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.

Breach of Promise: Seeking Compensation for a Broken Heart

Here at AAS, we’ve always enjoyed Valentine’s Day. From various blog posts to our online exhibit on Victorian Valentines, we have fun promoting the holiday. This year, we thought we’d go in a different direction and look at what could happen when love doesn’t go as planned.

Breach of promise lawsuits occurred when a person, usually a woman, sued their ex-fiancé for ending their engagement. They argued that an engagement constituted a legal contract and that breaking it deserved monetary compensation. Now virtually unheard of – and illegal in many states – breach of promise lawsuits were common in the 19th century. They appear in our collection in the form of newspaper articles, personal accounts, reports of court cases, and novels.

One example is the eight-page pamphlet entitled Report of the case of Mary Conrad versus Josiah B. Williams. This breach of promise is particularly compelling because Mary Conrad and Josiah Williams were never actually engaged. Nevertheless, Mary was awarded $8,000 from a New York circuit court judge in 1843. Josiah appealed to the New York Supreme Court for a retrial in the following year, occasioning the publication of this pamphlet.

Mary’s lawyer argued that, while the two were never officially engaged, Josiah had promised to “marry the plaintiff, if he ever married any one.” When Josiah married another woman in 1842, this promise was broken. The defense argued that no commitment had been made and that, if it had, it was not unconditional.

To my twenty-first century ears, the story of their courtship reads like teenage drama: Josiah called upon Mary “more than a dozen times,” asked her to join him on a sleigh ride and even walked with her several times! One witness for the defense told the jury that while Josiah did walk with Mary at a party for a time, “he walked a part of the evening with another lady.” As for the sleigh ride, Josiah was “riding with several ladies.” There was only one witness who could attest to the promise of future engagement, Mary’s sister Frances, who only heard because she was eavesdropping from the next room.

Whatever their relationship had been, it dwindled to nothing, and, after 8 months with no contact, Mary became aware that Josiah was engaged to another woman. She was so distraught that she “was immediately taken with spasms, such as the attending physicians had never before seen or heard of.” According to Frances, the following cringe-worthy exchange occurred when Josiah visited Mary at her sick bed. “The plaintiff said,  ‘Mr. Williams, didn’t you tell me you would marry me when you married anyone?’ He said he did; but it was only to calm her feelings.”

In the end, the New York Supreme Court agreed with Josiah that “an absolute promise of marriage had not been made,” and Josiah was awarded a retrial. Contemporary newspaper articles confirm that the case was retried in 1846, and this time the jury ruled in Josiah’s favor.

Another example is the 1835 pamphlet, A full report of the highly interesting breach of promise case. George G. Barnard, vs. John J. Gaul, and Mary H. his wife. This document gives a detailed account of a case brought to the New York Supreme Court, in which George Barnard sues both his ex-fiancée and her new husband for $10,000. It describes the former couple’s courtship and includes dozens of letters between Mary and George from 1827 to 1833, when Mary ends their engagement and marries John.

The defense portrays Mary as a sweet, guileless woman, manipulated into entering an engagement with George and who narrowly escapes marriage to a man who treated her with “cold brutality.” The council for the plaintiff paints a different picture all together. He characterizes George as an innocent, heartbroken victim who has been coldly treated by Mary, an unreliable, senseless hypocrite who had “prostituted her moral sentiments.”

After closing arguments, the judge entreats the jury to remember “when a woman is discarded, it gives the world occasion to think she is not what she ought to be, and prevents her forever after making beneficial contract of matrimony . . . not so with a man, if rejected in one marriage engagement, he can form another.” Despite the judge’s words, the jury found “in favor of the plaintiff for one thousand dollars, and costs of trial.” Apparently, this was not a popular decision.

The New York Herald reported that “Judge Edwards of the Circuit Court has issued a rule staying all further proceedings in the Breach of Promise Case and setting aside the verdict as contrary to law, and we add contrary to common sense too.” News of the case was reprinted throughout the region, including the July 28, 1835 issue of the Connecticut Herald, seen below.


