Goose Commerce

Unacceptable by goosecommerce
July 30, 2009, 9:24 pm
Filed under: Archival Follies | Tags: , , ,

Or, They Got the Letter, but not the Spirit


From the microfilm room of the National Archives, Washington DC branch. It’s a recycling bin, I think.

On a related note: archives are fun, but so are days where you don’t have to empty your pockets and have all your personal effects X-rayed to go get a cup of coffee.

(Also: sorry for the poor image quality, but I didn’t want to use a flash in a dimly-lit microfilm room, and possibly incur the wrath of whatever humorless troll made this sign)


Just a normal phone, no?


Oh but wait there is a helpful danger list! (click to embiggen)


From another (undisclosed) high-risk government office, where they keep moldy papers from 19th-century amateur science clubs. Woot!

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The Engine of American Diplomacy by goosecommerce

Or, Choo-Choo! Goes the Tariff Negotiation


One of the clichés of East-West relations in the early modern era was the attempt to use representations of Western technology – especially maps and model machines – to awe non-Westerners into submission. Perhaps hoping for a repeat of Columbus’s trick with the lunar eclipse, Euro-American statesmen and diplomats apparently thought that the mere suggestion of the advanced state of Western civilization would be enough to persuade proud sovereigns to open ports, lower tariffs, and alienate land for the benefit of the major Atlantic-basin powers.

Needless to say, things rarely went down that way. In developed parts of Asia – and especially in China – these attempts repeatedly failed. The most famous of these faceplants was probably Great Britain’s 1793 embassy to China, led by Lord Macartney. The Chinese emperor declared the fancy clockwork the Brits brought – lugged across the world at great expense, and costing many man-hours to assemble – as “good enough to amuse children.” Bafflingly, the stopped cogs and wheels the Brits brought as gifts failed to make the gates to the Middle Kingdom fly off their hinges.

However, this failure – as in so many other instances of cross-cultural contact – did not impede others from flattering through imitation.
Continue reading

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Kickass Whig Letterhead by goosecommerce
July 26, 2009, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Or, Goodness that looks expensive and full of republican virtue

So, in digging through various (endless) letters about the election of 1840, I’ve come across a couple of examples of extreme dedication to the Whig cause: William Henry Harrison letterhead.

Here’s one of a coin apparently minted in Harrison’s honor (click to embiggen):


Here’s one with WHH in profile, with a vignette at his famous log cabin, complete with hard cider (click to embiggen):


How’s that for showing your dedication to the cause, eh? Buying reams of stuff stamped with ‘Ole Tip’s noble schnoz?

Sad thing is, these guys were probably stuck with it well after WHH’s untimely demise. Hopefully they had the tact not to use it …

I don’t know if the Democrats had similar stuff, though I’d expect so (but with, y’know, the Little Magician on it).

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How did knowledge drop in Early America? Part II by goosecommerce
July 26, 2009, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

Because I know you were dying to find this out


Further reading in Cushing’s papers gives us some info at least approaching an answer to this query:

Dear Sir

I take an early opportunity to write to you on the subject of the Historical Society, agreeably to your obliging request. It was incorporated by the Legislature of this State, in the year 1809, when Clinton, Tompkins, Brockholst, Livingston, Bishop Moore, & other eminent men of that day, were among its active members. Its corporate name is, “The New York Historical Society.”

The Congressional Journals & Documents are regularly sent to the Society, but there are other publications to which we may be entitled – such as – the American State Papers, Diplomatic Correspondence, Gale & Seaton’s Debates, the Madison Papers, the Catalogue of the Library of Congress & of the State Department, &c.

I need not add, that should it be in your power to procure for our Library copies of any of these or other works published by Congress, you will confer a great obligation upon the Society.

The Library now contains about 12000 volumes, chiefly books of great value in connexion to the history of our country. Since my accession to the laborious office of Librarian, now nearly two years, more than a thousand volumes have been added, of which a great part have been donations; and it is my ambition to render it the most complete collection of books relating to America to be found in our country. …

~George Folsom to Caleb Cushing, New York, 11 Dec 1840, in Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress

So: the New York Historical Society (or, as it affects itself to be now, the “New-York Historical Society“) was considered a “public” library eligible to recieve Congressional documents, though not by any means all government documents (hence the letter to Cushing).

