The Embezzler Redeemed- Part 2

Continued from Part 1 of “The Embezzler Redeemed”

A report that Benjamin Brower had been apprehended at Albany was refuted almost immediately as being “wholly without foundation.”  But on October 25, 1803, the New England Palladium (Boston) briefly reported he had been captured.  On the 29th the New York Morning Chronicle expanded upon the news of Brower’s arrest.

The Boston Gazette of Monday last, states that Benjamin Brower, who lately robbed the Manhattan Bank, of a very considerable sum of money, was taken up in that town, on Friday evening preceding, and after an examination, and the discovery of between 7 and 8000 dollars which had been concealed about his cloathes [sic], confessed the fact. He had taken passage, a few weeks since, from Newburyport for Passamaquaddy, where he arrived; but from whence he returned to Boston in a vessel commanded by Capt. Pulsifer, of Newburyport. It is to the vigilance of that gentleman with the aid of some others, that he was detected and committed. The reward for taking Brower is 500 dollars and ten per cent. of all the money recovered.

A brief notice in the May 2, 1804 issue of the New York Gazette stated “The trial of Benjamin Brower is postponed.”  A fuller communication published in the Washington Federalist (Georgetown, D.C.) on May 7th reads:

The trial of Benjamin Brower, who has already been confined upwards of 6 months, on a charge of the Manhattan Company, for defrauding their bank, is further postponed by his prosecutors; and I am informed that Mr. Brower is so unfortunately situated, from the prevailing prejudice, that he is unable to give the bail required.

Seventeen days later Benjamin Brower was released from custody, “not” to quote the newspaper accounts, “because he was innocent” but because at the time New York State law required all prisoners to be released and discharged after two sessions of the Court of Oyer and Terminer “if in that time no prosecution has been carried through against them.”


Between his release from prison in May 1804 and his death in May 1818, I located only two notices of him in any newspaper.  The first was published in the January 14, 1812 issue of the New England Palladium where Benjamin Brower was among five officers appointed to the 6th U.S. Regiment from New York. The notice concludes, “Mr. Brower, we believe, is a printer, and of the office of the N. York Public Advertiser.”  The second was published under the head “Washington Academy, no. 236 Greenwich-Street” and appeared in the November 25, 1817, issue of the National Advocate (New York).

Mr. Brower respectfully informs the patrons of this establishment and the public generally, that their liberal patronage has induced him to form an association with Mr. Holly, a gentleman of good character, liberal education, and much experienced in teaching …

This school has now been before the public nearly four years, and received its marked approbation. … The male and female departments are separate, and, at the same time, every scholar is under the constant eye of the principals. The young ladies are under the more immediate care of Mrs. Brower, and every attention is paid to their manners.

But it is the decided opinion of the principals of this institution, that the same degree of delicacy or modesty ought to be cultivated in the minds of both sexes, and that many of the evils in society can never be remedied until this principle shall universally be recognized, and until as much disgrace shall attend every aberration from strict delicacy and propriety of conduct in a male as that of a female…

I was collecting evidence but still didn’t have proof that the printer and embezzler were one and the same.  I turned next to the New York city directories.  In Longworth’s directories for 1801-1805, Benjamin Brower is listed as an accountant. brower_1804_directoryHis name does not appear in the directory for 1806, and in 1807 it appears without an occupation.  For the next two years, Benjamin Brower’s occupation is listed as milliner in association with Nicholas B. Brower, proprietor of a hat store at 109 William Street.  In  1811 and 1812, Benjamin Brower is once again listed as an accountant. By the next year, the directory listed him without an occupation but his address at 3 George Street put him in close proximity to the printer Samuel Brower at 16 George Street.  Benjamin Brower’s address first appears as 236 Greenwich Street in the 1814 directory, in which he is described as a reading teacher.  Finally, in keeping with the news articles, for 1815-1817 he is listed as the principal of Washington Academy. In 1818, his widow Mary Brower is listed at the Greenwich Street address.


Assuming that Nicholas B. and Samuel Brower were related to Benjamin, and assisting him to get back on his feet, I went back to and discovered that Nicholas B. and Samuel Brower were brothers, sons of Nicholas Brouwer and Mary Birdsall.  Nicholas Birdsall Brower was born at Fishkill, Dutchess County, New York, on April 26, 1772, the year after his parents were married.  Samuel was born at Wappingers Falls, also in Dutchess County, on May 4, 1786.  Also listed are two sisters, Mary born in 1783, and Martha, with no birth date given.  The children of both Nicholas B. and Samuel Brower were all born in New York City so I felt confident that they were, respectively, the proprietor of the hat store and the printer.  I also believed that Benjamin Brower was their brother.  In all the considerable authority work I have done in conjunction with cataloging, this would not be the first time that the “black sheep” was omitted from the family genealogy: the saddest case being that of a young woman who had committed suicide.  Her birth record was listed in the town’s vital records and I was able to find an obituary which noted several previous attempts before the successful suicide, but her name appeared nowhere in the family’s published genealogy.