We can only speculate as to what the outcome of these cases would have been had women been included on the jury. Regardless of sex, public sentiment seemed to lie primarily with the defendants, “These cases…even when brought by the female, are generally discreditable; but when a man; or perhaps we should rather say a male–can so far degrade himself as to…punish a woman because she cannot love him…universal contempt should be his only reward.”

We wish you a happy, lawsuit-free Valentine’s Day!


Who Was John Moore Jr.?

For Black History Month, the American Antiquarian Society is featuring historic objects from the collection that are associated with or depict Black Worcester residents. The Society’s portrait of John Moore Jr. was painted in Boston in 1826 when the sitter was in his twenties. He was the only son of John Moore Sr. (1751-1836), a Boston mariner, and his wife, Alice Niles. John Moore Sr. was born a free Black in New York City and moved to Boston as a young man. He supported the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. In 1784 he retired from the sea and settled permanently in Boston where his son was born around 1800. When he grew up, John Moore Jr., who is depicted in this portrait, may have worked as a barber. A barbershop on South Russell St. listed in the 1827 ‘People of Color’ section of the Boston City Directory appears under the name John Moore.

In 1831, shortly after this portrait was painted, John Moore Jr., became the legal guardian of two young nephews, Frederick and William Brown. They were the children of his sister Alice (1793- 1866), whose husband had recently died. Other particulars of the life of John Moore Jr., including whether he married or had children, and when he died, are still being researched. The portrait of Moore passed to his nephew and ward William Brown (1824-1892), who, in 1841, moved with his family to Worcester, where he worked as a successful upholsterer and drapery expert and supported abolitionist activities and organizations. In 1974, descendants donated Brown’s personal and business papers and the painting to the American Antiquarian Society. At the time, the family believed the painting depicted John Moore Sr. However, conservation of the canvas in 1975 revealed the 1826 date on the verso, indicating that the portrait was in fact of John, Jr., rather than his father, who would have been seventy-five years old in 1826. The portrait has hung in the Reading Room of AAS since 1975. You can read more about the painting, including information on the artist and watch a video about William Brown produced by the Worcester Black History Project (below).

John Moore Jr. (b. c. 1800), 1826
William P. Codman (c. 1798-1831), oil on canvas
Gift of Martha Jane Brown, Bernice Brown Goldsberry, John J. Goldsberry, Jr., 1974
William Brown (1824-1892), carte-de-visite from the Brown Family Papers, 1762-1965. Gift of Martha Jane Brown, John J. Goldsberry, Jr., and Dorista Goldsberry, 1974 and 2019.



How Six-Year-Old Stephen Salisbury III Rescued One of the Rarest and Most Important Christmas Documents in American History

Most members of the American Antiquarian Society are aware of the enormous contributions made by the Salisbury family of Worcester County, Massachusetts. Stephen Salisbury II served as president of the Society from 1854 until his death in 1884, and his son, Stephen Salisbury III, served as president from 1887 until his death in 1905. (A half-length portrait of Stephen Salisbury III, as a young man, c.1856 appears below.)

Stephen Salisbury III also bequeathed his personal papers—a hundred bound volumes and sixty-seven boxes of materials collected over seventy years—to the Society.   As archivists catalogued these items, they discovered an eight-page pamphlet, The Children’s Friend: Part III, A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, that had been a Christmas gift to six-year-old Stephen in 1841.

Published by New York bookseller William B. Gilley in 1821, The Children’s Friend contains the first visual depictions of “Santeclaus,” a warmly bundled and bearded gift-giver who traveled from house to house on Christmas Eve in a sleigh drawn by a flying reindeer. The publication, which will mark its bicentennial next year, quickly disappeared from public consciousness, but the story lived on as “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem written by Clement C. Moore, a neighbor of Gilley, in 1822.  The fact that young Stephen saved the booklet his entire life is remarkable both because it illustrates the importance of the Society’s work to “collect, organize, and preserve the records of the lives and activities of people who have inhabited this continent” and because it allows us to document the arrival of Santa Claus in America in 1821.

