Academic journal article Journalism History

North American Imprints before 1877 at the American Antiquarian Society

Academic journal article Journalism History

North American Imprints before 1877 at the American Antiquarian Society

Article excerpt

This is the fourth in a series of articles on archival collections of interest to mass communication historians. Readers of Journalism History are invited to suggest collections that they would like to see appear in future articles, and the editors would welcome volunteers to write such articles.

In 1999 Nicholson Baker published Double Fold, which was a major expansion of his article in the New Yorker about how many libraries were disposing of their original newspaper collections and replacing them with microfilm. He noted that almost every library was disposing of original historical material. What he did not point out, however, was that there are still a small number of libraries that actively acquire newspapers for their collections. One of them is the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is the third oldest historical society in the country, but the oldest with a national rather than a regional focus. It is a non-profit, independent research institute open to the public with the mission of documenting early American history, society, and culture through what was printed. The focus of the collection is North American imprints before 1877. This includes books, pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, periodicals, sheet music, maps, broadsides, chapbooks, prints, and ephemera. If it was printed in this period, the AAS is interested in acquiring it. There are three reasons for the 1877 cutoff date: 1. It is the centennial of the Declaration of Independence; 2. There were major advances in printing technology after the 1870s, and the amount of material printed each year grew so large that it became too much for the capacity of the AAS; and 3. Changes in copyright law around 1877 meant that more material was being sent to the Library of Congress. Thus, by focusing on the earlier period, the AAS could concentrate on doing one thing best rather than having a large-scope, average collection.

The AAS founder, Isaiah Thomas, was a newspaper publisher. He started the Massachusetts Spy in 1770 in Boston, and it quickly became a vocal proponent for independence. In April 1775, he was forced to disassemble his printing press, load his equipment onto carts, and move about fifty miles westward to Worcester where he set up shop and continued the newspaper. After the war, he expanded his publishing business and became one of the richest businessmen in post-war New England. Upon his retirement in 1802 he decided to write a history of printing in America, and to facilitate his research, he started expanding his personal library by trying to acquire original material, whether it be books or newspapers. Thomas placed advertisements in newspapers asking printers to send him files of their work. He also purchased significant runs of important newspapers for sums that were substantial for that period. These included the Boston Evening Post, 1735-75, for $60; the American Weekly Mercury, 1719-46, for $70; the New York Weekly Journal, 1733-51, for $30; and the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1735-75, for a whopping $180. In 1810, he published The History of Printing in America in two volumes. This book is the best early source on the history of printing in this country (a second edition was published in 1874 using unpublished notes that Thomas put together before his death in 1831, and a third edition was issued in 1971, edited by Marcus McCorison, with addition information not available earlier).

On October 24, 1812, the American Antiquarian Society was incorporated by an act of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Thomas and his colleagues had submitted a petition to establish an organization to "encourage the collection and preservation of the Antiquities of our country, and of curious and valuable productions in Art and Nature [that] have tendency to enlarge the sphere of human knowledge." For the same reasons that he moved to Worcester in 1775, the Society was located in Worcester in 1812, far enough inland to be safe from British troops and ships. …

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