History Told by the History Makers

Yesterday, I was looking at the prospectus for a book called America’s War for Humanity, a kind of typical-for-the-late-19thC-subscription-marketplace cheap war history, appearing in 1898, the same year as the Spanish-American War that is its main subject (fast turnarounds are kind of a signature of the subscription market). The closing line of the publisher’s summary of the book on the terms and conditions sheet, just before the details about cost, binding, and so on is: “It is history told by the history makers.” This line, I think, says so much about how this market was structured, the role these authors thought they were playing, and how these marketers convinced their readers to buy their books.

That phrase says a lot about the niche filled by subscription books. Most histories on this market are immediate–summaries of the most recent World’s Fair, descriptions of each of the battles of the Civil War, memoirs of one’s time spent in a dungeon behind Confederate lines (there are actually at least two of these marketed via subscription, both by the American Publishing Company), and other such topics. Looking back is rarer, and the emphasis tends to be on timeliness. (At least one ad for agents–directed at women–specifically notes that the book is going to be the style to carry that year).

What comes from being the first to record a history? Getting the book to market first has some obvious fiscal incentives–what customer can claim that they “already have” a book about an event that happened two weeks ago? But how does that fiscal incentive transform into the power to create a national (or bigger) consensus on what that event was or meant. How does the authorship, books written by the history makers themselves, change the way we interpret and understand events? How has the N.D. Thompson Publishing Company’s (the book doesn’t even have a listed author!) shaped the way people understand the Spanish-American War? How did the Heroes of Three Wars and all of the Grant biographies and memoirs help to determine whose heroic acts we remember today?

I guess what I’m really thinking about today is, how is history different when it is written “by history makers”? What can we, today, take from these texts? What kinds of cultural legacies have they created, promoted, sustained?

Subscription books play such a peculiar role in this memory-creating. These aren’t books that buyers sought out, but ones brought to their doors, books that many were coerced into buying. Many anecdotal accounts note that subscription books were sometimes one of only a few books in a household. How does that role, that unique place in a home that might otherwise have only the Bible, an agricultural book, and a medical book, influence the way that the owners end up understanding their country and its military actions? How is a child growing up in that home’s worldview shaped by that book?


Canvassing? The Afterlives of Canvassing books and The White House Cookbook in Dayton, Ohio

That title sounds like a conference paper already, but this is more like some moderately focused rambling.

I’ve had this lovely copy of The White House Cookbook from around 1909-ish for a long time. My husband gave it to me as a gift ages ago because it’s weird and interesting. The last time I went on a canvassing book bender, I found a prospectus of the same book available. It’s in straight terrible condition, but I’m having some thoughts about it and what it says about the way that people used and understood these sample books.

(My crumbly copy, by the way, definitely legitimizes some of the trade book publishers’ comments about how crummily made these subscription books were–the pages tear, snap, break off at every turn. And I’m not just making excuses for the six pages my son tore in half!)

I can’t say for sure if this book was ever actually canvassed. It might have–there looks like there’s a leaf missing, and the last page has a list of women’s names with check marks beside them, but the rest of the written use of the book kind of undermines the validity of those.

What use is a canvassing sample once that book has been canvassed, when the seller has no more interest in selling, when the book goes out of print?

The many canvassing samples I looked at last month at the American Antiquarian Society show some of those uses. This image is from a copy of Albert D. Richardson’s Secret Service, the Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape, an 1865 Civil War memoir published by the American Publishing Company in Hartford, CT. The owner covered the blank pages, from the flyleaves to order sheets in these household recipes and remedies, with some interesting spelling.

These books were even sometimes given as gifts, a fact which, given the fact that these prospectuses are IMG_7281.JPGunreadable, makes me scratch my head a bit. Dora B. Loyd’s Uncle Simeon gave her a canvassing book for Eminent Women of the Age, a series of sketches about famous (mostly) American women from 1869. I’ve looked at this prospectus closely, and I can promise you that you can’t make much sense of this book–it often has the first two pages of the biographies, and sections end mid-sentence. Why would this be a good gift for a young girl? What value would an incomplete book have been for Dora, and why would she have been excited to get it? A brown endpaper (kind of visible in this phot0) contains another inscription: “Presented to Isadora Loyd, December 25th, 1872, by her Uncle.” It’s hard to read because it is also written in pencil, but makes clear that Dora must have been excited to get this–did she also write Fannie Fern at the top of this page?


Isadora Loyd Census.pngThe only Isadora Loyd I could find in
the 1870 census lived in Hillsborough, OH
(she’s on line 16 here), and would have been 9 at the time she got this book. Why would she, and not her three older sisters, benefit from an incomplete book? The order sheets from this book are missing, which raises a lot more questions that I will probably never be able to answer. Did Dora pull the sheets out after she wrote on them? Did this book sell like gangbusters for her uncle and he used them all up?

One of the other gifted canvassing books was a World’s Fair Photo book, and it was at least useable–each photo accompanied by its description.  Better a third of a book than a collection of random pages.