The rediscovery of The Children’s Friend more than a century after its publication was announced by Charles W. Jones, a Berkeley historian widely viewed as one of the world’s experts on St. Nicholas, in a 1953 speech to the New-York Historical Society.  Jones, however, treated Gilley’s book as little more than a historical footnote on the source of Santa’s reindeer.[1]  Jones’ primary argument was that author Washington Irving “made” Santa Claus in A History of New York, an 1809 satire about the Dutch government of Manhattan.[2]  “Without Irving there would be no Santa Claus,” Jones asserted. “The History contains no less than twenty-five allusions to him—many of them the most delightful flights of imagination . . . Santa Claus was a parasitic germ until the Knickerbocker History in 1809; after 1809 Santa Claus spread like a plague which has yet to reach its peak.” [3]

Although widely accepted by historians for almost seventy years, Jones’ thesis was premised on several demonstrable errors.[4]  The most fundamental error was that Jones used the wrong edition of Irving’s History. The publication date is critical because the premise of Jones’ argument was that Irving’s History prompted publication of two poems about St. Nicholas in December 1810 and an 1813 book, False Stories Corrected, that sought to debunk the legend of “Old Santaclaw.”[5] Assuming that the references to St. Nicholas in Irving’s History were published in 1809, and conflating St. Nicholas with Santa Claus, Jones concluded that Irving was responsible for popularizing the St. Nicholas tradition in America.

Unfortunately, Jones was using the 1812 edition of Irving’s book rather than the 1809 edition. More than half of the twenty-five references to St. Nicholas cited by Jones, and all of the critical paragraphs about St. Nicholas’ gift-giving practices, were added by Irving in the 1812 edition. Because the Dutch poems were published before the second edition of Irving’s History, Jones could not fairly credit Irving with inventing anything, much less the story of Santa Claus.  Nevertheless, virtually all of the historians who have written about the development of Santa Claus since 1954 have uncritically adopted Jones’ thesis, and none seems even to have realized Jones was working with the wrong edition of Irving’s book.

Even if one ignores that Jones was using the wrong edition of Irving’s History, however, the historical evidence does not justify giving Irving credit for creating Santa Claus. One flaw, noted above, is that Jones erroneously conflates Santa Claus, a secular figure who gives gifts on Christmas, with St. Nicholas, a Catholic saint who distributes gifts on his feast day, December 6. In fact, they were different figures with different gift-giving practices, and St. Nicholas had been known in Europe for centuries.

Another flaw in Jones’ thesis is that there was no plague of Santas following 1809, much less one that could be fairly attributed to Irving’s satire. When Moore’s “Night Before Christmas” was published on December 23, 1823, there were only two other works published in America about Santa Claus, and all of them belie the claim that Irving’s History played any significant role in the development of Santa Claus.  Moore’s poem was republished about once a year in small town newspapers for several decades, but it would be the late 1850s before Santa reached plague proportions.

The earliest of these works, False Stories Corrected, sought to correct the myth of “Old Santaclaw, of whom so often little children hear such foolish stories; and once in the year are encouraged to hang their stockings in the Chimney at night.”[6] While Jones cites this book as an example of Santa Claus spreading like a plague, Jones assumed it was published four years after Irving’s History. The second edition of Irving’s History, however, would have been out only a year when False Stories Corrected was published in 1813, which is not long enough to conclude “Santaclaw” came once a year. The only logical interpretation of this evidence is that the legend of Santa Claus arose in the early nineteenth century through oral tradition among European immigrants.