By this time I was relating the story to colleagues over coffee and lunch, and decided it was worth pursuing even further.  I went back to America’s Historical Newspapers to read the articles I had skipped, and soon found the missing link between Benjamin Brower and Nicholas Brouwer of Dutchess County.  An article published in the September 24, 1803, issue of the Republican Watch-Tower (New York) began with the description of Brower which had already been widely disseminated but continued with new information uncovered during the investigation.

He went away from Newark, New Jersey, on Sunday morning, the 28th of August, in a horse and chair, with his wife and child, and some baggage. The horse was a bay, about 15 hands and a half high, though it is probable he has changed horses on the road. The chair has steel springs, plated mouldings, green painted body, with sword case … the lining of the chair body olive velvet … We have learnt that he went up the North [Hudson] River, on the westerly side, crossed at Peekskill, left his wife and child, with some or all of his baggage, at Wapping’s Creek, Dutchess County, where his father resides; took up there a small lad about 14 years of age, a brother of his, and proceeded with him towards Poughkeepsie. The persons dispatched in pursuit of him have been as far as Albany, but could not learn that he had been there, or any where in the neighbourhood. We conclude, therefore, that he took one of the roads just beyond Poughkeepsie, which led to Canada, Vermont, or into the eastern states; or possibly crossing the North River, with the intention of getting through the back part of New-Jersey and Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia or Baltimore, in order to leave the U. States. …

brower_manhattan_company_bank_noteThe evidence that Benjamin Brower, the accountant turned embezzler, was also the printer of the Daily Telegraph and the compiler of The Columbian Speaker, or Juvenile Orator was, at this point, strong enough to enter a record for him in the national Name Authority File.  But the question remained, why didn’t the Manhattan Bank carry through with the prosecution against him?  Brower had most of the money with him when he was captured, confessed to the crime, and the “prevailing prejudice” was against him.  It would seem that a guilty verdict was assured.

Finished in Part 3

Anatomy of a Catalog Record

People tend to treat catalog records a lot like refrigerators: open it, grab what you need, and close it up again. At AAS, the milk, eggs, and butter of the record are the author, title, and call number. Locate those three and the rest can stay a black and white blur. But know that somewhere a cataloger sheds a tear.

Cataloging to rare-book standards is an exacting process that treats the record as a surrogate for the imprint itself. The practice acknowledges the intrinsic value of each physical copy. It also recognizes the item as just one manifestation of the intellectual work as a whole. One scholar recently described using the AAS online catalog “almost every day while researching this book and years before I finally walked through the door in Worcester” because of the records’  “unparalleled annotations.”  It is the goal of AAS to eventually catalog all of its pre-1877 American imprints collection to such detail. At this point, just about all American imprints through 1800 and between 1821 and 1840, and 2/3 of those between 1801 and 1820, have been so cataloged.

But what work actually goes into creating a catalog record? From a variety of sources, bibliographic and copy-specific data is collected. That information is then tailored to meet both the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules 2 (AACR2)and the Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books) [DCRM(B)] standards. Once formatted, the metadata is inputted into the Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) structure that creates the backbone of the online catalog.

Confused yet?

The diagram below gives you the straight scoop on what it all means. (Click on it to open an expanded version in a new window.)


The Embezzler Redeemed- Part 1

One of the great joys of cataloging is figuring out who the folks were who wrote, edited, illustrated, printed, published, or owned the books that cross our desks.  In most cases we don’t have time to delve into the lives of these people, and wistfully think that someone ought to write a dissertation on this person or that.  But occasionally a life is just so fascinating that we can’t help but look beyond the usual vital statistics.

When I took up The Columbia Speaker, and Juvenile Orator (New York,brower_columbian_speaker_preface 1815) to upgrade the cataloging record, the heading for the compiler had been entered as Brower, Benjamin, d. 1818.  I noticed that we also had a heading in the online catalog for a Benjamin Brower without dates who printed the New York Daily Telegraph in 1812-13.  It seemed likely that the printer and the compiler, who signed the preface “Benjamin Brower, Washington Academy, 236 Greenwich Street,” were one and the same, but I wanted to verify this assumption before adding the death date to the printer’s heading.

I began in but found no record for a Benjamin Brower who died in 1818.  Nor did have a record for him.  Next I searched the America’s Historical Newspapers database where a May 6, 1818 obituary in the New York Gazette confirmed that the compiler of The Columbian Speaker had indeed died in 1818.

Died yesterday morning, after a painful illness, Mr. Benjamin Brower, in the 43d year of his age. His relations and friends are invited to attend his funeral this afternoon at 5 o’clock, from Washington Academy, no. 236 Greenwich-Street without further invitation.

Obituaries for Brower were included in four other New York City newspapers and a notice of his death was published in the Essex Register, Salem, Mass., suggesting that he was a man held in some regard.

None of the obituaries mentioned that he had ever worked as a printer, but what did grab my attention as I was scrolling through the database results  was a series of articles beginning in the Mercantile Advertiser on September 10, 1803.

The circumstances which have come to our knowledge respecting the reported embezzlement of money, by a person in the service of the Manhattan Company, are these—In consequence of the indisposition of Mr. Hunn (one of the tellers) and the absence of the first book-keeper, the situation of temporary teller on Saturday the 27th ult. devolved upon Mr. Benjamin Brower, who had been received into the bank with very respectable recommendations, and at that time filled the office of second book-keeper, to the entire satisfaction of the Directors, whose opinion of his integrity was highly flattering.