My White House Cookbook prospectus looks like it has been really well loved. I’m not sure what color the cover once was, and the gilt on it has faded so much that you can only be sure its gold if you look at it from certain angles. The prospectus is a lot earlier than the finished copy I own, 1889 versus 1909 (or later), so it isn’t a lot of help, but the copies I’ve seen on google are generally white or blue. 

 The text block of the prospectus shows little evidence of owner use, only the date “Jul 1897” on the title page. The subscriber sheets at the end, though, show a lot about how this book was used by its owners. It is written on in two different hands (I think only two), one adult and one a child.

The adult extended the goals of the book, writing their own recipes into the end papers. This recipe for chili sauce with mangoes (a lot of mangoes!) raises some questions–are these added recipes similar in status, cost, audience to those already contained within the White House Cookbook? Do they belong here because of what they are and what the book is, or are they here because this is where the paper was?

How much would 10 mangoes cost in the progressive era anyway???

Because of this odd recipe, I’ve learned from my smart botanist friend Hayley that “mango” can apparently mean green pepper for some Ohioans–which seems to describe this family. 

The recipes are for cake icing, this chili sauce, boiled fruit cake, and pancakes–so mostly special occasion-y dishes?

 The child’s uses of the canvassing book are what are really worthy of discussion. This page of names on the order sheets look to me like a child playacting at being a salesperson–pretending to sell the book to his or her own relatives, as evidenced by the repetition of the same address and the same last name. I might be projecting here, but this reminds me of a game I used to play with my friend Lauren. We would make class lists and grade our “students,” which I guess was good practice for my current life.

What’s more, these are dated down to the year–1925 (and the house wasn’t even built until 1914). This book, from 1889, is still in use, still holding value as a commodified object, thirty-five years later.

The only other names in the book are these, which I think are the same hand as the play acting page. Another long list of “sales” to pretend to make, and maybe even a set of play deliveries.


George Train in The Great Metropolis

I’m spending the month of June at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. to work on my subscription books project. Since anyone reading this is sure to know me in real life, you’ve definitely heard me talk way too much about this phenomenon, but basically, I’m interested in the post-Civil War, pre-20th century subscription book industry, the rhetoric of attracting both agents and buyers, the selling of fiction (which seems a lot harder than a medical guide or an encyclopedia), and the publishers based in Hartford, CT. With such a big focus (and such a big collection of subscription books), it’s been a little hard to narrow my focus–I just want to see everything!

Today as I was looking at the sample book for The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York (1869), published by the American Publishing Company (the original publishers of Mark Twain and star of my dissertation, Marietta Holley). Looking though the index, I couldn’t help but notice this:


There’s my frenemy G.F. Train (and right above Fanny Fern!) in all his glory. His import in the post-Civil War era is clear from his very inclusion here. About twenty people got their own chapters (out of 70 chapters)–the three pictured here, Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Cullen Bryant,  Henry Ward Beecher, and a few others I’m less familiar with.

This summary of his chapter does a pretty good job of highlighting the parallels between him and our current presidential candidate, Donald Trump. “An Exaggerated American?” “His Supreme Egotism and Loquacity?” Like Trump does, Train made his reputation on staking big claims, and not necessarily backing them up with any sort of facts–or consistency.

The author of this book, Julian Henri Browne, has a lot of positive things to say about Train–

Train’s scatteredness is certainly not in dispute, but it seems as if he had plenty of fans and/or supporters.

My more important takeaway is how ubiquitous Train is throughout post-war middlebrow culture: while he isn’t featured in the sample book (unfortunately for me), he gets as much space as a Vanderbilt. A book about New York City wouldn’t be complete without him.

Drinking Soda at the Omaha World’s Fair

Now that I’ve finally finished grading for the academic year (yay, weeks without papers!), I’ve been poking around a bit in the Omaha Bee archives, looking for anything interesting about the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exhibition, an interest surely fueled by hearing so many cool talks about World’s Fairs at the Nineteenth Century Studies Association Conference that was held in Lincoln back in April.

I’m in love with this “view” of the exposition, published on October 26, 1898, featuring what surely would have been my favorite part of the whole thing:

onyx soda fountain omaha transmississippi exhibition

I mean, come on. The largest and finest soda fountain on earth?! How could we have let that slip through our fingers, Omaha?

You can bet that I would not have failed to visit this pentagon-shaped magnificent soda machine. I probably would not have forgotten every time I visited the fair.

I am quite wary of “McClosky’s New Orleans Mead” mentioned here. The only things I can only find out about what makes mead into “McClosky’s New Orleans Mead” come from records of this court case about whether “New Orleans” meant place of manufacture, quality, or something else. What it doesn’t do is tell me what New Orleans Mead would taste like. This blog post, though, makes it sound a little less exciting–more root beer than mead–than originally hoped.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve ever had to drink. After all, I accidentally drank some of my husband’s disgusting orange Diet Coke today.

