In Which the Author Encounters a Series of Material Texts throughout Philadelphia

Last week I participated in the Early American Material Texts, a conference co-sponsored by the Library Company of Philadelphia, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. During my time in Philadelphia I had a series of encounters with material texts, both at the conference and in my exploration of the city.

The current exhibition at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which I was told was a happy coincidence rather than specifically planned to overlap with the conference, depended on the materiality of texts. Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind opened on April 4 and will be on view through October 21. According to the Library Company’s website, Common Touch is a multimedia exhibition that looks at historical embossed and raised-letter documents for the visually impaired as a starting point for a multi-sensory exploration of the nature of perception. Inspired by her research in the Library Company’s Michael Zinman Collection of Printing for the Blind, artist-in-residence Teresa Jaynes” curated an exhibition “that combines her own original works with historical collections that document the education of the blind in the 19th century.”

Because so many of the texts included in this exhibition were intended – indeed, designed – to be read via the sense of touch rather than the sense of sight, the materiality of the texts took on additional significance. What have become familiar systems today, particularly Braille texts, emerged and gained prominence only after experimenting with a variety of other methods for creating texts that blind and sight-impaired individuals could read with their fingertips. Some, such as books that featured large embossed words, could be read fairly easily by sighted individuals, merely replicating traditional texts by adding raised surfaces.  (See the image of The Students’ Magazine on the homepage for the exhibition.) Others seemed completely foreign and inaccessible to sighted individuals who would have had little reason to learn systems of reading that relied on tactile sensations. Just as one can hear Morse code and recognize a form of communication without understanding what is being transmitted, many of the texts on display revealed modes of communication reserved for a relatively small number of people who developed specialized skills to decipher it, effectively reversing the relationship between sighted and sight-impaired individuals when it comes to reading most texts.

The exhibition included texts designed for a variety of purposes; not all of them were intended to relay narratives. For instance, it included several methods for writing equations and doing mathematics, including wooden arithmetic blocks that had a surprising limited number of raised surfaces for communicating a lot of information. As a sighted individual, the equations looked like some sort of code, but it was their materiality that made them understandable to sight-impaired readers. In addition, mathematics texts included raised surfaces to demonstrate patterns (the snowflakes were especially beautiful) and teaching geometry. I was challenged to think about the materiality of texts in new ways throughout the conference, but this exhibition raised issues not even considered on the conference program. I was glad that I had a chance to view it before the conference began.

I discovered that some of the arguments made at the conference continued to resonate as I explored museums during my extended stay in Philadelphia. On Saturday I toured the Mütter Museum, operated by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I especially enjoyed their current exhibition, Vesalius on the Verge: The Book and the Body. According to the Mütter Museum’s website, “December 31st marked the 500th birthday of the ‘Father of Modern Anatomy’ Andreas Vesalius. In 1543 Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), a series of seven books based on the dissection and research he conducted while at the University of Padua. This treatise on the human body was a groundbreaking work, with both detailed text and illustrations. To this day the Fabrica is still considered a masterpiece of both detailed text and illustrations.” This exhibition will remain on view through the end of August.

During my panel, Nancy Siegel, an art historian from Towson University, examined ephemeral prints by Paul Revere, including illustrations he engraved to accompany eighteenth-century cookbooks. Siegel argued that there were three texts that should be taken into consideration when considering the instructions for cooking a rabbit: the recipe, the illustration, and the rabbit itself. I continued to think about this point as I toured the Vesalius exhibition, which featured medical artifacts as well as the famous anatomical text. In his own time, Vesalius treated bodies as texts and encouraged his students to do the same. Today the exhibition can best be appreciated and understood only by engaging the interplay between “The Book and the Body,” treating each as texts that inform the other.

I was especially intrigued by the portion of the exhibition devoted to Vesalius’s Epitome, a companion piece to the Fabrica that was intended to be a less expensive study guide for students who could not afford the seven volume set. The Epitome included several anatomical plates, but that last two were not meant to be simply viewed and nothing else. Instead, readers were “encouraged to cut up these plates and match individual pieces to the corresponding parts of the first nine anatomical plates.” In this manner, Vesalius intended the Epitome would encourage “interactive learning, furthering the connections between reader, text and illustration” in the Fabrica. Such material manipulations of the printed text also came in handy as alternative texts in the absence of bodies to dissect.

Finally, the conference program was an unexpected delight as a result of the material considerations that went into its design and execution. Measuring 4¼ by 5½ inches, it had the appearance of an eighteenth-century chapbook, complete with a simple binding hand-sewn by the Early American Literature and Material Texts fellows. The covers were printed on drab colored paper, not unlike the covers or wrappers that would have enclosed many eighteenth-century publications. The fonts, format, and illustrations replicated eighteenth-century printing and publishing practices. Advertisements and announcements were included on the interiors of the covers, just as they might have been for books or pamphlets printed in the eighteenth century. It was the most creative conference program I have encountered, but also extremely fitting for a conference about Early American Material Texts.

