Tag Archives: print culture

Spottee the Wonder Horse comes to Baltimore; or how I learned to love reading the newspaper

Baltimore Evening Post, 15 September 1807


Frequently in the course of my research people ask me what sort of sources I use when studying provincial print culture.  Most historians love a good primary source.  There is a secret thrill at discovering something, long buried in a dusty archive, which will change the way people understand an individual or event.  The discovery of a new set of sources can make a historian’s career and open up new fields of exploration.  Less glamorously, amazing historical knowledge can be gained by examining existing sources in new ways, and mining tiny pockets of information from scattered and diverse source material.

One of the problems of studying provincial print culture is that source material is often difficult to find.  Most of the surviving publisher’s archives come from the largest and most long-lived publishers: think John Murray, or Mathew Carey, or Longman and Co.  (Though these larger archives can contain an amazing amount of material relevant to provincial print culture.)  Very rarely do we find surviving archives for small printers and publishers in provincial towns. This is partially why so few have studied provincial print culture, and why so many are curious about my source material.

Simply put, provincial newspapers are one of my favorite, and most useful sources.  Provincial papers are multidimensional sources.  They can be used in a variety of ways and they provide information through their text, paratext, and materiality.  Newspapers carry a wealth of details about their printers and editors.  They can tell you about distribution routes, prices and subscribers as well as the political affiliations and business associations of their owners.  Readers can learn about the capital available to the printers, and the quality of their type and paper supply.  For scholars of print culture the importance of local newspapers extends beyond the information they convey on their pages.  Their simple existence tells a story about the local demand for print, making them one of the most valuable sources for the study of provincial print culture.

For scholars of any area, sitting down and reading longer runs of local papers can give unparalleled access to the life of a community.   The advertisements provide details of available goods and services.  Editorials highlight local concerns.  Even the foreign news can hint at the larger communication networks available to local readers.  Taken together these things begin to reveal the rhythm of local life.

Amidst the mundane details of everyday life, small gems can rekindle our fascination with history and keep us eagerly reading.  One of my favorite gems is the above advertisement.  Though of little direct significance, Spottee the horse reminds me of the joys of reading the newspaper, and how much it can tell us about provincial communities.


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Books between Europe and the Americas- A review

This week, I was very excited to receive my copy of a new collection of essays on transatlantic print.  It is always a good surprise to receive a package in the mail, but particularly when you have been waiting nearly 12 months for a book.  The book is titled Books between Europe and the Americas Connections and Communities, 1620-1860 and is edited by Leslie Howsam, the president of SHARP, and James Raven, author of many books on print culture in both England and America.

The books is a collection of essays dealing with the exchange of books and print between Europe and the Americas which came out of a 2004 conference titled ‘Connected by Books’.  I first heard of it last year at the (excellent) 2010 Perils of Print Culture conference held in Dublin.  There I met James Raven, who mentioned the volume in reference to Michael O’Connor, one of  the contributors.  Unfortunately the
volume wasn’t published until May of this year, and wasn’t available on Amazon until June, causing my painful wait.

One of the strengths of this volume is its scope.  Often, as the editors note, the study of the book trades is limited by national or linguistic boundaries, with little conversation taking place between scholars working on these various projects.  Many scholars of the English Atlantic world are ignorant of the processes and networks which moved print between Central and South America and Europe.  This volume very consciously gathered contributors not only from Canada, the United States and the UK, but also from Mexico and Brazil, working in a
variety of colonial and linguistic milieus.Although the book is still somewhat biased towards Anglo-American print exchanges it does a good job of offering alternative perspectives even within that category.

One of the essays which I found particularly interesting dealt with the consumption of novels in Brazil.  The author, Sandra Guardini T. Vasconcelos emphasized the importance of French translations of British novels to the making of the Brazilian novel.  There the impact of British authors, on the reading of nineteenth century Brazilians has been hidden.  Both the French translations of these works, and the circuitous networks by which they reached Brazil served to alter and  disguise the British origins of the texts.  This essay reveals the political and economic reasons behind this development, as well as some of the ways in which Brazilian readers and authors  responded to these works.

One enjoyable part of this work was the way in which the various essays spoke to each other.  By  highlighting similar patterns in different countries, or by offering sites for comparison the essays begin to point out ways in which transatlantic and transnational can inform even the most specific studies.  I found it interesting to note the level of awareness contributed to various colonial book purchasers across the  essays.  While Francois Melacon’s essay on print in Canada under the Ancien Regime, noted that colonial buyers had to rely on French agents to select their books because of their ignorance of the French publishing scene, James Raven’s essay on Latin and Greek texts points out that at least some American buyers believed themselves to be very well-informed.  How much did the level of  information between these buyers vary, and was it a function of time, personal  connections, or individual personality?  Since evidence for transatlantic book shipments is often fragmentary at best, these types of comparisons can help connect the anecdotal nature of sources.

To finish off, I would recommend that anyone interested in print culture, in any part of the Atlantic world, have a glance through this volume.  Even if the essays don’t touch on your area of interest, it is likely that they will offer you a new perspective to bring back to your work, or simply expand your knowledge about the types of transactions which were taking place between Europe and the Americas.

The full reference to the volume is:

Leslie Howsam and James Raven (eds), Books between Europe and the Americas: Connections and Communities, 1620-1860 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 317 pp. £55.00

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