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.

Summer 2021 Schedule Virtual Book Talks

This month, the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC) celebrated its one year anniversary of its Virtual Book Talks series. This new academic program showcases authors of recently published scholarly monographs, digital-equivalents, and creative works 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.

We kicked off the summer with Laura Heffernan (University of North Florida) and Rachel Buurma (Swarthmore College), who discussed their title The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (University of Chicago Press). Like all of our virtual programs, this talk was recorded and is available on the AAS YouTube channel.

We are pleased to share the summer schedule with you here; more details about the program may be found here: On June 24, our next guest is Melissa J. Homestead (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), who will share her recent publication, The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather & Edith Lewis (Oxford University Press).

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!

Lucy Brewer and the Making of a Female Marine

The lore behind a great story is often as compelling as the story itself. The Female Marine; or the Adventures of Lucy Brewer was originally published by Nathaniel Coverly in 1815 as a series of pamphlets sold across Boston and advertised as the autobiographical account of Lucy Brewer, lauded as the first woman to serve in the Navy. Daniel Cohen, author of “The Female Marine” in an Era of Good Feelings: Crossdressing and the ‘Genius’ of Nathaniel Coverly Jr., asserts, “For a period of a few years, they must have been among the most widely circulated pamphlets in Boston.” The tale of a gender-bending seafarer and their adventures aboard the U.S.S. Constitution was eagerly consumed by Coverly’s audience, but the authenticity and authorship of this narrative has been hotly debated for decades.

The story of Lucy West, previously Lucy Brewer (and known by their aliases Louisa Baker and George Baker), begins in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a sixteen year old, Lucy Brewer becomes pregnant by a boy who refuses to marry her. Lucy runs away to Boston, filled with shame and the fear of dishonoring their family, where they suffer a miscarriage. After three years working in a brothel, where they are deeply unhappy and disgusted by the women they work alongside and the men they meet, Lucy escapes by joining the Marine Corps dressed as a man to fight in the War of 1812. They take the name George Baker and serve aboard the U.S.S. Constitution for three years, fighting competently in battles against the British while keeping their true identity–and gender–a secret. They return home to their parents in Plymouth, content in transitioning back into their life as a woman. Tacked onto this narrative and its sequels are “Lucy’s thoughts on vice, morality, and the importance of “parental approbation.”

Here, I’ve referred to Lucy using the pronouns “they, them, and theirs”, but I’d like to acknowledge the nuances of this choice. The assertion of 21st century language on a 19th century character comes with innumerable problems, but my use of gender neutral pronouns seeks to respect the fluidity of Lucy’s experience in the satisfaction they express while embodying both genders. While it would be preferable to ask Lucy what their pronouns are, using gender neutral language prevents having to switch back and forth between multiple sets of pronouns.

The story of Lucy Brewer was published as a real-life account, an autobiography of one person’s experience escaping the confines of their own womanhood to live freely as a man. Lucy’s authorship, however, is highly unlikely—as is their existence. Cohen argues that it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Lucy to keep their gender a secret for three years on board the U.S.S. Constitution, and no record of any marine named George exists from this time period.

Nathaniel Coverly, Jr. is remembered as the printer of hundreds of broadside ballads, many of which celebrate American victories in the ongoing war against England. Nathaniel Hill Wright, Coverly’s supposed hack author, gained notoriety in Boston for “two small volumes of poetry that featured patriotic verses on the American naval exploits in the War of 1812, including a couple of pieces relating to the frigate Constitution.” As readers, this complicates our understanding of Lucy and what they represent—if their interiority is not their own, who does their experience belong to? Perhaps the character of Lucy is modeled after someone Coverly or Wright knew, or perhaps they are merely imagined. Regardless, this story provides a unique opportunity to discuss what gender disobedience might look like in a work of 19th century fiction.

Accepting this story as fiction means considering how its representation of gender fluidity works to positively reinforce the story’s concerns with protecting the innocence and morality of youth. Lucy is deeply concerned with maintaining their virtue, but never describes their male alias as compromising to their values. Their greatest dissatisfaction was their inability to preserve their virtue because of the ways their gender was exploited, and taking on the identity of George Baker allows them to fulfill a desire to “pursue a course of life less immoral and destructive to my peace and happiness.” Lucy delights in their ability to dupe society, frequently reminding their reader how no one has discovered their “true” gender yet. Their “trickery” is never a fact which Coverly shames, but rather uses to showcase the autonomy Lucy has rebuilt through a newfound control over their gender.

