American Antiquarian Society: A democratic view of history

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/07/26/american-antiquarian-society-a-democratic-view-of-history/

When Revolutionary patriot Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) founded the American Antiquarian Society in 1812, he wanted to ensure it reflected the democratic ideals of the new country. Although he was a prosperous publisher, Thomas grew up in poverty after his father abandoned the family. His journey from an indentured, 7-year-old printer’s apprentice to an enterprising businessman gave him insight into the common man’s experience and the driving forces that propel societal change. Later, as a print historian Thomas recognized that future generations would learn more about history by studying the lives of ordinary people, rather than by simply reading books about great leaders. It was a concept well ahead of its time, and became widely adopted by historians in the latter part of the 20th century. The everyday ephemera Thomas collected, such as newspapers, pamphlets, sheet music, maps, graphic arts and other quotidian objects, formed the nucleus of what is now the largest repository of early American historical materials in the world.

Nestled in a quiet corner of Worcester, Mass., the American Antiquarian Society is a national research library and learned society. It collects and preserves printed texts and artifacts that date between 1640 and 1876. Most items are stored in well-maintained archives that are accessible to researchers from around the world. The AAS also hosts public lectures, concerts and workshops throughout the year.

American Antiquarian Society building (Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

American Antiquarian Society building (Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

There are three reasons why 1876 was selected as the closing date for the collections. First, it was the year of the American Centennial, which generated an abundance of news and memorabilia. Secondly, it was the last full year of Reconstruction after the Civil War, marking the end of an historic era. Finally, in 1870 Congress passed a law that transferred the “copyright business” from federal courts to the Library of Congress. The law required that all writers, composers, artists, and mapmakers deposit two copies of their copywritten works in the Library of Congress, obviating the need for further archiving.

Although the AAS’ parameters are fixed, their collection remains fluid. The institution continues to gather an eclectic assortment of literary, historical, and cultural material. In addition to American artifacts, the AAS houses an extensive array of imprints from Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Thomas was very democratic in his thinking. He wanted to collect and preserve everyday items that reflected how ordinary people viewed and valued their country.” — Lauren Hewes, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts

James Moran, Director of Outreach, explained their methodology. “The collection is remarkably democratic, because we collect everything and anything printed before 1876 – we do not distinguish between highly prized and less valuable items, since the latter can reveal so much about how people lived.”

Lauren Hewes, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, elaborated on Isaiah Thomas’ approach. “Thomas was very democratic in his thinking,” she noted. “He wanted to collect and preserve everyday items that reflected how ordinary people viewed and valued their country. He felt the historical importance of the events in the collection would be evaluated in the future.”

Hewes also observed that Thomas was one of the first historians to perceive that commonplace items could uncover broad social trends. “Thomas’ perspective was on a national scale at a time when most historians thought only locally. He understood that if a thought or moral issue was recorded on a piece of ephemera, then it meant it had permeated society as a whole.”

Colonial memento of the Boston Tea Party (Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

Colonial memento of the Boston Tea Party (Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

Moran concurred, emphasizing the research potential of seemingly inconsequential items in their archives. “The AAS collection is unique because it is made up of all types of print and ephemera. Previously, history was determined through texts written by or about great men. But contemporary scholars frequently engage history from the bottom up, trying to see how common people lived and felt,” he said. “To better understand the societal mores of a given time period, historians want to see a diverse cross-section of ordinary life. For example, they look at what people bought and what they sang. The little stuff can be incredibly informative.”

Moran further suggested that the collection’s texts reflect an emergent and cohesive identity in the young republic. “Early American printed material is highly informative because it shows that we were forming a distinct country – one that was in its infancy and under great threat. The diverse texts reflect how we were trying to solidify our identity as a nation.”

The Graphic Arts collection Hewes oversees includes over 400,000 historic American objects. Her department conserves prints, maps, sheet music, drawings, ephemera and photography, as well as historic objects such as furniture and ceramics.

The broadside collection is particularly fascinating. Also called broadsheets, the inexpensive, single sheets of paper were printed on one side only. The AAS has over 300 ballads printed on “brown paper” of this type, which were recently compiled in the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project. Often, vendors would sing the tune while trying to peddle the ballad sheet. Theater doors were a common location for sellers, who would wait outside as people exited a show and offer them a copy of the songs they had just heard.

The ballads were usually set to well-known melodies. Because the music was not included, the publisher would write “sung to the tune of …” at the top of the page. The imprints were decidedly not high-brow, but were meant as easy, appealing diversions. People would sing the songs, and then discard the papers. Because their value was considered negligible, Thomas’ collection contains some of the only known copies of these texts. He believed, rightly, that the broadsides would provide a noteworthy account of the times for future historians.