The second work cited by Jones was The Children’s Friend itself, whose story of “Santeclaus” filling children’s stockings with treats on Christmas Eve owed no apparent debt to Irving’s History.  The St. Nicholas described in Irving’s History dressed like a Dutchman, presumably clean shaven, with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a pair of Fleming trunk hose, knickers, and buckled shoes, a description that looks nothing like the illustration of “Santeclaus” in The Children’s Friend.  Rather, Gilley’s book describes the gift-givers and practices that developed in the Protestant regions of Germany after use of a Catholic saint as gift-giver lost favor following the Reformation.  These secular gift-givers, who went by at least two dozen different names, including several close variants of Santa Claus, were scruffy, bearded men who wore long fur cloaks or coats and typically carried a bundle of switches to deal with naughty boys. Gilley and illustrator Arthur Stansbury added the flying reindeer but the primary inspiration for “Santeclaus” was almost certainly the secular gift-bringers who followed the millions of Germans immigrants to America in the early 1800s.

The third work that Jones viewed as a descendant of Irving’s History was “The Night Before Christmas,” which used the name St. Nicholas to describe the Christmas gift-giver and included two stanzas which were clearly an allusion to Oloffe’s Dream, a scene in Irving’s History in which smoke from St. Nicholas’ pipe swirls around head.  While these two facts that may have led Jones to assume Moore was more influenced by Irving’s History than he was, there is compelling circumstantial evidence that Moore lifted virtually everything but the allusion to Oloffe’s Dream and one of the eight reindeer from The Children’s Friend. Moore’s winter home and office at General Theological Seminary were only yards from Gilley’s printing shop on south Broadway, and Moore in all likelihood did business with Gilley both on behalf of the seminary and on his own account. One possibility is Moore bought a copy of The Children’s Friend in 1821 to give to his oldest daughter on Christmas but found the verse too mean-spirited and, therefore, wrote his own, child-friendlier version in 1822.

Even without direct evidence, the geographic proximity between the two authors, the temporal proximity between the two poems, the strong similarities between the two stories, and otherwise inexplicable details like flying reindeer in both poems, compel the conclusion that Moore borrowed the story from The Children’s Friend.  It was Moore’s writing, however, that made the difference between a children’s book that came close to being lost in history and one of the best-loved works in American literature, a poem that is still read aloud by millions of parents every Christmas Eve and has the same literary appeal it did almost two hundred years ago.  Gilley and Stansbury, however, deserve credit for the first visual depiction of the American gift-giver, creating the template for arrival of Santa in a flying sleigh on Christmas Eve and the family-centric celebration on Christmas morning.

These facts make The Children’s Friend one of the rarest and most significant Christmas documents in American history, and we owe its discovery to a six-year-old boy, Stephen Salisbury III, who saved a childhood gift of no obvious monetary or historical value and, many decades later, donated it to the Society.


[1] The speech was published in 1954.  See Charles W. Jones, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, No. 38, 356-83 (1954).

[2] Washington Irving, A History of New York (New York: Inskeep and Bradford, 1809).

[3] Jones, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” 374.

[4]  See Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Gift-Bringers (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2020), 212 n.6 (28 scholarly books and articles from 1954 to 2017 that credit Irving with creating Santa Claus based on Jones’ thesis).

[5]  False Stories Corrected (New York: Samuel Wood, 1813), 68.

[6]   False Stories Corrected, 68.

Tom A. Jerman is a retired attorney who lives in Asheville, N.C.  This post is adapted from his book, Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Gift-Bringers (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2020).

The Acquisitions Table: Birthday and Autograph Album, 1874.

Birthday and Autograph Album. Bethlehem [Pa.]: Henry T. Clauder, 1874.

Partially printed books that were meant to be filled in by their owners have been of particular interest to AAS’s curators over many years. AAS’s online catalog already has more than 200 records with the genre term: Partly printed, partly blank books.

One example is a recently acquired blank birthday book and autograph album published by Henry T. Clauder of Bethlehem, PA, that has a separate page printed for every day of the year so people could sign on the day of their birthday. The full morocco binding with fancy gilt titling on spine and on both boards and with all edges gilt suggest it was intended to be gifted.

