AAS Visit

The trip to the American Antiquarian Society was very eye-opening and it was incredibly useful to see physical representations of what we’ve been studying. One interesting artifact was John Hancock’s letter to Isiah Thomas. The letter was only one page, with the envelope being made out of the same sheet (1). There was some red residue on the letter that could have been left behind by a seal of Hancock’s. I believe Hancock was fairly wealthy and could probably afford to send multiple page letters, and use a detailed seal. As we see in the letter, Hancock didn’t use the while space on the paper to write to Thomas. We’ve read how people would stuff as much text as they could on a page, even going so far as to write vertically in between lines of horizontal text. After reading so much about how people tried to save as much money and paper as possible, it’s strange to see a letter that doesn’t take up a whole page.

Another intriguing artifact that we were able to look at was The Post-Office; or an Illustration of Prayer from the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society (2). The book was not only bound with a hard cover, but the cover was also designed. While the cover us not as colorful was the book of Ben Franklin’s memoirs,(3) compared to the basic leather cover of The Coquette, the prayer book is more interesting to look at. It’s interesting that this prayer book had a designed cover when it was much more common and cost effective to just bind pages instead of placing them in a cover. Another interesting comparison of the prayer book to The Coquette or Franklin’s book of memoirs is in regard to the size of the text. The text in the prayer book is much larger than in the other artifacts, and the lines are more spaced out. Since this book was from the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, it was probably read by children, and a larger text size would have been easier for them to read. While we’ve looked at novels, like The Coquette, newspapers, and letters, media pertaining to children is something new. Was there any sort of emerging market at this time for children’s literature or did that come later? Also was it common for school books to be bound with a hard cover, or were most of them just bound pages?

A third artifact from the AAS that really stuck with me was the print of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (4). This pamphlet is discussed in a lot of history courses and helped to shape the Declaration of Independence, so to be able to see and touch an early print of it was amazing. The artifact was in great condition with only minor wearing around the edges of the pages. The cover page is smaller than the rest of the pamphlet, and I’m not entirely sure why. On the backside of the first page you can actually see and feel the indentations the letters made on the paper when it went through the printing press. You can also see and feel the texture of the paper fairly clearly. The linen used to make the paper for this looks rougher than the paper of Hancock’s letter, which didn’t seem to have the same lined texture. I’m curious as to how people made paper out of the linen. I know for papyrus and recycled materials it’s a matter of wetting the substance and beating it into a flat piece, would the process for linen have been similar? One thing that confused me at first while looking at this artifact was the occasional letter printed at the bottom of some pages. The same sort of letters also appear in the collection of Ben Franklin’s memoirs. It was cool to learn that these letter acted as markers for how to fold the paper. In the case of the memoir book, there were multiple markers of the same letter, so numbers also had to be used, for example: B2, B3, B4, etc. Would most printings use markers like these? Being able to visit the AAS was a great opportunity and it allowed us to see artifacts that made some of the ideas and principles that we’ve discussed more tangible.

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

2.) Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, ed. The Post-Office; or An Illustration of Prayer. From the London edition. Boston: Mass. Sabbath School Society, depository, no. 13 Cornhill, 1844.

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

4.) Paine, Thomas, 1737-1809. Common sense; : addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects. [Salem, Mass.] : Philadelphia printed: Salem, re-printed and sold by E. Russell, at his printing-office next to John Turner, Esq; in the Main-Street., M,DCC,LXXVI. [1776].


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