10/23 AAS Visit (Required 4)

Viewing the AAS artifacts in their material form influenced the way I think about them as artifacts of the history of media and communications in three ways. As I looked at a letter from John Hancok to Isaiah Thomas,[1] I noticed a tear on the portion folded to create an “envelope.” During this time, envelopes had not been invented yet, requiring a sender to fold the letter into a makeshift envelope and address the “front” of it. I noticed that he did not use up all the space of the paper for his letter and thought of the Starr book, which detailed how people would go to great lengths to use of every last square inch of that once rag linen. Hancock, however, could easily afford paper, as well as his recipients could afford the overpriced postage. After examining the letter, I considered media preservation, something I had never given any real thought to. The Colonial Williamsburg website reminded me we don’t have history if these types of historical artifacts are not preserved. The main page tells the story of how Thomas Jefferson preserved records from the Jamestown colony settlement of Virginia—the first successful English settlement in North America. The site documents that “for nearly five decades, Jefferson preserved and curated the documents he acquired, sharing them carefully and selectively with scholars publishing collections of Virginia’s statutes. The Library of Congress now tends them, the richest collection of Jamestown records in the country.” It is because of Jefferson’s diligence as an archivist that historians have this resource of primary documents. I feel that I had—through schooling—viewed learning about the past because of historians and scholars. However, we learn about the past through things people who lived before us left behind, which historians and scholars then examine and subsequently interpret. Seeing this item in its material form reminded me that it was like a photograph—a moment in time frozen for future scrutiny. School sometimes conditions us to look at these media artifacts as simply primary source documents: a certain quota we must meet to satisfy the rubrics of our professors. This letter illustrated the importance of the preservation of media artifacts, and the visit reminded me that media artifacts have an organic nature in their material form that is lost if not viewed in person. Media artifacts are visual and audio peeks into the everyday lives of past individuals that sometimes need no interpretation because it is clear what these individuals are conveying. Having the actual text or audio creates a more accurate historiography base.

The second and third ways seeing the artifacts in their material form influenced the way I think about them as artifacts of media and communications was in what I consider a medium and rethinking my perception of viewing media artifacts collectively. The 1876 Currier and Ives print The Progress of the Century[2] depicted the new technologies developed during America’s industrial age: the railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph, and the steam-engine powered printing press. It was only after careful examination of the print, which features two communication mediums, that I realized I was looking at another medium—the print itself. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words, but I am usually so centered on text that I discard the power of images as mediums of communication. Mediums of communication can be categorized as either physical or mechanical. The print, as well as the poster from the American Letter Mail Company,[3] is a mechanical form of media. The postal advertisement, for new offices in Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, is in essence one medium promoting another. The poster represents how the post was not in wide use because the postal reduction had not happened yet. Both the poster and the print influenced me because they made me reexamine how I often look at media artifacts as the sum of their parts without giving more consideration to them as parts of a larger whole that may tell a different story if viewed individually versus collectively. History is, of course, subject to interpretation, but the visit to AAS taught me that media and communications artifacts are special in they have the potential to remove the veil of historical interpretation and replace it with historical fact.


[1] John Hancock to Isaiah Thomas, December 2, 1786, Isaiah Thomas Papers, AAS.

[2] The Progress of the century (New York: Currier & Ives, 1876), facsimile.

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


4 thoughts on “10/23 AAS Visit (Required 4)

  1. I also focused on the American Progress drawing and Post Office poster and noticed the same thing, how they both relayed communication in their messages, but also that they are modes of communication. I was having a difficult time figuring out where the image would have appeared during this time, do you have any ideas?


    • Hey Jen,

      “The Currier & Ives firm was in the business of producing lithographed prints intended to be sold to the general public for framing and display in the home or at work. Calling themselves “Printmakers to the People,” they provided for the American public a pictorial history of their country’s growth from an agricultural society to an industrialized one. For nearly three quarters of a century the firm provided “Colored Engravings for the People” and in the process became the visual raconteurs of nineteenth-century America.” Source: http://antiqueprintsblog.blogspot.com/2009/10/currier-ives.html.

      I know in the 1950s the FBI posted “Wanted’ posters at the post office to help apprehend criminals, but I don’t know if they would have hung prints like Currier and Ives’ ‘Progress of the Century.’ The post office had murals painted on its wall during the Great Depression but again, I’m not sure if prints like ‘Progress of the Century’ would have graced their walls or not. Source: http://postalmuseum.si.edu/research/articles-from-enroute/off-the-wall.html. I’m sure plenty of Americans hung the lithographs in their homes, since Currier and Ives prints were so inexpensive.


  2. That is a very insightful observation you made about the extra space on John Hancock’s letter. I think that’s the best example of the value of seeing these items in material form that I have noticed in these blogs so far.


    • Thanks, Derek. When I saw the letter I thought of one of the passages from Henken’s book that described the lengths people had to go to in order to maximize the space on a sheet of paper: “Anna Briggs Bentley…used various economizing strategies in the early decades of her correspondences, including crossing her letters–inscribing the second half of the letter at a ninety-degree angle between the lines of the first half in order to avoid paying postage for an additional sheet” (p. 19). The obviously affluent Mr. Hancock did not have to rely on such extreme epistolary measures and simply used a second sheet of paper.


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