The Female Marine explores the troublesome line between gender roles and gender identity, and brings into question which of these constructs Lucy is so desperate to escape. Coverly doesn’t necessarily portray the roles of each gender as flexible, repeatedly reassuring his audience that Lucy continues to “pass” as a man in order to continue performing the duties of one, but he does appear to make an argument that this is an act anybody could pull off–that it is indeed the clothes that make the man. Coverly is disinterested in the ruthless policing of sex and sexuality characteristic of Puritan New England and instead stresses that sin lies within the perversion of morality for both genders, not within the act of gender performance itself.


The Acquisitions Table: Cinderella.  Triumph edition.  Philadelphia: B. Wilmsen, ca. 1880.

Cinderella.  Triumph edition.  Philadelphia: B. Wilmsen, ca. 1880. Bib ID: 604082.

The now-obscure Philadelphia publisher B. Wilmsen published this pop-up version of Cinderella enhanced by cut tissue paper as part of his Triumph edition series, which featured fairy tales including Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.

Although Wilmsen held the American copyright, the book was actually printed in Germany, reflecting the fact that aside from a major picture book publisher like McLoughlin Brothers that did its own manufacturing in Brooklyn, many children’s pop-up books issued in the United States in the 1880s were produced in Europe, which had the skilled workforce of lithographers and movable book assemblers at that time.


A Culinary Road Trip at AAS

We at AAS are excited to be embarking on a culinary road trip this summer! What’s a culinary road trip, you might ask?

A culinary road trip is an AAS social media series featuring AAS staff members traveling back in time and across the country (we’re not really doing either, but it’s fun to imagine) by cooking traditional summer recipes like potato salad, cherry pie, and ice cream from cookbooks and newspapers in the AAS collections. Inspired both by AAS’s involvement with this year’s Pi(e) day, our early blog efforts at baking historically inspired food, and visits to bakeries during conferences we’ve decided to do more historical cooking—but this time we’ll cook and bake our way across the country and into the past!

Join us in June as we start our twelve-week journey traveling from New England to the West Coast and back. You’ll get a historical post card from us every week along with a recipe for a fun summer food or drink from the AAS collections.

Follow along as different staff members try their hands at interpreting early recipes from the AAS collections and also see some wonderful collection items related to our imagined travels.

We hope that you’ll also decide to bake along with us and share your favorite summer recipes and traditions. To entice you to bake along with AAS, we’ve chosen foods and recipes that are palatable to contemporary eaters so that no one wastes food in testing and experimenting with centuries-old recipes.

If you decide to bake along with us or share your scholarship or stories, use the hashtag #AASCulinaryRoadTrip.


Virtual Conference: Textual Editing and the Future of Scholarly Editions

On May 25-26, 2021, the American Antiquarian Society is hosting a virtual conference that will bring together a range of scholars in conversation about new directions in textual editing and scholarly editions.

Since the late 1960s, AAS has been a sponsor of the Cooper Edition, a scholarly edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s works with the seal of the Committee on Scholarly Editions of the Modern Language Association. The conference coincides with the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Cooper’s first major novel, The Spy. Panels will address topics such as textual editing in the digital environment; the role of critical race theory, indigeneity, and the canonical author in textual editing and scholarly editions; and who should be involved in the creation and production of scholarly editions.

We are excited about the slate of the panelists (listed below) and hope you will register for the conference by visiting the conference webpage! This event will be free thanks to the generous support of the Cooper Edition. We are also grateful to the Bibliographical Society of America for supporting this conference.

The conference will be introduced by a video featuring James Elliott (Clark University) and Lance Schachterle (Worcester Polytechnic Institute).

In addition, textual critic and bibliographer G. Thomas Tanselle has written a special statement on the anniversary of The Spy and the value of the Cooper Edition just for this conference. You may read the statement here.

