American Collections blog

173 posts categorized "USA"

24 June 2015

Reading the #Charlestonsyllabus

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The_steeple_of_Emanuel_African_Methodist_Church,_Charleston,_SCAbove: steeple of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC. Image from Wikipedia.

As you will no doubt know by now, the British Library holds a vast collection of written material from all of the world. It is historically deep and continues to grow to this day and our North American collections are no exception to this. Why do I mention this now? Well, you might have seen on the web and social media the #Charlestonsyllabus circulating and you may have thought, 'it's an important reading list but how do I get access to its sources in the UK?'

Team Americas have been saddened by the tragic events of last week and we would like to do our bit to show solidarity with the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the families affected and the community of Charleston in general. We can't do much, but we can give access to books and materials to help people learn more about the context behind this crime - and this brings me back to the #Charlestonsyllabus.

The Library is one of the few locations in the UK where a reader can get access to many of the books, papers and articles listed in the syllabus, by virtue of our long history of North American collecting. There are gaps (and I've been busily finding them today) but we will try and fill them as best we can in the coming weeks and months.

So, should you wish to know more about the history of the American South, Charleston and the context behind last week's events the British Library is open to all who provide the appropriate forms of identification (more info here) and many of the books in the list can be found using our catalogue. If you have any questions, you know where we are.


10 June 2015

An Oil Creek Valley Diary: a guest post by Janet Floyd

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Diary cover

This is a diary kept for four months during 1873, between August and December. The bills tucked into its pocket tell me that it belongs to one Thomas M. Patterson. The notes accompanying it describe this man as an engineer in the petroleum industry in Pennsylvania. To have a precise time, a name, a profession and a setting is to have the sense of a solid starting point for diving into the contents.

Yet encountering diaries is always an uncertain business. They may be difficult to decipher. They stop and start according to events we know nothing about. We’re faced with questions about why they’ve been written and for whose satisfaction. Some are immersed in private affairs and written with a sympathetic audience in mind. Others are penned with an eye to posterity, a confident conviction that the diary will set the record straight, that the writer’s walk-on part in history will give a fresh and vivid insight into matters that he or she recognises as historically significant: wars, major political events, emigration.

This diary does none of these things. It tells us almost nothing about the private emotional world of its writer, although the item itself has been produced to evoke secrecy and containment. It is small, three inches by five, folded like a wallet and it has a faux clasp made of brass. The black leather, discreetly decorated with a few gold flourishes, has a little pocket into which papers can be slipped. Patterson has tucked some bills into it. But there are no secrets revealed here. On two occasions he refers to feeling ill. On December 20th he expresses loneliness:

felt rather out of heart today had nothing to do all week wonder how my wife and boy are today

 Thomas Patterson is not given to recording his feelings, never mind exploring them.

Nor does he have any comment to make on ‘news.’ No reference is made, for example to the major stock market crash in New York on 18 September that year, an event that produced financial panic and a serious depression. The diary helpfully provides its owner with a printed list of important events in world history (at least from the point of view of an Anglo-European American from the Northern states), as well as the dates of the births and deaths of a range of British and American writers. This little volume has actually set the stage for the writer to take his small place in history. But Thomas M. Patterson has not used the little volume to make claims for the importance of his experiences. And yet he was undoubtedly undergoing something of a personal adventure, and at major turning point in what we might argue to be the defining American industry, petroleum: defining in the sense that the modern industry was born in Pennsylvania in exactly the place in which this diary was written, and also in relation to the nation’s modern history and international relations.

