Becoming an Archival Expert

When I teach nineteenth century American literature, I always want students to delve into the archives, and so I demonstrate a few digital searches in class and make it a requirement to include at least one archival source in the final research paper. But I wanted more investment, and not just for their papers. I felt that despite my commitment to bringing archival elements into the classroom, students were not getting totally immersed in the time period in the way that I wanted—in a way that would help them understand how nineteenth century readers might’ve approached the works we were studying, rather than reading everything through a twenty-first century lens.

With a class on nineteenth century American poets coming up (a class I hadn’t taught for four years), I had a great opportunity to make a change in this direction. So I thought, well, what’s one way to get a feel for daily life in the nineteenth century? I hit upon the idea of having students read nineteenth century newspapers. (I’ve written elsewhere about using digital archives in teaching nineteenth century African American writers. The archival expert assignment grew out of things I was noticing about working with newspapers in that class.)

What does poetry have to do with news? For one thing, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers had a poetry section, unlike newspapers today. But that wasn’t even the initial reason I wanted students to try this assignment. I wanted them to see if they saw any connections between the issues making headlines in the newspapers and the issues that poets like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar (among others) addressed in their poems. We read the news today to get a sense of what is going on in the world, what is deemed important; conversely, if something doesn’t make the news, we feel that it may not be as important, or we may feel frustrated because the media seems to dismiss something that feels important to us. (In our own era of “fake news,” of course, all of these issues feel very fraught, and I think students were aware of that as they did this assignment.)

What we did: the assignment sheet

What follows is the text of the assignment sheet I gave the students. If you like it, please feel free to use as-is or to adapt.

This term, you will be in charge of leading one class as the “archival expert.” Your assignment is simple: I want you to read the newspaper. Using three of the library’s electronic databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and/or Accessible Archives—you will make use of digital archives to provide historical context for the day’s poetic selections.

Here’s what to do for prep work, step by step:

  1. On the date you’re signed up to be the archival expert, look at when the poet published his or her book of poems. (So, for example: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1855.) If there’s no publication date, as for Schoolcraft and Dickinson, then try as best you can to determine a year when these poets would’ve been writing poems.
  2. Determine a location that is relevant to the poet, if possible. For Harper, this could be Baltimore (where she grew up), Philadelphia (where she lived and worked as an adult), or Boston (where she frequently lectured).
  3. Now choose a newspaper that is relevant to the date and the location of the poet. If you want to get even more specific, you can (for example, you could look at an abolitionist newspaper for Harper or a Civil War newspaper for Melville; you could even look at some of the newspapers for which Whittier served as editor). If you can find one, you can also choose a newspaper where the poet published.
  4. Select an issue of the newspaper and read the whole thing: news, editorials, poetry, even the advertisements. (Be forewarned, the print is tiny and there’s a lot of text.) As you read, make note of anything at all—newspaper poems, news items, even weather—that you feel gives interesting context to the poems the class will be discussing.

From here, you have the tools to give the class some interesting historical contexts. During class, be prepared to give us around 20 minutes of historical context, drawn from what you read. Feel free to read us excerpts from articles or poems. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in the newspaper—two or three things will be enough. Make a Powerpoint, Prezi, or handout to share a few images with us. Give us your reading of both the culture that produced this poet (particularly how the poet fits, or doesn’t fit, into the historical context) and anything you notice about how historical context informs one of the poet’s poems, or a section of the poem. (Don’t feel like you have to force the poet to neatly fit into the contexts the newspapers provide. Even the absence of the poet’s concerns from the newspaper will tell you something about the poet and their poems.) To facilitate a good discussion on what you’ve found, be prepared to ask the class a few discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Written component

You don’t have to write anything formally for this assignment, but I would like a works cited page (in MLA style) and a copy of your notes / outline / Powerpoint / handouts. Emailing all of this to me is fine.

Archival expert assignments will be graded according to how well they:

  • Thoroughly they give us historical context to the poet and their poems (50 points)
  • Demonstrate archival research skills (30 points)
  • Engage the class in discussion (20 points)

How it worked: connections students made

I’ll use three examples from three different presentations to give you a sense of what students did with this assignment. (Other poets we covered in this ten-week class were Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) Wherever possible, we read complete books, or book-length poems, by these poets, rather than reading selections from anthologies. Schoolcraft and Dickinson were the exceptions, since they did not publish collections in their lifetimes.

The Boston Evening Standard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

Overall, my students hated The Song of Hiawatha, as I figured they might; although they admitted they found the trochaic meter fun to read (and to imitate), they were angered by what they saw as Longfellow’s clueless paternalism with respect to the Ojibwe characters he creates (adapting them, of course, from tales from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches [1839] that were themselves adapted from oral stories from Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Henry’s wife, and those of her mother). An archival expert presentation on Longfellow, then, was an opportunity to understand the context in which this poem was written.

