AAS Visit

Our trip to the American Antiquarian Society was extremely beneficial to the increased understanding of the history of media and communications in America. Learning about certain books, pamphlets, and other types of print is one thing, but actually having the ability to interact with these over 200-year-old artifacts was incredibly special to me. I find that with history, it is hard to think about the events and people of the past the same way we think about events happening and people living today. Being able to see and feel these pieces was a way of slowly chipping down that barrier between the past and the present and allowed me to connect with the lives and experiences of those living through one of the most exciting times in American history. Three artifacts I found particularly exciting were a 1776 copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a poem by Philliss Wheatley along with her manuscripts for two other poems, and an early edition of The Coquette by Hannah Foster from 1797.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine was an integral part of the revolutionary struggle and the fight for independence from Great Britain [1]. Seeing a copy of this pamphlet from the year it was published, 1776, was remarkable. I have learned and talked about this pamphlet in every history class that touched upon the Revolutionary War from my middle school years through my collegiate studies. This was the most widely reprinted pamphlet ever [2] and was produced and reproduced throughout the American colonies and even internationally at an incredible rate. After the Revolutionary War, there was an explosion of printing, and before it, printing was much smaller and coastal [3]. The fact that this pamphlet was distributed in such large quantities during a time where printing has not yet boomed further demonstrates its importance. The physical characteristics of the pamphlet are often brushed over, so I was excited to see what it actually looked like. It was small and lightweight and could easily fit into a pocket or be carried around to read anytime. The language was clear, common, and organized so that anyone could read and understand it. Seeing this copy of Common Sense from 1776 was amazing, and seeing its physical characteristics aided in the understanding of its history and importance.

Phillis Wheatley was the first African American and one of the first women to be published in the United States. Her incredible story and talent made seeing a copy of her poems and manuscripts very moving to me. During a time where African Americans were being deprived of educations and rights, Wheatley’s poetry speaks volumes. Most of her poems were addressed to or written about popular figures during that time, as seen in her poem written in the memory of Reverend George Whitfield, an important figure during the Great Awakening. The copy was printed by Isaiah Thomas, the founder of the American Antiquarian Society, which I thought was fun [4]. Her book of poems, much like Common Sense, gained popularity overseas in England, which just goes to show the scope of reprinting and the circulation of books.  Her manuscripts for poems that she wrote in 1767 were handwritten, giving me a more personal experience with the piece. Being able to see someone’s handwriting, though I find most looked very similar during that time, allowed me to experience Phillis Wheatley as a person and an intellectual and not just a picture in a text book. Many other letters we saw during our visit, like one from John Hancock to Isaiah Thomas [5], allowed me to take a step back and put a personality to the writers and made history a little more personal rather than factual.

The final piece that I enjoyed seeing was a copy of The Coquette from 1797 [6]. After reading this book from a present-day copy, the differences between the two were interesting to see. This copy of The Coquette had a lot of wear and tear which is to be expected of book that is 200 years old. I can imagine someone sitting with it and flipping the pages excitedly, as this was a novel. On the last page right before the back cover, I saw two large blocks of text that had nothing to do with the story. Upon reading, I found that it was the copyright of the book, given to a Mr. Ebenezer Larkin. I had studied the history of the copyright in a previous blog post, so to see what one actually looked like was very exciting for me. It also exemplified what book publishing and printing were like during this time and how the author got very little, if anything, out of writing these pieces. I knew that the copier had all of the power, but I guess I had never truly been able to comprehend that before seeing this actual copyright. The copyright was very formal and written in a forceful language to show its importance and formality. Knowing what the copyright is today and seeing what it actually looked like then, helped me to see that the progress and changes made to the modern copyright were built on the fundamentals put forth in the Constitution.

[1] 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].

[2] Joseph Adelman, “A Revolution for Press Freedom?” (presentation, Framingham State Universtiy, Framingham, MA, September 28, 2016)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wheatley, Phillis. An Elegiac poem; sacred to the memory of the Rev. George Whitefield, : who departed this life, September 30, 1770, at Newbury-Port in America, aetatis 56. Boston: Printed [by Isaiah Thomas]: sold by Zechariah Fowle, in Back-Street, near the mill-bridge, 1770.

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

[6] Foster, Hannah Webster. The coquette; or, The history of Eliza Wharton; : a novel; founded on fact. Boston: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, for E. Larkin, no. 47, Cornhill., 1797.



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