Patterson was an engineer, and the backdrop for his entries was the petroleum industry in the area of Pennsylvania known as Oil Creek Valley. Drilling for petroleum was the new extractive industry of the age, the focus of all the excitements of strikes, rushes, huge fortunes and dirty tricks that we associate with the gold, silver and diamond strikes of the era. Newspaper and magazine readers couldn’t get enough of these stories or of details of the boomtowns, the chaotic scenes or indeed of the new technologies that made these industries so profitable. Perhaps petroleum’s particular fascination lay in its gushing plenitude and in its newness as a commodity. When petroleum first flooded out of the ground in Titusville in 1859, it was mostly being used as a medicine. It took time to work out how to deal with it all: how to collect and transport it as well as how to process it into something profitable, a source of lighting for lamps, as well as a machine lubricant.

By the time Thomas Patterson wrote his diary in the village of Tarr Farm, Pennsylvania, these early problems had been partially resolved. According to the historians, 1873 was a climactic year for Oil Creek Valley: ten million barrels of oil were produced, though prices plummeted as a result. At the same time, the early 1870s saw the industry on the cusp of profound change: in the process of shifting from a situation where there were multiple stakeholders (workers, land owners, mine owners, wildcatters, speculators, mining professionals – such as Patterson – dealers, refining and transportation companies) jostling for survival or dominance, towards an industry dominated by the austere figure of John D. Rockefeller, whose achievement of a monopoly on oil refinery famously enabled him to dominate the industry. There was certainly a tale for a diarist to tell.

As an engineer, our diarist had a pivotal role in an industry that was making the running in terms of production, profit, business practice and cultural visibility, not to mention environmental destruction. Engineers were at the heart of the extractive industries powering the late nineteenth century American economy (as well as making vast profits for European and especially British investors). They were the ones who assessed sites, wrote reports for the corporations and investors who employed them, who could plan the work and manage the operation, who thought through and instituted improvements. Before coming to Tarr Farm, Patterson had invented an improved method for removing drill bits and extensions that had become stuck deep underground, a major impediment to the smooth running of the drilling process. These improvements were much written about in the press during the 1870s and 1880s, while the engineers themselves were considered rather glamorous and modern. It was a profession for an educated man of ambition, even a well-connected man.

Diary text

Returning to our diary, then, the possession of an engineer at the cutting edge of a high profile industry, and turning the blank pages till we reach Thursday August 21st, here is how Patterson begins at the top of the page (filling the full eleven lines of the entry space with his neatly slanting writing):

Walked to Marrs[?] and Hardison well and run the mill about an hour when Jim came and I walked to [?]. after dinner walked to Lawrence by the way of Petersburg and the Hop Farm. seen Innis at his house and then went to the Station and took the cars for home found all well

The day clear and warm

What can we make of this? Not much, but then beginning a diary is a difficult thing to do. Inevitably it raises a testing question about what (and how much) is worth setting down and, a stickier question still, what the diary is going to be for. Does Patterson wish to use his diary to record his movements, to remind himself of what he has undertaken or achieved, to set out the topography of the area? Is it that he needs to justify his use of time to himself or perhaps, implicitly, to his employer? Or is this a way of making notes of a particular episode? As he began, had he already decided how to write this diary?

I think he had. The next day has a shorter entry, this time filling only nine out of the thirteen available lines. But Patterson settles down to usingthe form of unpunctuated notes that he adopts for the rest of the diary, using, once again, and as he continues to do, a separate line at the bottom of the entry to record the weather. On Friday 23 August he adds two new forms of content that occur throughout the diary: train times and sums of money paid:

Stayed at home till 11.38 went to Oil City to Boices Office recd $100.00 of him then on the 4 O’clock train to the center went to Fishers house paid him $100, 00 and walked back to Tarr Farm

The day clear and warm

Patterson covers a narrow range of his daily experience, then. And this brings us to one the great challenges that diaries (perhaps all private writing) present to the reader. How can we use these entries to grasp something of this key episode of industrial history? What might be the relationship between the record we’re reading here and the history we read elsewhere? Is it possible, for example, to enmesh the two in a narrative about an unpredictable and still, at this juncture, relatively unplanned and unregulated industry, a setting in which populations mushroom and disappear, a landscape and an agricultural economy in turmoil, and, at the heart of the matter, a substance scarcely understood? So should we guess that it is the chaos of the industry or its shifting state that inspires Patterson’s rather haphazard, scarcely punctuated notes? Can we say that the experience of work in a place like Tarr Farm that cannot be plotted or told as an unfolding story in a diary in the way that an experience of war or a love affair can?

