Publick Occurrences 2.0

February 14, 2013

Postal Regulations and the Press in Franklin’s Day and Ours

I read this morning at Jim Romenesko’s blog about the travails of the New Hampshire Gazette, which styles itself The Nation’s Oldest Newspaper, after a change last month in postal regulations. The descendant of the newspaper of that name founded by Daniel Fowle in 1756 (and now run by a distant cousin), the Gazette is a free bi-weekly newspaper based in Portsmouth, and has long relied on the U.S. Postal Service to circulate copies to subscribers—I’ll let you click over to Romenesko to read the details.

In announcing its troubles, the New Hampshire Gazette wrote that its staff “can only imagine what Benjamin Franklin, the newspaperman who founded the Post Office, would think of this.” Fortunately, I can answer that question: their trouble is pretty much the same reason that Franklin ended up involved with the post office in the first place.

As a young newspaper printer trying to break into the Philadelphia market with his Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin posed a challenge to the leading printer in town, Andrew Bradford, who published the American Weekly Mercury. Bradford, who was also the Philadelphia postmaster, found a way to thwart Franklin’s ambitions by forbidding him from mailing newspapers to subscribers via the post. The ambitious Franklin seized the advantage as soon as it offered itself, as he related later in his Autobiography:

In 1737, Col. Spotswood, late Governor of Virginia, and then Post-master, General, being dissatisfied with the Conduct of his Deputy at Philadelphia, respecting some Negligence in rendering, and Inexactitude of his Accounts, took from him the Commision and offered it to me. I accepted it readily, and found it of great Advantage; for tho’ the Salary was small, it facilitated the Corespondence that improv’d my Newspaper, encreas’d the Number demanded, as well as the Advertisements to be inserted, so that it came to afford me a very considerable Income. My old Competitor’s Newspaper declin’d proportionably, and I was satisfy’d without retaliating his Refusal, while Postmaster, to permit my Papers being carried by the Riders.

The postmaster position helped make Franklin’s career by giving him access to news circulating the colonies and providing him with the ability to add patronage appointments for his growing network of printing associates. A decade and a half later, Franklin angled himself into position to become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, a position he held from 1753 to 1774, and then of course served briefly as the first Continental Postmaster General (he didn’t actually “found” the Post Office, but that’s not important).

In other words, New Hampshire Gazette, Franklin (and many other eighteenth-century printers) knew your pain.


November 13, 2012

As Often as a Blue Moon: Retirements at AAS

Filed under: Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts,Printing History,Publishing — Joseph M. Adelman @ 9:57 am

Many of our readers here likely follow the American Antiquarian Society’s blog, Past is Present, and many more have likely visited AAS at one point or another in their research careers. With that in mind, it’s worth noting some of the recent posts there to honor the retirements of three longtime AAS staff members: Georgia Barnhill, John Keenum, and Caroline Sloat.

Yesterday, AAS Preseident Ellen Dunlap posted some reflections on Keenum, the Vice President for Development, and Caroline Sloat, Director of Publications, and longtime head of the AAS fellowships program, in which capacity she served as the captain of a frequently unwieldy and ever-changing band of scholars who made their way to Salisbury Street.

Dunlap praises in particular Caroline’s work in shepherding projects through the publishing process, both those sanctioned by AAS and those of fellows:

The work that Caroline has always excelled at is the hardest kind of editing – one that must consider what the author was trying to say, whether or not it should be said or is worth saying, and then figure out – often with great diplomacy – how to help the author make their arguments more cogent, their language more clear, their writing more functional.  And Caroline is legendary for offering this kind of substantive editorial assistance, not just on projects where she was assigned the task – such as AAS Proceedings, the History of the Book in America series, and the Gura book, she has offered the same sort of assistance to fellows working on their dissertations, journal articles, and books, just out of the goodness of her editorial heart. Caroline has devoted herself to making friends at the AAS and for the AAS, and the goodwill that she has engendered – evident in so many fellows reports over the years – is a debt that we could not easily repay except with our thanks for her years of service and devotion.

John Keenum’s efforts, as Dunlap notes, have often been out of public view, appearing to us in the coming to fruition of projects for which he secured funding:

A consummate professional, John took every challenge we faced in his stride… and there HAVE been challenges.  When he came we were still wrapping up the Mellon challenge for core operations, then we got an NEH challenge for acquisitions endowment.  Next was the Kresge challenge for the building addition, then we needed to raise endowment to maintain things like the artists’ and writers’ fellowships that the Wallace grant once paid for, then there was the Mellon challenge for academic fellowships, and then yet another NEH challenge, this one for CHAViC.  And thanks to his steadfast commitment to this institution, his dogged perseverance, his ability to finagle a budget (always on the up-and-up), and his ability to write beautifully cogent prose, under his leadership, AAS has met every one of those challenge propositions, securing the full amount offered as a challenge, often long before the deadline.  John did all this, plus running the annual fund and being our federal grants officer, with precious little assistance. But John has done more than merely raise money for AAS.  He has invested himself in the life of this institution, making friends with staff, fellows, and members alike, buying books for the collection, participating in volunteer projects, just to help out.  He has been a simply wonderful colleague, greatly admired by all.  He will also be greatly missed, but he leaves us a much richer organization for his having been here.