Material Texts 1
Program for Early American Material Texts (designed by Jessica Linker).

Material Texts 2Material Texts 3Material Texts 4

In Which the Materiality of Texts Shapes Research Methodologies

This week’s extended commentary post is scheduled to publish as a virtual text just as my panel, “Beyond the Book,” commences at the Early American Material Texts conference in Philadelphia. I will be speaking about “Eighteenth-Century Advertising Ephemera: Paratexts that Framed Early American Magazines.” The material that follows below is an excerpt from my pre-circulated paper, the portion that discusses the challenges of conducting archival work on magazines as material texts whose form changed dramatically, both in the eighteenth century as the result of interventions by the original subscribers and throughout subsequent centuries as the result of archival and digitization practices.

Many scholars have examined the cultural, political, and intellectual content of the late-eighteenth-century magazines that poured off the presses in the major port cities of the new United States, yet they have placed little emphasis on the magazine as a commercial medium, in part because almost no advertising appeared within the pages of those magazines and in part because most magazines are today found preserved in bound volumes without the supplementary media, including wrappers and inserts, that featured each issue’s advertising. Here it is important to underscore that the magazines we encounter in digitized form in the American Periodical Series and, indeed, even most that are preserved in archives no longer take the material form they had when they first came into the possession of eighteenth-century readers. A variety of factors have contributed to this. For instance, many subscribers typically took multiple issues, most often six months at a time, to a bookbinder to be bound into a single volume. In the process, ancillary materials were removed, leaving magazines that were largely sanitized of commercial notices, even when they included essays on commerce and economics. As a result, most of the eighteenth-century magazines examined by modern scholars look quite different, take starkly different material form, and, as a result, transmit very different messages than when they were first issued more than two centuries ago.

American Museum Wrapper
An intact wrapper accompanying The Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine, For April, 1790 (Philadelphia:  William Young, 1790).  William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

To what extent were they different? Although commercial notices were largely absent from the body of the issue for any given week or month, those few magazines that are intact demonstrate that contemporary subscribers typically received issues that were delivery systems for advertising. Many of them arrived enclosed in wrappers made of blue paper that featured between two and seven pages of advertising as well as the magazine’s title page, accompanying notes about how to subscribe, and a list of booksellers who sold the magazines. Usually the title and related information took up only one page; sometimes they spread out over two pages, but rarely did they extend onto a third. This typically left three pages for advertising in most magazines but as many as six or seven pages of advertising in each issue of those publications that doubled up the number of sheets used as wrappers and devoted to advertising, including some of the century’s most successful magazines, such as the Columbian Magazine and the American Museum. Although the lack of advertising interspersed with articles does not reflect current strategies, in other ways the material forms of eighteenth-century magazines were not much different from their modern counterparts that overflow with subscription cards and other materials that flutter out when flipping through the pages. Printers and publishers stuffed a variety of inserts, trade cards, book catalogues, and subscription notices inside those blue wrappers that accompanied each monthly issue. Subscribers may have purchased magazines for the edification they provided concerning history, economics, and belles lettres, but those magazines still extant in their original form suggest that printers and other providers of goods and services used literary magazines for their own purposes of making a living and generating revenues.

This argument depends on identifying and examining eighteenth-century magazines still extant in their original form, sometimes a difficult task that merits a few words about both modern methodology and the power of archives over time. First, however, consider how the material circumstances of magazines were transformed almost immediately after publication and distribution to subscribers. Printers and publishers did not intend for supplementary advertising materials that accompanied magazines to remain with the bodies of the magazines indefinitely or even for more than a few months. Publishers and subscribers both understood that once an entire volume, typically six issues over that many months, had been published that the separate issues would be gathered and bound together. Some advertising wrappers included explicit instructions for bookbinders to remove all the supplementary material before binding the volume. Wrappers, trade cards, subscription notices, and book catalogues were out, but title pages, tables of contents, and other materials were added. The final product that ended up on subscribers’ shelves – and in modern archives – did not much resemble the original material form eighteenth-century magazines took when first delivered.

May 27 - Trade Card
Joseph Anthony’s trade card, inserted in the American Museum (Philadelphia:  Mathew Carey, August 1789).  Society Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

This creates challenges for researchers interested in paratexts as much as (or more than) the essays, poems, and other items that appeared in the bodies of magazines. To compound the difficulty, best practices among an earlier generation of librarians and catalogers sometimes called for dismantling single issues that had not been bound. They sought to better organize an institution’s collections by housing various components with others of their genre – book catalogues with other book catalogues or trade cards in the trade cards collection, for instance – rather than leaving them intact. Such practices did not anticipate the modes of paratextual analysis undertaken by scholars at work today. Even in instances that eighteenth-century magazines and their supplementary materials have remained intact, the companies that have produced digital surrogates have sometimes neglected to photograph and reproduce the ancillary materials, incorrectly assuming that anybody who wished to examine, say, the American Museum would be interested in only the body of that publication and not other materials delivered with it. As Kenneth Carpenter and Michael Winship cautioned in their keynote address at the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Conference last May, digital surrogates should be consulted as complements to, rather than replacements for, original documents. As we increasingly consult virtual texts we must remember that material texts sometimes tell unique stories that are not always captured in the digitization process.

