Firsts and lasts

October 17, 2014

One of the most frustrating things about studying early American children’s periodicals is just listing them. We rely on earlier references (Betty Longenecker Lyon’s 1942 dissertation, “A History of Children’s Secular Magazines” is a classic) or articles by collectors and earlier scholars. R. Gordon Kelly tried to pull together as much info as possible in 1984, in Children’s Periodicals of the United States.

Because it can be so difficult to even find the periodicals we want to study, a lot of us look at these lists and at the info in library catalogs like the one for the American Antiquarian Society and run with the info. Unfortunately, it’s not always accurate, because—well, okay, because it can be so difficult to even find the periodicals we want to study.

So, that’s where the research comes in. You work with what you can find; you look at eBay; you scroll through pdfs of city directories or county histories or general surveys of local publications; you search newspaper and magazine databases on general terms like “children’s magazine”; you look at the notices and advertisements in other periodicals. This, by the way, is just to get a list of what was published. I’m up to 388 titles published before 1873 (and counting: right now I’m trying to find more info on what appears to be the only Spanish-language children’s periodical published during the period).

And sometimes it turns out that we have the wrong dates for some periodicals we’ve been studying for decades. First issues and last issues seem to be the most difficult to establish. If all you have is a bound volume of the 1841 issues of Robert Merry’s Museum, you won’t know that the first issue wasn’t January 1841, but February 1841.  (October 1841 was a double issue.)

It’s more difficult when we’ve had the wrong year the whole time. Which is what I realized once I looked at advertisements for The Slave’s Friend.  Standard reference works list the first year as 1836. However, according to advertisements, the first issue was April 1835.

And we really should have known this. The Friend was published as the result of a meeting in January 1835 (at least one other magazine was published a month after it was proposed). Copies of issue number 3 were famously burned in South Carolina in July 1835.

Why have we had the wrong date all this time? Partly because the issues themselves don’t have dates on them. (Thanks a lot, American Anti-Slavery Society! And editor of The Sunday-Scholar’s Mirror, for that matter.) Since the Friend seems to have been thought of mostly as a religious tract to be “scattered unsparingly through the land” rather than subscribed to, dates were unimportant. And we’ve had the wrong date partly because— Okay, who really wants to wade through periodical after periodical, looking for teeny advertisements and one-line notices? Well, yeah, I do; but it’s really not as much fun as it sounds.

And, probably, we’ve had the wrong date because it just didn’t occur to anyone to pay attention to the fact that issues of the Friend were around to be burned in 1835. (Yes, I knew about the incident, but … Okay, I didn’t actually know the date of the incident. That’s my story, and I will be sticking to it.) The 1836 date may come from a library’s bound volume of the first year, which was available in July 1836 and may have that date on the title page. (My bound volume is missing any page before page one of issue one and may have been created from individual issues, so, no title page for me to check.)

End dates can be just as iffy. Apparently, the Friend had 38 issues. (And where are we getting that? I’m really not sure.) The usual date of last issue is 1838. (And where are we getting that? Hmm.) But a May 1839 issue of Youth’s Cabinet has a notice of an issue (not enough details, of course, to figure out which one).  More confusingly, an ad for the Cabinet in April 1839 mentions that the Friend has been discontinued. Sounds like more wading through periodicals is in order.

It was easier to find the date of the last issue of The Little Pilgrim, which reference works have ending in December 1868. Because the date of last issue right on the front cover. Of the April 1869 issue. And inside that cover is an announcement that it is, indeed, the last issue.

LC70And, suddenly, a major problem is solved: that it apparently took six months for the Pilgrim to merge with The Little Corporal.  Oh, you didn’t know about that? (Neither do the reference works.) The merger shows up on the early 1870 covers of the Corporal, which is why I spent a month or two feeling like a confused researcher: why hadn’t anybody else noticed?

Because nobody was looking at both magazines. Because they didn’t see the covers. Because they couldn’t find all the issues. Because it’s tough to find all the issues in covers.  Because other researchers spend brainpower remembering the names of their friends and family and their own phone numbers, when they could be using it wondering just why the Little Pilgrim is creeping up on the Little Corporal on the cover.

So, research. Luckily, a lot of stuff formerly available only on difficult-to-find microfilm or even-more-difficult-to-find paper (oh, long, juicy argument over Youth’s Gazette, where art thou?) is now digitized. And winter’s coming, when I won’t be pining quite so much to be out somewhere.

Okay, still pining.  But not pining as much as I could be.