few personal details about him and his life had thus far been unearthed, even though AAS acquired a copy of The Nubian slave many years ago.

A cursory review of the online catalogs of institutions holding the few other extant copies of Green’s work reveals no further clues. Bibliographies can often provide useful information, but The Nubian slave is not recorded in Wright Howes’ U.S.iana (1650-1950), Joseph Sabin’s Dictionary of books relating to America from its discovery to the present time, or in the Catalogue of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American collection. Although it is included in Checklist of American imprints for 1845, the entry includes no additional clues to Green’s identity. Green is not listed in the Getty Research Institute’s Union List of Artist Names, nor in Who was who in American art. This is precisely the sort of puzzle that catalogers find so tantalizing, and at AAS we are committed to creating bibliographic records that provide as much relevant information about the people associated with the items in our collections, as they do about the items themselves. In the case of Charles C. Green, however, extra tenacity would be required.

Initially, all that was generally known about the creator of The Nubian slave was that he had been an abolitionist in Boston in the 1840s. Databases like Ancestry contain massive amounts of information and can be overwhelming, particularly when seeking someone with a fairly common name, so the general approach in such cases is to start with census records. The 1850 U.S. Federal Census was the first to include the occupations of persons, so that seemed like a good place to begin. Although that census included several persons named Charles C. Green, one in particular stood out. Charles C. Green, a 31-year-old portrait painter, was listed as a resident of Canandaigua, N.Y. who had been born in Massachusetts. He remained in Canandaigua for at least another fifteen years and appeared in both the 1860 U.S. Federal Census and the 1865 N.Y. State Census, classified as an artist in each of these. He was not listed in any census after 1865. His wife Emily Green is listed in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, along with their three daughters (Edith, Susan and Mary), and is identified as divorced. As intriguing as this information was, however, it still did not connect back to Boston and The Nubian slave.

A few targeted Google keyword searches then led to several valuable sources that would likely have remained hidden had they not been scanned and available for searching. The first was a digitized periodical called the Sandspur (produced by the students of Rollins College). In an issue from November 7, 1934, there was a reference to an artist named Charles Chauncey Green, described as a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, a Brook Farm resident and one of the first U.S. muralists. This seemed promising even though there was no mention of The Nubian slave.

Another Google search resulted in a lead that connected a Charles Green (no middle name or initial specified) to the abolitionist, editor and reformer Frances Harriet Whipple (1805-1878), whose life is detailed in a 2004 biography by Sarah C. O’Dowd. In her book, O’Dowd describes the relationship between Frances and an artist named Charles Green who was fourteen years her junior. They were married in July of 1842, which is supported by numerous contemporary notices that appeared in newspapers announcing the marriage of Charles C. Green to Miss Frances H. Whipple, editor of the Fall River Wompanoag, on July 1, 1842. Unfortunately the published Massachusetts vital records had recorded Green’s middle initial as a “G” rather than a “C” in its entry for the marriage, leading briefly to the supposition that the artist Charles C. Green had been confused with Charles Gordon Greene, a printer and publisher in Boston at the time. Fortunately, the “G” was quickly determined to be a typographical error.

Charles and Frances lived in various places across New England, including Groton, Conn. and Dorchester, Mass., the latter place being not far from Brook Farm in West Roxbury. But they divorced in 1846 after what was apparently a difficult relationship. Charles soon fled to Canandaigua, NY, and married a second time—to a woman named Emily—which connects to the Charles C. Green previously found in the censuses. After that, the trail initially appears to have gone cold.

Based on evidence gathered thus far, it seemed quite likely that the Charles Chauncey Green described in the Sandspur and the Charles C. Green who married and divorced Frances Harriet Whipple were one and the same, but still there was no explicit reference tying this particular Charles C. Green to The Nubian slave. In the face of what remained essentially circumstantial evidence, it made sense to see if contemporary newspapers might yield some solid evidence. Another targeted keyword search of America’s Historical Newspapers turned up an article detailing the proceedings of the New-England Anti-Slavery Convention, held in Boston on May 27, 1845 and published in the Liberator on June 6 of that year. That article proved to be a gold mine. One of the resolutions passed at the convention acknowledged receipt of a copy of The Nubian slave, “the beautiful tribute of Mr. Charles C. Green to the anti-slavery cause.” But the real gem appeared at the end of the article, in a list of the financial donors to the convention, stating that Frances H. Greene had contributed one dollar. Variation in the spelling of Green/Greene aside, the New-England Anti-Slavery Convention was the common link between Charles C. Green, author of The Nubian slave, and Frances Harriet Whipple, who is known to have used the name Frances H. Green (or Greene) during her marriage to the artist.