Textual Editing and the Future of Scholarly Editions:
A Conference on the Bicentennial of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy

May 25, 12:00-1:30 PM (EDT)
Panel 1 – “The Past, Present, and Future of the Scholarly Edition”

Co-chairs and Keynotes:
Derrick Spires (Cornell University) and Amy Earhart (Texas A&M University)

Douglas Jones (Rutgers University)
Joycelyn Moody (University of Texas at San Antonio)
Kirsten Silva-Gruesz (University of California Santa Cruz)

May 25, 2:00-3:15 PM (EDT)
Panel 2 – “Textual Editing in the Classroom and Beyond”

Chair and Keynote:
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon (Northeastern University)

James Ascher (University of Virginia)
Sonia Di Loreto (University of Torino–Italy)
Meredith Neuman (Clark University)
Sarah Robbins (Yale University)

May 26, 12:00-1:30 PM (EDT)
Panel 3 – “Textual Editing Beyond the Print Edition of the Canonical Writer”

Chair and Keynote:
John Bryant (Hofstra University)

John Garcia (Florida State University)
John McKivigan (Indiana University)
Joseph Rezek (Boston University)

May 26, 2:00-3:15 PM (EDT)
Panel 4 – “Textual Editing and the Future of Digital Editions”

Chair and Keynote:
Matt Cohen (University of Nebraska Lincoln)

Christine DeLucia (Williams College)
Jimmy Sweet (Rutgers University)
Robert Warrior (University of Kansas)


The Society has a wide variety of Cooper items in the collection, including a portion of Cooper’s personal papers; the personal library and papers of Cooper Edition editor James Beard; the account book of F.O.C Darley (who illustrated Cooper’s works in the 1850s); proofs from Alfred Jones’s engravings of Darley’s illustrations; a copy of David Mamet’s script for The Deerslayer; a painting portraying a scene in The Last of the Mohicans; and, among many other resources, hundreds of books.

Those interesting in learning more about this collection may be interested in the AAS online exhibition James Fenimore Cooper: Shadow and Substance.

In there are any questions concerning the conference or AAS holdings on Cooper, please contact Ashley Cataldo at or Kevin Wisniewski at

The Acquisitions Table: Index or Pointer or Book Mark. Ansonia, Connecticut: Wallace & Sons, 1858.

Index or Pointer or Book Mark. Ansonia, Connecticut: Wallace & Sons, 1858.

On October 10, 1858, the manufacturing firm Wallace & Sons (founded 1848) took out a patent to make foldable bookmarks from brass. The company’s primary product was brass fasteners for hoop (or skeleton) skirts which were becoming fashionable in the late 1850s. One 1859 report in a Lowell newspaper stated: “Messrs. Wallace & Sons of Ansonia, Connecticut, manufacture daily 1,000 lbs. of brass clasps for ladies’ skeleton skirts.  Their factory is in operation from midnight Sunday until midnight on Saturday.” The firm also made brass pins and pipes, and eventually opened a brass and copper rolling mill in New York City.

The bookmark, or pointer, was not usually mentioned in the company’s print advertisements. This surviving card with five of the original twelve bookmarks intact includes promotional text on the verso of the card stating, “Divines, Lawyers, Editors, Clerks, Copyists, Teachers and every class of reader will find this Index to be a saving of their books, time and labour. It is neat, clean, convenient, and so portable that twenty may be used in a medium sized volume without confusion.”

Fellow Reflections with Kirsten Fischer

A Fellow’s Experience: Kirsten Fischer

We asked Kirsten Fischer, associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a former AAS Peterson Fellow (2016 –17), to discuss how her research at the Society helped shape her recently published book, American Freethinker: Elihu Palmer and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the New Nation (2020).

How did you initially become interested in your topic?

I found Elihu Palmer by serendipitous accident. I had come to the American Antiquarian Society looking for traces of Thomas Paine after his return to the United States in 1802. Paine published pieces in a newspaper, the Temple of Reason, which AAS had on microfilm, and which a man named Palmer supposedly edited. Looking for more on Palmer led me to the AAS copy of his book, Principles of Nature; or, A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery Among the Human Species, which first appeared in 1801.

