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Be Kind, Rewind: My Time with Microfilm

The Microfilm viewing section of the Dickinson College Library

After a few weeks of archival research, I considered myself to be a proper history detective, though admittedly only in training. My experience remained limited, however, and it became clear that before I could fully understand the scope of historical research I would have to decipher the mystery of microfilm. As is often best practice when learning a new skill, I started by doing something I know well: asking my friendly neighborhood archivist for help. He provided me with a finding guide for both physical newspapers kept in the archives and the reels of microfilm, and with guidebook in hand I got to work.

Step One:  Basic Training

The first thing one sees when entering the microfilm section of the Dickinson College Library is the expanse of cabinets in which reels are kept. Luckily for me, these reels are organized in the finding guide alphabetically by newspaper title and chronologically by publication date. I wrote down three newspapers which had the year 1840 within their range and got to work.

Microfilm Reader and Screen

The downside of venturing into the microfilm section is that my beloved archivists, Jim Gerencser and Malinda Triller-Doran, don’t have jurisdiction there. As such, I had to make new connections, and thus began with the receptionist at the basement circulation desk. She sent me upstairs to the main desk, where a supervisor and student worker were excited to try their hand at the machine. With their guidance, I was able to learn some of the basics, and once we had the first reel in the rest was more or less intuitive.

Close-up of Reader

The reels of film resemble VHS tapes removed from their box, and the process of playing and rewinding them was very tactile and satisfying. Being able to physically see the little pictures moving on the tape was far more engaging than scrolling through digitized archives online, even if it did take a little more skill and finesse.

 

Step Two: Finding the Reels

The three newspapers I identified in the finding guide were The Carlisle Herald and Expositor, The American Volunteer, and The Republican. Unfortunately, the run of The Republican, though listed as ranging from 1835-1891, actually had a gap during the time I was interested in studying, but with the information in the guide the first two newspapers were easy to find in the cabinets. Microfilm takes some patience, especially when trying to move through a lot of data at once. For example, the tape for The American Volunteer began with the 1833 editions, but I didn’t intend on using any issues published before 1838. As such, I was overjoyed to find a button on the reader’s interface which fast-forwards the film without the user having to keep their finger on the button, allowing me to do further research while the tape wound.

Election Map describing Democrats as Locofocos (click for more information)

During one of these breaks I decided to finally uncover more about the mysterious Locofoco party, which I had never encountered in my earlier education but whose name had appeared multiple times in my reading. After a quick search in the Dickinson Online Databases, I found an article by Carl N. Degler, a history professor at Vassar, entitled “The Locofocos: Urban ‘Agrarians.’”[1] From this piece I learned that the Locofocos were a faction of the Democratic party which aimed to curry favor with the poor and pulled from the same voting groups as Democratic president Andrew Jackson.

 

Step Three: The Expositor

1838 Carlisle Herald and Expositor [2]
With this information in mind and the microfilm finally wound to the correct year, I looked first at the May 1, 1838 edition of The Carlisle Herald and Expositor. This newspaper was far more clearly organized than some others of its time, and I was thrilled to find that it had in fact a whole column dedicated to political issues[2]. On this date, some time before the presidential election, the paper instead covered the upcoming 1838 gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania. It was a point-by-point takedown of Democratic candidate David R. Porter and, while it said little about the nature of the presidential election to come, it did establish the Expositor as a solidly Whig-leaning paper and laid out the views of Whig Carlilians of the time.

1838 Expositor Political Advertisement [3]
Far more telling than the first headline which caught my eye was in fact an advertisement[3] on the second page which clearly endorsed the Whig William Henry Harrison for president fully two years before the election. The seemingly interminable election cycle which repeats itself every four years in the United States has been oft-bemoaned as tiring and unnecessary, so it was interesting to see its roots as far back as 1838.

 

Intrigued by what I had found in the Expositor, I attempted to do more outside research on these small tickets, which my professor informed me could actually be used as ballots. Starting with a broad google search, I combined many term clusters such as “william henry harrison,” “newspaper,” “ballots,” and “1840 voting system.” I didn’t find very much about the ballots, but I did discover that the campaigns actually each had their own newspapers in addition to the already partisan local weeklies, so I would be eager as a I continue my research to explore these documents further and investigate how they influenced the election.