This morning, Paul Erickson honors Gigi Barnhill, the recently retired Curator of Graphic Arts who, as Paul notes, has been an AAS staff member for more than 40% of its existence. AAS recently held a colloquium in Gigi’s honor, identifying four keep characteristics to her curatorial work:

  • “Advance scholarship through publication and research.”
  • “Acquire materials for their collections and build collections of secondary and reference resources at AAS”
  • “Serving as an advocate for her own collections, advising on collection development, preservation, and access, while considering the needs of the rest of the Society’s collections”
  • “Serve as ambassadors of the Society to the communities of Americana collectors and dealers, and maintain active communication and visitation with these important constituencies”

All three will be missed, even as they are succeeded ably by new staff. If you have the time, be sure to click over to Past is Present and read the full tributes.


July 11, 2012

Reading and Revolutions, or, What’s the Matter with Google Books?

Michael Witmore and Robin Valenza have a fascinating post up this morning  at Wine Dark Sea asking, “What Do People Read During a Revolution?” They ran a visualization based on Google Books’ massive database (as of 2010) categorized through Library of Congress subject headings and found that there were massive spikes in the publication of histories during the 1640s/1650s and the last quarter of the eighteenth century — or, as you might otherwise know those periods, during the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions.  Smaller spikes occur during the years around the European upheavals of 1848 and 1914. Based on that, they posit a suggestion:

What are people reading during a revolution? Poetry? Books on military technology? Theology? No. If we take the first spike, the years leading up to the English Revolution, the answer in the years leading up to the 1642 regicide seems to be “Old World History.” The second chronological peak—in the decades around the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions—shows the same pattern. In periods that historians would link to major political upheaval, the world of print shows similar disruptions: publishers are offering more history for readers who, perhaps, think of themselves as living through important historical changes.

As a scholar of publishing and (the American) Revolution, I found such a conclusion troublesome, for reasons I’ll elucidate below. Having read the post over again after my initial concerns, I want to emphasize that Witmore and Valenza were careful to add several contextualizing questions that need further exploration:

We should be precise: these data don’t indicate that more people are reading history, but that a higher proportion of books published by presses can be classed by cataloguers as history. There are many follow up questions one might ask here. Does publication tie strongly to actual reading, or are these only loosely connected? Are publishers reducing the number of books in other subject areas because of scarcity of resources or some other factor, which would again lead to the proportional spikes seen above? Are the cataloguing definitions of what counts as Old World History or history in general themselves modeled on the books published during the spike years?

Even allowing for those additional questions, however, I have two sets of concerns with the correlations that the graphs imply, and thus want to argue that the graphs are not nearly as illustrative or helpful as they at first seem.

First, I’ll simply repeat the hesitation that others have discussed more eloquently (most notably Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention) about the limitations of the Google Books database as a representative set of literature. In this particular case, the most pressing limitation is that I’m not sure of the national origins of the set used in the graph, which is labeled as “all books published.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but does it include publications in English as well as other languages? If only English, both British and American? How about Ireland? Without knowing even the language of the corpus, it’s difficult to project, for example, the significance of the spike around the French Revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, or the outbreak of World War I (and subsequent Russian Revolution).

Second, I’m concerned at the use of book publication by itself as the unit of measurement. For one thing, giving each publication equal weight elides the importance of popularity. It’s all well and good if there were ten unique titles published in runs of 200 each that discussed the natural history of the South Seas, for example, but it’s less significant if in the same year (say in the 1760s) one publisher put out an edition of several thousand copies of Pamela. While this is a hypothetical (I don’t have British numbers handy), the example is certainly plausible given the appeal of history and fiction as genres for sale, and the ways in which they were frequently published in terms of size and quality of editions. Furthermore, as William St. Clair has argued [PDF], readers didn’t read in order of publication. So even as new histories were published in the 1770s and 1780s, more distantly published works remained popular. (One presumes that this last would be accounted for by unique entries for each edition, but I’m not sure whether each is entered separately.)

Third, one more comment about the books themselves. The graph appears very suggestive of the correlation between history publishing and revolution, but there’s another possible interpretation. That’s because the historical periods that the graphs identify (the mid-seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century in particular) also coincide with periods when the publication of travel and exploration narratives flourished. So did the publication of books about history spike in the 1770s because of the American Revolution, or because Captain Cook was in the midst of his voyages to the Pacific? The granular approach offered in the graphs doesn’t allow for that kind of analysis.