We must keep eighteenth-century practices and circumstances in mind as we examine magazines in modern libraries and archives. Occasionally, the original subscribers or their bookbinders neglected to remove the advertising materials or overlooked a wrapper or insert here or there. As a result, looking at one supposedly “representative” issue of a magazine usually does not reveal the material circumstances of the original publication. Tracking down the advertisements that accompanied eighteenth-century magazines requires examining as many copies as possible to discover advertising paratexts inadvertently left behind, in both bound volumes and, when they survive, single issues. Indeed, it is often the single issues that include advertising media and testify to the original form of these publications. I have been exceptionally fortunate that curators, librarians, and other staff at several research institutions have generously allowed me to examine every issue, page by page, of eighteenth-century magazines in their collections once they have become familiar with my project and understand why this methodology is imperative. For good reason, archival staff often prefer to limit access to original materials in order to preserve it. When an institution possesses more than one copy of a magazine, for instance, one is often designated for use by researchers in order to preserve the others in their original condition as much as possible. Increasingly, researchers are asked to consult digital surrogates, which also present a “representative” copy, whenever possible. Such sources are often flawed due to the circumstances already described or, in some instances, incomplete because vendors unilaterally decided not to film or digitize ancillary materials because they did not understand the value of these paratexts for researchers. Eighteenth-century magazines exist in a variety of material and digital forms that in and of themselves shape our understanding of their original formats and purposes, sometimes misleading scholars because we do not see, touch, or read the same texts as the early Americans who originally subscribed to these magazines.

Review of T.H. Breen, “George Washington’s Journey to the Nation”

Last night I attended the penultimate presentation in the American Antiquarian Society’s Spring 2016 Public Programs series, T.H. Breen’s examination of “George Washington’s Journey to the Nation,” a lecture cosponsored by the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series at Becker College. Breen recently published George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (2016). I have not yet had a chance to read this book; I offer here a review and reactions to the lecture presented in Antiquarian Hall.

May 20 - George Washington's Journey
George Washington’s Journey

In his opening remarks, Breen commented that he particularly enjoys making presentations about his books because doing so gives him opportunities to share “all the wonderful aspects of the book.” Public lectures allow him to set the record straight in the wake of reviewers who misinterpret or miss the point of his work. What follows here may or may not miss the point, in Breen’s estimation, but it does seek to engage with the narrative he presented.

In researching George Washington’s Journey, Breen set out to trace a series of trips that the nation’s first president undertook during the first two years of his first term in office, journeys to all thirteen of the original states, from Georgia to the Maine frontier (then still part of Massachusetts), between 1789 and 1791. Washington made these journeys, Breen contended, as a means of bringing the federal government to “the people.” To a greater degree than other founders, according to Breen, Washington realized that the new republic would succeed or fail based on the attitudes of the people, the masses that were still organizing their thoughts about the meaning of the Revolution and attempting to figure out what they wanted the new nation to be. Washington realized that common men had replaced the quiet deference that existed before the Revolution with new modes of interacting in everyday life and raucous participation in local politics. All too often the focus was too local, privileging the needs of the individual states over the nation as a whole. More than once Breen reminded the audience that Washington favored a stronger federal government as a means of strengthening the nation, an aspect of the drafting, ratification, and implementation of the Constitution that all too many of the devotees of the founders seem unaware. Republican government was an experiment, one that Washington (as well as others in the founding generation) feared could fail. Washington worried for the economic stability and military security of the new nation. This made his journeys to the states – to the people – imperative. He understood “that the threads that bound the American people to a single political identity were fragile and untested.” To knit those threads together, he took the federal government to the people, in the form of his own person, to help those overly fixated on local interests realize that the nation amounted to more than the sum of its parts.

Breen made convincing arguments about the purpose and effects of Washington’s journeys, but I couldn’t help but feel that he overstated his case. A significant undercurrent that ran throughout his lecture could be summed up by the subtitle of his book: The President Forges a New Nation. (Yes, I understand that publishers, rather than the historians who write the books, often craft the titles in order to appeal to broad audiences. That being said, Breen’s presentation embraced the general sentiment of that subtitle.) Breen told a story in which the fate of the nation depended on a single individual, suggesting that without Washington’s itinerary through cities, towns, and villages in each of the states that the people in those separate states would not have coalesced as a unified nation. I question to what extent the president alone forged the new nation. I do not disagree that Washington’s journeys played an important role in knitting together geographically distant constituencies that had their own interests. I’ll incorporate this aspect of Washington’s presidency into the coursework and classroom discussion the next time I teach my course on the Era of the American Revolution and the Constitution.