1839 Expositor article on presidential race [4]
Moving forward, I skipped to the next year’s issues and found an article entitled “The Next President”[4] on page two of the May 8, 1839 edition. At this point, the gubernatorial election had still not taken place: the paper continued to endorse incumbent Anti-Masonic Joseph Ritner. Their man would go on to lose to Democrat David R. Porter whom the paper had so lambasted the previous May, but at the time of printing the paper was eagerly awaiting Ritner’s re-election, predicting that the Democratic party would “sink forever, with its misdeeds.”4

By the time of this publication, with the presidential election about a year and a half away, the Expositor wished to focus on the task at hand: “We go first for the re-election of Joseph Ritner–Then we go for General Harrison…because we belive [sic] him to be the most available candidate for Pennsylvania.”4 These mentions of the presidential race so long before it actually occurred show how this was to be a different game altogether, but only with further research will I uncover how the newspapers handled the campaign itself.

Step Four: The Volunteer

1837 American Volunteer article on Democratic Meeting [5]
Though I will be sure to return to the later issues of the Expositor, during this first visit to the microfilm machine I was eager to see another political point of view. To that end I next fed in the reel for The American Volunteer, a Democratic paper which covered a “Great Democratic Meeting”[5] on October 8, 1837. This issue was also discussing the gubernatorial election, an event which seems to have sown the seeds of inter-party animosity in Pennsylvania leading up to the polarizing 1840 presidential election. The Volunteer saw the gravity of the situation and described the battle to come: “We are on the eve of an election of the most important character; an election in which the question whether the people or a local aristocracy will rule.”5

Having seen how the local writers of both parties viewed one another before the presidential election, I am anxious to visit the Cumberland County archives to see later articles and determine how they dealt with the unique campaign and eventual result.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Carl N. Degler, “The Locofocos: Urban ‘Agrarians,’” The Journal of Economic History, 16, no. 3 (1956): 322-333

[2] The Carlisle Herald and Expositor (Carlisle, PA),  May 1, 1838, pg 1 col. 7

[3] The Carlisle Herald and Expositor (Carlisle, PA), May 1, 1838, pg 2 col. 6

[4] The Carlisle Herald and Expositor (Carlisle, PA), May 8, 1839, pg 2 col. 7

[5] The American Volunteer (Carlisle, PA), October 8, 1837, pg 1 col. 4

History Detectives: Carlisle Edition

As a PBS kid, I often watched the TV show History Detectives, which showed a team of historians tracking the stories of objects and families. It was one of my first introductions to history as a real career, and the history detectives were one of my inspirations when choosing to become a student of history. Because of this experience in childhood, I was delighted when assigned as a part of my historical methodology class to become a history detective myself. The journey began in my History 204’s class’ first visit to the Dickinson College archives, where the wood paneled walls and cases of rare books and artifacts made me feel like a real historian. That moment of discovery drew me into archival research, and my independent research visits only strengthened my resolve.

First Visit: Newspapers

On our first trip as a class we mostly worked with facsimiles and transcriptions, but when I returned to the archives on my own I was treated as a truly independent researcher, responsible enough to handle originals. I had as my general topic of research the election of 1840, and decided to turn to newspapers as my first source. Unfortunately, few newspapers from 1840 are available in the College archives, but I did read two telling articles from 1844, one on the Cumberland County Whig Convention in Carlisle and one on President Tyler’s withdrawal from the 1844 election.

The one newspaper source which was available from 1840 was actually a transcription of a speech by Dickinsonian Democrat James Buchanan on the folly and hypocrisy of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. This speech provided interesting insight into the Democrats’ view of their opponents, itemizing the many specific policy differences between the two parties.

Example of 19th century newspaper                    Courtesy of Library of Congress

These three sources all demonstrated the idiosyncrasies of newspapers at the time, namely the lack of organization and bylines as well as the small size of print. Luckily for me, the Dickinson archives provide finding guides for all of their resources, which in the case of newspapers often index the article in that edition which relates to Carlisle. Without the page and column numbers for the coveted articles I would never have found the piece on the Whig convention, for it was hidden in the fifth column of the third page. In the 19th century, articles were not organized into specific topic. With this work being in fact a printed letter, it was listed simply under “personal correspondence,” a non-descriptive title that does little to guide the reader. As such, without the help of the finding guide it would be necessary to browse every newspaper from the time period in the Dickinson archive, a tedious and most likely fruitless task.