As illuminating as all of this was, however, it still did not provide birth and death dates to add to the access point for this particular Charles C. Green, to distinguish him from any other person bearing that name. So, a return to the vital records to see if a birth record existed seemed in order. It was clear from the censuses that he was a native of Massachusetts, and that based on the ages stated there he was probably born in 1817 or 1818. Searching through the Massachusetts Vital Records led to the suspicion that he could be the Charles C. Green who was born in Leicester, Mass. on January 5, 1818, son of Thomas and Suky Green. Charles appears to have been his parents’ only child, and his middle name is stated variously as Chancy, Chancey, Chauncey or Choney in the several iterations of the vital records available on Ancestry and American Ancestors. Although several other persons named “Charles C. Green” had been born in various New England states during this time, he was the only one to have been born in Massachusetts. And, most importantly, he was the only one to become an artist.

If finding the birthdate had been fairly straightforward once Green’s identity had been established, the death date would prove much more difficult to uncover. As far as the censuses were concerned, he last appeared in the 1865 N.Y. State Census. After that he seemed to disappear. No newspaper obituaries appeared to exist, and there was no death record in any state for a Charles C. Green who had been born in 1818 in Leicester, Mass.

One of the pitfalls of doing research in online databases of historical metadata is that their indexing is based on what a human transcriber—or perhaps an OCR program—has recorded after examining an original source document. If a mistake is made in transcribing a name from an original source, for example, the level of access that users have to that original source is severely compromised, and unless the mistake is corrected the “true” data might never come to light. This idea was the motivation for some  “creative searching” in Ancestry, which resulted in finding a record for a “C. Chang Green,” son of Thomas, who died in Bangor, Maine, at age 63 on November 27, 1881. Based on the age, this person would have been born about 1818. Could it be a mere coincidence that his father’s name was also Thomas? One record led to another, and his place of birth was revealed to have been “Lecsterfield, Mass.” That was one coincidence too many—it just had to be “Leicester.” Things were indeed clicking into place, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that “Chang” might be a transcriber’s misreading of some version of the middle name–Chancy, Chancey, Chauncey, Choney, etc. But concrete proof was lacking. Complicating matters further, the death record appeared in another index in Family Search with his name given as “Chauncy C. Green.”

Unfortunately, none of the online sources that included the death record had an associated digitized image of the original document, so initially it seemed that it would be impossible to confirm that “Chang” had really been transcribed in error for some form of the name “Chauncey.” As logical an assumption as it seemed, it was just that–an assumption. But the question was resolved after a brief email correspondence with the supervisor of the Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, where Green was buried, in a section called “Stranger’s Row.” This is a part of the cemetery maintained today by the city of Bangor and includes no individual grave markers. After consulting the cemetery’s original 1881 burial book, the supervisor confirmed our hunch. The name in the original 1881 burial book was plainly stated as “Green, C. Chauncey.”

From the cataloger’s perspective, the search for Charles C. Green is complete. The resulting access point (Green, Charles C., 1818-1881) is unique, and will represent him and his work in library catalogs. But the full story of Green and The Nubian slave has yet to be told, and, as often happens in the course of name authority research, additional intriguing leads have emerged that deserve further exploration. Questions about Green’s life abound.

How did his career as an artist begin, and from whom might he have received training? What was his precise connection to Hawthorne and his circle, and to Brook Farm? When did he become a proponent of the abolitionist movement?  Were he and Henry Box Brown personally acquainted? Where did he go after leaving his family in Canandaigua sometime between 1865 and 1870, and when did he arrive in Bangor?

He could not be found in either the 1870 or 1880 federal censuses. But he did remarry. Death records reveal an Alfreda Green, his third wife, who died in Bangor just a week after her husband on Dec. 4, 1881, at age fifty-one. Except for that small shred of information, however, she remains a mystery. Our research also indicates that Green was the grandfather of author and journalist Will Irwin (1873-1948) and Wallace Irwin (1875-1959), also a noted author and humorist. Their mother Edith was the artist’s eldest daughter from his second marriage. But perhaps most interesting is the reference in the 1902 will of his second wife Emily, which includes bequests of two oil paintings–presumably Green’s own work. One, a portrait of the artist and his wife, went to daughter Susan Green Neiderlitz. The other, an oil portrait of daughters Edith and Susan when they were children, went to grandson Wallace A. Irvine (better known as Irwin), of San Francisco.

In Emily Green’s obituary, published in the Ontario County Journal on August 31, 1906, there is mention of her 1847 marriage to “C.C. Greene, who was a well-known artist of the time and a member of the Hawthorne literary circle.” And yet Green’s own death more than twenty years earlier appears to have gone completely unnoticed by the press. Perhaps our name authority research will be the beginning of a renewed interest in the artist and poet behind The Nubian slave, and inspire a deeper dive into his life and work.


“To the Public”: The Rutland Herald, 1794, and the San Francisco China News, 1874

The publication of the first issue of a newspaper is a momentous occasion.  After scraping together the funding to purchase equipment, lining up supplies, hiring staff, soliciting subscriptions, selling advertisements, and gathering news to print, the newspaper rolls off the press and is ready to be placed in the hands of the public for them to read.