Another possibility is that working lives are actually like this in the nineteenth century; indeed perhaps many working lives are still like this. We associate the late nineteenth-century with routinized work, the rise of mass production and time and motion studies. Much of Patterson’s diary, though, is about work encountered on the spot, organised daily or over a few days; experienced, perhaps, as many, perhaps most, of us experience our work. He is clearly being directed to undertake the tasks he records (moving money, attending meetings, checking wells, trouble-shooting problems, writing reports), and he sometimes indicates how he is informed of the need to do a task. But he does not refer to or write about his employer, their relationship or the way in which his working life is shaped or organised. Rather – increasingly as the diary goes on – he just writes down exactly what he has worked on. Here for example, on Thursday 16 October, he writes about a recurring task: dealing with the iron casing surrounding the tubing that brought out the oil:

Went to the well tyed the casing it would not come. Drew up tried to make another cut but the cutter would not work tried it higher would not work drew it out sharpened upright wheels put in again cut 300 ft drew out took out casing. first in cutter could not enter the casing drew out called it done got to town 9PM clear pleasant

Patterson is not working to a routine. He is well aware of train times and records precisely the times of the trains he catches around the valley. But in his working life, meeting people and achieving ends is a rather untidy affair:

Rec’d a Postal Card from M to meet him at Oil City went down on the 8.38 train went to Brice’s Office then across to M house but he was not at home. came back to the depot and Boice’s office looking for Mr Drake. Then to Innis shop to see his new Engine. Then on the 2PM freight train and cut wood.

We think of this period at the moment when work and leisure are decisively separated. But across Patterson’s week, time is divided unevenly between work and home. In the first week of September, for example, on Monday (1 Sept) he writes:

Walked to Pitthole and picked berries all day

Picked about 10 quarts got home about 8PM                                                                   

There is no entry for Tuesday. On Wednesday he receives money and pays it to someone else and then returns home. On Thursday 4th:

At home all day making 

Blackberry wine

 Patterson doesn’t ‘balance’ work with ‘life’ or favour one above the other.

Perhaps it is the diary rather than his practices of work that evade the routines of work and a separation between home and job? In the 1970s Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor wrote a study of ‘resistance to everyday life’ called Escape Attempts in which they described how, when we are oppressed by relentless routines, we invest in particular activities that create a sense of distance from the habitual. Was this why Thomas Patterson filled each small daily space in his diary?

At the end of every entry, Patterson made a comment on the weather, frequently using the same words. They are not especially descriptive:

cloudy to cold

Cool and Pleasant

Forenoon rain afternoon clear

Rained til about four, then cloudy 

Where possible, he left a space between his notes on the day and his comment on the weather. When he had filled the space with his notes, he squeezed his weather report into a corner at the top of the entry. Why does he do this? Why does he create this routine in a diary that evokes a life of dealing with unpredictable events?

There’s no guessing an answer to this. Thomas M. Patterson’s small, compact diary keeps its secrets after all.


A guest post by Janet Floyd

Reader in American Studies

King’s College London

Patterson's diary was recently acquired by the Library, and can be made available via the Manuscripts Reading Room


09 June 2015

Searching for Saul Bellow

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Above: a photograph of Saul Bellow with Keith Botsford, at Boston University, c. 1992. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To commemorate the centenary of Saul Bellow’s birth – on 10 June 1915 – we thought we’d highlight two excellent sources of information about the life and work of this Canadian-born American writer: first, the world’s best database for tracking down works by and about Bellow (and every other American author); and second, recordings in the Library’s Sound Archive that either feature Bellow himself or take him as their main subject.