Yet Washington did not singlehandedly unify the new nation. A variety of people, events, and factors also played significant parts in the process, including merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, authors, artists, and printers who promoted patriotic and nationalist consumer and visual cultures in the 1780s and 1790s. I do not object to acknowledging the purpose of Washington’s journeys throughout the nation, but I am cautious when doing so skates right up to hagiographical depictions of the first president by suggesting the survival and success of the republican experiment could be traced back exclusively to a single cause, one insightful leader who engaged with and made himself accessible to the people.

Breen stated that the Washington who made these journeys was a Washington that most people, even the most ardent fans of the first president, probably do not know. When considering the constellation of founders that served in Washington’s administration, the president sometimes recedes into the background. He was genial, but not usually depicted as a particularly daring risk taker or bold innovator when considered in the company of his more intellectual peers, especially Jefferson and Hamilton. Not as comfortable interacting with others in social situations as those men, Washington often seemed awkward in comparison and lacking their charm, despite his general amiability. The Washington who made himself accessible to the people, who made a point of traveling to visit them in their own towns, who insisted on staying in public inns (Washington slept here!) rather than secluding himself in the homes of the local elite and powerful, who interacted with men, women, and children throughout the nation, is a Washington perhaps unfamiliar to most Americans. Washington was a man among the people, not just a man of the people.

Yes, this may be a new Washington that historians and the public may not have previously encountered, but the overall tone of Breen’s presentation – all the superlatives concerning the first president and his intentions for undertaking his journeys – does little to shift general perceptions of Washington. Overall, Breen seemed to reify Washington as exceptional and extraordinary. Certainly it must be possible to recognize Washington as the gifted and effective leader that he was, to honor his achievements and contributions to the nation, without implying that his actions were the only (or even the most important) factor in unifying the new nation. Breen tells an important and powerful story, but it is a story that would benefit from more context. It needs to be situated within other narratives and interpretations of the politics and culture of the first decades of the new American republic.

An Evening of Poetry at the American Antiquarian Society: Review of Citizen Poets of Boston

The American Antiquarian Society sponsors a robust series of Public Programs each fall and spring. I was especially interested in the most recent entry, last week’s “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems” by Paul Lewis (English, Boston College), because it originated as a class project that relied significantly on digital humanities resources. Lewis was joined for the evening by Harrison Kent and Alexandra Mitropoulos, former students who worked on the project as undergraduates.

The title for the evening’s event came from the recently published The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820 (University Press of New England, 2016), an anthology of mostly anonymous poems published in literary magazines in the era of the Early Republic. The book, however, was not the original goal of the advanced undergraduate seminar that located and identified the poems; instead, it evolved out of an exhibition, “Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History.” Lewis and his students originally sought to examine “poems so bad they were delightfully amateurish” that still managed to make their way into print in the decades immediately after the Revolution and ratification of the Constitution, but their research took them in new directions as they discovered a treasure trove of forgotten and overlooked poetry that was good, interesting, and told local stories.

May 13 - Citizen Poets
The Citizen Poets of Boston

Lewis, Kent, and Mitropoulos explained that 427 magazines were published in the United States during the early national period. Most magazines incorporated at least some poetry as a standard feature, but many did so quite extensively. More than 30,000 poems appeared in those magazines. Lewis and his students were especially interested in Massachusetts (and primarily Boston, the center of magazine publication in the commonwealth during the period), combing through 59 magazines to identify and examine over 4500 poems.

This is a project that would not have been possible even a decade ago, at least not as a collaborative research project in an upper-level undergraduate seminar. It relied on intense archival work – digital archival work using the American Periodical Series and similar resources. The American Periodical Series includes digitized images of magazines printed from the colonial period to the turn of the twentieth century. Gathering digital surrogates for the original magazines together in one place eliminates several of the obstacles that researchers in earlier generations faced. Images of each page are readily available, making it unnecessary to travel to distant libraries and historical institutions. In effect, digital sources bring the archives to researchers, including students who otherwise would not have such extensive access to primary sources. (This assumes that an educational institution has the funds to purchase a subscription to the American Periodical Series and similar databases of early American primary sources. Many smaller colleges and universities do not, but that digital divide is a topic for another time. Still, I want to be clear that although digitized sources make new projects and pedagogy possible, unequal access means digitization is not a panacea.)

Lewis and his students were able to consult the 59 magazines printed in Massachusetts in the early national period relatively easily, though the project was still labor intensive even with the digital resources. As they identified and sifted through more than 4500 poems they decided to focus on poetry that revealed life in early Boston. Doing so required learning about publication and republication practices of the era. For instance, in efforts to fill their pages editors often inserted material copied directly from British periodicals in the absence of international copyright laws. Lewis and his students discarded those poems. They also discovered that editors frequently issued invitations to readers to submit their own poetry, invitations that anonymous poets eagerly accepted. Since magazine distribution was relatively limited during the period – most circulated primarily within the city of publication – these poems often revealed much about local culture in Boston. (Lewis suggested that other teams of scholars and students could pursue similar projects in Philadelphia, New York, and other urban centers.) In addition to inviting readers to submit original poetry, editors also solicited poems in response to other poems, creating conversations among readers from issue to issue. The anonymous poets often learned whether their work had been accepted or rejected in the pages of the magazines themselves; rather than communicating privately with these “citizen poets,” editors created a feature, “Acknowledgments to Correspondents,” in which they praised or disparaged the poems submitted to them.