On the day above-mentioned, Mr. Brower received, in his capacity of teller, upwards of 70,000 dollars. The money delivered by him to the cashier, in the evening as the closing of the accounts fell 10,000 dollars short of this sum; but as the money and the written statement of receipts had been made to correspond in the sum total, no suspicions of fraud were entertained. Mr. Brower was absent from the bank on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday following; still from the tenor of his former conduct, and from the sickly state of the city, no one entertained a sentiment injurious to his reputation, or supposed his absence to be occasioned by any other circumstance than some derangement in his own health or the health of his family.

The adjustment of the accounts of the Bank, preparatory to its removal to Greenwich, took place on Wednesday evening the 31st, when a deficiency to the amount above stated was discovered, ‘and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.’

An enquiry was immediately instituted respecting Mr. Brower. The result was, that he had left the city on Sunday, with his family, but no person could give information to what part of the country he had absconded. Messengers were dispatched in different directions in search of him; but we understand all their vigilance has hitherto been unsuccessful.

The Manhattan Company have offered a reward of 500 dollars for his apprehension, and ten per cent. upon such part of the embezzled property as may be recovered.

A Manhattan Company bank note from the AAS collection.

The New York Evening Post included the story on September 12th and within days it was reprinted in newspapers North and South.  A widely copied description of Benjamin Brower appeared:

About 26 or 27 years of age; 5 feet 10 inches high; dark complexion, with some black or dark brown freckles on his face; of a thin or meager habit and face; nose and features sharp; dark blue eyes; black hair, short and combed over his forehead; has a remarkable tuft or lock of grey hair just above, or on a parallel line with his left ear; long neck, arms and lower limbs; walks actively; swings his arms much while walking; treads on his heels; and is somewhat knock-kneed; tone of voice pleasant and agreeable, though apt to hesitate when questioned closely.

Quick arithmetic proved that someone who died in 1818 in his 43rd year would have been born about the same time as someone who was 26 or 27 years of age in 1803 – in 1775 or 1776.   I skipped many articles, jumping ahead to learn what had happened to Benjamin Bower.

Continued in Part 2

Apple Pie Bake-Off Or The Sweet Taste of Revenge

In the October 1813 Report of the Committee, Isaiah Thomas justified the choice of Worcester for the home of the American Antiquarian Society. He maintained that an “inland situation” offered the best protection against,

the destruction so often experienced in large towns and cities by fire, as well as from the ravages of an enemy, to which seaports in particular are so much exposed in times of war.

War and fire. Yeah right, Mr. T. We know the real reason you picked Worcester: the apples. From the end of August into late November, the orchards in the surrounding hills gently rock us out of summer and into the sweet lull of autumn. We are eventually deposited harshly onto winter’s doorstep. But up until that point, it is a reverie of fresh apples. So in the spirit of a New England autumn, an apple pie experiment.

applesThe Premise: Four pies sharing the same crust recipe and apple varieties (Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Baldwin, and Golden Delicious to be exact). The differences would be the spices and sweeteners used in the filling: three from historical recipes and one from a modern cookbook. As with the pound cake experiment, our testers would be the AAS fellows.

The Historic Recipes: Most of us are familiar with apple pies starring apples coated in white (or brown) sugar with a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg. We kept the modern recipe modern, but took advantage of historical recipes that called for unexpected sweeteners.

Powdered Sugar/Rose Water Recipe from The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, 1836


White Wine and Lemon Recipe from Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book by Elizabeth Putnam, 1860


and finally…

Let’s be honest, lately these fellows have been working hard, turning in call slip after call slip for materials the reference staff then pages. Their industry is our sore feet. But we can’t say no. Instead it was time for a different kind of revenge:

The Molasses-Sweetened Recipe from The Young Housekeeper’s Friend by Mary H. Cornelius, 1846

The Young Housekeeper's Friend by Mrs. Cornelius, 1846

The unwitting accomplices: Jess “Could have been a pastry chef” Lepler, Hench Post-Dissertation fellow and assistant professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, Emily “Queen of the Crusts” Pawley, AAS-NEH fellow and Ph.D. in the History of Science (2009), University of Pennsylvania, and Allison “I don’t really cook” Stagg, Last fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, University College, University of London.

apple_pie_butter_gratingThe Process: Pie making is a relatively boring task. One part was thrilling: the discovery of a cheese grater to easily add the cold butter to the crust dough. The rest was pretty straight forward: peel, cut, mix, pour, and repeat. The historic recipes forced us to make educated guesses on what exactly a “teacup” of molasses, a “little” mace, or a “few tea-spoonsful” of rosewater actually meant–caution usually guiding our judgment.

Before the crust covering, there was time for a snapshot of one pie. (t looks delicious when you think it’s chocolate…)


apple_pie_molasses_pieceThe Results: Victory! “The molasses one was vile. It was gross. It was disgusting,” said one esteemed fellow. “Horrible,” proclaimed another. That’ll teach them.