The database in question is MLA International Bibliography which can be accessed on the PCs in any of the Library’s Reading Rooms. Having begun life more than a century ago as a hard-copy periodical index, this extraordinary resource now indexes books, journals, dissertations and websites covering modern literature, literary theory and criticism, linguistics and folklore. It holds more than two million records, adds more than 66,000 items a year and is an indispensable tool for anyone working in American literature.


Above: first edition cover for Saul Bellow's 'Dangling Man' [BL: X.950/3239]. Image from Wikipedia.

A simple MLA search for Saul Bellow currently retrieves over 1500 items. These can then be narrowed down into: works by the author; works about the author; source type (books, dissertations, articles, edited volumes); source title (including Saul Bellow Journal (251 items), Studies in Jewish American Literature (35) and dissertations (69)); and publication date. There is also a graph indicating how many items have been written every decade: the 1980s wins with 392. While most citations need to be cross-referenced in ‘Explore the British Library’ to see whether or not we hold them, the full-text of some items can be accessed immediately online. 

Our second source – the Library’s Sound Archive – holds numerous substantial interviews and discussions with Bellow as well as items about him. Highlights include: a PEN Writers Day conversation with critic Francis King, ‘American Writers and their Public – The American Public and its Writers’ (1986); a 30 minute interview by Jonathan Raban on BBC Radio 4 (1989); a 1970 interview about Mr Sammlers Planet; a 25 minute interview on BBC Radio 4 focusing on his depiction of  the 1960s (1997); a BBC Two Bookmark profile of his life and work (1998); a Royal Society of Literature lecture by James Wood, ‘Saul Bellow: English Influences, American Rhythms’ (2004); and a BBC Radio 3 feature, ‘Saul Bellow and the Latter-Day Lean-To’, which includes contributions by John Updike and Alfred Kazin (1982).   


12 May 2015

The Many Uses of Whiskey: a Bryant Lecture roundup

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Whiskey and Wather (LC23c5 57)Above: a poetic tribute to Captain John Palliser, who explored the (admittedly, Canadian) Rockies. The spelling of water suggests it was for reciting in a Lancashire dialect [BL: LC.23.c.5(57)]

The utility of whiskey is impressive, it can function as an enjoyable beverage, social facilitator, medicinal syrup and, as of last night, an impressive metaphor about the evolving significance of Magna Carta. Monday saw this year's Douglas W. Bryant Lecture celebrated at the Library, the 20th in all, and we were fortunate to be host the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Matthew Barzun, for the evening.

Womens War on Whiskey (cover 8435b55)  Womens War on Whisky (internal 8435b55)
Above: one of the few American tracts on whiskey turns out to be a temperance tract [BL: 8435.b.55]

The Ambassador's talk, titled, 'Magna Carta, 1776 and All That', hinged on the metaphorical relationship between whiskey and the Magna Carta - more on which in a moment. On the way home a thought occurred to me, 'what do we have in the collection regarding whiskey and the Americas?' Turns out the answer is, 'not a great deal that's interesting' (meaning rare and insightful historic publications) but, spread across the Library's manuscripts, newspapers, microfilms and printed books there is a smattering of items.

BarzunspeechAbove: Ambassador Barzun giving his lecture (image copyright Ander McIntyre)

Admittedly, a lot of it is temperance material but, as the wonderful poem in the first image shows, there are also items defending the drink's virtues. For Ambassador Barzun, the link between the Magna Carta and whiskey is based on the method by which the drink is made. A complex process, with deceptively simple ingredients, whiskey takes time to mature and produces strikingly different results depending upon the raw materials used and the geography within which it is produced. The Ambassador argued that Magna Carta and its legacy, in the rule of law and political freedom, can be viewed the same way; just look at how it has influenced the UK and the US. If this piques your interest, the lecture has been posted online by the US Embassy and can be read in full here.