Who were these citizen poets? Lewis and his students explored the democratizing effects of publishing poetry by anonymous authors in the literary magazines of the Early Republic. Although most of the authors cannot be identified definitively, many were surely women. Quite possibly some were non-whites. Anonymous publication allows – then and now – for imaginative readings of the identity of those citizen poets since their gender, race, and class remained hidden. The “citizen” in citizen poet accordingly refers to anybody who chose to participate in the conversations and debates pursued in verse rather than the more narrow confines of who was eligible to vote in the early national period. Poetry elicited broad civic participation as a variety of readers made contributions to public discourses. For instance, provocatively misogynistic poems generated responses. Lewis and his students documented poems and “anti-poems” that responded to each other over the course of several issues. Many poems expressed the hopes and anxieties of various Boston residents as they contemplated their role in early American society, including a poem about a young seamstress preparing for her marriage. She hoped that her husband would sometimes “let me wear the breeches.” Whether written by a woman or not, this poem indicates that everyday Bostonians grappled with the social roles and political rights of women in the era of the Early Republic.

Lewis and his students underscored that these forgotten poems reveal lively, open, and engaged interactions among readers. They offer glimpses of everyday life – relationships between men and women, labor and occupations, politics, family life, entertainment and pleasures – that might seem foreign to modern readers. In that regard, the poems in The Citizen Poets of Boston are a valuable resource for scholars, teachers, and students. However, I am just as interested in the process: the methodology that made that anthology possible. Using digitized sources to pursue such an extensive project helped to make possible a model of professor-student collaborative work that fulfilled some of the best ideals of scholars incorporating their own research into the classroom to create richer educational experiences. The digital revolution helps to make possible a greater array of “hands-on humanities” projects that engage both scholars and students and ultimately yield significant results.

Review of David and Ginger Hildebrands’ “Ballads from Boston”

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend “Ballads from Boston: Music from the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Collection,” an interactive performance and lecture by David and Ginger Hildebrand from the Colonial Music Institute. I was especially interested in this concert (part of the American Antiquarian Society’s slate of Spring 2016 Public Programs, free and open to the public) because I have worked with digital humanities curator Molly O’Hagan Hardy on other aspects of the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project. In particular, my students from Assumption College have participated in transcribing about two dozen of the ballads to make them keyword searchable and thus more accessible to both scholars and general audiences. This collaborative community service learning project began last fall in my Revolutionary America course and continued this spring in my Public History course and an independent study for a student completing a capstone research project for the Peace and Conflict Studies minor.

My students and I take some pride in helping to make the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project more accessible to multiple audiences, but the work we have done differs significantly from the way in which David and Ginger Hildebrand have made these early-nineteenth-century ballads accessible. In addition to their performance last Friday, they have recorded approximately thirty of the ballads, which are now available on the Broadside Ballads website. In my view, this transforms the entire project. As a scholar, I have approached the ballads from a print culture perspective, but the Hildebrands underscore that these broadsides were not just material texts. Those words on the page were meant to be sung aloud and heard by early Americans. They had melodies that would have been readily recognized, even if the words were not familiar. They were part of the soundscape of Boston and other cities and villages in the early nineteenth century. I’ve noticed in recent years that historians and scholars in related disciplines have increasingly consulted graphic arts materials in efforts to better recover and represent what America looked like in eras before photography. Except for musicologists, we have not (yet) given the same attention to what early America sounded like at various times before recording technology. The work undertaken by the Hildebrands helps to remedy that.

May 6 - Hildebrands
David and Ginger Hildebrand performing at the American Antiquarian Society.

As for the concert, the Hildebrands selected seventeen ballads to perform, though they did not move directly from one to the next. Instead, they offered remarks, context, and explanations for each of their selections before performing each on period instruments (including a harpsichord, a hammered dulcimer, and a violin), while dressed in period clothing. (This was a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears.) They provided background about historical events mentioned in the lyrics and traced the origins of many of the melodies. Many of the ballads had twenty or more verses, so they judiciously selected the most important for telling a story or giving the audience a taste.

Many of the melodies continue to be popular (or at least recognizable) today, but most dated back earlier than the nineteenth century. The Hildebrands explained that the best way for a new song to become popular was to set it to a familiar tune that most people already knew. In that way, melodies had lives of their own that extended across years, decades, and even centuries. Sometimes they were updated or adapted, but they were transmitted largely intact across generations. Performers added their own touches, but these usually amounted to variations on standardized melodies. The Hildebrands described this as honoring melodies again and again because everybody knew them (and certainly not plagiarizing them in the way we might assume for similar practices today). This reminded me of the common practice among printers of reprinting material directly from other newspapers in their own publications. Our concept of “stealing” the intellectual and creative labor of others has shifted in the two centuries since the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads were printed. (This does leave me with several questions about copyright in the early nineteenth century.)

