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.

Continue reading Fellow finds horse’s head


Under its generous domeFor those of us who have the privilege and pleasure to work everyday with the remarkable collections of the American Antiquarian Society the past is indeed present. Whether we are selecting new acquisitions, cataloging collections, preparing web exhibits, processing photo requests, conserving materials that have seen better days, planning workshops, editing publications, or assisting researchers in the reading room, we often become immersed in the lives of Americans who lived 150, 250, even 350 years ago. By collecting the books they owned, the newspapers they read, the almanacs they consulted, the letters they exchanged, and the prints they enjoyed, we make it possible for researchers to recreate long-ago happenings, reconstruct conflicts and causes, and reclaim from obscurity individuals whose separate stories can now be woven into the larger narrative of our collective history as a people and a nation.

And while all that sounds lofty and terribly (self-)important, it’s also a lot of fun! Through our Past is Present blog, we hope to share with you some measure of our excitement at acquiring a pamphlet that escaped the collecting grasp of our predecessors, our delight in helping a reader solve a research conundrum, and our amusement with the weirdly wonderful things that turn up in the collections here at AAS on an almost daily basis. Many individuals will be contributing to this blog, but I want here to acknowledge the good work of Diann Benti, Tom Knoles, and Elizabeth Pope in getting it launched and keeping it lively.

I often use the word “generous” is describing the relationships that form among the staff and readers at AAS. It is very common for research discoveries to be shared openly, rather than hoarded in a miserly fashion. Readers regularly help each other and take great interest in each other’s projects, as does the staff. There’s a sense of community here that is highly valued, and through the Past is Present we are pleased to include our blog readers in our community as well. In that way, the past will be our present to you.

Try tilting your head just slightly…

They represent a type of carnage we can’t even imagine. Today they would cause more than a few gasps. And, yet unable to rewrite this tragedy, we feast on the spoils.

Okay, I’m being dramatic. But for archivists and librarians the idea that 600 cartoons were cut from Civil War era newspapers is a little hard to handle. Yet with the dirty work already done, the four boxes of cartoons represent a gold mine for scholars of mid-19th century America.

The secret to so much of scholarship is that it matters how you view primary sources. Historian Forrest McDonald spoke to this issue in a 1999 CSPAN interview

When I first worked at National Archives, they just turned me loose in the stacks. Now you’ve got to go in, and you’ve got to tell them what volume you want or what document you want and so on, and you sit down in a waiting room, and they will bring the stuff down for you, and that’s that… Whereas it would have taken generations to do what I did in the early ‘50s, now it couldn’t be done; it simply could not be done.

Of course, full-text searchable databases have unveiled a new type of researching that changes the game once again and offer possibilities unheard of to McDonald’s generation of scholars. But the fundamental fact remains that how you see impacts what you see: Continue reading Try tilting your head just slightly…