Interesting. So “public” in the sense of being “public spirited” not, say, “open to the rabble,” like the later Carnegie-funded libraries would be. Now the next question is, how deep did this distribution go? Did libraries without the ambition to become the best collection of Americana also get government reports?

(Also: thanks to those who commented; I haven’t gotten a chance to do any secondary reading, but Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town is on my list)

More to come.

Image cite: marsi, “packing papers,” Flickr, CC License

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Bloggitty blog blog blog by goosecommerce
July 25, 2009, 8:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Or, My Navel is Quite Interesting, Thank You


As far as solipsistic synopses of premature punditry go, this, by Scott Rosenberg (author of Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters) is pretty damn sharp. (h/t)

It starts off with some throat-clearing repetition of conventional wisdom about technological history (of fairly recent vintage, incidentally), which initially made me a bit doubtful (which isn’t to say I disagree, precisely; it’s just history and its interpretation are a bit…elastic), but then quickly starts flinging the analytic insights fast and furious.

For example:

A blog lets you define yourself, whereas on a social network you are more likely to be defined by others. Sure, blog readers can write comments — but the blogger can delete the comments, or disemvowel them, or turn them off entirely. Sure, a blog is dependent on the links you point outward and those that others point in; but it has its own independent existence in a way that no amount of messaging and chat and interaction on a social networking site can match.


A blog lets you raise your voice without asking anyone’s permission, and no one is in a position to tell you to shut up. It is, as the journalism scholar Jay Rosen puts it, “a little First Amendment machine,” an engine of free speech operating powerfully at a fulcrum-point between individual autonomy and the pressures of the group.


Blogging uniquely straddles the acts of writing and reading; it can be private and public, solitary and gregarious, in ratios that each practitioner sets for himself. … Nothing else so richly combines the invitation to speak your mind with the opportunity to mix it up with other minds.

Now, if I were a history blogger truly worthy of being listed on the Cliopatria blogroll, I’d follow this with some kind of comparison to how people thought about the invention of the rotary printing press or the clipper ship or political parties some such thing…but I have quasi-valid philosophical objections (see above, re: history of technological progress) and besides, it’s late and I am tired, so no go. Have an orange instead, they’re cheap.

Image cite:Robert S. Donovan, “navel oranges 99¢ LB,” Flickr, CC License

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How did knowledge drop in Early America? by goosecommerce
July 25, 2009, 9:00 am
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

Or, if a congressional report falls in the forest, can anyone find it?


I ran across this letter today while poking through the correspondence of Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts Congressman and semi-influential figure in Whig politics. On the surface, it’s a perfectly normal letter, but the more I started thinking about it, the weirder it seemed.

But first, here’s the text:

Dear Sir,

I had the honor to receive the documents relative to the northeastern boundaries, & I feel truly obliged to you for your very kind & polite attention in putting yourself to the trouble of procuring & forwarding it. Our public libraries which are entitled to a copy of the Congress documents, do not generally receive them till very late, & they are often permitted to lie for a long time boxed up at the State house, because the officers of the library do not call for them – With renewed thanks for your repeated courtesies,
I have the honor to be,
very respectfully, &c
J. G. Bradford

~J. G. Bradford to Caleb Cushing, Boston, 20 July 1839, Container 20, Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress

Cushing has a ton of letters just like this — either requests for public documents or thanks for the same. The correspondence files of most other politicians, in fact, from the backbenchers to important national figures, is just the same; at times, such request for reports almost outnumber requests for patronage gigs.

So what struck me was not that Cushing was doing such distribution, but that Bradford expected that public libraries would obviate the need for a personal request. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly commonsensical; of course Congress would distribute documents that way! But then you think…to what public libraries? They didn’t exist yet (or at least I didn’t thinks so). And then as the sheer number of requests — even from areas wading in seas of cheap print, like urban New England – attests, the reality seems to be that these documents were fairly difficult to lay hands on. Or maybe I’m only getting exposure to the lazy / motivated people.