In fact, this particular example published in 1874 is accompanied by a letter from the album’s publisher, Henry T. Clauder, presenting it to the historian and popular author Benson J. Lossing. Perhaps Clauder hoped to gain the successful author’s endorsement? Endorsement or no, Clauder was still offering the Birthday and Autograph Album in his 1877 catalog of publications, which consisted primarily of German and Moravian publications. The longevity of the album in his catalogs was not necessarily a sign of successful sales. Clauder had only printed the month and day on each page, not the year, so that if left with unsold sheets only the title page would have to be changed to reissue an “updated” album in later years.

Reflections on Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere

The gallery doors that opened, closed, and then reopened on the 2019-2020 traveling exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere have now closed for the final time.

In recent weeks, the exhibition’s many rare prints, paintings, and decorative arts objects were condition checked, packed, and shipped via art handlers safely back to their respective homes.

Split between two venues in Massachusetts—the Worcester Art Museum and the Concord Museum—the show opened in mid-February 2020, only to close one month later when both museums were shuttered due to COVID-19. Fortunately, both venues reopened months after their closure allowing visitors a second opportunity to view the show. Prior to opening in Massachusetts, the exhibition had enjoyed a good run from September of 2019 through January of 2020 at the New-York Historical Society where nearly 50,000 visitors strolled through its galleries. And while the final venue at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, had to be canceled due to the Covid Crisis, my colleague and show co-curator Lauren B. Hewes and I knew that it was high time for the objects to head back to their respective homes.

The deinstallation of an exhibition may not sound like much fun, especially when it entails the challenging circumstances of a pandemic, but the privilege of working up close with the special objects in this show helped make the process rewarding.

And while the stars of the show may have been the five versions of the Boston Massacre prints shown for the first time together, there were many other impressive objects that helped provide context for the range of products that Revere as artisan and entrepreneur took on over the course of his lifetime.

Here are just a few of my favorites that I recently got to spend time with during the exhibition deinstallations.

Borrowed for the show from the Massachusetts Historical Society, a copper printing plate allowed us to show viewers the very matrix that Revere used for making his own bookplate Displaying the copper printing plate along with the bookplate helped us illustrate how prints are made—and what better way to help viewers recognize that the maker had to engrave the image and the letters in reverse to make a successful print! But, regrettably, what museum visitors did not get a chance to see was the back of the printing plate. The reverse is covered with engraved letters of the alphabet, suggesting that it was used as a means for Revere or one of his apprentices to practice the art of engraving letters on copper. The ABCs in various font styles cover the plate and any spare space was used to practice cross hatching or border designs. It was truly a delight to see a surviving example of the rote practice that goes into the making of the printed objects that we so cherish in our collections.

Another favorite was the Templeman tea service on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This elegant service is one of Revere’s most impressive silver sets. It was a privilege to simply hold the individual pieces and to examine the seams and tool marks of the inner surfaces of the vessels. Careful examination of the objects is necessary for condition records prior to packing and shipping. Yet knowing that this silver set, made between 1792-93, was created from silver ore that was likely mined with enslaved labor long before it reached Revere’s shop and that it was ultimately polished by one or more of the Templeman’s twenty-five enslaved individuals in Maryland, made the pieces even more poignant to behold. These objects held stories much more complex and troubling than their beautiful craftsmanship could show. This silver service reminds us that hidden labor of art that must be registered to fully understand objects from the past. One additional note regarding this beverage service: the shipping crate that transported the set from Minneapolis to New York and then to Concord before heading back to Minneapolis, might itself be deemed a work of art! Each piece had its own specially crafted resting place to keep it safe for the journeys.