The book was strange and confusing. Palmer kept insisting on a unified material world infused with a life force, and he was sure these “principles of nature” mattered enormously for human happiness. He argued with passion, but his ideas of vibrant matter made only partial sense to me. Only when I read the works of the obscure authors he quoted at length, did I begin to understand that Palmer had been influenced by vitalist physiology coming out of medical circles in Europe, and also by Eastern religions as represented to him by a world-traveling Englishman. John “Walking” Stewart had traveled to India and Thailand, and he shared with Palmer the power of meditation to grasp the unified whole of the universe. Stewart persuaded Palmer that the smallest particles of matter are sensate, meaning they experience and retain sensations like pleasure and pain. These particles are constantly in motion, and as they jump from one thing to the next, they carry sensation with them. This idea changed everything, Palmer thought, because it meant that in the interconnected web of life, every individual action affects the whole. I found the idea fascinating—somehow ancient and modern at the same time—and a challenge to commonplace notions of who and what merits compassion and respect.

How did coming across Palmer’s book lead to you writing his biography?

At first, I thought I could write only about Palmer’s ideas, not the man himself, because Palmer left very little in terms of a personal archive, really just a few letters. We did not even know the name of his hometown in Connecticut. Then it occurred to me to look in the archives of people who might have known him, for example ministers who denounced him as a dangerous heretic. In Connecticut I used lists of names engraved on headstones to search for Palmer families buried in small-town cemeteries. Once I found his family headstones, I could use local church and land records to fill in blanks about Palmer’s family and his upbringing. To my immense good fortune, I even found the manuscript diary kept by Palmer’s childhood minister. Newspaper advertisements for his lectures and attacks printed by his enemies helped me track Palmer’s movements and his rising fame. Putting together the many tiny pieces, I was able to write a new biography of this colorful figure in the early Republic. And he was a character. Although Palmer lost his eyesight when he was twenty-nine, he continued to travel and lecture in the company of other freethinkers. His speeches and publications challenged conventional limits on freedom of religion and of speech, and by 1802, his enemies denounced him as a danger to the nation.

How did your fellowship experience at AAS influence your work?

I had come to AAS on my own dime several times, always for just a few days. My month-long fellowship in 2016 enabled me to look further afield for signs of Palmer. On my very first day as a fellow, I requested the recently published diary of a young physician whose manuscript is held at Columbia University. In volume one of Alexander Anderson’s New York City Diary, 1793 to 1799, edited by Jane R. Pomeroy (Oak Knoll Press and AAS, 2014), I found evidence for something I had suspected but did not think I would be able to prove: the personal friendship between Palmer and his mentor, John Stewart. Dr. Anderson witnessed Palmer and Stewart walking arm-in-arm into a New York bookstore, cracking jokes and laughing. Thank you, Alexander Anderson, for thinking to note this in your journal; thank you, Jane Pomeroy, for transcribing the diary; thank you, AAS, for publishing it! I already knew Palmer thought highly of Stewart’s ideas; now I knew their relationship was personal.

Serendipitous finds like this occur when one has time to look beyond the immediately obvious entries in the catalog to snoop around in places where one might find something. The best finds of my book came about because fellowships gave me the time to fall into archival rabbit holes, some of which hold real treasure. Also very special to me was staying in the Reese House with other scholars in residence, giving presentations on our projects, and informally sharing our finds after a day in the archive. The staff at AAS is magnificent, and I continued to get help with items and images even after my fellowship had ended.

How might Elihu Palmer’s story resonate for today’s readers?

In writing the book, I came to understand that the new United States was born with divergent impulses. Religious pluralism flourished, but so too did anxiety about the public expression of that diversity. We see some of these tensions still today. The ability to accept, never mind welcome, religious diversity remains a challenge for many, even as the country is irrepressibly diverse. Americans continue to accuse one another of harboring religious beliefs incompatible with patriotism. Palmer’s life story shows how religious freethought developed in tandem with the efforts to contain it. The struggle persists, it waxes and wanes, and it might be with us for a long time.

Palmer reached for creative answers to pressing concerns, such as how to achieve social justice without incurring violence, how to have a shared morality without relying on a shared religion, and how to protect interdependent life on planet Earth. These issues remain relevant today. In a world riven by inequality, political disagreement, racialized violence, and climate change, we need to find common ground amidst our differences. Palmer banked on a transformative psychology, one based on the recognition of a shared fate in an interconnected web of life. His answers may not be ours, but he was asking questions that still await creative solutions, and he did it with a passion and an optimism I find inspiring.

What are you currently working on?            