Before seeing this letter, I had assumed that either government officials (Congressmen, et al.) distributed their alloted copies themselves, especially to their favored newspapers (which commonly summarized important reports and speeches); or people read summaries of reports in other print media. But this bit about public libraries really makes me wonder…

So my question is: what was the legislation on this? How were these documents supposed to be distributed? How were the actually distributed? And what does the daylight between these two poles mean?

I’m going to do a bit of digging on this, but suggestions (or even better, facts) welcome.

Image cite: nacaseven, “Holiday!” Flickr, CC License

The Romance of the Tapirs by goosecommerce

Also, A Blog Jubilee


To celebrate the fiftieth post on this here blog* I thought I might share a sweet little story I found today. Who’s day isn’t improved when theorists of organic American nationalism, tapirs, and romance are in the mix?

Here’s the context: Francis Lieber, famed German-American jurist and political economist is writing to his BFF** Samuel B. Ruggles to tell him that he’s safely returned home from his visit to NYC. After spending most of his letter begging Ruggles to help find him a job at Columbia College because (ironically) he hates life in Columbia, South Carolina, he lightens the tone by recounting a “ludicrous scene” he saw on the train ride home.

To wit:

… My journey was plain, hum-drum, as most [railroad] journeys are. One ludicrous scene I witnessed. You may remember that the platforms in the depot at Baltimore run a long way on both sides of the rail, and are on a level with the cars, when they come in. I was in the first and stepped out; an elderly gentleman was standing near me, waiting for some one. When the next car came in, I saw a woman looking anxiously out of one of the windows; the gentleman reached toward her, and, she protruding her lips, he tried by an equally elongated mouth to catch the proffered kiss, but the cars moved on, so did the woman and consequently her lips, which she stretched longer and longer; the elderly man ran astride on the platform and as the horses moved faster than he, his mouth in turn stretched farther and farther, as one might imagine an India rubber tube would do, if it could be attracted by some magnet.

My fancy could not help imagining some enamored tapirs, stretching their trunks farther and farther toward one another, to catch the token of love, yet without success. On this whole scene moved, car, woman, man, trunks and all until they passed me and I thought I felt the old man’s funnel, formed of his mouth, brush my occiput, while the woman’s swept my nose in front. The scene was abundantly ludicrous and yet deeply touching to me, who was hastening to his wife and children. And altogether, is not that which is touching of itself, the more so for being manifested in some thing ludicrous? Is not this the secret of many of the most moving, nay harrowing scenes of Dickens’s, e.g. all those dreadful scences at Squeer’s school?? The contrast heightens the effect, as also the part that the people not caring for the ludicrous exposure show only the depth and earnestness of their feelings. …

~Francis Lieber to Samuel B. Ruggles, October 10, 1842, Francis Lieber Papers, 1830-1872, Library of Congress

Lieber, in addition for his gift for political philosophy, had, at times, a certain way with imagery. (Remind me to show you his ode to the idea of a Panamanian Canal sometime).

And before you ask: yes, the first rail cars were indeed powered by horseflesh, not steam engines. The cars even looked like stagecoaches (sorry I don’t have a pic, but use your imagination).

I’m not sure if in this case horses were just used to maneuver individual train cars around the station, or if they were actually pulling train the whole way. I suspect the latter, as Baltimore was early in railroad development. In any case, a good reminder that one of the key innovations of railroads was the lower coefficient of friction (μ) on land –- not just the application of steam power.

* 153 days old, more or less, today. Who knew? Don’t worry, I won’t mark every anniversary like a hyperactive moonstruck tween couple.