It is somehow fitting that the final object that was packed into its art crate at the show’s end was the Norfolk County courthouse bell made by the Revere Foundry in 1796.  On loan from the Dedham Historical Society, the 224-pound bell was the largest, heaviest, and arguably the most fragile of the objects in the show. Suspended from hanging brackets on its original horizontal support stock, it was critical that the bell not swing causing potential damage to its frame and/or to the bell itself from movement of its wrought iron clapper. Similarly, the applied lettering “REVERE BOSTON 1798” had to be carefully protected from impact. It took a crew of four art handlers to get it safely wrapped and packed into its specially made shipping crate. It was the last Revere object to be put to rest, just as the “passing bell” rang out the number of years of his accomplished life at Revere’s death in May of 1818.

Reflections on the exhibition and its deinstallation brings to mind other positive outcomes of the show, despite the many setbacks due to the global pandemic:

  • The collaborations with the venue institutions and with the nineteen institutions and private collectors that loaned items for the show helped built our network of cultural outreach.
  • The promotion of the show and its catalog helped us reach new audiences in various formats: writeups in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and in Antiques and the Arts Weekly; an article in The Magazine Antiques; TV promotion through interviews with Jay Sugarman’s Museum Open House at NewTV: and with GBH’s Open Studio with Jared Bowen–(the last person I shook hands with before COVID-19!)
  • Scholars were invited to think of Revere and his legacy in new ways, leading to a symposium featuring some new perspectives on Revere. After the exhibition reopened at the two venues in Massachusetts, the Society hosted a virtual symposium over the course of three afternoons. The program’s four panels considered Revere’s role as an artisan and manufacturer, addressed global perspectives of luxury and labor, examined local perspectives involving prints and production, and discussed Revere’s legacy in the 21st century. One of the advantages of conducting a virtual program is that it can reach much larger audiences than those offered onsite. How gratifying it was to see that we even had an attendee from France, Revere’s ancestral homeland! (Revere’s father, an immigrant and French Huguenot, had changed his own name from Apollos Rivoire to Paul Revere so that it could be more easily pronounced.) All of the symposium panels can be viewed on our YouTube channel:


The Acquisitions Table: Francis Lawton, Letter, 1845

Cuffe Lawton (b. 1789) was a free black man who was born in Newport, Rhode Island, and lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His son, Francis Lawton (1822-1885) was born in New Bedford  and became a whale man, who eventually rose to the rank of mate and traveled to Hawaii. By the 1850s Francis was married to Isabella Lawton, with whom he had three children, and was working as a dry goods merchant in Newport, Rhode Island.

In this 1845 letter to his father from Lahaina, Hawaii, Francis discusses his dislike for his whaling ship’s captain, writing:

“As for our Capt. He is actually the worst man I ever saw there is scarcely a single crime that he is not guilty of and we have a very good reason for saying that. He has sailed in a certain class of vessels [probably slavers] which shall now be nameless. By his own confessions he says that if the English were to catch him . . . his time would be short.”

Later in the letter, he also discusses Native Hawaiians and the ineffectiveness of missionaries on the Sandwich Islands:

I suppose that you have heard a great deal about the Sandwich Isles about their learning enterprise talents and happiness why one to read their papers would think that he was reading the description of some Fairyland but I must say that they are the most miserable set of Islanders that I ever saw. When Cook discovered them the population was estimated to be about 800,000 now they scarcely number 160,000 and of that number about 300 are white and 4 or 500 half breeds. Now I should think that was a great decrease in the short space of 67 years perhaps you will inquire the reason for this decrease. . .. I ask them and they will tell you it is the white man’s curse it is the Rum and fire arms and Poison and a hundred of loathsome diseases that Christian nations bring among them. But it is the same wherever the white man goes there is a curse follows him where the print of his cursed footsteps are seen there you will see nations dying off by hundreds and thousands. We were at the island of Nooheva about 18 months ago and there it was the same they were dying off there some 20 and 30 in a day they mostly young persons

. . .

As for the missionaries I hardly know what to say of them. Were I to tell you the truth you would not believe me. There fore I shall merely say that they have not done so much good as what they might.