My next project is a hybrid of archivally researched family history and memoir. Three generations of my father’s German family experienced displacement due to two world wars and then the country’s political division. I explore what they experienced and how their stories have shaped my own sense of belonging and home. I’m learning how to write in a more personal and—dare I say it?—literary manner, and I’ve been studying twentieth-century German history, historical memory, and how memoir can serve as a lens onto the past. It’s very engaging work.

This interview is featured in the latest issue of the AAS publication The Almanac. Please follow the link to read the entire issue and learn more about recent events and news at the Society.

Continuing the Conversation: Jessica Pressman Answers Your Questions on Bookishness

Last September, Jessica Pressman, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, was a featured guest at the Virtual Book Talk series sponsored by the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC).  Jessica spoke about her recent publication, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age, published in December 2020 by Columbia University Press.

The Virtual Book Talk showcases authors of recently published scholarly monographs, digital-equivalents, and creative works broadly related to book history and print culture. Each installment includes an informal presentation from the author and a Q&A with the audience. These talks are streamed live for registered participants and are recorded for posterity. Talks typically last about one hour.

Jessica’s talk was well attended, and the Q&A that followed the presentation was a lively one.  In the limited time that follows a presentation, our guests try to respond to as many questions as possible. Unfortunately, not all questions make it into these programs.

Luckily, these questions are recorded, and Jessica has been gracious enough to continue the conversation started at her talk by answering a few of the remaining questions for this article.

For those interested in learning more about Bookishness, please visit the Columbia University Press website.

Q:  Is it possible to bring concept of bookishnesss to other contexts, e.g. to book exhibitions?

A:  Absolutely. When I say, “bookishness is everywhere,” I mean it. I think book exhibitions—whether displayed on the bookshelves of one’s home or in shelfies distributed on social media, whether curated for libraries and exhibition halls or for decorating a bourgeoisie restaurant—all share a common sense of the book as a tangible symbol of taste and a physical thing of value, but also one whose exhibition matters acutely in our digital moment.  Of course, there have been exhibitions of books before computers and digitized culture, but the omnipresence of bookishness—the shared need to express this affiliation and attachment to books—is clearly distinctive and not contained to a specific cultural or disciplinary context. This is what makes it so interesting.

Q:  How would you situate the artist book in your study of bookishness and the development of bookishness?

A:  I did a lot of research and thinking about this question. My interest in and exploration of bookwork (that genre of book-based sculpture that I showed in my slideshow, represented by the artists Doug Beube and Brian Dettmer) led me to research artist books and visit university special collections devoted to them (Yale and UCSD, in particular). But it was my personal connection to bookwork artists that taught me to see a distinctive difference between artist books and bookwork.

I would like to answer your question by quoting from an interview I conducted with the Doug Beube and Brian Dettmer: “Bookwork and Bookishness: An interview with Doug Beube and Brian Dettmer” by Jessica Pressman in Book Presence in a Digital Age, eds. Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, Kári Driscoll, and Jessica Pressman (Bloomsbury, 2018):

Jessica: Your work is often seen in relation to artist books, both in connection to and in opposition to that book-based genre of art. Would you say that this reflective, even reflexive, media studies aspect of your work is what serves to distinguish bookwork from artist books?

Doug: I don’t like the term “book artist.” I consider myself a mixed media artist.

Brian: I see our work as being very different from the tradition of artist books. Artist books use the book as a canvas and the work exists and operates within the context of a book. They usually don’t push the structure of the book medium or question the context of the book itself.  In my art I ask “How is this [the book] an interesting media to use and to comment upon?” I am more interested in the book as a found object or cultural artifact to explore. Take an analogy to Nam June Paik’s sculptures employing television and video. He did not write TV shows within the medium but rather used the medium, the hardware of the TV, to create sculpture about the medium. A farmer who grows trees is in a different field than a sculptor who makes wooden carvings. When put in the same genre as book makers I like to joke that I don’t do book-making; I do book-breaking.

Doug: An important distinction between bookwork and artists’ books is that artists’ books still function as books; you open them and interact with them by flipping pages, there are exceptions but for the most part they function like a book. In contrast, in my work, I challenge the way we interact with and think of these objects. My work is not about binding but about context and how the book sits in space.

I think this selection from our conversation suggests a need to think carefully and in nuanced ways about art made from books and books made as art. I offer “bookishness” as a conceptual category, an umbrella term of sorts, for exploring what these various genres share— a love of books— but also one that leaves room for understanding their distinctions.