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This winter, the most beautiful house ever was up for sale in our neighborhood. One of the best aspects of it was how unrenovated it was: totally livable, but with a totally rustic, old-style kitchen and unrefinished floors. If you turn a blind eye to the weird purple joker room and the gold and red fabric covered bathroom, the house was perfect and flawless. In our neighborhood, it’s hard to find a house that hasn’t been updated in a weird way, either from being cut up into too many apartments, or getting a cookie cutter kitchen installed–the number of “Ikea kitchens” signs around here is nuts. While it isn’t in Omaha, the Brooklyn brownstone that Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t move into is such a perfect example of this phenomenon–a perfectly historical house, with endless historical detail:


But the kitchen, well…


It’s awfully bland. It could really be in any new construction house and it doesn’t do much to preserve or reflect the rest of the house.

So where I’m going with this is to the mix of perfectly-maintained houses and the ones that have been totally destroyed in my neighborhood. Some bad renovations are so obvious:


This house is just the worst.

But others seem okay on the surface. In an October 1907 Sunday edition of the Omaha Bee, a feature on “Omaha, the City of Beautiful Homes,” featured many of the stateliest and most lovely houses from across town. The ones in the greater Hanscom Park area provide an interesting image into how even some of the nicest houses have been damaged by renovation.

32nd Avenue facing the park, has always been, for me, the most beautiful houses row of houses in Omaha–hands down. It ends at Woolworth Avenue, right at the Ford Birthsite gardens. The last house before Woolworth, 1502 S 32nd, is highlighted in the Bee feature.


So many of the houses featured have long since been torn down, like just about all of them on St. Mary’s Avenue and all the ones that stood where I-480 now runs. The B.B. Davis house remains, still surrounded by history. However, this picture gives an insight into the small ways that these homes have been changed, the invisible additions, deletions, and remodelings, changes that the average person (or at least someone like me), would never have even imagined.

This contemporary picture of the house shows the wrap-around porch cut down, the porte-cochere removed, the flattening of the bay window on the second floor, the loss of the little porch area on the second floor, and the squaring off of the arched windows on the third floor. While this is still a beautiful house, imagine how much more beautiful it could be if it still had some of these irreplaceable historical details (especially if it were painted something other than beige).

Evidence of editing these estates isn’t uncommon in these Bee photos. 536 S 29th Street, for example, once was an ornate estate:

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But now, the house is porchless, gingerbread-y gableless, and it looks a little naked. It’s fate surely hasn’t been helped by it’s 480 frontage views, but it sure is a shame to see so many elaborate houses reduced to skeletons like this.

Omaha: The Hub of the Continent (more Train talk)

I just discovered this gem in my drafts folder. Apparently three-months-ago me had a similar skepticism of the role Train wanted Omaha to play in the world:

I think when you have to proclaim the city as the “St. Louis of the North” and the “Chicago of the West” simultaneously, you might be trying too hard.

(This selection is from Train’s The People’s Candidate for President, 1872 discussed previously)

That Wacky Train

I guess instead of grading papers, I’ve spent the evening reading people’s weird takes on old George Francis Train.

The first chapter of Pen Sketches of Famous Nebraskans, an 1871 text by A. C. Edmunds, is devoted to Train. I just can’t even begin to digest some of the quotes he pulls, I mean, seriously:

I think one of the worst things I can think of being called is a “solved conundrum” (not that an upside down train caught in a stump with wheels spinning is a lot better).

As the text races through Train’s overly complicated life, it does stop to mark what  big dreams Train had for Omaha, as Edmunds quotes:

I don’t really think the US ever really needed a new Chicago, no matter how loudly Train yelled. Someone(s) in Omaha must have believed it though, as an 1863 city directory opened with the following:


The old Omaha Public Library, 1823 Harney Street (image courtesy the OPL Digital Collection)

According to a March 1914 article in the Omaha Bee, a “very rare” copy of this text given by Train to William Henry Bagley (I can’t find a more likely person than this guy from the Mormon Trail genealogy archives) was donated by . M. Dietz to the Omaha Public Library. So, do we still own it? Where? I’m not really that interested in books owned by famous people–but this is probably worth seeking out. Did Train leave any other notes? Did Bagley? Did Dietz? Could I even tell the difference? Is anything as exciting as the promise and the pull of the archives?

This book features some of the least-famous famous Nebraskans that I’ve never heard of (George Frost? E. S. Dundy? N. B. Larsh?) and in all honesty, the post-Train parts are putting me to sleep.

What is probably most valuable here (to me) is the insight into an Omaha printing culture. The book ends with a “Labor Department” page that lists the photographers, printers and binders who worked on the book:

Adjusting to my post-grad school scheduling demands hasn’t left me the time or motivation to pick up a lot of totally new projects, or research threads, but I recently heard about the Women in Book History Bibliography, a new project that sounds like it has a ton of potential to collect and collate a lot of information about women working in the publishing industries throughout the history of the book–maybe I will be able to add these Nebraskan bookbinders (Emma Ambrose, Christina Sampson. Anna Viers, Libbie Curtis, Mary Couvions) and printers (Kate Metsker and Lou Davis) to the database soon. At the very least, this book has some concrete leads that I hope can lead me deep into the history of the book in Nebraska.