But what of the other pies?

apple_pie_bakedThe powdered sugar/rosewater pie prompted the most broadly split opinion. The cloves created a particularly pronounced flavor that some found an odd combination with the perfumy and off-putting rosewater; others were disappointed they couldn’t taste the rosewater more. As spirits are likely to do, the wine-flavored pie swayed many a fellow. The final score tallied, the white wine pie tied with the modern one in terms of taste. One fellow concluded, “We Americans should be eating wine pie.”

The fresh, tart taste of the modern and wine recipes complimented the crisp apples purchased that day from an orchard. Would this story have ended differently if the experiment took place in the middle of winter with mushy apples two months old? The weighty flavors of the molasses and powdered sugar/rosewater recipes might help mask less-than-delicious apples.

The Take-Away: When you are going to torture library fellows make sure your boss isn’t there. But from Ellen Dunlap, AAS president and unexpected tester, the thoughtful conclusion that our palettes may be more comfortable with subtle flavors. She preferred the modern pie, enjoying the complexity of its spices to the more monotone qualities of the historically-inspired ones. “I kind of liked the first taste of the rosewater and the wine, but they quickly got boring,” she said. And apparently even presidents don’t care for molasses-sweetened pie.

Historical reenactment: John Brown lives again in Thoreau’s Words

This one’s for the history geeks among us (and I include myself in this): You will not want to miss a truly unique historical reenactment taking place tomorrow night Defending John Brown: Henry David Thoreau and Worcester’s Reform Tradition on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 7:30 p.m. at Mechanics’ Hall, Main Street, Worcester.Radaker As ThoreauWitness Henry David Thoreau (or at least, someone who looks very much like him) speak in defense of John Brown in exactly the same spot as he did 150 year ago to the day. (This second iteration will really be more of a dramatic monologue, so you will learn about other parts of Thoreau’s life and work as well.)

To crib from Jerry Seinfield’s catch-phraseology: What’s with the historical reenacting? I’m guessing some in our audience have participated in Civil War battle reenactments, or been costumed interpreters at a historic site. If so you know the strange power of putting on the same clothes, standing in the same spot, uttering the same words as an historical actor. It adds a whole new experiential dimension to what were once static words and images on a page. My personal experience with historical reenactment was sadly limited to an ill-advised college relationship with a member of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, for those less-geeky in our audience). Perhaps I am revealing to much here, but I have to say the best thing I got out of that relationship was a sword-fighting lesson from a bunch of dudes dressed in medieval armor.

BTW, if anyone else wants to share reenactment stories — the good, the bad, and the ahistorical — please add your comments below. I need to know I’m not alone!

For those of you not yet ready to make the jump to full-fledged costume wearing, don’t fret. You won’t have to dress up historically for tomorrow’s event, so it’s the perfect way to ease yourself into the experience. To help set the mood, check out this advance notice for Thoreau’s original speech that appeared in the Massachusetts Spy on November 3, 1859:

Thoreau Advertisement in Mass Spy

“As Mr. Thoreau never deals in common places, — as he considers Brown a hero, — and as he has been so moved by the Harper’s Ferry affair, as to feel compelled to leave his customary seclusion in order to address the public, what he has to say is likely to be worth hearing.”

We may have missed Thoreau’s speech the first time around, but now we can take advantage of a second chance to experience this moving speaker live. Click here for complete information on the speech and Kevin Radaker and Edmund A. Schofield who will be performing the dramatic monologue and providing historical commentary.

Halloween Terror: The Glass-Eyed Ghouls

In the mid 1800s, people began appearing with eyes so clear they were nearly invisible.  The ghostly faces stared straight ahead without a hint of shame in their alien faces. They haunt us still, following us from countless daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and cartes-de-visite, warning us of a different time.  A fearful era when to be photogenic meant being brown-eyed. The blue-eyed subject was a fright!


If light was the “photographer’s pencil” (as an 1866 manual described it), in the hands of an amateur it could create a mess of distortion and shadow.  Without proper direction, blue and gray eyes, unable to reflect the light, were overexposed.   The Photographic Art Journal from 1853 recommended limiting the exposure time for blue-eyed subjects, “otherwise the eyes are lost” (Volume 5, p. 356). In those early years of photography, the best option for the light-eyed was to avoid looking directly into the camera, but as a writer in Humphrey’s Journal complained,

It is not an uncommon fault among our less experienced operators to give a front view of the face of nearly every individual regardless of any particular form, and this is often insisted upon by the sitter, who seems to think the truth of the picture exists principally in the eyes staring the beholder full in the face.  (February 1853 p. 329)

parson_brownellImages affected by the creepy-eye phenomenon could be darkened. The cartes-de-visite of William Brownlow, at right, show two different images of Brownlow, one with untouched light eyes and the other with darkened irises. Who would you prefer to meet handing out Halloween candy?

The most successful method for dealing with the problem was to fix the eyeline on a spot away from the camera.  An averted gaze and a turned profile might lack the directness of a forward stare but it eliminated the risk of a portrait with an “expression vacant, dull and pale, soulless eyes, like those of a dead codfish” (Photographic Art Journal, p. 117).

As AAS wishes everyone a happy Halloween, we leave you with a final scare: another solution, though less-recommended, to add pupils oneself with ink.


