Monday, February 24, 2014

D.K. Minor in the digital age

In March 1910, the University of Illinois library received a bound set of the first sixty volumes of the American Railroad Journal from A. H. Grant of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Grant's stationery proclaims him to have been a "Dealer in Technical Periodicals Only" ("Services Prompt - Prices Reasonable - Terms Cash"). Grant closed his letter asking that the library make the "earliest possible remittance, as I had to pay cash, not an easy matter at this time of year."

One hundred years later, the university partnered with the Internet Archive to make these same bound volumes available over the internet. I found the volumes (including Grant's letter, scanned in the the first volume) through HathiTrust, a staggering collection of online materials from a consortium of research libraries. HathiTrust takes the time and effort to get the metadata correct, meaning that searches can be executed with Library of Congress subject headings and a host of other methods.

D. K. Minor began publishing the American Railroad Journal in January 1832. At the time, railroads powered by steam were hardly a sure bet. Yet Minor believed that the time was right for a journal dedicated to internal improvements. He made his goal clear in the very first issue, stating that he wanted to "diffuse a more general knowledge of this important mode of internal communication, which, at this time, appears to engage the attention of almost every section of the country." The American Railroad Journal was an exceptionally important resource for me when writing Railroads in the Old South, since I could mine its pages for evidence that southern railroad developments were engaged in a broader, national conversation about internal improvement. Minor's journal existed during the nullification controversy and the run-up to the Civil War, allowing me to judge how railroad promoters balanced sectional politics with their goals of a national system of internal improvements.

At the time of its publication, Minor's journal was read all over the country, as the lists of subscribers printed in the journal attested. Now that the journal is available on the internet, his goal of "diffus[ing]" knowledge about railroads is even easier to accomplish. While I don't regret the time I spent hunkered over the microfilm version of the journal when I was researching my first book, I am certainly glad to see that this critical source for U.S. railroad history available online.

Additional reading: Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, volume 2, 1850-1865 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1938), pages 297-300 covers the history of the journal. See also "One Hundred Years with the Railroads," Railway Mechanical Engineer 105 (October 1932): 385-392, 401.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Get Off the Track!": Sheet music and railroads

While doing research at the American Antiquarian Society, I was struck at the large amount of sheet music which included railroads as a theme: "Locomotive Polka," "Railroad March for the Fourth of July," "Railroad Quick Step," and so on. Some of this sheet music included handsome illustrations of trains on the cover. In the remarkable case of the "Alsacian Railroad Gallops" by J. Guignard (1845), the railroad is even incorporated into the bars of music:


The beginning of the piece is marked "Moderato - The Train is in Motion," and by the third stave the marking has changed to "Allegro - Look Out for the Locomotive!" The chromatic run at the bottom of page is marked to mimic the "smoke and hissing of the locomotive." You can find a larger image here. It is posted online courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.

Another example which caught my eye is "Get Off the Track!" published in 1844 and written for the Hutchinson Family Singers, known for their abolitionist songs. "Get Off the Track!" is no exception:


There is a lot happening in this image (larger version here; it is posted online courtesy of the Library of Congress). Front and center, a carriage marked "Immediate Emancipation" is pulled along by an engine marked "Liberator," a reference to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper. In the background, the trains of Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay are crashing into ruin. The lyrics of the song make the political message even clearer, referring to Clay explicitly and van Buren by his nickname (underlining is in the original): "Rail Roads to Emancipation / Cannot rest on Clay foundation / And the tracks of 'The Magician' / Are but Rail Roads to perdition."

Railroads here form an apt metaphor for the message the Hutchinsons were trying to get across: railroads move swiftly and directly to their destination, a perfect image for the goal of immediate emancipation.

Other examples of railroads and sheet music abound (many more at the Johns Hopkins site linked above), but these two strike me as some of the most compelling: In the Alsacian case for the ingenuity of the design and in the abolitionist case for recruiting technology as a metaphor for political action.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams


A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear Walter Johnson speak at Georgetown University about his recently published book, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013). It's a marvelous book that has already garnered wide attention, including this very nice roundtable review at The Junto.

Johnson's work has been important in my own thinking, particularly his thoughts on the linkages between capitalism and slavery prior to the Civil War. There's plenty of food for thought on that topic in River of Dark Dreams, although if you read the book expressly for that purpose you will have to be patient to get to that material. That's OK, since Johnson has a lot of important things to say about the history of the Mississippi Valley, and I want to comment briefly on one which caught my eye.

Johnson has a marvelous chapter on steamboats which brings insight into an important point concerning the history of technology. High-pressure engine steamboats dominated the Mississippi. As Johnson writes:
The high-pressure engine was the defining technical feature of the Western steamboat. Whereas the low-pressure engines employed on eastern and European steamboats relied on precise tolerances to ensure the creation of a vacuum, high-pressure engines simply overcame any imprecision in manufacture (which caused leakage) through a vast overemployment of power. (page 93)
In the popular imagination, history of technology can look like a string of innovations, each better than the last. But in the case of these Western steamboats, Johnson notes that the technology actually was not improving. The high-pressure steamboats were "less efficient and more prone to explosion," they were "already antiquated at the moment of their increasing employment on the Mississippi." These boats' voracious appetite for wood, in turn, meant that "the deforestation ... of the Mississippi Valley was the condition that made possible the expansion of the steamboat economy." (page 94) These Hummers of the western waters were the dominant form of transit in the region, but their widespread adoption was was not due to better technology -- it was actually worse technology, shoved into overdrive, which made the growth possible.