AudienceAbove: audience questions for Ambassador Barzun (image copyright Ander McIntyre)

While the Library may not be the best place to find unique resources pertaining to whiskey in the Americas we are well placed to facilitate research and interest in the Magna Carta. Our exhibition runs until September, we have a whole series of events coming up (including another on Magna Carta in America) and there's a good deal of material in the collections too.


07 May 2015

Inventing The Great Gatsby

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Careless People (cover)

Above: The cover for Careless People, by Prof. Sarah Churchwell (2013).

[As a prelude to an upcoming Eccles Centre event, Prof. Sarah Churchwell writes for us on 'The Great Gatsby'. You can hear more at her talk, 'Inventing the Great Gatsby: 1922 - 1925' on May 18th]

The Great Gatsby has made countless readers feel as if the Jazz Age were a party to which they have not been invited. Like the party-goers at Gatsby’s revels, the reader of Gatsby is drawn there by word of mouth, looking for glamour and personality, in search of celebrated and interesting people. We want to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom we have met through his books: we want to meet his wife, and know whether she was really mad, or destroyed him, or whether he destroyed her. We want to know how much she made herself up, or he made her up, or we've made them both up. Although many literary critics still insist that this impulse is unworthy, a deplorable preference for gossip over art, it is also true that our social personality is a creation of the minds of others, as Proust observed. Scott Fitzgerald understood that better than most, and it is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby. 

Many people respond by throwing their own Gatsby-themed parties, a response with which I sympathize. But because I am an academic (i.e., a professional geek), my idea of throwing a Gatsby party is not to mix a few tasty cocktails and suggest that people put on a pretty dress that approximates one that might have been worn in the 1920s. No, my response is to spend years and years intensively researching what life would have been like in 1922, what Scott Fitzgerald could have known when he was sat down to write the novel, what he guessed—and what he had no way of knowing.

In April 1925, when Gatsby was published, it was a contemporary novel. It had been written in 1924 and set in 1922: so it would work in exact parallel if we imagine a novel published this year, that was written in 2014, and set in 2012. It would be a contemporary novel: we would understand all of its references, without need of translation, explanation, or glossary. The Great Gatsby was certainly a “modern” novel—so modern that its first readers could not see any meanings beyond the ones that were entirely manifest in 1925. Most of these meanings are entirely lost upon us now—but it turns out that they are not entirely lost to us. They are there, waiting to be found, if we’re patient, or dogged, or both. And it is those meanings—the meanings that would have been available to Fitzgerald, and his readers, in 1925—that I set out to recover in researching my book about Gatsby, if I could. The analogy, to my mind, is like trying to do an historically sympathetic renovation of a beautiful old art deco house. Of course you can cover it over with all kinds of layers from other eras, and there are arguments to be made in favor of updating (just as few of us would want to actually live with an historically authentic bathroom from 1925, so few of us would want to return to an historically authentic 1925 attitude toward, for example, anti-Semitism). But there are also arguments to be made in favor of creating something historically sympathetic, and aesthetically consonant, and that’s what I tried to do in the book I eventually wrote, called Careless People.

Gatsby 1925 (CUP406I13)

Above: first pages of the 1925 New York edition of The Great Gatsby [BL:Cup.406.I.13]

One of the unexpected results of this research project was that I came to see much more clearly than I’d ever predicted why The Great Gatsby was not a great critical or commercial success when it was published in 1925; it didn’t flop, but its sales were sluggish, its reviews largely uncomprehending. Along the way I learned a great deal about what New Yorkers in 1922, when Gatsby is set, actually wore (skirts were much longer than we think), what they drank (bathtub gin and bootleg gin are not the same thing), what they danced (not the Charleston), what they listened to, what they ate, even what perfumes were available. (The great French house of Caron produced both Narcisse Blanc and Nuit de Noël in 1922, for example; both are still available for any historical die-hards who do not have to survive on an academic salary.)