The student who presented on Longfellow chose the November 10, 1855 edition of the Boston Evening Standard, since Hiawatha was published on that date and since Longfellow lived in Boston. There is a notice (unfortunately rather illegible, as you will see below) titled “Longfellow’s New Poem!” in the paper, so we could see that Longfellow was famous enough that the publication of a new book was a newsworthy event.


The student also noticed, with irony, an article entitled “The Landing of the Pilgrims,” a romanticized historical piece that makes no mention of Native peoples. Speaking of the pilgrims, the article’s anonymous author says, “Their landing; the history of their future toils, dangers; their struggles and privations; their heroic self-denial and unconquerable trust in God, are among the proudest recollections of our history.”

Transitioning from this article, the student brought up the fact that the Yakama Indian War, a three-year dispute about land rights between the U.S. Government and the Yakama and allied tribal groups in central Washington state, had just begun the month before, in October, 1855. There’s no mention in the newspaper about the progress of this war. Even more glaring was the fact that the Battle of Union Gap, between the Yakama and the U.S. army, had begun the day before and was not mentioned at all. The charitable interpretation is that news had not had time to travel across the country yet; however, we went in another interpretive direction. The student thought about the fact that Longfellow’s poem was so immediately popular, and we wondered if the American public generally preferred to read about mythologized Native Americans, like Hiawatha, rather than real ones, like Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama tribe at the start of the war, pictured in this sketch, below.

Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
by Gustavus Sohon, courtesy Washington State Historical Society 

In this issue of the newspaper, Native peoples are ignored or not included. Longfellow’s poem seems to be their only presence in the issue. Twenty-five years earlier, there would have been articles about Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, but in 1855, Native issues are not at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness, if this newspaper is any indication.

The Salem Register and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound (1866)

Sometimes, the students looked at the poems in the newspapers and made connections and comparisons with the poems we were reading in class. Here’s a poem printed in the Salem Register for February 15, 1866:


(Yes, the date on that says November 12, 1866, which can’t be right, but it is what is printed in the Feb. 15 issue of the Register—I double-checked!)

 We had been talking about sentimentality in Whittier’s poem Snow-Bound the class before, with some of the students coming down pretty hard on what they saw as Whittier’s overly nostalgic view of the rural New England places and people of his childhood. However, reading the poem “Little Feet” put that into perspective. We discussed the different ways Whittier guards against this kind of too-easy feeling and ideas in his poem (particularly focusing on the complexity of the way he elegizes his younger sister, Elizabeth). We also spent a long time talking about the rhyme scheme and meter of both poems, since they are both written in iambic tetrameter and are largely in rhyming couplets. We discussed how Whittier’s diction and his use of enjambment create a complex rhythm and more lofty tone than “Little Feet” is able to achieve. And we also discussed how smart Whittier was to stay away from refrains like “Patter, patter, little feet” in his elegy, which would’ve wrecked the gravitas of his poem.

The Cincinnati Gazette and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s That New World (1877)

Because we had begun the term discussing the child elegy genre in the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, then revisited it when we read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Emily Dickinson, students had the analytical tools to approach Piatt’s elegies for her two children in the searing book That New World, but they were still shocked by the grim, direct nature of this poetry, which sometimes feels like a wrestling match between a grieving Piatt and a detached God who doesn’t care how mothers feel about the children he takes.

Since we had been talking so much about death, the student who presented on the November 6, 1877 issue of The Cincinnati Gazette started there, showing us articles about some gruesome deaths by murder (which included the dead body then being put in a church and the church set on fire to destroy the evidence), falling from a wagon, being run over by a train, and fire again. The student asked us to compare how the deaths were reported on in the newspaper with how Piatt talks about death in her poems, particularly “No Help” and “To a Dead Bird.” One thing we immediately wondered was if the death of children from disease or accident was so common that it simply wouldn’t make the news. The only “report” of a child’s death might come through poetry. We thought about what poetry does that news doesn’t, and vice versa.

This class occurred on Election Day, so the student also had us think a little bit about Piatt and politics. After pulling out a few articles and headlines about local politics, the student asked us to think about how Piatt feels about monarchy in her poems “If I Had Made the World” and “A Queen at Home.” (The answer is—she doesn’t like it!) We had a great discussion about Piatt and democracy, even looking back to Whitman to compare how Piatt expresses democratic views in some of these poems versus how Whitman does the same.