Usually to mark the occasion, the editor writes a piece “To the Public” explaining the goals of the newspaper, what motivated the publication of the paper, and what they see as the future. For example, the first issue of the Rutland Herald (VT) of Dec. 8, 1794, the editor wrote,

“We this day present the Public with the first number of The Rutland Herald; or, Vermont Mercury.  As we have purchased of Mr. Lyon, Editor of the Farmers’ Library, the Printing-Office, Apparatus, and Privileges annexed by law to his Paper, it will, for the future, be carried on by the subscribers, with the above title, under the direction of Dr. Williams.”

The section continues,

Nothing shall be wanting which is in our power to render the Herald an useful and entertaining Paper.  Anecdotes, Poetical Essays, and Speculative Pieces, will be admitted in their proper place and proportion.  But our chief aim will be to collect and publish authentic and accurate accounts of all the Foreign and Domestic transactions which, from time to time, may take place . . . In Political matters we shall be ready to publish any pieces which may be of use to communicate information, or can be considered as relating to the Public:  But on no occasion will we condescend to publish any thing in the Herald of an immoral nature or tendency, become the retailers of scandalous anecdotes, or the dupes of electioneering politicians’ nor will we be eployed in private piques and quarrels, in murdering reputations and characters, or in disturbing the enjoyments of domestic happiness.

Most of these are common sentiments also expressed by other newspapers in their first issues.  Whether the ideals stated in the first issue were maintained is another matter.

Recently the American Antiquarian Society acquired the first issue of a scarce San Francisco newspaper; San Francisco China News dated July 14, 1874.  Except for the title, the entire newspaper is printed in Chinese.  Unlike most newspapers of the time, this one was printed by lithography.  At the time they did not have the huge amounts of lead type or over 3000 characters needed to published a Chinese-language newspaper.  All of the text was hand-drawn in reverse on a lithograph stone.


Since this is the first issue, we are asking our gentle and above-average readers if any of them can read this issue.  If so, is there an essay by the editor or publisher stating their purpose for publishing this newspaper?  What was their intent?  And if it is there, can a translation be provided?  If so, please write to the curator of newspapers, Vincent Golden, what you find.  I’m counting on the masses.

Reclaiming Heritage: Digitizing Nipmuc Histories from Colonial Documents

Today the American Antiquarian Society releases the new online exhibition Reclaiming Heritage: Digitizing Nipmuc Histories from Colonial Documents.

This online resource presents fully-digitized versions of seven pre-1820 Indigenous-language imprints as well as digitized materials from four manuscript collections.  The printed books featured in the exhibition add to an existing archive of early American imprints used today for language reclamation work among Indigenous communities in the northeast. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manuscript materials, including land deeds, proprietors and trustees’ reports, genealogical lists and accounting receipts from the towns Grafton, Sutton and Webster, Massachusetts (all within Nipmuc homelands), and the Society’s John Milton Earle collection, provide greater insight into the relationships between Nipmuc communities and settlers in central Massachusetts.

Supported in part by a Lapidus Initiative Fellowship for Digital Collections from the Omohundro Institute, Reclaiming Heritage provides more free, equitable access for Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous studies scholars to printed and archival materials directly related to the languages and lives of the Nipmuc people (upon whose homelands the AAS is built) and of other Indigenous nations across the northeast.

‘Uncle Cleve’: President Grover Cleveland, His-story v. the Truth

In a packed box of uncatalogued cabinet photos, in between portraits of the minister Charles Cleveland and the 22nd President, I came across three portraits of a young, dark-haired woman. In each photo, she looked to be about twenty years old — attractive, well-dressed, and entirely unrecognizable to me if it weren’t for the titles printed on the cards: “Mrs. Grover Cleveland” and “President Cleveland’s Bride.” After a quick google search, I would normally take the information I needed to complete her record and move onto the next. As a 22-year-old woman, however, I was fascinated to see that Frances Folsom Cleveland entered the White House at just 21-years-old, holding the record as the youngest First Lady in American history. This tidbit at the top of her Wikipedia had me itching to learn more about the woman in black and white that I had nearly passed by. But as I ventured deeper into her story, I fell down the rabbit hole of a darker history.

At twenty-seven years old, Grover Cleveland met the infant daughter of his law partner and close friend, Oscar Folsom, and became immediately infatuated with the child. He bought her toys and a baby carriage, becoming affectionately known as “Uncle Cleve” throughout her youth. Always a reckless driver, however, Folsom was killed in a carriage accident around the time Frances turned 11. With no will prepared, Cleveland became the executor of the Folsom estate, taking on the role of provider for Frances and her mother, Emma.[1] Emma Folsom, understandably, expected Cleveland to marry her, thus solidifying his already established role in their “family” dynamic. However, when asked by the press why he hadn’t married, he responded with, “I’m waiting for my bride to grow up.”[2] Tasteless as it may seem, the comment was laughed off as a joke, until the 49-year-old revealed his engagement to Frances Folsom, marrying her five days later in the first ever White House wedding. Their marriage took the media by storm and soon, Frances Cleveland, adored by the public, became the first First Lady to reach celebrity status.