While the melodies had variations, so did the lyrics. I was not the only scholar who had my laptop open so I could follow along with the original ballads via the Broadside Ballads website as the Hildebrands performed them. I noticed that they sometimes made minor changes to the lyrics. Although the Hildrebrands did not indicate this was the case, I imagine that the men and women who sang these ballads in the early nineteenth century would have done the same. The lyrics offered a general outline for any particular song, but the preferences and creativity of performers further shaped them. I imagine that regional differences may have emerged as well, much like modern summer campers have very similar repertories for singing in dining halls and around campfires. The words and melodies are largely the same, but small differences create distinct performances from camp to camp. I found this helpful when thinking about the aural aspects of the ballads. From a print culture perspective I am very conscious to quote each ballad exactly as it appeared on the page (and require students to do so when transcribing them, down to misspellings and missing letters), but the lyrics, like the melodies, were likely altered to suit the tastes of the performers in the nineteenth century, just as the Hildebrands play with the lyrics today.

Given that this project was created to explore advertising, marketing, and consumer culture in early America, I must include the final stanza of “The Times.”

So here’s a true song for them that will buy,

And I’ll leave it to yourselves if I’ve told you a lie,

The like of my song you have not heard many,

The price is but small, you may have one for a penny.

The Hildebrands explained that even though Isaiah Thomas made arrangements with Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly to purchase all of the ballads that came off the press in his shop, most ballads were either sold by booksellers or peddled in the streets. These “verses in vogue with the vulgar,” as Thomas described them, were the popular culture of the day. Peddlers called attention to their wares by singing the ballads, not just announcing that they had them for sale. In fact, some melodies familiar today are vestiges of songs street peddlers sang in London three centuries ago. In the final verse of “The Times” the man or woman hawking the ballads on the street did what is today called “breaking the fourth wall” by departing from the story being told in order to engage and interact with the audience. Passersby had benefited from a few moments of free entertainment. What better way to show their appreciation – and continue to derive pleasure from the ballad – than by purchasing one of their own for just a penny?

From the very first ballad, “The Frog and Mouse,” I found myself tapping my foot. For others, especially “How the Glass Stands” (which, according to legend, Alexander Hamilton sang the night before his fateful duel), the Hildebrands’ performance revealed ballads much more haunting than the text suggests on its own when read silently. I plan to continue working on the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project with my students, but I will approach the project in new ways as a result of the Hildebrands’ performance and recordings. (Indeed, the recordings will be an important teaching tool in their own right.) I’ve gained a new appreciation for the way Bostonians and others would have experienced them in the early nineteenth century.

Reflections on Working with Guest Curators, Once Again

The semester is coming to a close and the guest curators from my Public History class have completed their responsibilities. In a series of interview questions, they each reflected on their experiences once again at the end of a second week guest curating. I would like to do the same now that the classroom project has concluded (for the moment: guest curators will return as part of future courses).

Working with my students on this collaborative project has been immensely rewarding, one of my favorite endeavors in nearly a decade of teaching. Why? There are several reasons. For one, this has been the most effect method for incorporating my own research into the classroom. In the past I’ve brought eighteenth-century advertisements to class to analyze as primary sources or assigned chapters I’ve written to supplement other readings about the confluence of commerce, culture, and politics in early America. While I will continue to do so, neither of those approaches allowed the sustained inquiry that guest curating the Adverts 250 Project for a week fostered and required.

I also believe that this was an effective method of instruction because students played such an important role in shaping the outcome. Although I did set some basic parameters (establishing a methodology for which issues of colonial newspapers should be consulted and insisting that they had to select advertisements for consumer goods and services, with only one exception each week), the guest curators chose the advertisements that interested them. This engaged their creativity, but it also gave them ownership of the work they were doing. For many assignments – in history and other disciplines – they respond to a prompt provided by a professor. They research and write about something that professor has specified they must investigate. For this project, however, they had much more freedom to choose what interested them.

One student was especially interested in women’s history. Whenever possible, she selected advertisements placed by women. That turned out to be just a starting point. As she examined those advertisements she learned a lot about the communities in which those women lived and the culture, politics, and economics that shaped their lives. The advertisements led her to a variety of primary and secondary sources that enriched her understanding of eighteenth-century America more broadly. She developed better research skills, tracking down maps, trade cards, and paintings from the period. Throughout the process, she enthusiastically learned about early America because her curiosity propelled her forward. I could have designed a series of readings and document exercises to impart similar knowledge, but the sense of discovery involved with locating and choosing which sources to consult enhanced the learning experience by giving the student both authority and responsibility for shaping her inquiry in the manner she desired and found most compelling.