Fourth (and here I’m finally getting to my real area of expertise), using books as the unit of measurement seriously underestimates the importance of all other kinds of publishing and reading from these periods. For each of the historical upheavals that see a spike, it was in non-book publications—pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, ephemera—that much of the intellectual and political work occurred. As it happens, it appears that at least a few editions of, for example, Common Sense and Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania appear in the Google Books database, but again, there’s no allowance for popularity. Furthermore, because of the way in which GB assigns a publication date, both of those publications appear as frequently as twentieth and twenty-first century editions as they do during the period they initially appeared. More importantly, there’s no way to account for newspaper publication of the Farmer’s Letters or excerpts of Common Sense, or of the hundreds of other essays working out political questions during the American Revolution. Both during and after the Revolution, magazines were also important sites for the publication of politics, science, and yes, history, but they aren’t catalogued that way by the Library of Congress. Other scholars have done great work examining the impact of such publications in England during the Civil War (see here and here) and France (see here and here) during its Revolution, just to start.

Last, it’s important to remember that the American colonies during the era of the American Revolution were not saturated with books, by a long stretch. It’s a bit of a simplification, but few books were published in North America because of the expense, and not that many were imported, again because of the expense. So even histories published in Britain that circulated to North America did not do so in great numbers—except, perhaps, in excerpted form in British magazines or American newspapers.

These are some initial thoughts, but I make them to suggest that I find the graphs, attractive as they are, far more problematic than suggestive in what they can show us about reading, publishing, and revolutions.


July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on "Who Reads an Early American Book?"]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.


June 11, 2012

Thurlow Weed and William Randolph Hearst were Unavailable for Comment

Yesterday the New York Times ran a piece about the U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), the southern California daily owned by hotel magnate Douglas Manchester.* The paper, according to media reporter David Carr, may be part of a “future” in which “moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda. ” The piece led me to two thoughts, one  on the history and one on the future.

The history is easy: Manchester’s move to simply take over a journalistic enterprise to promote his commercial and political interests is classic nineteenth-century journalism. In fact, as most journalism historians would argue (I think, anyway), the ideal of “objectivity” has a much shorter lived history in journalism than does the partisan nature of the press. It’s how Weed and Hearst made their money, how Andrew Jackson controlled the narrative of his Presidency, and the reason why there are two sets of “official” transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

That’s not to say that during this period no one claimed to be impartial. On the contrary. In my own work [ed.: shameless plug alert!] I’m trying to show that paeans to impartiality were a self-negating means of producing politically pointed news. Or to put it another way, and to paraphrase the movie musical 1776 (itself ripping off Franklin): impartiality is only visible in the first person: I’m impartial!, and partiality only in the third: he’s biased!

That media analysts like Carr fail to acknowledge this history in writing the narrative of the changes in journalism over the past few years is disappointing. Instead we get treated to Golden Age pablum:

Many of us grew up in towns where the daily paper was in bed with civic leaders, but the shared interest was generally expressed on the editorial page. Occasionally, appropriate lines of inquiry would be suspiciously ignored in coverage, but the news pages were just that, news.

I’ll take my bias the old-fashioned way, thank you very much.

As for the future, I must admit that I’m still trying to sort out how to interpret this through a historical lens. In many regards, I want to be cautious. The nineteenth century was a Golden Age for partisan journalism (whether party- or business-based), but an awful lot has happened since then. We live now in a cultural milieu that seeks unbiased news, whatever that means, and a move towards more partisan-oriented journalism has consequences.

On the other hand, as media critic Jay Rosen has argued for several years, the “View from Nowhere” no longer serves even the function it once purported to serve. Saying where one stands as a journalist may eventually prove far more effective at communicating information and the contours of a debate than the weak-kneed “he said, she said” journalism we’re frequently presented today. But doing so means that Manchester gets to own a newspaper that proclaims a viewpoint, and if he’s going to do those things, it’s to the good that he say so, as Rosen noted on Twitter.

In any case, combined with last week’s discussion of movie mash-ups involving Lincoln and vigilante freedmen and the news that gonorrhea is making an antibiotic-resistant comeback, the nineteenth century is having quite a run.

* If his name sounds familiar to the historians out there, Manchester was locked in a labor dispute with several unions at hotels that were used for the 2010 AHA convention.


December 9, 2011

The Eighteenth Century Strikes Back

Filed under: Business History,Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Printing History — Joseph M. Adelman @ 10:47 am
James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889). Benjamin Franklin, 1880. Oil on canvas. Library Company of Philadelphia. Purchased by the Library Company, 1880.

I'll read what he's reading.