This wasn’t the first media storm to surround Grover Cleveland during his political career. Just after Cleveland received the Democratic nomination for President, a scandal was unearthed: a 9-year-old boy named Oscar was presented as the illegitimate son of the presidential candidate and a department store clerk named Maria Halpin. While the Republicans took immediate advantage of the scandal, Cleveland’s team scrambled to decide what should be done in response. Cleveland insisted on a platform of “honesty,” claiming all responsibility for the boy, though he did not believe that he was biologically the father. He showed the public that he saw that young Oscar was well-cared for and sent him to an orphanage where he was adopted by a respectable family.[3] Maria Halpin, for her part, was portrayed as nothing but a drunk who had slept with at least three married men in addition to Cleveland who, as the only bachelor, saw it as his duty to make sure the boy was cared for. With that, the Democrats could breathe easy. [4] Anti-Cleveland chants from the Republicans of “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” were soon met by the victorious Democratic response: “Headed to the White House, ha-ha-ha.”

So it was quite convenient that, in the Spring of his first year as President, the press had another Cleveland romance to sink their teeth into, as his incredibly young and utterly mesmerizing wife became a perfect distraction from the earlier negative press around Oscar. The story of his illegitimate son moved to the backburner, the public’s love of Frances all but burying it in the sands of time. Cleveland’s account prevailed in most historical mentions, with Halpin written off as a villain, her affidavit against the President long forgotten.

Yet, a pamphlet in the New-York Historical Society’s collection entitled “Tell the Truth! This is a moral question, not a political one the case of Grover Cleveland the result of the investigation by clergymen of the city of Buffalo September, 1884” cites that “abundant evidence is in hand to prove that Maria Halpin was not a bad woman when Cleveland formed her acquaintance.”[5] As it turns out, by all accounts, the true Maria Halpin was a modest woman – a widow, a mother of two young children, and a church-goer who found herself in the unlucky presence of an immoral man. Cleveland, as the accuser, was more in the habit of becoming drunk and disorderly and forming intimate relations with disreputable people than Halpin ever was. According to Halpin’s recently uncovered statement, Cleveland took her home after a meal and proceeded to sexually assault her “by use of force and violence without [her] consent.” When threatening to call the authorities, Cleveland told her “he was determined to ruin [her] if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it.”[6] Once Oscar was born, Cleveland had him removed from his mother’s care, and arranged for Halpin to be sent to Providence Lunatic Asylum where, after evaluation, the medical director released her on the grounds that she was not insane, but instead the victim of political abuse. Yet, Cleveland, from his position of power, held onto the upper hand. In the end, he was true to his word in at least one sense: he did everything he could to burn her reputation to the ground.

Historically, Grover Cleveland has been considered an above-average President, slipping in recent decades only from “near great” to squarely average despite his unpopular reputation at the end of his second term.[7] A standard search of his name first brings up the Wikipedia entry on him, which states that, among modern historians, “he has been praised for honesty, integrity, [and] adherence to his morals.” Elected by the American people twice, this man, who took violent advantage of at least one woman, destroyed her life to hold onto his power, and then groomed a young girl for marriage, is regarded as one of our country’s better leaders, and a righteous one at that. Just a few short weeks ago, when I saw a portrait of Grover Cleveland among the hundreds of cabinet photos I catalogued, I may have accepted that without a second thought. Having spent very little time on him during High School AP History classes, I had chalked his notoriety up to his one impressive feat of being elected to two non-consecutive terms. As for the names Frances Cleveland or Maria Halpin, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Thanks to AAS and a little digging, however, I know better.

My heart goes out to both of these women, whose lives and relationships with the same man turned out so drastically different. Frances came out of a questionable relationship managing to win the hearts of the public, dedicating her time to charity and helping to define the office of the First Lady, despite Cleveland preferring her to stay out of the spotlight. After the death of Grover Cleveland, she became the first First Lady to remarry, this time to a man much closer to her age. Halpin was a survivor who remained strong for her children and spoke up in a time when it was arguably even harder to do so than it is now. She died in 1902 as a social pariah, fading into obscurity.

Grover Cleveland may be known to most Americans by his administration’s one fun fact, but he seems to have been, as this political cartoon in the AAS collection shows, a real pig.


[1] “First Lady Biography: Frances Cleveland.” National First Ladies’ Library,

[2] Ackerman, S. J. “The first celebrity first lady: Frances Cleveland (Posted 2014-07-09 18:22:02): Frances Cleveland was 21 when she married Grover. America couldn’t get enough of her.” 2014.