The collaborative nature of this project also contributed to its success as a classroom exercise. I tell all of my students that I expect them to be junior colleagues throughout the semester, that we will investigate the past together. The extent to which students actually accept my invitation to become junior colleagues depends in part on the individual and in part on the type of class. Due to their previous experience, greater exposure to primary and secondary sources, and the projects they are expected to produce, seniors conducting their own research in the capstone seminar are much more likely to comport themselves as junior colleagues than students in introductory survey courses.

For this project, students could not avoid acting as junior colleagues, in large part because we interacted so extensively beyond the classroom. During the past semester I had more sustained contact with my Public History students than with any other students in any course I previously taught, with the exception of a student who researched and wrote a senior thesis under my direction and the possible exception of some of the best and most ambitious seniors in the research seminar. One at a time, the guest curators were immersed in the Adverts 250 Project for an entire week, which meant working closely with me.

Each student selected a slate of proposed advertisements and then met with me to have them approved. Most received my blessing, but I explained why some were rejected and gave advice for making new selections. Once an advertisement was approved, the guest curator independently conducted research on some aspect of it, though I sometimes made suggestions or provided context that I thought would be helpful. Writing a rough draft followed the research stage. Guest curators sometimes met with me in my office to review their drafts; other times we had conversations via email. Some drafts required a bit of polishing before being posted online, but others needed more extensive revisions. I made suggestions for revising prose and reorganizing material. I identified occasional historical errors, flagged incorrect assumptions, and challenged interpretations. I suggested additional sources to consult and explained why some online sources were problematic. We worked together on writing, research, and information literacy skills. Most entries went through more than one draft.

Then came another collaborative element of the project. Once a student’s entry was ready, I contributed my own “additional commentary” about the advertisement. Sometimes I expanded on the theme the guest curator had developed. Sometimes I addressed another aspect of the advertisement that interested me. In both instances I analyzed the advertisement selected by the student. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the guest curators did not always select the advertisements that I would have chosen, but each of their advertisements was significant in its own right. I believe that letting them take the lead, putting them in a position of authority in which I applied my expertise to the material they had selected, helped my students to conceive of themselves truly as junior colleagues.

There’s one more explanation for why this project was such a successful part of my Public History class: I worked with good students. Part of me fears attempting to replicate this experience in a future class with a different cohort of guest curators! As much as this method of instruction aided my students in learning and achieving their potential, it’s imperative to acknowledge that I benefitted from working with good students, each of them simultaneously smart, responsible, conscientious, and hard working. This experiment could have had a very different outcome this semester. I’m grateful that the guest curators took it seriously and, as a result, made such significant contributions to the Adverts 250 Project.

In Which Advertising Ephemera Became Paratexts for Material Culture

A couple of months ago I examined binder’s labels and trade cards, arguing that when they were affixed to books they became paratexts that transformed goods that were purchsed for use by consumers into advertisements that continued to promote further consumption long after the initial purchase took place. Such instances represented a particular case of a wider practice in eighteenth-century America. An assortment of artisans, retailers, and merchants attached labels to a variety of goods they made or sold. Sometimes these labels had been created expressly for that purpose. Other times they were trade cards or broadsides adapted for new use. On occasion they supplemented newspaper advertisements, even reiterating the text that appeared in the public prints.

When printers, booksellers, and bookbinders inserted their labels in the books they printed, sold, or bound, those labels rightly became paratexts, additional printed materials that framed the main text and potentially altered the reception of the text by readers. How should such labels be described when attached to other goods – items that were not printed, such as furniture or containers? Is it possible to have a paratext without a text? Or should we conceive of texts in different ways? Historians “read,” analyze, and interpret a variety of primary sources, from printed and manuscript texts to visual images to material culture artifacts and architecture. In one way or another, don’t all of these qualify as texts, even if they did not come off a printing press or flow from a pen?

Let’s take a closer look at some examples. In the eighteenth century, Americans who made and sold a variety of goods devised ways to transform their products into advertisements that would associate their name with their goods long after their wares left the shop. Many items, especially those purchased from artisans, came with labels or other marks denoting their source. Pewterers and silversmiths stamped their creations with unique marks. Cabinetmakers and other woodworkers signed, stamped, impressed, or branded the furniture they created, and others affixed labels to the bottoms of drawers, the backs of mirrors, and underneath chair seats. For example, Simon Edgell, a pewterer active in Philadelphia between 1713 and 1742, stamped many of his works with his name and city and the outline of a bird.[1] During the final decade of the century, Benjamin, Jr., and Joseph Harbeson imprinted their pewter goods with two concentric circles with the words “HARBESON PHILADA:” situated between them.[2] At the end of the 1790s, Parks Boyd marked his work with his name and city and an eagle, apparently attempting to associate himself and his products with patriotism.[3] In the 1770s, Burrows Dowdney, a clockmaker, engraved his name and city in a banner on the clock dials he produced, directly below the axis on which the hands spun, making it difficult to glance at the clock without being reminded of who had constructed it. Other clockmakers also engraved at least their names and their city on the faces of their clocks.[4]