One more thing about me…

An online fad became a journalistic obsession with a late-winter craze known as “25 Random Things.” Members of the social networking site Facebook began crafting lists about themselves: personal histories, likes, and dislikes — self-identified quirks describable in a sentence they then displayed for others to see.

25 Random Things

The only thing that seemed to equal the number of posters was the number of critics, often appearing with newspaper bylines. Eager to explore, criticize, and then predictably offer their own personal list, one judgment was clear: “narcissism,” even going as far as “tedious mass solipsism.”  In trying to comb the depths of “25 Things,” one journalist tunneled into the past:

Despite how it might feel to those who have suddenly been bombarded with these lists, the meme itself did not come out of nowhere.  To the contrary, viral e-mail messages designed to help friends discover unusual facts about one another are as old as e-mail itself (Douglas Quenqua, “Ah, Yes, More about Me?  Here are ‘25 Random Things,’” New York Times, February 5, 2009).

Is that as far back as we can go?  The present rarely surprises history.  I take your “email itself” and raise you a century.

Slipped deep in the AAS shelves are two books, the first published in 1869 sits a few feet away from its 2nd edition progeny. Their catalog entries are minimal with only two subject headings: 1) Amusements 2) Psychological recreations. But within their covers, one finds a gentle reminder of our shared impulses, our timeless fascination with our own individuality, and our interest in defining ourselves and comparing the results with those of our peers.  Mental Photographs: An Album for Confessions of Tastes, Habits, and Convictions offered forty prompts to be filled out among friends.  The questions seem innocuous now, and of a decidedly Victorian slant: favorite season, favorite character in romance, favorite tree, etc.  But Mental Photographs offers an interesting glance into American tastes, sensibilities, and humor in the years following the Civil War and suggests its usefulness for a number of different research questions. Answers to prompts such as “the trait of character you most admire” in man and woman, offer insights into perceptions of gender. Questions relating to favorite poets, prose authors, and books inspired humor, “pocket-book—if filled,” but also reveal tastes of the day, with responses like Longfellow, Dickens, Tennyson, and Thackeray.

Excerpt from Miss Jennie McCormick's entry of January 16, 1878
Excerpt from Miss Jennie McCormick's entry of January 16, 1878

Now, as then, this shared framework coaxed participants to reveal something about themselves.  Notably in our image-laden world, “25 Things” occurred as simple black and white text; sparse, especially on a site named “Facebook.”  The respondents to Mental Photographs had the option to affix a carte-de-visite portrait alongside their answers; only one in the AAS copies chose to do so.  Perhaps in their own image-laden world (the inexpensive 2 1/8” x 3 ½” cards sold in the millions during the second half of the nineteenth century), they embraced the opportunity to gather together and draw themselves beyond the limitations of the camera lens.  We are left with a unique and endearing snapshot of thirty-five individuals who stand out both in their differences to us and their remarkable similarities.

In keeping with the fashion, please visit the AAS Facebook page to see our own list of “25 things” you may not know about the American Antiquarian Society.

Mrs. Shoemaker's entry from July 1869.
Mrs. Shoemaker's entry from July 1869.

The Original Balloon Boy: Edgar Allan Poe?

balloon_hoax_modelHave you heard the one about the balloon boy? No, not that balloon boy.  On April 13, 1844, the New York Sun printed an extra edition reporting that man had finally flown across the Atlantic.  In a balloon.

A postscript in the April 13th morning edition of the Sun taunted readers,

We stop the press at a late hour, to announce that … we are just put in possession of full details of the most extraordinary adventure ever accomplished by man…The Extra will be positively ready, and for sale at our counter, by 10’clock this morning.

balloon_hoax_headlineThrongs formed before the Sun building waiting into the afternoon for their own copy of the newspaper.  In the end though, the readership of the New York Sun may have been more suspicious than those crowded breathlessly around their televisions last week. The Sun, a penny press, had a history of encouraging sales with outrageous stories.

Reporting on the story, the Philadelphia Inquirer reminded readers that, “The Sun, it will be remembered, originally published the celebrated Moon Story Hoax. The foregoing is probably from the same pen.  We have Charleston papers [where the balloon supposedly landed] of the 11th, which of course, do not contain a word in relation to the wonderful adventure.”

The Sun retracted the article two days later, “we are inclined to believe the intelligence is erroneous” but noted that regardless, it “was read with great pleasure and satisfaction.” And the author of the hoax, Edgar Allan Poe, defended his story, “There is nothing put forth in the Balloon-Story which is not in full keeping with the known facts of aeronautic experience—which might not really have occurred.”

balloon_hoax_poeWhere does the American Antiquarian Society fit into the frenzy? We have the only known copy of that April 13, 1844 extra.  On August 29, 1929 in response to a letter by AAS librarian Clarence Brigham, the editor of The Sun Frank M. O’Brien revealed that their archives held no copy of it and thus, “It is quite possible, I should say, that the American Antiquarian Society is the only owner of a copy of the Balloon Hoax Extra.  If so, it is something to be proud of.”

Baron Lecture Thursday Night


AAS invites you to join us in Antiquarian Hall at 7:30pm on Thursday, October 22nd for the 6th Annual Baron Lecture.  William W. Freehling, the Singletary Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at the University of Kentucky and Senior Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, will be discussing his 1965 work Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836.