[3] Serratore, Angela. “President Cleveland’s Problem Child.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 26 Sept. 2013,

[4] A pamphlet in the AAS collection entitled “Cleveland’s Moral Character: Some Facts It Would Be Well To Know” details one defense in response to Cleveland’s scandal. Published by the Buffalo Committee of Independent Republicans, the pamphlet makes a case for his moral integrity, refusing to even repeat the allegations against him. Notably, though Cleveland was running as a Democrat, a large subset of Republicans supported him over their own candidate, James Blaine, who had suffered his own share of political scandals.

[5] Though no publishing information is available for this pamphlet, the title does suggest that those who produced it did so with the hope of not affiliating themselves with a specific political party. The writing does imply an endorsement of Cleveland’s Republican opposition, James G. Blaine, but does not explicitly position itself as a Republican pamphlet and offers more of a religious perspective on Cleveland’s sinfulness.

[6] Lachman, Charles. “Grover Cleveland’s Sex Scandal: The Most Despicable in American Political History.” The Daily Beast, 23 May 2011,  In 2011, Lachman also published a book entitled A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, in which he details the Maria Halpin scandal extensively.

[7]  The 2021 Presidential Historians Survey ranks Cleveland 25th out of 44, a decline that reflects modern history’s reconceptualization of post-reconstruction politics. However, it is worth noting that, though his reputation is slipping in the eyes of the educated, the average person’s first stop for information (websites such as Wikipedia) still spotlights his moral integrity.

2021 Seiler Intern Sienna McCulley will be graduating in December 2021 with a BA in English from Amherst College, where she spent multiple semesters working in both the campus library and special collections.  Her experience working with historic material at Amherst and this past summer at AAS has fueled her interest in a future career in the field. 

Fall 2021 Virtual Book Talk Schedule

We are pleased to announce the Fall 2021 schedule for the Virtual Book Talks series. Our lineup includes a variety of topics including astronomy and printing the universe, nineteenth-century printing in Mexico, African American literary practice, and the politics of Native American writing.

We ended our summer with Elizabeth Kimball, Assistant Professor of English at Drexel University, who discussed her title Translingual Inheritance: Language Diversity in Early National Philadelphia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021). Like all of our virtual programs, this talk was recorded and is available on the AAS YouTube channel.

Today, September 30, we launch our fall season with Gordon Fraser, Lecturer and presidential fellow in American Studies at the University of Manchester, who will present a lecture on his new title Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

In Star Territory, Fraser explores how from its beginning, agents of the state, including President John Adams, Admiral Charles Henry Davis, and astronomer Maria Mitchell, participated in large-scale efforts to map the nation onto cosmic space. Through almanacs, maps, and star charts, practical information and exceptionalist mythologies were transmitted to the nation’s soldiers, scientists, and citizens.

This is, however, only one part of the story Fraser tells. From the country’s first Black surveyors, seamen, and publishers to the elected officials of the Cherokee Nation and Hawaiian resistance leaders, other actors established alternative cosmic communities. These Black and indigenous astronomers, prophets, and printers offered ways of understanding the heavens that broke from the work of the U.S. officials for whom the universe was merely measurable and exploitable.

The virtual book talk series is an academic program that showcases authors of recently published scholarly monographs  broadly related to book history and print culture. Each installment includes a presentation from the author and a Q&A with the audience. This monthly program is held on the last Thursday of every month at 2PM.

These programs are free to attend but require advanced registration. More details about the program and the fall lineup may be found here:

If you’re interested in book history, you may also wish to sign up for our mailing list. Questions may be directed at Kevin Wisniewski, Director of Book History and Digital Initiatives, at

We look forward to seeing you at one of our next programs!


A Unicorn in the Archives

There are some archival gems you can’t pass up. During my fellowship residency at the American Antiquarian Society in May 2021, AAS staff were helping me comb through the Jacob Porter Papers, when we all noticed it in the catalog record: “An Attempt to Prove the Existence of the Unicorn.”[1] “I want to believe,” someone joked as we retrieved the ‘Unicorn Treatise,’ eager to find out what it said.

My dissertation is about kitchen gardens in early America and what they tell us about non-elite people’s scientific knowledge. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while doing this research, it’s that when your archival bread and butter rests in the natural world, and especially in people’s observations about the natural world, you are bound to come across some fantastic stories. A scientific essay seeking to “prove the existence of the unicorn” might seem strange to us now, but people in the early nineteenth-century scientific community debated the existence of the unicorn, as they also debated the existence of the famous Gloucester Sea Serpent.[2] In fact, the ‘Unicorn Treatise’ reminded scholars to suspend “incredulity in natural history, which leads us to deny the existence of such species as have not come under our observation.”[3] If incredulity is the enemy of observation, then perhaps all we who study the past have a lesson to learn from the unicorn’s plight. “Wanting to believe” might in fact be the best way to enter both a unicorn’s forest and an archive. With this mentality, we can take our finds, hooved or otherwise, on their own terms.