Such a critical, and I hope creative, endeavor necessarily raises a series of question about what it might mean to try to recover the past. And as fate would have it, this is the great question asked by the great Gatsby, and by The Great Gatsby. “You can't repeat the past,” Nick Carraway warns Jay Gatsby. “Can't repeat the past?” Gatsby responds, incredulously. “Why of course you can!” And then Fitzgerald adds, with one of the hundreds of touches of mordant humor that pepper the novel, that Gatsby “looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.”

Is the past just out of reach of our hand? For Nick, as for Fitzgerald, this is a facetious remark—and yet the idea that it might be is just the response that the novel has inspired in thousands of readers since Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. But in 1925, as I’ve said, Gatsby was a purely contemporary novel: its ideas about the past were negligible, and its vision of the future was indiscernible, undetectable to jazz-age eyes, as blind as the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, pointlessly lording it over the ashes of history.

What past we have is an invention. There was a past, and we certainly did not invent it, although other people did; but that past has made its exit and it will not return. Our myths, our legends, our false memories and mistaken historical assumptions, our anachronisms, our egotistical projections of our own values—these are the invented past.

What I discovered is that the hectic absurdity of the past takes us by surprise; we are accustomed to invent only that past that seems useful to us, by and large: rare is the effort to accommodate the present to the past, rather than the other way around. We may not believe that we can repeat the past, but we do tend to believe that we can recover it, although God knows what havoc we would wreak if we found ourselves accidentally grasping it.

Gatsby 1925 cover (CUP406I13)

Above: cover and modern preservation box for the 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby [BL: Cup.406.I.13]

I think most of us expect history to display a certain dignity, as befits its age; but what I learned is that the past is not a venerable old man, an eminence grise: it is an unabashed adolescent, with no understanding or fear of the consequences of its own idiotic behavior. Its carelessness proves, in the end, rather winning, but we should not mistake a survivor’s instinct for sanity.

The history of 1922 reads not like history, but like a rather madcap novel—and that novel is by Scott Fitzgerald, because it was his novel that taught us how to read this story. The sources turn out to have a tremendous story to tell themselves: but we would not know what it was about if Fitzgerald had not told us how to read it in the first place.

Memory is an imaginative reconstruction of the facts. So is history. So is The Great Gatsby. They are not the same things, of course, memory, history, fiction. But they have more in common than we like to think. They’re all a story about the art of exhilaration, about a glittering, gin-drenched, time-drenched world, whether we are dealing with fiction or with history. In either case the theme is the peril and brevity of such vision—that is the theme of Gatsby, and it is the starting point for any serious conversation about it.


[Prof. Sarah Churchwell will be speaking about 'The Great Gatsby' at the British Library on May 18th, you can find more information here]

30 April 2015

From the Collections: US Historical Newspapers

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Americansml      Federalsml      Vermontsml
Above: three of the Library's early American papers, as noted on our resource page.

This third and final blog about American newspapers will focus on the Library’s holdings of historical titles – both digital and microfilm.   


The Library currently subscribes to a couple of fantastic databases (listed below) which offer access to hundreds of newspaper titles from the late seventeenth to the twentieth century. Also listed is a Library of Congress resource for newspapers published between 1836 and 1922, and one that focuses upon coverage of the performing arts in the colonies:

African American Newspapers, 1827-1998

This database provides fully searchable facsimiles of approximately 270 historically significant African American newspapers from more than 35 states. It offers a unique record of life in the Antebellum South, the growth of the Black church, the Jim Crow Era, the Great Migration to northern cities, the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, political and economic empowerment and more. Remote access is available for registered Reader Pass holders.

Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876

Offering more than 350,000 fully searchable facsimile issues of more 700 newspaper titles published in 23 states and Washington DC, this database provides an unparalleled record of daily life in hundreds of diverse American communities. Searches automatically extend to African American Newspapers, 1827-1998 and Caribbean Newspapers, Series I, 1718-1876. Remote access is available for registered Reader Pass holders.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

This Library of Congress resource is freely available on the Internet and offers millions of digitized newspaper pages for the period 1836–1922. Also available on this site is the U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690–present which enables users to identify both which titles exits for a specific time and place and the libraries (in the United States) that hold them. 