Through this close examination of the technology, Johnson demonstrates that economic growth and technological improvement don't always go hand in hand, an important reminder for historians.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Transportation and political imagery

In two weeks, I'll be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association in Fresno, California. My paper is entitled "Images of Steam Transportation in Popular Culture," and it will include some my new research on images of steamboats and railroads in the antebellum era. I do not have a great deal of experience with analyzing visual culture, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get some feedback at this conference on my initial take on what some of these images mean.

When I was doing the research for this project, I was overwhelmed by the number of transportation images I found. They are everywhere: on currency, in children's literature, on broadsides, in comic almanacs, on sheet music—everywhere.

One such image is the broadside "Correct Chart of Salt River" from 1848 (from the Library of Congress). This example includes a railroad and a steamboat as part of its political imagery:


For Americans in the antebellum era, the phrase "Salt River" had the implication of a foolhardy journey, with a particular connotation in politics: during the 1832 presidential campaign, a pro-Andrew Jackson boatsman took rival Henry Clay literally "up Salt River," causing him to miss a speaking engagement (this from Liz Hutter's very nice essay "Ho for Salt River!").

This particular broadside mocks the problems which besieged Democrats during the election year of 1848. Candidate Lewis Cass is represented by a steamboat. Such a boat would seem to be an appropriate way to travel against the current, as the drawing depicts. But the boat is marked "free trade," a reference to Cass's opposition to high tariffs. Cass is about to face a series of disasters: Noise and Confusion Shoals, Santa Anna Pass, and eventually the Lake of Oblivion. By contrast, the (protectionist) Tariff of 1842 puffs ahead on a train, taking the direct route to Washington. Train tracks lead directly to the destination, avoiding the complex geography that awaits the steamboat.

Images of steam transport were common throughout the antebellum era. In this broadside, we see both types of transport recruited to make a political message: Cass's free trade about to navigate difficult waters, while the tariff has a direct route to the capital city.

Additional reading: For more on Cass, see Willard Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (1996).

Friday, July 27, 2012

SHEAR 2012

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in Baltimore. For me, SHEAR hits the sweet spot for conference size: large enough that there is a compelling variety to the program and an abundance of good choices for each time slot, but small enough that you can meet important people in the field and also not feel completely lost.


My main task at the conference was to participate in a panel which I helped put together: "Living with Annihilated Time and Space: New Social Histories of the Transportation Revolution." Graciously chaired by Dan Feller (Tennessee), the panel featured three papers which are working to create a richer history of the transportation revolution than currently exists in the historiography. In What Hath God Wrought, Daniel Walker Howe put communications front and center in the history of the early republic, so the time seems right to shepherd the transportation revolution beyond the realm of economic and business history.


My own paper consisted of material which I've posted to this blog. In my current research, I've been exploring how children learned about railroads. Given the dearth of primary source material written by children, I've been doing that most recently through shorter didactic literature and longer works of fiction. Will Mackintosh (Mary Washington) presented a fascinating paper on the "aesthetic possibilities" of the transportation revolution, looking at how travelers reflected on the aesthetic experience of their travel. Spencer Snow (Illinois) could not attend the meeting, but his paper, read by Dan Feller, challenged the ways in which historians have traditionally looked at travel guidebooks and emphasized how lived experience could contrast with the easily plotted routes in the books. We all received great comments from Christopher Clark (Connecticut), whose work I have long admired, and the audience had a series of relevant questions as well. All the feedback gave me much to consider as I re-assess my work and move forward.


With my principal obligation finished, I was able to spend the remainder of the conference enjoying the panels. I was able to fill the weekend with a nice selection of material, and was particularly struck at the number of panels engaging international themes (even beyond the Atlantic World which was such a hot topic in graduate school). In all, an enjoyable conference and one I'll look forward to returning to again.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Steamboat as metaphor and preparation for the afterlife

In the children's literature I'm reading, transportation often serves its literal purpose: moving characters in the story from one place to another. Even when having transportation in the story lets the characters discuss other things, the trip has the same purpose it would in real life.

In other cases, however, transportation's role is clearly metaphorical. Author Jacob Abbott developed an extended metaphor with a steamboat in his 1832 work Young Christian. Abbott informs the young reader that according to the Bible, a person's time on each is merely a period of probation. He then proceeds to illustrate this with what he calls "familiar examples, drawn from the actual business of life" (307). Abbott selects the steamboat as a metaphor and notes that any steamboat must be "proved" before it can be put into service. He enumerates the things which could possibly go wrong with a ship—such as poor materials or poor construction—and notes that the engineer must carefully inspect every portion of the vast new machine in over to ensure that it is working properly. The engineer in this story takes days, even weeks, to insure that every joint, bearing, valve, and gauge is in proper working order. After the engineer is satisfied with the quality of the work, only then can people climb on board.