The Baron Lecture series asks distinguished AAS members who have written seminal works of history to reflect on one book and its impact on scholarship and society in the years since its first appearance. There is so much then and now mixed into one great lecture that the PastIsPresent heartily approves.

More information is available here.

Your Daily Dose

What’s the world coming to? adams_john_quincy

John Quincy Adams is tweeting from 1808  and our own anonymous blacksmith’s apprentice is blogging away right above these very words.  Following Adams’ debut on Twitter, one of the  librarians from the Massachusetts Historical Society explained that, “We want to get it out there to the technophile generation … We want a wider range and new audience to see the diaries” (“John Quincy Adams, Twitterer?” by Katie Zezim in The New York Times, August 5, 2009).

The AAS is taking a different stand:  we don’t just want a new audience.  The Blacksmith’s blog is also for those readers who actually might hold the apprentice’s journal in the reading room — trying to hurry through his year before we turn the lights off at five. Using one of our fastest technologies (the Internet), we’re slowing down your interaction with a once-a-day diarist to a post a day. In other words, you’re on his time now.

blacksmith_Lithf_ Pran_BlacThere will always be the opportunity to reduce the lived life to a hyphen  and parentheses, to train the eye to find just the momentous or tragic.  But these blog posts, scheduled to correspond 140 years ago to the day, attempt to share the historical life as a daily occurrence.  A place where monotony, loneliness, and cold weather mean a lot more than memory often relays, and where, at the same time, flirtations or cake can add a rosy glow to any 24-hour period.

Don’t let all the talk about dailyness mislead.  This young man measured time in years and in accomplishment just like the rest of us. He analyzed his past and anticipated his future. The month of October itself was meaningful in terms of his apprenticeship.  Towards the end of September as a colleague graduated to journeyman, the apprentice counseled himself, “I suppose mine will be as near out sometime if I wait but it looks a good deal ahead now, have patience my boy and persevere” (September 16, 1869).


October marked the conclusion of his first year working and learning in the Medfield, Massachusetts blacksmith shop, and he noted it in his journal:

October 2, 1869:  My year is almost up only think, now time  goes goes [sic] off, I hope the next two years will go as pleasant.

October 11, 1869: One year gone of my apprenticeship.  Thanks be to God for his love to me the past year.  My pay is to rise a quarter a day now I expect.

October 12, 1869: My New Year commences to day one third of my time gone another third commences.

“Another week is begun soon it will be past then another will come,” the apprentice observed on January 18, 1869.  Was he acknowledging time’s movement resignedly or expectantly? In retrospect we rarely grasp onto life as a series of individual days; we tend to remember feelings, relationships, professions, and events. The day is a time interval that structures the moment, but quickly blurs in the past.  We hope reading the apprentice’s blog offers new insights and becomes part of your daily ritual.

Sensational Images

faster_girl_cover At parties, when people discover I work at the American Antiquarian Society, they often ask: what’s your favorite item in the collections? To my mind, this is akin to asking a parent to choose his or her favorite child. I’ve heard curators answer this impossible dilemma simply: whatever I received this morning is always my favorite. My own newly crowned favorite item first crossed my path a couple weeks ago when it was called for by one of our recent fellows, Spencer Keralis. The Fastest Girl in New York is a dime novel in the “Love and Romance” series that has been in AAS’s collections since 1970, although this is the first time we’ve met. Apparently I am not alone in my fascination with The Fastest Girl, as it is (self-)described as nothing less than “THE MOST BRILLIANT AND FASCINATING BOOK EVER PUBLISHED.” On the title page we learn that our heroine, Cleo, “rides a fast horse – captivates gay damsels – fascinates fast men – plays billiards like a grand master.” Now this sounds like a girl to know!

In one of the more gripping scenes, our cross-dressing heroine is depicted lounging, smoking, drinking, and idly whipping herself while being gazed at by, and gazing upon, the male audience gathering around her:

At one of the tables in the smoking room of the Mr. St. Vincents, sat Cleo, her feet upon the black walnut, her legs crossed, her hat at an angle of forty-five degrees, with the brim resting on her right ear. With all the nonchalance in the world, she sat there, gently whipping her right leg with her inseparable companion, her whip. A small bottle of Widow Clicquot stood at her right hand, the contents partially disposed of; a package of cigarettes lay on the table, and the blue smoke from one of these dainty things, she was expelling from her nostrils with all the gusto of the most inveterate cigarette smoker.

Twenty pair of eyes looked her over from head to foot, — not all at once, nor with long, rude gaze – her small feet seeming to attract more attention than any other part of her person, though it was evident that the remark of one gentleman, in a low tone, to a friend, to the effect that she was a fine young fellow of good parts and fine points, would have found echo in every breast. And she glanced from one to the other of the gentlemen present, with unabashed, though not bold and brazen gaze, and no doubt expressed herself mentally concerning their parts and points (41).

This week is the perfect time to mention my newest obsession with The Fastest Girl because we are having a free public lecture on a related subject at 6pm tomorrow night, Friday, October 16th. “Catching His Eye: The Sporting Male Pictorial Press in the Gilded Age” is this year’s Wiggins Lecture in the Program of the History of the Book in American Culture and will be given by Joshua Brown, the executive director of the American Social History Project at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York.

