AAS Critique

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worchester, Massachusetts, is a treasure trove of materials in their original form. The ability to access materials, with only minimal restoration from their birth, allows the audience of said artifacts to create a whole new understanding about the role of said artifacts in their earlier days and today. When studying material culture several things can be noted from their wear, tear and preservation. The case study of our analysis, which is intended to help us understand how seeing media in its material form influence our perception of communication, will be based on the 1844 children’s book The Post Office; or an Illustration of Prayer, a 1797 edition of The Coquette and a 1776 copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

A primary observation of these mediums of communication asserts that the type of literature, with its intended use, physically rendered the state of the artifact. Such a notion not only contributes to the physical wear of the media, but also to its physical format. When looking at the 1844 children’s book, it is presented in a form no bigger than ones palm and maintains very light wear, as a responsible adult was probably the one reading the text aloud to a child. With the print of the piece roughly at a 10-point font, the compact way in which the book is assembled speaks to the potential preservation of paper during that period for texts that were used for entertainment and lacked a political or religious agenda. This children’s book followed that of a serious and very “non-kid-like” tone, far from what children’s books are like today. It is worthy to note that even though the story was about the ever-important post office, it did not carry a moral of the story that would have affected society in the way that The Coquette did. The novel The Coquette, on the other hand, was printed on a similar sized page that is it today. In terms of comparison, one sheet of The Coquette was equivalent to that of 4-6 pages of the children’s book. The allowance of more paper per copy of this text could very well be contributed to the way in which The Coquette maintained a purpose to defer its audience from engaging in non-traditional courtship or flirtation. The 1797 copy of this novel at The Antiquarian Society was heavily worn, which transitions us to the second point about original media, its level of wear.

Wear to a material object suggest several things. First and foremost it suggests a level of usage and the audience of said use. Like stated above, when looking at 1844 copy of the children’s book, there was minimal wear, most likely due to the fact that a parent, whom was aware of the price of a book, was the one who would be the reader of the story, out loud, to a child. When looking at the 1797 copy of The Coquette, a story of its usage is made apparent. With pages browned by time and smudged with fingerprints, it is made readily apparent that the novel was read and probably read viciously (as I read it) by the owner that could have had an age range from that of a teenager all the way into late adulthood. This novel was an emotional text that played a role in educating its audience about what happens when courtship goes wrong. I would not be surprised if some of the smudges were tear drops due to the heaviness of the text. This idea speaks to how the wear of an artifact is rendered by the emotion that the artifact projects upon its subject.

The final parallel I would like to make about the artifacts at AAS is the way in which The Coquette and a 1776 copy of Thomas Paine’s book Common Sense, look next to each other. When keeping in mind the description of The Coquette, as seen above, imagine a book with the same paper quality but with significantly less wear, from around the same time period. Even in this edition of Paine’s book being almost 20 years older than The Coquette, it is found in exponentially better condition, I believe, due to the fact that it was more of an academic text. While the novel The Coquette was a fictional story it was a text one could refer back to in times of leisure and morose, while Common Sense, if it was reopened after its reading was to incite revolutionary ideas. I can imagine Common Sense as a respected text about the challenge of British authority, either hidden in a man’s study or kept on a bookshelf while I can imagine The Coquette strewn on the floor of a teenage girl bedroom. Again, the case is made that the discipline of the book (academic or fictional) chooses a reader (adult, child, or teenager) and thus exposes it to different levels of wear and tear.

In conclusion, when doing research, try to find an original copy of the text in which you are basing your evidence. By having an authentic copy of the text, a whole new story about the literature can be told. Communication, while a mental notion, is also a physical notion in the way that a copy of The Coquette tells us how its reader may have treated a copy of the book or in the way that Common Sense was a book treated with delicacy because of what its content was communicating. By looking at these artifacts, it is made obvious that the way a person communicates with an artifact, communicates with us as historians today. It assists us in painting a picture of the context in which such a communication took place and contributes to our understanding of the History of Media and Communications.


One thought on “AAS Critique

  1. TGROME22,
    I really like your post and I think you raised some really valid points about how the level of wear and tear on an object can be used to examine its usage. I thought that your analysis of the children book and “The Coquette” was extremely interesting. In particular, I thought it was very insightful when you deemed that the better physical condition of the children’s book may have been because a parent would have read it to a child and thus kept it in better condition. I also liked how you brought up the point that communication is not just a mental notion, but also a physical notion. I think that often times we think of history as an entirely mental discipline more based in reading and theory then in what we can see and touch. I think that this approach, although important, is limiting and we can really learn a great deal of valuable and unique insight from physically examining objects.


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