The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783

Available both on CD-ROM in the Newsroom and on the Internet.


Above: non-digital resources [photo by PJH]


The Library’s microfilm holdings of early American newspapers are extensive and can be found via our main catalogue, Explore. They include eighteenth and nineteenth century regional papers, such as The Boston Gazette (1719-1798), The New York Mercury (1752-1783); ethnic newspapers, including The Jewish Messenger (1857-1902) and The Irish World (1870-1950); political papers, such as Socialist Call (1935-1962); and special interest papers, such as the US Armed Forces’ Stars and Stripes (1942-1945). Please note that most of these titles can be found in the Early American Newspapers database listed above.


This microfilm set (shelf-mark: M.A.410) consists of 252 reels of press cuttings and other materials relating to people of colour in the United States, Africa and elsewhere which were collected by the Tuskegee Institute between 1899 and 1966. The clippings were compiled from more than 300 major American national dailies, African-American newspapers, magazines, religious and social publications and non-US newspapers. All items are listed in The Tuskegee Institute News Clippings File: Reel Notes, a hard-copy volume shelved in the Newsroom.


The New York Times Index, 1863-1905, is included in the database 19th Century Masterfile and a printed version of the index from 1851 is available in the Newsroom. The New York Daily Tribune Index, 1875-1906, is also included in 19th Century Masterfile and a printed version of the subject index, 1875-1881, is available in the Newsroom. 

See our other blog posts on historical newspapers:

1. Americas News Dailies and Weeklies

2. Slavery in America: newspapers and travellers' reports


28 April 2015

Lincoln's Funeral Cortege

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150 years ago, the body President Lincoln was on its journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, carried by train in a special funeral cortege.

Of all the Library’s Civil War related items, this object is one of the most rare and interesting. These two silk cords, or ‘silver lace’ as the accompanying descriptive note states, were part of the material that draped on President Lincoln’s funeral cortege.

According to the note that is held alongside the cords, they had been presented ‘by a gentleman who was an important member of the committee of arrangements for the reception of President Lincoln’s body’ when it reached Indianapolis, Indiana on 30 April 1865. The cortege was placed in the Indiana State House where it lay in state overnight before continuing on its journey.

Lincoln’s funeral procession from the capital to his home city of Springfield took place between 21 April and 3 May 1865. The coffin passed through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, lying in state in major cities such as Philadelphia, New York City and Chicago along the way.

The President was finally laid to rest at Oak Ridge Cemetery where an enormous tomb was complete in 1874 to house his coffin. Lincoln’s funeral train was accompanied by members of his family, Cabinet, federal and state politicians, and seen by hundreds of thousands of mourners along the route. Countless images and details of the procession were recorded, making President Lincoln’s funeral one of the largest in American history.

Read more about this item on our Civil War feature.

[HT to @catbateson]

20 March 2015

Symposium: Alaska, the Arctic and the US Imagination

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Above: illustration from 'Alaska, its history and resources...' [BL: 10460.dd.17].

On Monday the Library hosted scholars from the US, Canada and Europe for a day-long discussion on the significance of Alaska and the Arctic to the United States. As you'll see from the programme (at the bottom of this post), the day covered a lot of ground, with discussion ranging from Alaska in film, to the artwork of William Bradford, the USS Nautilus and much more in-between.

The diversity of the day was drawn together by our keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Robinson, who provided a fascinating overview of American interest in the Arctic, charting its growth through the Alaska purchase, the press mania of the search for Franklin and the Cold War geopolitics of the DEW Line. The talk also intersected with some of the Library's wider work, most notably our Digital Curators' innovative research in the digital humanities. Dr. Robinson charted the rising use of the term 'Arctic' in nineteenth century publications, with early results showing how events, such as the search for Franklin, caused imaginative interest (in the form of writing and publishing) in the area to spike.