2009 CHAViC Conference
2009 CHAViC Conference

The fun continues all this weekend with the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) conference at AAS: “Destined for Men: Visual Materials for Male Audiences, 1750-1880”. The conference will include a visual cornucopia of material, such as mark medals, chamber pots, men’s fashion, drawings, photographs, and the Police Gazette. Should you wish to attend, there is still time to register and pay at the door on Friday.

If Cleo’s story sparked your interest, there are plenty more of these sensational and well-illustrated stories in the AAS stacks for you to explore. Dime novels like The Fastest Girl were cheap publications that became popular starting in the 1860s and initially sold for 10 cents (hence the name). AAS has many more dime novels than are listed in our online catalog, and there are checklists and bibliographies available in the reading room.

The Flash PressOther related collections include our racy newspapers (also called the sporting press or flash press). To learn more about these sources, you can check out a book published in association with AAS: The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York by Patricia Cohen, Timothy Gilfoyle and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (2008). You may also wish to examine our online bibliography of risque literature at AAS created by our president emeritus, Marcus A. McCorison.

More information about the free public lecture is available here or about the CHAViC conference here. We hope you will join us in enjoying these sensational images!

Let them eat cake

If one thing connects Americans over the centuries, it’s dessert. Vanilla may have replaced rose water, the electric mixer (even the egg beater) may be heavenly gifts from a sympathetic large-bicepped ancestor, but the recipes (and the tastes) are remarkably similar. The first cookbook published in America, Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery, offers recipes for pies, puddings, cakes, tarts, custards, cookies, and biscuits. Sound familiar? The most peculiar dessert recipe is for syllabub (a relative of our holiday eggnog).  But it’s the directions that are strange, not the ingredients.

Syllabub recipe

Is it fair to assume that a time-traveling dessert could leave early America and end up right at home in our own kitchens? An experiment was in order.

The contenders: Two pound cake recipes (the cow was unavailable on such short notice).

From the 19th century: Sarah Josepha Hale, The Good Housekeeper, 1839.


From the 21st century: Pound Cake recipe in Martha Day, The Ultimate Book of Baking, 2005.

The Time Travelers: Diann Benti, Assistant Reference Librarian, and Jess Lepler, Hench Post-Dissertation fellow and assistant professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. One willing to beat batter for an hour, the other trying to embrace modernity with an ill-advised immersion blender.

The Scene: Mark Zanger writes in the American History Cookbook that, “As a technical note, Early American cakes are among the most difficult historical recipes to reproduce today because so many ingredients have changed” (58).  Flour held more moisture and had different protein contents than those found in grocery stores today. Eggs tended to be smaller and butter often had more salt (58-9). The 1839 recipe calls for loaf sugar and suggests using rose water, both unavailable in the AAS Test Kitchen. (We added a little bit of molasses to the 1839 cake to mimic the increased moisture of loaf sugar.)

In the end, after converting a measure of weight (the pound) to volume (cups), we were left  with 4 cups of flour, 2 ¼ cups  sugar, and 4 sticks of butter for two loaves in the Hale recipe—just about double the recipe of Day’s one-loaf cake. Using these same ingredients, the assembled cakes would go in the oven together and remain there until they each passed the toothpick test.

Ready to go in the oven, the 19th century cake is on the left.
The 19th century cake batter is on the left.

The Question: The details decided, the real battle between old and new emerged, pitting the arm against the chemical: Hale’s hour of batter beating versus Day’s one teaspoon of baking powder. What would the difference mean in taste and size?

The Taste Testers: The AAS fellows.  Known to gnaw on the books if left unsupervised in the evening hours, they were fair game against a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, and a pound of flour.

The Results: A blister and arm cramps at 3am that night.  Oh wait. You mean how did the cakes turn out?

Can you tell which cake is which?
Can you tell which cake is which?

The Verdict: The challenge rested on the lengths one would go to create a tasty dessert.  Desperate for lighter pound cake, a cook’s only real option in the 1830s was to beat air into it. So was all the labor worth it? Given the inherent biases of the testers (18th and 19th century Americanists, who as academics have been known to like it dense), Sarah Josepha Hale emerged victorious.  It was universally agreed by the taste testers that while the 19th century loaf was still dense, its flavor was much richer than its 21th century opponent, and tasted very much like shortbread.  Perhaps, as the modern cake mushroomed in its pan, the flavor diffused to meet the enlarged size.  Some suggested the Day cake needed a sauce and others detected a chemical taste.  If mixed only minimally, Hale’s cake might have had a second career as building material, but after an hour’s beating it was enjoyable and more than welcome on our table.

The Take Away: If you’re looking to recreate an 1839 dessert at your next get-together, please note that one tester characterized it as “strange,” “mealy,” and “good” all in the same sentence.  Zanger tells us that as technology (e.g. iceboxes) expanded the realm of possibility in home cooking the pound cake decreased in popularity.  But, pound cake remained a dessert staple in “pioneering zones and isolated areas such as Appalachia well into the twentieth century, the recipe is easy to remember and the cake works without refrigerators, yeast, or baking powder” (62).

