More Than Just the Words: The Physical Nature of Historical Documents

Whenever I think of history, the collection of information is the first thing that comes into my mind. Having been raised in the age of technology I feel that we sometimes forget to study more than just the words in these letters, newspapers, and pamphlets; we take for granted our ability to access them at a moment’s notice through online databases. With such speedy and efficient access to these materials it is easy to overlook physical details, which have just a much to tell us about the time period as the information contained in the writing. This is why places like the American Antiquarian Society are so important, because they allow historians (professional and aspiring) the chance to view these historical documents in their physical state and take away a better understanding of the piece and the time period that they are studying.

On our visit to AAS I took the opportunity to look at their first edition copy of The Coquette. This was one of the pieces that epitomized the importance of seeing it firsthand. It was clear upon looking at the book that it was over two centuries old, the cover was very worn but still structurally intact and the pages had clearly been turned through a number of times over the years. Having read the book myself one thing that I noticed immediately was that the copy that I have has the exact same print or font type. The book binding work was remarkable, it surprises me that the binding lasted so long and makes me wonder whether or not the cover and binding were changed once or twice. Seeing this first edition in person allowed me to take away more information about the time period and the historical context surrounding the novel. [1]

Another piece that interested me during our visit was the Elegiac Poem written in memory of the reverend George Whitfield. Whitfield was a widely known religious figure at the time and was extremely influential in the 18th century. The document was printed by Zachariah Fowle, the man to whom the founder of the American Antiquarian society was apprenticed; this meant that the document was most likely physically printed by Isaiah Thomas himself. [2] This would have been printed and circulated on a large scale, Whitfield was famous and widespread grief would have been felt after his death. This piece is another example of how the information that we attain from a piece like this is equally as much in the physical presence of the original print as it is in the words being printed.

I wanted to have variety in the three items that I focused the most time on and the last one was and advertisement that seemed to fit perfectly with this course. The advertisement was for a private mail service called the American Letter Mail Company. The ad states that the mail service has set up offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. [3] This piece more than any of the others was an excellent example of media and communications history in a material form; not only was it an advertisement that would have been seen by thousands of people, but it was advertising a private postal service as well. This tells us that the postal service at the time was not dominated by the government, people were entrusting their letters to private postal companies as well. I don’t often think about advertisements as an important source of information but this one gave me more insight as to what communications were like in the mid-19th century.

Each of the pieces that I viewed at the American Antiquarian Society only reinforced my belief that we have just as much to learn from the words in the documents we’re studying as we do from their physical nature. It is important for historians to remember that there is more to studying historical documents than simply reading them a greater understanding can be reached by physically examining them.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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


One thought on “More Than Just the Words: The Physical Nature of Historical Documents

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I, too, found the ad a fascinating piece of media and communications in media form. The fact that people entrusted private postal companies shows the trust that people had in the 19th century. Your analysis of the documents on a material level, rather than on substance, made the blog post very effective and a great read. I wonder if/how the version of the Coquette that we read implemented the same font as the original copy of that time. That is an observation I did not make while at the American Antiquarian Society, so I am glad you made that connection.


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