The ‘Unicorn Treatise’ was penned by Jean-François “J.F.” Laterrade (1784-1858), a French botanist and founding member of the Linnaean Society of Bordeaux. It was printed in the first volume of the Bulletin d’Histoire Naturelle de la Société Linnéenne de Bordeaux, in 1826.[4] The treatise in the American Antiquarian Society collections is Jacob Porter’s handwritten version. Porter (1783-1846) was a Yale graduate, Massachusetts physician, and member of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York.[5] His English translation of Laterrade’s treatise was published in the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1832.[6]

Filtered through the lens of Porter’s translation, Laterrade’s treatise offers a threefold defense of the unicorn – and of belief in what may at first seem inconceivable. First, he seeks to prove that the “land unicorn” – distinguishing it from the narwal – “has in it nothing remote from the ordinary laws of nature.” Since the unicorn primarily resembles a common horse, Laterrade supposes that the sticking point must be its horn. “But then,” he conjectures, surely the narwal’s horn is “far less natural” than that of a unicorn, since narwals are creatures of the sea.[7] Second, Laterrade cites historic references to the unicorn, from “David and the prophets;” to the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder; to a unicorn skeleton discovered in 1663 in Quedlinburg (now Germany), and “sent to the princess Abbesse.”[8] Because “several authors have made mention” of the unicorn, Laterrade wonders what further objection there can be. He allows that historically there have been some “ridiculous” beliefs about the properties of unicorn horns but that such “falsehood or ignorance” should not cause scholars to reject “real facts.”[9] Third, Laterrade counters the argument that because “moderns have never seen [unicorns],” they must not exist. As with discoveries of “the mammoth,” and “shells, the inhabitants of which we have not yet been able to determine,” Laterrade contends “that nature loses nothing by growing old.” And that in fact, “what animal is [not] a little extraordinary…when the might of time has removed it a little distance from us?” In the end, Laterrade does not say definitively that the unicorn exists. He concludes merely that there is “satisfactory evidence” that the unicorn existed, and that possibly “he exists still.”[10]

More compelling to Laterrade than a neat proof – unicorns or no unicorns – was a disarming of narrow-mindedness. The last paragraph of the ‘Unicorn Treatise’ quotes Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle: “It is necessary to consider nothing as impossible, to look for every thing, and to suppose that whatever can exist, really does.”[11] Over and over, this is also Laterrade’s refrain. In the pursuit of knowledge, Laterrade insists, “[L]et us examine attentively and judge with impartiality.” Let us consider all possibilities, including those beyond our “exact sphere” of understanding.[12] Archival finds like the ‘Unicorn Treatise’ remind me to approach sources with an open mind. Often, the more interesting question to ask myself is not “was it real?” but “why was it a possibility for the people I study?” I want to believe.

[1] “An Attempt to Prove the Existence of the Unicorn,” Mss boxes P, box 3, Jacob Porter Papers, 1802-1846, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester MA.

[2] In the original publication of the ‘Unicorn Treatise,’ author Jean-François Laterrade explains in a footnote that he was convinced to publish the treatise after observing renewed interest in the unicorn in the scientific community. J.-F. Laterrade, “Notice en Réfutation de la Non Existence de la Licorne,” Bulletin d’Histoire Naturelle de la Société Linnéenne de Bordeaux 1 (1826): 186. Less than a decade before the ‘Unicorn Treatise’ was first published, many people sighted a sea monster in Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts, prompting members of the Linnean Society of New England to visit to see for themselves. Chandos Michael Brown, “A Natural History of the Gloucester Sea Serpent,” American Quarterly 42, no. 3 (September 1990): 402-436.

[3] “An Attempt,” Jacob Porter Papers, AAS.

[4] Laterrade, “Notice en Réfutation,” 186-192.

[5] Biographical information from the Jacob Porter Papers catalog entry, American Antiquarian Society website,

[6] J.F. Laterrade, “An Attempt to Prove the Existence of the Unicorn,” trans. Jacob Porter, The American Journal of Science and Arts 21 (January 1832): 123-126.

[7] “An Attempt,” Jacob Porter Papers, AAS.

[8] “An Attempt,” Jacob Porter Papers, AAS. The “princess Abbesse” may refer to the Princess-Abbess of Quedlinburg at the time, Anna Sophia I.

[9] It was believed that unicorn horns could detect poison and cure a wide range of other maladies.

[10] “An Attempt,” Jacob Porter Papers, AAS.

[11] Laterrade refers to Comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, Avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi, published in several volumes beginning in 1749.

[12] “An Attempt,” Jacob Porter Papers, AAS.