** No but really; their correspondence is quite touching.

Image cite: guppiecat, “Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus),” Flickr, CC License

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A Plethoric Cyclopedia of Links by goosecommerce
July 13, 2009, 6:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Or, Why Not Blog and Be Sick at the Same Time


Your devoted correspondent has of late been sidetracked by a nasty bout of bilious fever (never eat a salad at Chipotle!), preventing trips to both the Archives and the Intertubes. However, because I do not wish you, my kind and gentle readers, to be deprived of my avatarial presence for too long, please enjoy the following random links in lieu of more developed musings:

  • Sterling Fluharty, at Cliopatria, asked a really good question the other day: “Who Reads History Books?” His proposed method of finding out, using Amazon and a method poached from social scientists, strikes me as a good start. Anyone with the expertise that could help a fellow historian? Also, his post reminds me of how terrible the commenting mechanism over at Cliopatria is (so terrible). MoveableType anyone? WordPress? please? Goodness.
  • If you love Kate Beaton (and I know you do), allow me to recommend the lovely work of Sydney Padua who’s in the midst of doing a great alt-history series on Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.The comics are longer-form, and the drawing a bit more detailed, and so actually a bit more in the style of someone like Dylan Meconis more than Beaton; but in any case, who can resist a story that name checks Martin Van Buren, the panic of 1837, and the Duke of Wellington and his horse? Not I; and neither you. You may want to start with the origin story. (h/t)
  • Sean Safford has a fascinating post, over at OrgTheory, about the possible consequences of Penske’s purchase of Saturn. Safford argues that the shift that Penske could be initiating is from a “producer-driven” commodity chain to a “buyer-driven” one — basically shifting the auto industry into the same sort of model that governs most other industries now (think: computers, sneakers, etc). This is the clearest statement about this deal that I’ve heard, and should be of interest to all students of American capitalism (of which this blog hopes/purports to be, in part). It might mean that the M-form corporation is finally, and completely, dead. That could have consequences…
  • This is a bit of old(ish) news, but Caleb Crain, Lingua Franca alum, generally great reviewer and correspondent of many a tony publication, and proprietor of the excellent blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything, has recently (self) published a dead-tree version of his best posts, titled The Wreck of the Henry Clay. He also had an interesting talk about the process of turning a blog into a book over at the New Yorker. The book is on my to-read list, and I’ll let you know how it goes.
  • Finally, on a note that at least touches on the steampunk vibe that partly animates this establishment: there is robot unemployment in Japan.

Image cite: Balakov, “Everyone loves kites,” Flickr, CC License

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JQA, the Universe, And Everything by goosecommerce
July 11, 2009, 10:56 pm
Filed under: Adams Family | Tags: , ,

Or, For He’s A Quite Dour Fellow, Which Nobody Can Deny

the bouncing birthday boy

the bouncing birthday boy

This blog would be terribly remiss if it failed to note that today, the eleventh day of July, is John Quincy Adams’s birthday. So let’s pour one out for Old Man Eloquent.

Though as Jeremy Dibble over at the MHS blog, The Beehive, demonstrated today, JQA has a certain … knack … for deflating even the happiest of occasions.

Via Jeremy, here’s JQA’s diary entry on the most important birthday of them all, the forty-second, (in 1809; good lord that man lived for ever). Adams, as you’d expect, was his usual lighthearted self :

The year of my life now expiring has been marked by a continuance of that persecution which the combined personal enemies of my father and myself, had unrelentingly pursued the year before. It has appeared in various forms, some of them singular enough; but its effect has been to impel me into more general notice and estimation throughout the country. … I pray for clearness of intellectual vision to see the right path – for the necessary courage to pursue it; and for the Fortitude and the Temperance to bear with equanimity the vicissitudes of its Fortunes, whether adverse or propitious. Grant, O God, that I may do good to my Country and to Mankind! And deal with me, and mine, if it be they gracious will, in Mercy.

Yeah, you can totally see why he rocks that party hat so hard. And that it’s probably no coincidence he shares a birthday week with one Jean Cauvin

In any case, between celebratory toasts of madeira and guilt, you should check out the wonderful things that Jeremy, and the rest of the folks at MHS, are doing with their blog and twitter feed.

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Declining Declension by goosecommerce

Or, “There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.”

Egg Suicide

These are not quite post-July 4th musings, but I think on a holiday where we look back on our national past with a split vision — simultaneously measuring how short we’ve fallen from the founders’ gilded example, but also how far we’ve taken their ideas — it might be appropriate to think a little about declension narratives, and why they are, by and large, such useless tools with which to think.