Second Visit: Letters

On my second visit to the archives I decided to turn my focus from newspapers to personal writings, thinking (correctly) that the College might have more letters than newspapers from the given year. In preparation for my trip I searched the archive website for many terms, including “class of 1840,” “election of 1840,” “William Henry Harrison,” and “John Tyler.”  Through this search I came across the collection of Isaac Wayne’s papers, and though I had never heard that name before I decided to dig deeper.

Wayne was in fact a member of Dickinson’s class of 1792, and by the time of the 1840 election he was a retired farmer in rural Pennsylvania. Despite this, he was still considered to be an important member of the Whig party, and the Dickinson archives many of his documents related to political goings-on. One of these, which excited me greatly when I came across its entry online, was the letter from Wayne written in 1840 to a General Harrison, presumably the presidential candidate himself.

Letter to Harrison (pg 1 of 4)

This letter[1], dated April 27, looks at first glance like the archetype of the dream archival find. Hidden in a folder with many other papers, it appeared like a beam of light in the form of distressed parchment–or at least that’s how it seemed to be at first. Upon further inspection, I made the disappointing discovery that the letter was completely illegible. After a frustrating and eye-straining twenty minutes, I finally gave up the ghost on this particular document as incomprehensible to one untrained in the art of deciphering terrible handwriting.

Disappointed but determined, I continued going through Wayne’s other papers, and was happy to find one in a hand other than his own. In the same box as the letter to General Harrison was correspondence from Henry Evans[2], a man with beautiful, pristine handwriting. I began the letter eagerly, quickly drafting my transcription, but unfortunately the missive revealed little of the political climate at the time. It was simply an invitation to speak at the Whig convention, something that might be useful to one studying Isaac Wayne specifically but which did little to illuminate how Carlislians or residents of Cumberland County felt about either candidate.

My last attempt for this particular archive visit was a document in which I had little hope: another piece written with the puzzling penmanship of Isaac Wayne. It was described as a “Draft of a resolution in favor of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.”[3] I requested the file ready to work even harder to decipher it, but to my elation Wayne did in fact try to make this resolution, a much more official document than the previously studied letter, presentable.

Written on one remarkably well-preserved page is a record of both Wayne’s and his fellow Whigs’ feelings towards their presidential candidate which, though not specific, do give the impression of passionate support and enthusiasm. What the document lacks in policy details it makes up for in flowery and powerful language, which matches the tone of a campaign which used slogans and songs to reach the hearts as well as the minds of the people.

Resolution

 

Resolved

            That the people of the United States were happy and prosperous until the sources of their prosperity and happiness were assailed [line illegible] thus was a gloom over [one word illegible] afraid the nation which nothing short of the substitution of both men and measures can dispel.

Resolved

            That we will use our best exertions to [one word illegible] the election of William H. Harrison and John Tyler to the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the United States, firmly believing as we do, that under their auspices our national affairs would be placed in such a [one word illegible] ultimately to ensure great and memorable blessings to our beloved country.

Resolved

            That whatever may be the result of the general or special election between this period and the election of the Electors for the President and Vice President of the United States in November next we will not relax our endeavors to afford a successful [one word illegible] to the Whig electoral ticket

Resolved

That we approve of the call for a general county convention to be held at Westchester on the 9th of June for the purpose of forming a more efficient organization of the friends of Harrison and Tyler; and to bring into consideration arrangements for the approaching general election. We therefore have appointed the following named persons as Delegated to represent the Township of Easton in said Convention–

 

Though my research question has not yet been fully formulated, let alone answered, these visits to the archives provided invaluable experience in both how to successfully locate documents when beginning research and how to move on when a source isn’t all you had hoped it would be. I look forward to diving deeper into the archives and finding out more about this topic, in addition to possibly exploring other aspects of the class of 1840.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Isaac Wayne to General Harrison, April 27, 1840. Collection of Isaac Wayne MC 2001.11, Box 1 Folder 2, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[2] Henry Evans to Issac Wayne, April 21, 1840. Collection of Isaac Wayne MC 2001.11, Box 1 Folder 6, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

[3] Draft of resolution in favor of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler [in Isaac Wayne’s hand] – 1840. Collection of Isaac Wayne MC 2001.11, Box 1 Folder 7, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.