Holly Gruntner is a PhD candidate in the Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History at William & Mary. She holds an MA in History from William & Mary and a BA from the University of Minnesota-Morris. Holly’s dissertation is titled, ‘“Some People of Skil and Curiousity’: Kitchen Gardens and Scientific Knowledge in Early America.”

Her research uses kitchen gardens as a lens through which to view non-elite people’s intellectual lives and work, and the ways in which they fed broader scientific conversations in the long eighteenth century.

The Acquisitions Table: Clark, B. (Benjamin), Sen. The Past, Present and Future in Prose and Poetry

Clark, B. (Benjamin), Sen. The Past, Present and Future in Prose and Poetry. Toronto: Adam, Stevenson, & Co., 1867. BIB #565812

Benjamin Clark was born to emancipated African American parents in Maryland in 1801, and he died in Detroit in 1864. He married, had ten children, and lived with his family in Pennsylvania. He also established himself as a successful “blue dyer,” with real estate worth $1,000 and older sons established in trades, but also continued to write prose and poetry that was published in Black newspapers and periodicals.[1]

Clark contributed pieces throughout his life to Frederick Douglass’ Paper and the Weekly Anglo-African, all culminating in this posthumously published collection of his writings: The Past, Present and Future in Prose and Poetry (1867).

In three of his poems, Clark takes on a first-person voice not his own, essentially ventriloquizing the voice of a slave-catcher, a slaveholder, and a slave. “Be Joyful!,” the last poem in Clark’s book, is dedicated “to the first colored regiment of Michigan,” and in it he describes their goal: “To make our country what it should / Have always been of right, / A land of justice, equal laws, / And not of force and might.”

[1] Lorang, Elizabeth and R. J. Weir, ed. “”Will not these days be by thy poets sung”: Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864.” Scholarly Editing (2013)

Cure and Preventive: Patent medicines in the 18th and 19th century United States

In popular culture within the United States, many have heard of the “snake oil salesman” – a stock character in Western movies depicted as a supposed traveling doctor who peddles “medical” oils, elixirs, tonics, pills, bitters, liniments, tinctures, salts, powders, or syrups to unsuspecting crowds of passers-by. An accomplice in the crowd (a “shill”) attests to the effectiveness of the product being sold to increase sales. By the time customers realize they’ve been swindled, the “doctor” is already long gone. Although such individual salesmen were cultural tropes, the medicines they peddled at their American Old West-themed medicine shows – more widely known as “patent medicines” – were a popular part of American life and culture in the 18th and 19th century.

What are patent medicines? Patent medicines – also known as “nostrum”, from the Latin nostrum remedium, meaning “our remedy” – were commercial products sold in the 18th and 19th century United States as purported over-the-counter medicines that made bold and sometimes far reaching claims about their curative properties. Many of these medicines were trademarked, but not patented in the way we think of patents today. The term “patent medicine” came about in the late 17th century marketing of medical elixirs in Europe, when those who found favor with royalty were issued “letters patent” – legal instruments in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch or other head of state – authorizing the use of the royal endorsement in advertising of products such as elixirs. Chemical patenting as we know it today did not occur within the United States until about 1925.

What did these medicines contain? Usually patent medicines were made of relatively inexpensive ingredients sold at high prices. It is important to know that because many patent medicines did not explicitly list their ingredients, those who sold it could make lofty claims about what their medicines contained. For example, particular herbs were frequently talked of being medical wonders in the advertising of patent medicines, but their actual effects would come from other unnamed substances (such as procaine extracts [used as local anesthetics] or grain alcohol). Patent medicines could contain a combination of ingredients such as oils, water, sugar, herbs, minerals, alcohols, chemical compounds, etc., and sometimes they contained potentially harmful (but surprisingly still legal) substances. Why would anyone put such substances into their patent medicines? Patent medicine manufacturers needed substances in their product that had noticeable effects on the body, for there is only so far a placebo effect will work on consumers. The easiest way to do so was by adding laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, and/or depressants to their products. For example, “infant soother” medicines frequently contained opium. Opiates in general – which were legal at the time and sometimes effective in relieving pain, coughs, and diarrhea  – were added to medicines despite their known addictive properties (many such medicines were advertised as causing “none of the harmful effects of opium,” though some actually did contain opium). The effect that these substances had on the body made consumers of patent medicines feel as though the medicine was working in some way – whether by creating an effect on the body that would distract them from their symptoms or would help to temporarily relieve or mask their symptoms.

What did these medicines claim to cure? While some patent medicines made specific claims about their curative properties, many could be labeled as “cure-alls” – they claimed to cure a wide variety of illnesses. For example, Isaac Bartram’s Ætherial Oil of Tar (advertised via an 1773 broadside, see figure 1 below), claimed “by its warming and stimulating property, is found good in [curing] palsies, weakness of nerves, trembling, cramps, convulsions, lowness of spirits; numbness, weakness, coldness, or wasting of the limbs; white swellings, and King’s Evil; pain in the stomach, expels wind, helps digestion, and promotes an appetite.”