(I should note that this is a complaint of many, many, many historians; so my ranting is less about how others in my hoped-for-profession and more about how history is used in arguments in other settings).

What got me thinking about this was not anything about stars, spangles, or banners. It was a short piece on the precise characteristics of a decline we’re right in the middle of — that of the newspapers industry, or, if you prefer, journalism. It was published in Slate by Jack Shafer. Shafer puts journalism’s overwrought swan song in a medium-term (20th-century) historical context, noting that veteran journalists have been complaining that their profession’s institutional bases have been shrinking, with sure-to-be-dire results, for decades. By putting current hand-wringing about the “death” of newspapers into this context, Shafer manages a nice bit of anti-declension programming, and a highly effective one at that.

Happy libertarian that he is, Shafer argues that we shouldn’t worry, because:

journalism has generally benefited by increases in the number of competitors, the entry of new and once-marginalized players, and the creation of new approaches to cracking stories. Just because the journalism business is going to hell and it may no longer make economic sense to maintain mega-news bureaus at the center of war zones doesn’t mean that journalism isn’t thriving.

So the future looks bright, if not lucrative.

I think Shafer’s got the right line here, even if I am a bit less sanguine about the near future than he is (to be fair, I’m a bit less sanguine about the virtues of the past and the present, too). By puncturing the common wisdom’s declension narrative — even by a little bit — he’s illustrated one of the problems with all declension narratives, whether they’re about the vibrancy of the American press, or teen pregnancy rates, or the relative sinfulness of the world. They are almost always rooted in a shallow, ill-informed nostalgia.

In this case, the common wisdom’s point of view only makes sense if large news organizations were necessary for Watergate-like investigations to be the norm, which, since they aren’t, just doesn’t hold up. The big organizations, now anyway, seem to be blowing even the easy calls. Just think about the last few weeks, where a major uprising in Iran didn’t get reported until it was half-over. Or, see the last few of weeks of sad corruption stories coming out of the Washington Post.

I think there’s enough evidence that at least some of the current institutions representing the pinnacle of journalism do not deserve to be regarded with any sort of reverence (even aside from the need to regard all powerful institutions in a democracy with a irreverent sensibility). I would submit that the NYT Style and Week in Review sections, or anything starring Wolf Blitzer, may serve as exhibits C thru Z.

But this is not a recent development: think about how Pultizer made his money.

In fact, this deep concern for the purity of a form of journalism based on monopoly rents is particularly laughable for anyone who reads early 19th-century newspapers, as then the loud voices in the early American press — the important political voices — were predominately those of highly partisan editors, most of them scrambling to make a buck. Distortions, rumors, and outright lies were not a bug; they were a key feature. Somehow the republic survived; and if you think our public officials now — or then — were more virtuous, then I’d like you to review the biographies of the past and present governors of South Carolina very carefully.

Moreover, I think the problem with the “the decline of journalism we’re seeing now means the end of the world!” meme is a peculiar illustration of one of the other common problems iwth declension narratives. As a smarter historian than I noted:

Although the oversimplication of the past is something to be concerned about, the declensionist pull does the most damage in its tendency to push the past further away thus rendering it more difficult to identify with.  After all, if there was indeed a fall from grace the people who lived long ago must be of a different kind altogether.  As a result, our response tends to be veneration rather than understanding and this is where, as I see it, the “collateral damage” sets in. 

In this case, I think the veneration of the never-extant heroic past of journalism gives a sheen to organizations — and individuals — who most certainly do not deserve it, thus retarding the actual purpose of good journalism. The past gets in the way of the present, and the future, even mid-decline. No real thinking gets done, just genuflecting.

This is all not to recommend a relentless philoneism, or to say that changes shouldn’t be weighed for their relative values of good and bad. And I share the worry of many that the new system of production for information — in all formats and areas — is not quite yet up to meeting the responsibilities of the old. But realizing that change is (and always has been, and always will be) persistently bemoaned and decried in exactly the same ways as a decline in standards/threat to the republic/et al. should temper the despair.

Image cite: Erica Marshall of, “Egg Suicide,” Flickr, CC License

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