A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society!

The life of an undergrad history major often seems to consist mostly of long days listening to lectures in May Hall and long nights with one’s eyes glued to a computer screen. However, occasionally this cycle of lecture and library learning is broken by a chance to see “history” in its physical form. By seeing an historical artifact in its physical form a student of history is able to gain valuable insights and information that is often not represented or easily distinguishable) if viewed digitally. Therefore, it is an awesome learning experience for history students to actually visit archives to see historical artifacts as they physically are. Recently, we as a class were able to visit the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and see several Early American artifacts of media and communication. In particular, the three artifacts that most interested me during our visit were a printed edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1), a broadside for the American Letter Mail Company (2), and a print of the The Herald from 1835 (3).

After looking at one of the first printed editions of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and examining it in its material form, I was able to discern some interesting information regarding media and communications history and simultaneously attain a heightened respect for printing in the Early Modern world. One of the first things that I noted when observing the artifact was how strong and of good quality the pages were despite it being several centuries old. From our lectures in class I knew that the paper used for books in the late 18th century was still made in paper mills via rag linen which made the pages very durable and resistant to age, wear, and tear. However, it wasn’t until after I had physically seen and felt the pages of a book made in this way that I realized how durable and how well made 18th century books truly were. In this vein of thought, another interesting observation that I made concerning the aforementioned artifact was how sturdy and modern looking the cover and binding was on the book. I was reminded in particular by the Darton article we read earlier in the semester; specifically the role of book binders in the bookmaking circuit. Darton explained that on most occasions books were sold to literate customers in their sheet form and the binding of books was often left at the discretion of the customer (4). Therefore, keeping this idea in mind while examining the book, I couldn’t help but admire the skill of the book’s binder since it looked almost modern in its appearance and texture. Overall, by physically seeing the printed edition of Franklin’s autobiography I was able to garner an increased respect and amazement at both the durability of paper as well as the skill of book binders in the period.

The second historical artifact that I examined and was especially interested in was a broadside for the American Letter Mail Company from 1844. This broadside was essentially marketing a private epistolary courier service for several Eastern cities (New York, Boston, etc.) highlighting the enterprise’s speed and cost efficiency of service. Upon looking at the broadside I was particularly intrigued by how it wasn’t exactly very eye-catchy despite being a business advertisement. The broadside overall relied more on the “fine print” than it did any flashy imagery or big bold statements to entice the eyes of any would be customers. This in turn led me to change my view on marketing before the modern era and consequently led me to wonder when flashy eye-catching imagery became a staple for business marketing in American media and communications. As a side note, my interest was also peeked by the broadside’s subtle attack on the federal monopoly of the postal service, of which it is expressed that the company’s design was structured to “test the constitutional right of free competition in the business of carrying letters” (5).  This reveals an interesting aspect of the history of media and communications that is only barely mentioned in Henkin’s The Postal Age; namely where private mail companies fitted in the antebellum America world of communications.

The final historical object that I looked at while visiting the AAS was a weathered print of The Herald from 1835. This artifact was unique from the other newspapers I observed during our field trip because its content was namely more business orientated (versus news orientated) and it also looked considerably weathered. After skimming the newspaper’s contents I noticed that unlike the other papers The Herald was focused on business type affairs; such as lists of wares for sale as well as a pretty extensive list of bank locations in New York. This content difference puzzled me until I realized that the newspaper I was reading was actually one of the first daily papers; therefore it made sense that it was lacking in actual “news” as news must have taken too long to attain to be printed every single day. Another characteristic of the physical newspaper that changed my view on media and communication history was how aged the newspaper looked when compared to earlier prints. This I discerned was due to the fact that daily papers were printed with less durable paper and thus were more prone to the effects of age. This fact reinforced my respect for early American newspapers (prior to the mid-19th century) as it showcased how durable the artifacts were despite being printed in the 1700s.

Overall our visit to the American Antiquarian Society was very interesting and it definitely changed my outlook on some of the topics we are reading about in class while simultaneously increasing my respect for printing in Early America.

1: Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790. Mémoires de la vie privée de Benjamin Franklin (Paris: Chez Buisson, 1791).

2: “American post office. : The American Letter Mail Company have established post offices in New-York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston,” (n.p., 1844).

3: Herald (New York, N.Y. : 1835).

4: Robert Darnton, “What is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111, no. 3 (1982): 78-79

5: “American post office. : The American Letter Mail Company have established post offices in New-York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston,” (n.p., 1844).

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3 thoughts on “A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society!

  1. One thought on the Herald: by 1835, New York City was plenty large enough to generate plenty of news on a daily basis. So instead of thinking about it as a problem of scarcity, what does it say about the selection process of the Herald‘s editors and their perceived readership?

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  2. Upon thinking about it further I can see my error in regards to the content of “The Herald”. I believe that you are right that New York City in the mid 19th century would not be lacking in news stories for daily newspapers and thus the business orientated content would not be due to scarcity of “exciting” news. Instead, to answer your question, I think that the business focused content would mean that “The Herald” would likely be targeted to upper-middle class business people who would want to know what was going on in one of the busiest centers of business in the nation. As for the selection process, I imagine that the editors would have printed material that they would have thought useful to businessmen, such as the lists of banks that i mentioned above. By and large, it seems that “The Herald” was printed and designed for New York men of business and not a general universal audience.

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  3. Kieran, I enjoyed your post and agree with you about the durability of colonial artifacts despite their antiquated nature. Going to a museum like this provides a tactile experience that is lost when viewing the same artifacts on a website. Tactile perception of an actual object provides an active versus passive experience, in which information can be gathered from multiple aspects related to touch. Young students may have, as we all probably do, the perception that artifacts from the colonial period are all frail in their construction, but as you pointed out with Franklin’s autobiography, many are surprisingly durable. The tactile perception that can only come from manipulation of objects is very important for understanding and interpreting artifacts from the past. We take things like book binding for granted, but it required an artisan in the colonial days and still does in the modern era. You are correct in that physically handling these items garners more respect for them.

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