Above: illustration from 'Alaska, its history and resources'. Courtesy of the BL Flickr pool.

The day was inspired by the change of Chair for the Arctic Council, coming later this year, as Canada hands over to the United States. Lines in the Ice has been lucky in the amount of relevant events that have fallen around its time in the Entrance Hall Gallery, what with HMS Erebus being found in the summer of 2014, and we were keen to draw connections to this event in Arctic politics too. As a result, we wound up the day with a public panel called, 'The Future of the Arctic', which hosted representatives from the Canadian High Commission, the Lords Select Committee for the Arctic, the US Embassy and the scientist Dr. Gabrielle Walker in conversation with the public, all chaired by Professor Klaus Dodds.

Excellent audience questions and thoughtful answers from the panel made this an engaging and insightful event. It also drew together the strands of the day. Mention of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station tied in with a paper by Team Americas' own Rosanna White while discussions about the agency of Arctic indigenous peoples in global politics connected to an earlier paper on the Harriman Expedition by Jen Smith

Overall the day articulated a core point similar to that of Lines in the Ice, that our contemporary interest in and experience of the Arctic does not exist in isolation of the area's history. At a time when the challenges facing the area are immense we must not be bound to this history but learn from it to create a viable future for all of those who live in Alaska and the wider Arctic regions.

Thanks to all our participants who took the time and effort to be part of this discussion, Team Americas hopes to keep in touch with you in the future.


Symposium programme:  

Monday 16 March 2015
The British Library Conference Centre

Session 1: Emerging research on the Polar Regions

  • Claire Warrior (Cambridge and National Maritime Museum), ‘Museums, families and the continued creation of Arctic histories in Britain’
  • Michaela Pokorná (University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway), ‘The Old Frontier in a New Garment: The Last American Frontier in Charles Brower’s Fifty Years Below Zero (1942)’
  • Rosanna White (Royal Holloway, University of London/Eccles Centre), ‘Ceremonies of Possession: Performing sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic’
  • Johanna Feier (TU Dortmund University, Germany), ‘North to a Greener Future: The Filmic Construction of Alaska’s Far North’
  • Kim Salmons (St Mary’s University, Twickenham), ‘The Greely Arctic Expedition: A New Source for Joseph Conrad’s short story “Falk”’


  • Michael Robinson (Hillyer College, University of Hartford), ‘American Visions of the Arctic, 1815-2015’

Session 2: Bringing the Arctic home

  • Judith Ann Schiff (Chief Research Archivist, Yale University Library), ‘Yale’s Arctic Archives’
  • George Philip LeBourdais (Stanford University), ‘An Aesthetics of Ice: William Bradford’s Arctic Regions and America’s New Ecology’
  • Susan Eberhard (University of California, Berkeley), ‘Panther Adrift: Loss, Commemoration and William Bradford’s Arctic Landscapes’
  • Jen Smith (University of California, Berkeley), ‘(Re)imagining Race, Nature, and the Colonial Frontier in Northern Spaces through the Harriman Alaska Expedition Archive, and the Harriman Retraced of 2001’

Session 3: The Arctic and US politics

  • Matthew Kahn (Northwestern University), ‘The North Hope: Energy Development, Environmental Protection, and Competing Visions for Alaska’s North Slope’
  • Charlotte Hille (University of Amsterdam) and Ruud Janssens (University of Amsterdam), ‘National Security and Polar Profits: United States government perceptions of the Arctic from USS Nautilus to NSPD 66’
  • Dawn Alexandrea Berry (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, HI), ‘Greenlandic Resources and the Future of American Security Policies in the Arctic’
  • Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway, University of London), ‘Re-imagining Alaska: Building scientific bridges with Beringia (c.1967-2014)’