Sometimes it seems that each time society, culture, and technology move forward through either innovation or evolution, they take a longing glance backwards to see if there are any useful ideas to poach.

In other words, in this first decade of the twenty-first century we’re seeing an efflorescence of eighteenth-century concepts.

Today’s example comes from Adrian Teal, a British cartoonist who’s at work on a graphic novel entitled The Gin Lane Gazette based on a fictionalized eighteenth-century newspaper. In this case, the content is a coincidence. What’s striking is the reason for the publicity: rather than seek a contract with a traditional publishing house, Teal is publishing the book through an outfit called Unbound by subscription. As I noted on Twitter a few days ago, it’s an eighteenth-century solution for a twenty-first century problem.

Publishing by subscription was one of the most common means by which printers, publishers, and booksellers overcame their usual dearth of capital in the eighteenth century. If you could round up people willing to pay in advance, you could assure that you’d break even on a project. Publishers used it for everything from pamphlets to novel reprints to editions of the Bible.

And if you go to the site for The Gin Lane Gazette, you’ll see that Teal and Unbound have adopted another earlier technique by offering to publish the names of subscribers in the volume when it appears. For eighteenth-century publishers, this was particularly crucial, because you would try to round up the most popular, important, and famous men and women you could to subscribe as a mark of how successful your publication would be.

To offer just one example: Mathew Carey, perhaps the most important publisher in the early Republic (until I take up residence in Worcester in Febraury, anyway), used subscriptions to great effect in his career, and eagerly sought celebrity endorsements. For his American Museum, a magazine published from 1787-1792, he obtained subscriptions from George Washington, John Dickinson, and New Jersey Governor William Livingston. But not all his attempts met with success. In fact, just yesterday afternoon I was reading some of his fawning attempts to get Benjamin Franklin to subscribe in the hope that it would improve the publication’s prospects (it probably didn’t help matters that he mentioned that having Washington already was probably just as good, if not better, than old Ben).

In the United States in the 1780s, Washington and Franklin were the ultimate celebrity endorsers, and as such were swamped with dozens, if not hundreds, of requests to subscribe to books, pamphlets, and magazines. As Michael Jordan was to sneakers and Peyton Manning is now to, well, everything, so Washington, Franklin, and several other Founders were to every species of print.

There’s no indication whether Teal has enlisted any members of the royal family, former Beatles, or Manchester United midfielders to headline his subscription list. While I don’t have a stake in the outcome of the project, I must admit to some curiosity about whether this innovative return to the past will succeed.


July 23, 2010

Modern Franklin Gets the Boot [UPDATED]

Filed under: Founders,Printing History,science — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:52 am

Outbreaks of popular resistance against expert medical advice are a long Anglo-American tradition, and preventative measures like inoculation and vaccination have been recurring targets for us freemen. It will always be a little counter-intuitive to expose a healthy person to potentially harmful substances to keep them from getting a disease they don’t seem to have. It seemed even worse in the case of early inoculation, which involved giving someone a disease like smallpox on purpose in hopes they would get it in a less virulent form and develop some immunity.  Sometimes the patient  just got sick and died of the “cure.”

One of the most famous populist crusades against the modern medicine of its time was in 1721 when young Ben Franklin and his older brother James went after the smallpox inoculation policy favored by colonial Boston’s ministerial elite. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an excellent online presentation about the controversy, including images of Ben’s pseudonymous essays from the New England Courant. (Historians help me with some less well-known examples).

But historical context only goes so far, and just because some Founder did it, does not necessarily make it right in every case. So quite likely Dr. Andrew Wakefield really did need to be drummed out of the medical profession [original link to AP story no longer works]:

LONDON — The doctor whose research linking autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella influenced millions of parents to refuse the shot for their children was banned Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study was discredited — but vaccination rates have never fully recovered and he continues to enjoy a vocal following, helped in the U.S. by endorsements from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy

Wakefield was the first researcher to publish a peer-reviewed study suggesting a connection between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out. There are outbreaks across Europe every year and sporadic outbreaks in the U.S.

“That is Andrew Wakefield’s legacy,” said Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The hospitalizations and deaths of children from measles who could have easily avoided the disease.”

Wakefield’s discredited theories had a tremendous impact in the U.S., Offit said, adding: “He gave heft to the notion that vaccines in general cause autism.”

In Britain, Wakefield’s research led to a huge decline in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine: from 95 percent in 1995 — enough to prevent measles outbreaks — to 50 percent in parts of London in the early 2000s. Rates have begun to recover, though not enough to prevent outbreaks. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person to die from measles in Britain in 14 years.

“The false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to the UK vaccination program,” said Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that it is safe.”

Unfortunately, even when the British totally discredit you, there is always Texas, as Brian Deer of the London Times explains.


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