Early American cabinetmakers and other artisans also advertised their work by marking or branding it. Although cabinetmakers, like other artisans, did so partly out of a sense of pride, they also wanted to make sure that potential customers would know where to buy their goods. Their paper labels often closely resembled newspaper advertisements and handbills: not content with a simple identifying mark, they promoted their products by attaching full-fledged advertisements to them. Jonathan Gostelowe’s label from circa 1783 was typical.[5] It advertised his cabinets and chairs, notified his customers of his location, and featured an ornate border. At least seventy of Philadelphia’s cabinetmakers marked their furniture in the eighteenth century.[6] Sometimes they stamped their furniture or even simply signed their name with chalk. Many affixed paper labels of varying degrees of complexity. Of the seventy known Philadelphia cabinetmakers who marked their furniture, two used handwritten labels and twenty-six used printed labels of varying degrees of ornateness. Even a handwritten label could do more than simply identify an artisan, as Henry Rigby’s partial label suggests. A federal-style walnut card table most likely constructed between 1780 and 1790 bears a partial handwritten label: “Henry Rigby Cabinetmaker on Front Street one door above the …” It is suggestive that Rigby at least wanted to list his address so anybody who saw or used the card table and found it pleasing could visit his workshop to order more furniture.[7] Similarly, sometime around 1790 saddler Jesse Sharples adapted his broadside to serve as a label by pasting it inside the lid of trunks he made and sold. He positioned the label such that anybody opening one of his trunks would be sure to see the advertisement.[8]

It was not necessary for an advertiser to have made an item in order to place a label on it. In addition to the skilled artisans who marked their teapots and highboy chests, enterprising retailers also had labels printed and attached them to the goods they sold. For instance, the silversmith Joseph Richardson imported boxes of English weights and scales in the 1750s, affixing his own label to the inside lid of the box where it would be protected from damage yet easily viewed every time the purchaser and his associates opened the box to use the scales. His label also drew merchants’ attention by including a list of the exchange rates for a dozen currencies that merchants and others mightencounter.[9] (Richardson complemented these labels with a short advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in September 1770: “To be SOLD by JOSEPH RICHARDSON, Goldsmith, A Parcel of Money Scales & Weights.” Martha Gandy Fales, a Richardson biographer, reports that the silversmith began placing similar advertisements a quarter century earlier.) In addition, John Elliott, Jr., ran a shop where, according to the labels on them, he sold “by Wholesale and Retail, Looking Glasses In neat Mahogany Frames of American Manufacture,” and also a wider selection of goods and services, including “Painters’ Colours,” varnishes, and even “a general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines.” [10] His label even stated that “Old Glass” could be “new quicksilvered and framed as usual” in his shop.

Just like trade cards, billheads, and other stand-alone advertisements circulating in early America, labels and maker’s marks continued to operate as advertising long after purchases took place. In fact, by attaching labels to frequently used items, advertisers likely increased the chances that they would be seen regularly. Consumers purchased more than goods that caught their interest. Those goods often doubled as advertisements that artisans, retailers, and merchants managed to insert into the daily lives of their customers, sometimes into their most private spaces away from the public commerce of the marketplace.  Advertisements were not confined to the pages of newspapers.  Instead, early Americans encountered a rich visual landscape of advertising all around them.


[1] Carl Jacobs, Guide to American Pewter (New York: McBride Company, 1957), 88.

[2] Jacobs, American Pewter, 106.

[3] C. Jordan Thorn, The Handbook of American Silver and Pewter Marks (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1949), 243.

[4] Burrows Dowdney, clock dial, (Philadelphia: ca. 1770), plate 43 in Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Henry N. Abrams for Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1992).

[5] This label can be dated between 1783 and 1789 since Gostelowe worked at the Church Alley address during that period. Cliveden, NT75.1.1, Gostelowe Chest. See also William C. Ketchum with the Museum of American Folk Art, American Cabinetmakers: Marked American Furniture, 1640-1940 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995); and Edward Stratton Holloway, American Furniture and Decoration: Colonial and Federal (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1928), plate 42.

[6] I compiled a list of Philadelphia cabinetmakers active during the eighteenth century from Ketchum, American Cabinetmakers.

[7] Henry Rigby, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library; and Ketchum, American Cabinetmakers.

[8] For the Sharples broadside, see Jesse Sharples, Jesse Sharples, Takes this Method of Informing trhe Public in General, and His Friends in Particular, that He Continues to Carry On the Saddling Business, as Usual, in All Its Various Branches, at his Saddle Manufactory, in the North-West Corner of Chesnut and Third-Streets, Four Doors from the Bank, and Opposite the Cross-Keys (Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1790). For the Sharples broadside pasted in a trunk, see Jesse Sharples, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library.

[9] Martha Gandy Fales, Joseph Richardson and Family: Philadelphia Silversmiths (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1974), fig. 31.

[10] John Elliott, Jr., Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library.