Q: Especially in the book as memorial, bookishness seems reactive to perceived threats or competitors to the book as a medium. Are there examples of bookishness as proactive and expansive rather than as opposed to protective of the past?

A: I don’t think memorials have to adhere to an either/or binary of reactive or proactive, backwards or forward-facing. Bookishness certainly shows how bookish memorials do both simultaneously. My chapter titled “Memorial” takes Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Books (2012) as its case study, and Foer’s book is very “proactive and expansive.” It is a formal experiment in die-cutting and in the poetics of erasure, for Foer cuts his text from Polish author Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (1934). The book is, I argue, a memorial to Schulz and the Holocaust but also to books in a digital age. Yet, Foer’s book is also a provocatively beautiful example of a digitally-enabled and, thus, potentially mass-produced “artist” book. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful bookish memorial that proactively provides groundwork for new experimentations. Foer’s work is not alone in demonstrating how bookishness creates book-based literature for a digital moment. Bookishness provides many examples of cultural objects that use books or book imagery to reference a past and establish a bookish future.

Here I think it might be helpful to recall J. Paul Hunter’s great scholarly book on the history of the novel, Before Novels: The Cultural Context of Eighteenth Century English Fiction (New York: WW Norton, 1990). Hunter argues that the novel genre emerges from popular culture and media, from engagement with periodicals and personal narratives, not as a means of reactive retreat and retrenchment but for inspiration and source material. Early novels incorporated popular culture in ways that produced new literature, enabling the novel to continually renovate and remain new (novel).

Making it new, from Ezra Pound onwards, means turning to the past for inspiration and, often, source material, in order to make new art. Making it new also means a memorializing the past in the new. My first book explored this very topic. Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media (Oxford University Press, 2013) argues that creators of born-digital literature mine modernist literature for inspiration in strategic ways: to situate their new literature within a canonical tradition that is taken very seriously. It is interesting to see myself returning to this train of thought in relation to the new book. I had not recognized this connection until your question prompted my consideration. Thank you for the prompt!

Our next book talk takes place on April 29 and features Koritha Mitchell, author of From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture. Registration is open here

Questions or comments related to the program may be directed to Kevin Wisniewski, Director of Book History and Digital Initiatives, at


Martha Ann Brown – Community Leader, Knowledge Keeper

In a letter dated July 11, 1889, Frederick Douglass laments the death of a friend. Composed on an early typewriter, the letter is addressed to William Brown, one of Worcester’s wealthiest Black residents and owner of an upholstery business in the city. Douglass writes, “I had few friends of the early times whom I remember more vividly and I may say lovingly than your dear departed wife.” Here, Douglass remembers his friend Martha Brown, who left behind a strong legacy of community leadership in Worcester (and beyond) upon her death.

Martha Ann Tulip was born on February 27, 1818, in Still River, a village in Harvard, Massachusetts. Several years after the death of her first husband, Marcellus Louis (or Lewis or Lewey), Martha Ann married William Brown, the recipient of Douglass’ letter. The two wed in 1849 at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester. Upon arriving in the city, Martha Ann quickly established herself as a community leader. For a time, she was the only non-white member of the Ladies Benevolent Society and had a hand in organizing benefits and social events for members of both the Black and white communities in Worcester.

In 2019, the Brown family library was donated to the AAS by Martha Ann and William Brown’s descendants. This collection of nearly 140 books reveals Martha’s role as not only a community leader, but a knowledge keeper. The Brown Family’s library includes books on civics, science, history, poetry and other topics. One volume, a commonplace or scrap-book, contains pressed botanical specimens and several notations in Martha Ann’s hand.  Notably, many of the books are inscribed by Martha Ann and also bear the family’s home address at 4 Palmer Street. This suggests that the books were likely lent out to others at one time or another and that the Brown family residence on Palmer Street functioned as a library, presumably with Martha at its reference desk.

The books Martha Ann kept, and perhaps more importantly, the ways she used them, help to illuminate the story of her life in 19th century Worcester. The legacy of leadership and librarianship Martha left behind within the pages of the Brown family library – in connection with family photographs, correspondences and business notes also donated to the Society – remind us how much more there is to be learned about (and from) communities of color – and the women who stand at the center of them.