Figure 1: Ætherial Oil of Tar, prepared by Isaac Bartram, Chymist, (Burlington [N.J.]: Isaac Collins, [1773?]).

Dr. Hoofland’s Greek Oil, advertised within Dr. Hoofland’s  Primer (see figure 2 below), when “applied externally,” it claimed to “cure all kinds of pains and aches, such as rheumatism, neuralgia, toothache, chilblains, sprains, bruises, frost bites, headaches, pains in the back and loins, pains in the joints or limbs, stings of insects, ringworms, etc., etc., etc.” and when “taken internally” it claimed to “cure dyspepsia, liver complaint, indigestion, acid stomach, headache, heartburn, kidney complaints, backaches, sick headache, colic, dysentery, diarrhoea, cholera infantum, cholera morbus, cramps and pains in the stomach, fever and ague, coughs, colds, asthma, etc., etc., etc.”

Figure 2: Dr. Hoofland’s Primer, ([Philadelphia]: Charles M. Evans, [between 1869 and 1872?]), 21.

How were patent medicines sold within the United States? Patent medicines were mainly sold via advertisements within almanacs and newspapers, but were also advertised in a variety of other ways. One 1872 source summed up American’s experiences with patent medicine advertising:

We take up our morning journal: its columns are crowded by patent medicine advertisements. We turn in disgust from their glaring statements, and attempt to read a news item. We get half through, and find we are sold into reading a puff for the same trashy article. We take a horse-car for up or down town, and opposite, in bold and variegated letters, the persistent remedy (?) stares you continually in the face. We enter the post office: the lobbies are employed for the exposition, perhaps sale, of the patent medicines. We open our box: “O, we’ve a large mail to-day!” we exclaim; when lo! Half of the envelopes contain patent medicine advertisements, which have been run through the post office into every man’s box in the department. And so it goes all day.[1]

Sounds eerily similar to our modern day advertising woes, doesn’t it? Although I believe the book from which the above passage originates from was intended to be a collection of satirical anecdotes of the time, it does paint a realistic image of how widely patent medicines were advertised within the United States in the late 19th century; such patent medicine advertisements were peppered throughout Americans’ daily lives (see figure 3 below).

Figure 3: “If you travel on the railroad you will recognize this as a familiar scene. Wherever you go, all over this country, you will find attractive signs relating to Hood’s Sarsaparilla.” C.I. Hood & Co., Hood’s Sarsaparilla Painting Book, ([Lowell, Mass.]: Art Dept. of C.I. Hood Co., 1894.), 23.

As patent medicine advertising became more prevalent, some sellers of patent medicines realized that their products had to have a gimmick to set them apart from the competition (testimonies and letter patents aside). One such gimmick was the theme of exoticism and mystery – claiming that their product was made with “exotic” ingredients or recipes from far-away lands. Take the above mentioned Dr. Hoofland’s Greek Oil (figure 2) – its “principal ingredient” was “an oily substance – vegetable in its nature – procured from the southern portion of the Kingdom of Greece. This compound is a certain enemy to pains of all kinds; its effects are magical.” Another example of this is Tish-Wang, “the Great Chinese Remedy,” which claimed to cure a variety of venereal diseases. In an 1863 advertisement (see figure 4 below), the seller claims to have purchased this medicine from reputable medical staff in London:

An English surgeon, while with the Army in India, obtained the secret from a Chinese physician, and the Remedy has been used for several years with great success in the hospitals of Europe. The undersigned purchased the recipe from a member of the medical profession of this city, recently returned from England, where he obtained the secret and witnessed its curative powers on the patients of one of the most celebrated Lock Hospitals in London.

Figure 4: Samuel C. (Samuel Curtis) Upham, Tish-wang, the Great Chinese Remedy for Gonorrhoea, Gleet, Strictures, Syphilis, Gravel, Seminal Weakness, &c. ([Philadelphia : s.n., 1863]).

Why don’t we still have patent medicines today? The death of patent medicines came, in part, thanks to a 1905 article written by Samuel Hopkins Adams, an American author and muckraker journalist. This article, entitled “The Great American Fraud,” was an 11 part series for Collier’s magazine in which Adams exposed patent medicines’ fraudulent claims and revealed how some of these medicines were damaging people’s health. This article’s publication allegedly played a part in influencing the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first significant consumer protection law in the United States. This law required that active ingredients be placed on the label of a drug’s packaging – which meant the beginning of the end for patent medicines in the United States.

[1] Addison Darre Crabtre, The Funny Side of Physic: or, The Mysteries of Medicine. (Hartford : J.B. Burr & Hyde, 1872), 86.