In closing, we’ll give the last word to Mrs. Hale,

Never spread butter on cake; it is a sin against that economy and propriety which domestic rules should always exhibit; and besides, it renders the cake too rich for the stomach. The kinds of cake most apt to prove injurious are pound cake and rich plum cake.  (84-5)

Cookbooks and calf heads

In 1952 the renowned chef Julia Child joined a book project to bring French cuisine into North American homes. As many movie-goers now know, she spent the next nine years working on the “dog-eared, note-filled, butter-and-food-stained manuscript” (My Life in France, 207) that would become the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The wearisome demands of researching and testing grew out of a resolve to translate one culture’s food to another successfully. Child remembered “wailing” to her co-author Simone Beck, “Why did we ever decide to do this anyway?” when she realized her “beloved crème fraîche” was unavailable in most American grocery stores (207).

What Child understood, and applied in her books, is that any recipe of  value in a kitchen needs to center around available products.

Brer Rabbit trade card
Brer Rabbit trade card

A cookbook comprised of exotic ingredients only found halfway across the globe must be relegated to travel literature or wishful thinking.

By their nature, household cookbooks are created to be relevant, to rely on a common language, and to fit within their audience’s ways of life. Historian Susan Strasser cautions though that they “tell us neither more nor less about reality than…the latest edition of the Joy of Cooking” (Never Done, xv). If we accept, though, that historic cookbooks, especially in an era of limited consumerism, had an incentive to be useful, then we can draw on them to reveal a spectrum of realistic possibility.

Cookbooks of the past offer ingredients and instructions that may seem peculiar or horrifying on one page, and look a lot like tonight’s dinner on the next. Historic recipes invite us into a wonderful conversation, both familiar and foreign. In coming posts, Past is Present hopes to offer up some of the recipes from our substantial cookery collection. We know the fundamentals: to measure, to mix, to heat, and to dine, but the real communication is in the details, where we surely will find old friends as well as a few strangers ready to meet us.

But we shouldn’t take Strasser’s warning too lightly. In the interest of starting things off in the right direction, another Child offered the perfect example. First published in 1829, Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife would go through more than thirty printings into the 1850s. With a “waste not, want not” mentality, she advised, among other things, that when boiling calf’s head, “it is better to leave the wind-pipe on, for if it hangs out of the pot while the head is cooking, all the froth will escape through it (46).”


Here seems proof that the average American stomach of 2009 turns a bit more quickly than its 19th century counterpart! But apparently, calf’s wind-pipe could be offensive in 1829 too. Reviewing the book in the American Monthly Magazine, its editor Nathaniel P. Willis (and former suitor of Lydia Maria), while “begging pardon of our readers for any offence in facts or the language,” quoted the more graphic instructions and noted with a biting sarcasm and classist air that those seeking economy would enjoy reading of the “coarsest of their wants…what others might call the repugnant details of such matters.” Willis found fault with the discussion in refined company, not with the presumption of calf’s head availability, or even as a cooked dish on the dinner table.*

In other words it’s complicated. Trying to understand how Americans thought about food and cooking is  as difficult as trying to understand how American think about food and cooking today. But we’ve got one powerful tool on our side: our taste buds. Let’s hope this conversation about the past proves delicious.

*For a more in-depth discussion of the critical reception to The Frugal Housewife see Chapter 6 of Carolyn L. Karcher’s The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child.

Apply for an AAS research fellowship and learn a trade!

Since the early 1970s, the American Antiquarian Society has been awarding fellowships to enable scholars to come to Worcester and spend anywhere from a month to a year in residence at the Society, immersing themselves in our collections. Many fellows over the years have raved about the richness of the research experience, which is borne out in the use of AAS materials in countless dissertations, articles, and books.

However, an AAS fellowship can also serve as a valuable exercise in professionalization, exposing young scholars to people from other institutions and disciplines and preparing them for the rigors of the academic job search. But given the current depressed state of the economy, the job market in most humanities fields is tighter than ever before. How is AAS responding to this crisis in academic hiring? Why, by reconfiguring its fellowship programs to include valuable vocational training. For example, in the footage below, current AAS-NEH long-term fellow Emily Pawley can be seen preparing herself for an agricultural career.

While this idea may need some additional fine-tuning, we hope that you will consider applying for a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. More information and application materials are available here.

Fellow finds horse’s head

horse headOne of our great joys working on the far side of the reference desk is when a reader comes up to the desk with the words we all love to hear: “Look what I found!” We always know we are in for a surprise and now we can share these treats with you. (Be sure to read this one through to its hilarious conclusion …)

Background: The American Antiquarian Society began as an institution created to “encourage the collection and preservation of the Antiquities of our country.” “Antiquities” didn’t just mean books and paper, it also meant artifacts. The collecting focus of the library was revised by the early 20th century and the large, disjointed museum collection was donated to appropriate institutions. Here we have a reminder of just the sort of thing a 19th century researcher might have encountered in the old Antiquarian Hall.

Item: An 1817 letter from the first superintendent of the United States Patent Office, William Thornton, to American Antiquarian Society member, Benjamin Russell, editor of the Columbia Centinel.

Found by: Peterson Fellow James Snead, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University. horse_head1

Location: American Antiquarian Society Records, Correspondence 1812-1819, Box 2.

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