Hewes described the background and context of the material. “Thomas’ personal history was part of the emotional pull of the broadside ballad collection. It would have been nostalgic for him since he printed many similar pieces when he was an apprentice,” she remarked. “You have to remember that the only way people could listen to music was by hearing it played live, either in a theater, a tavern, or a private home. So sheet music, or in this case, different lyrics to well-known songs, were an integral part of everyday life. The tunes were about a variety of subjects, from news items to love songs. The broadside ballads were simple: just the title, lyrics, images, the name of the person who originally sang it, and the imprint of publishers.”

Lauren Hewes, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, with rare broadsides. (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

Lauren Hewes, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, with rare broadsides. (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

The AAS created an interactive website for the ballads that includes pictures and transcriptions of the broadsides. It also embedded thirty delightful audio files of the songs, recorded by scholar-musician David Hildebrand, co-founder of the Colonial Music Institute.

Molly O’Hagan Hardy, the Digital Humanities Curator, was responsible for the website. She described how the collection represents a variegated sample of early American society. “The collection captures both common people’s reactions to events in world politics, such as Lord Nelson’s Battle on the Nile, and on the national stage, such as the death of George Washington,” she explained. “It also covers the trials and tribulations of everyday life – alcoholism, adultery, old age – and offers historians a glimpse into the quotidian. The indexed browsing feature on the site allows a user to navigate the ballads through subjects such as these.”

 

O’Hagan Hardy offered additional details about the project’s historical framework. “The collection is a cross-section in another sense as well: it reflects both oral and print culture in the period,” she said. “These ballads were sung on the street, and the scholar behind this project, Kate Van Winkle Keller, did extensive research to uncover the tunes that the ballads would be sung to. Thanks to recent contributions to the site by David and Ginger Hildebrand, a user can listen to thirty of the ballads right on the site!”

With the renewed interest in traditional letterpress print shops like Firefly in Cambridge, Mass., the Isaiah Thomas broadsides offer an intriguing glimpse into early imprint technique. “The broadsides that the ballads were printed on also offer historians a unique look at the output of one print shop in Boston in the concentrated period of two years,” O’Hagan Hardy observed. “Keller traced the reuse of woodblocks among the ballads, and this work, plus the high-resolution scans a user can view, allow for careful inspection of the materiality – the type, the ink, the paper – that the printer would have used to produce these broadsides.”

James Moran, Director of Outreach, with colonial newspapers in the AAS archives. (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

James Moran, Director of Outreach, with colonial newspapers in the AAS archives. (NewBostonPost photo by Mary McCleary)

O’Hagan Hardy noted some of the high points and challenges of the digitization project. “The cross indexing and interoperability available in a digital platform elucidates the relationships, both material and contextual, among the broadsides,” she elaborated. “Since the launch of the site, AAS continues to enhance the content with an increasing number of TEI-encoded transcriptions and with musical recordings. So the site has also offered us chances for community engagement with undergraduate American history classes and to host a concert to celebrate the ballads.”

“Early American printed material is highly informative because it shows that we were forming a distinct country – one that was in its infancy and under great threat. The diverse texts reflect how we were trying to solidify our identity as a nation.” — James Moran, AAS Director of Outreach

Like her colleagues, O’Hagan Hardy is passionate about cultivating the AAS collection. “The biggest challenge with a digital project is that it is never actually done! We are always eager to continue work on it, to perfect it, and to make it more useful.”

Moran, Hewes and O’Hagan Hardy are not alone in their commitment to the AAS. There is a large, diverse group of people who contribute their time and services to the organization. Since it was founded in 1812, the stewardship of the AAS has been the responsibility of its members, including scholars, publishers, educators, writers, curators, journalists and civic leaders, among others. Thirteen U.S. presidents have been members, as have seventy-eight Pulitzer Prize recipients, four Nobel Laureates, and even an Oscar winner.

Recognizing its indispensible role in preserving historical materials for posterity, President Obama awarded the American Antiquarian Society a National Humanities Medal in 2013. For over 200 years, this venerable institution has been, in the president’s words, “safeguarding the American story.”

(Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

(Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

The American Antiquarian Society is open to serious researchers, free of charge, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. They also have many public lectures, concerts, and media presentations.

Located at 185 Salisbury Street, Worcester, Massachusetts 01609. Phone: 508-471-2129 




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