Overall, this assignment worked very well. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish: the students got more invested in (even excited about) the time period. I liked how the assignment was specific, but also allowed them to go in pretty much any direction they wanted with both the newspaper and the poems. Students had fun with it, often pointing out humorous ads or articles and sharing them with the class. The only times the assignment failed were when students did not follow the instructions or when they made wild surmises about connections between the poet and what was in the newspaper (the latter of which could be gently corrected in class). Overall I would rate this assignment as a success, and I plan to do it again.

“But I don’t have access to these subscription-only archives,” I hear you saying. Never fear, this assignment will also work with open-access archives, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has thousands of digitized newspapers to read for free. If you try this assignment, or some version of it, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!


Takin’ Care of Business: Exploring the Early American Book Trade

We spend so much time in the classroom discussing the value of literature as an artform that sometimes it’s easy to forget that literature is an industry and books are commodities. Most authors depend on sales as a source of income and a guarantee that their messages reach audiences.

I first recognized the importance of addressing the economic side of literature several years ago when discussing Susanna Rowson’s sentimental novel Charlotte Temple, first published in the United States in 1794. When I mentioned that Charlotte Temple is considered the first American “bestselling” (to use the term anachronistically) novel, several students asked questions like “What made a novel a ‘bestseller’?” and “How many copies needed to be sold?” These questions then led to broader questions concerning the early American book trade, such as “Where did people buy books?” and “How much did books cost?”

Charlotte Temple

Although it’s difficult to establish a complete picture of how the early American book trade looked, due to lacking records and missing sales figures, much concrete information does exist on the subject. I recommend James Gilreath’s article “American Book Distribution” (1986) and Cathy N. Davidson’s chapter “The Book in the New Republic” from Revolution and the Word (1986, revised 2004) as useful and comprehensive introductory resources on the history of the early American book trade.

Revolution and the Word

What follows is an outline of key points Gilreath and Davidson address in relation to the most common questions my students have posed about the book trade. Ideally, these bite-size factoids can be easily integrated into classroom discussion.

What role did printers play in the creation of early American books?

According to Davidson, “The printer’s main business, in short, was to turn the author’s manuscript into a salable commodity and then to sell it” (79). Printers decided which texts should be published and determined both the quantity to produce and the cost to the consumer.

Davidson also reveals the collaborative relationship between printers and authors: “The printer’s artistic control usually began with his deciphering the original handwritten text, for rarely would he query the author about smudged, illegible words or problematic passages” (79). Printers then proofread and edited manuscripts when converting them to print.

Additionally, printers were responsible for the “physical layout of both the page and the book as a whole,” selecting the typeface and utilizing various type sizes and spacing to emphasize certain passages (Davidson 79). Davidson notes, “A fairly innocuous sentence could easily be given a more sensational cast by strategic italicizing or capitalizing of words such as SEDUCTION or INCEST” (79). Such strategies helped to sell books.

American printing press 1780s

How were early American novels sold and distributed?

Distribution problems were huge obstacles in the sale of early American novels. Since methods of transportation were often limited or unreliable, the distribution of books in the 18th Century was usually local and centered around major cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The distribution of books gradually increased with the improvement and further development of roads and canals. Also, large quantities of books were imported from England in the late 17th and 18th Centuries. Printers developed cooperative networks of distribution with other printers both domestically and overseas.

Davidson and Gilreath identify four major methods for the distribution and sale of books in early America: bookstores, libraries, book agents and hawkers, and subscriptions.

Bookstores: Bookstores existed in both major cities and rural areas. Gilreath notes, however, that bookstores often “depended on the sale of nonbook items for a substantial portion of their income” (516). Gilreath continues: “In urban areas the nonbook goods were stationary materials; in rural areas such goods were general store stock such as shovels, seeds, and dry goods” (516).

Libraries: Both Gilreath and Davidson emphasize the increasingly important role of libraries, specifically in relation to the distribution of fictional works. Davidson explains that by 1800, “most larger cities had several libraries catering to different classes and different tastes; even small towns generally boasted of at least one library…[making] books both accessible and affordable to a rapidly growing and largely new class of readers” (88). Early American libraries came in three varieties: social libraries, institutional libraries, and circulating libraries. Students are often surprised by the way some of these libraries differ from modern-day libraries.

Benjamin Franklin founded the first social library in Philadelphia in 1731. By 1800, 376 social libraries existed in the United States. According to Davidson, social libraries typically charged a small annual membership fee and sometimes required the purchase of shares, which could cost up to $20.

Institutional libraries were usually academic libraries linked with colleges; therefore, they weren’t accessible to the general public. According to Gilreath, such libraries “were built by the donation of estates rather than by an aggressive book-purchasing program that sought to measure its clients’ reading interests” (524).