For Abbott, the steamboat embodies both power and restraint. he tells his young readers: "And though she has within her bosom a furnace glowing with furious fires, and a reservoir of death—the elements of most dreadful ruin and conflagration—of destruction the most complete, and agony the most unutterable; and though her strength is equal to the united energy of two thousand men, she restrains it all" (310). But the technology was not invoked to scare the reader. Rather, the steamboat served as a metaphor for the readers themselves. By the end of the story, the purpose of the metaphor is clear to the reader. Each of us, Abbott tells us, has within us "susceptibilities and powers, of which you have little present conception, energies, which are hereafter to operate in producing fulness of enjoyment or horrors of suffering, of which you now but little conceive" (311). Just as the engineer had to closely inspect the steamboat before launching it and taking lives into his care, so too should the reader inspect him or herself and change anything which needs fixing. Like a mechanic readying a steamship, American youth were to inspect hand modify their hearts. Abbott admonished his readers: "You are on trial—on probation now. You will enter upon active service in another world" (311). The steamboat—what must have been commonly known to his young readers by the 1830s—served as a lesson in how to prepare oneself for life after death.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Accidents build character

My research is currently focused on children and the transportation revolution. In a previous post, I noted that descriptions of snakeheads might lead historians to assume that antebellum railroads were highly dangerous, whereas examining the actual reports of accidents and some other factors suggest that antebellum Americans saw accidents as rare enough to be an acceptable risk when traveling. Although I wasn't anticipating spending so much time on accidents at this stage of my research, my reading in children's literature has given me some additional food for thought on this topic.

The first portion of Jacob Abbott's novel Aunt Margaret; Or, How John True Kept His Resolutions (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856) is occupied with the story of how young John True and his little sister, Lucy, take the train from New York City to western Massachusetts to visit their aunt. The decision to let Lucy travel under John's care alone is not made lightly. Indeed, it gives Mr. and Mrs. True an opportunity to reflect on the differences between their own upbringing and that which they are giving their children. Mr. True hopes that the railroad journey will help their children grow up, saying: "I think that the great danger which we have to fear in respect to our children, is, that they will grown up inefficient and helpless, on account of being waited upon and taken care of so much." Mr. True notes that when he and his wife were brought up, "we were thrown in a great measure upon our own resources and responsibility from our earliest years." By contrast, the Trues worried that their own children were being raised under very different circumstances. Mr. True fretted that "under pretense of saving them from getting hurt," children would not "ever acquire[e] any substantial experiences in respect to the laws of life" (pages 14-16).

As you would expect, John is thrilled with the idea of accepting the responsibility for his sister and undertaking the exciting rail journey. Discussing the trip with his mother, John informs her that he plans to pray that he and Lucy would not encounter "an difficulty or danger." To his surprise -- and frankly, to mine when I first read the passage -- Mrs. True responds that "it may be best for you that you should get into some difficulty or danger." What could this possibly mean? Mrs. True elaborated on her reasoning:
"There are a great many ways," replied his mother, "in which good comes out of accidents in traveling. In the first place you gain experience. You are called upon to act in unexpected emergencies; and thus your judgment and discretion are exercised, and you become better qualified to act in extraordinary emergencies afterward."
Thus, the railroad was something of a school which would prepare John in case anything much more dangerous happened later in life. Mrs. True didn't feel that the railroad itself was so dangerous that the children would be unduly at risk, but that it would force the children to find creative solutions to bad situations.

Mrs. True then continued with another example, telling John that it was possible that the engine could run off the track, which would result in "three or four hours" of delay. What might happen? "Then perhaps you would get hungry; and you might lead Lucy to a farm-house not far away, and get something to eat. You would have to consider in such a case a great many things. You would have to ask the conductor, before you went, how much time there would be; and you would have to be very careful not to stay too long. All these things would afford exercise for your powers of reflection, and judgment, and forethought, and so strengthen and improve them." The railroad's risks create opportunities for John to prove his ability to care for Lucy. Rather than praying to be free from accidents, Mrs. True says, "What we ought to pray to God for, chiefly, is a quiet and peaceful mind, to make us calm and submissive to his will, under all circumstances--and then whether things go seemingly right or seemingly wrong we shall almost always be happy" (pages 28-34).

In a recent article in the Journal of the Early Republic, Will Mackintosh has argued that transportation became commodified in the antebellum era. Travel went from something that travelers had to create (getting from town to town as best they could, inquiring about paths along the way) to something they purchased at a ticket booth. Here, Mrs. True wants to make sure that the commodification of travel hasn't dulled John's ability to fend for himself in the world. Accidents were not something to be feared, but an opportunity to prove one's popper attitude in a world where so many things are beyond one's individual control.

Additional reading: Will Mackintosh's " 'Ticketed Through': The Commodification of Travel in the Nineteenth Century" (Journal of the Early Republic 32 [spring 2012]: 61-89) is a much-needed corrective to the traditional view of the transportation revolution as a backdrop for everything else happening in the antebellum era.