Davidson defines the circulating library as “a commercial library (typically owned by a bookseller) that stocked the most popular books of the day and rented them at terms affordable even by common laborers” (89). Major circulating libraries, such as the Philadelphia Circulating Library, charged $6 annually and “frequently allowed subscribers to pay their subscriptions by the year, half-year, quarter, or even month—a concession to those who might not have much ready cash on hand” (Davidson 89). Gilreath notes that since circulating libraries often carried a high number of fictional works, it “suggests that Americans were interested in imaginative literature but did not think that it had enough permanent value to justify the purchase of these books for personal collections” (525). Novels were often perceived as a “commodity that could be leased for a brief period and then returned to a vendor,” and such an attitude, Gilreath believes, played a major role in the “struggles of the American writer” throughout the 19th Century.

Book Agents and Book Hawkers: Agents and hawkers were essentially travelling salesmen who ensured that books reached the reading public outside of major cities. According to Davidson, the difference between agents and hawkers is in areas of distribution. Agents concentrated on “larger and more accessible country towns” (83) while hawkers “supplied booksellers in little towns or villages or dealt directly with individual buyers who otherwise had no ready access to the book trade” (82).

Book Hawker

Subscriptions: For printers, the preferred method of book distribution was subscription publication, which entailed consumers advance ordering books, so printers could accurately assess how many copies of a book to print based on the preestablished demand. Printers could also determine whether there was even enough interest in a book to merit its publication.

Discussing post-Civil War publishing, Gilreath describes the benefit of subscription publication as follows: “ Although traditional publishers characteristically printed only about 2,500 copies of a book and kept large numbers of titles in print, subscription book publishers concentrated on fewer titles but issued them in numbers far exceeding those published by traditional trade” (554).

Often book agents and hawkers were responsible for travelling from town to town seeking subscriptions for upcoming publications. According to William Powell, “Subscribers to books undoubtedly considered themselves patrons of the press and were fully aware of the fact that only through their common support could the books be issued” (qtd. in Gilreath 535-6). In the 19th Century, Mark Twain even commented on the importance of subscriptions in the sales of his novels: “When a subscription book of mine sells 60,000, I always think I know wither 50,000 of them went. They went to people who don’t visit bookstores” (qtd. in Gilreath 557).

How much did novels cost in early America?

Early American novels were expensive, which accounts for the dramatic rise in popularity of libraries. According to Davidson, the average late 18th-century novel would have cost about four times more than a hardcover novel today. Davidson adds, however, that a “more meaningful measure” would be as follows: “In 1800, a carpenter in Massachusetts earned $1 per day, an unskilled laborer half as much. A pound of sugar cost $.13, a pair of leather shoes $.80, and cotton cloth $1 a yard. A novel typically cost between. $.75 and $1.50” (85). For the cost of a $1 novel like Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, the average day laborer could purchase a bushel of potatoes and a half bushel of corn (Davidson 85).

Davidson interestingly highlights what book costs would mean specifically to schoolteachers. Davidson uses the example of one 18th-century schoolteacher who kept comprehensive accounts of his finances. Ethan Allen Greenwood earned $3 a month at his first teaching job and $14 a month at his second, and his estimated expenses (including $.37 per dinner at a local tavern, $.20 per week for his laundry, $2.75 per month for firewood, $1.12 for a stagecoach ride) left little room for buying novels. However, records reveal that Greenwood “read nearly a volume a day even during his poorest student days” since he, as Davidson explains, “largely borrowed these books by joining three libraries” with low membership fees (87).

The cost of novels didn’t substantially decrease until the rise of mass printing technologies and the development of cheap, easily accessible paperback editions of novels in the 1830s and 40s.

Printing Press 6 Cyl

What made a novel a “bestseller” in early America?

Since the term “bestseller” didn’t actually exist until 1902, seven years after the first “list” of high-selling books was produced (Sutherland 17), applying a term like “bestseller” to early American novels really just means that a novel sold a much higher number of copies compared to the average.

The average printer in the 18th Century, as Davidson notes, “hoped that [a] volume might sell several hundred copies, enough to reimburse the production costs and perhaps pay something over” (75). in 1794, Matthew Carey initially printed 1000 copies (a large run for the time) of the first edition of Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, but he had no way of knowing how popular the novel would become. By the early 19th Century, Rowson’s novel sold almost 40,000 copies, making it the highest selling American novel until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Of course, it’s important to remember that Stowe was publishing after the advent of paperback printing.

While Rowson’s novel sold tremendously, her profits from the novel were not substantial enough for her family to live on, and she, like many other early American writers, did have to supplement novel writing with alternate means of income. James Fenimore Cooper is one of the first early American “bestsellers” who was able to live entirely on his income as a writer. Cooper sold up to 40,000 copies of his novels each year, earning an average yearly income of $6500 (Davidson 75).


Works Cited:

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford UP, 2004.

Gilreath, James. “American Book Distribution.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 95, 1986, pp. 501-83.

Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.