Sounds of History: What Did Early America Sound Like?

What did early America sound like? boston-harbor

This recurring thought has recently moved from the back of my brain to its front.

I'm fortunate to live in Boston, a city that attempts to preserve vestiges of its early American past even as it builds around them. Living in a place with many visual reminders of the 18th and 19th centuries provides ample reminders to pause and listen for early America.

In recent weeks it has become typical to find me standing at the corner of State and Congress Streets, for example, staring down State Street at the Long Wharf, tuning out the cars in the foreground, and trying to imagine what it sounded like when ships pulled into and out of port and dockworkers loaded and unloaded cargo holds. Or standing on a lawn on the Common trying to imagine the sounds the British military encampments made in 1768 and during the 1770s.

I've even started pacing the sidewalks in my neighborhood in areas where the sidewalk transitions from granite cobblestones to brick pavers. I'm wearing modern shoes, but the sounds my shoes make as they make contact with these different materials sounds different. What would it sound like if I wore period shoes?

Sound shapes our world, mostly in unconscious ways. It drives our experiences in part by establishing context and setting expectations.

Film provides a great example of the power of sound and how it shapes our expectations and experiences.

For example, let's explore a few of the sounds in Star Wars. The movie opens and immediately the music used to introduce the film sets an expectation that we are in for a grand, epic tale about "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Background music and sounds frame scenes so we know if we're watching Tie Fighters chase the Millennium Falcon or a shoot out between rebels and drones. We also know when Darth Vader is coming. His heavy, ominous breathing gives him away even before we see him on screen.

If you want to have some fun, try watching Star Wars (or any other film) without sound. It changes the experience and makes it easy to lose the story because it lacks the context sound provides.


The fourteenth and final episode in the "Doing History: How Historians Work" posted today. Each series episode presents a discussion with one or more of the seventeen historians, archivists, and genealogists I interviewed about how they work with and use the historical process. As I reflect back on all the sage advice they provided, two recurring themes stand out:

1. Process: The production of historical knowledge comes out of a collaborative process based on evidence, analysis, and interpretation. Even historians who claim to work alone rely on work produced by other historians and on sources produced by people who lived in the past.

2. People: History is about people. It's the study of how and why people lived, acted, and responded in different times, places, and circumstances. It tells us who we are as people, communities, and individuals and its knowledge provides us with the intellectual tools we need to navigate and better understand our present-day world.

In the final episode of the "Doing History: How Historians Work" series, Lonnie Bunch, the Founding Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture stresses that historians need to humanize the past so that everyone can relate to history and realize that the past is alive and a part of who they are.

For most humans, sound is a fundamental part of who we are. It's an essential part of our humanity as it frames every moment of every day and shapes our preferences and moods.

Sound has the power to humanize the past in a way that the text in books, articles, and exhibits cannot. It has the power to evoke mental images, create empathy, and to tell us something about the ways people lived, worked, and responded to events in ways that we cannot fully understand through text alone. I believe that sound can work with the other media historians produce to create a more three-dimensional image of past peoples, places, and events and to make them seem more real, more human.

Therefore, I plan to spend 2017 thinking more consciously about what early America sounded like and experimenting with sound in my scholarship. I expect you will see and hear the results of my thinking in future podcast episodes--especially those in the forthcoming "Doing History: To the Revolution!" series and in how I think and talk about my new book project on the Articles of Confederation--a project that I've already begun to compose in both text and sound.

That's what I'm working on in 2017. What aspect of history will you be working on and exploring?


Awesome Boston Views

Google Logo On Saturday December 5, 2015, Tim and I attended the annual Google Holiday Party.

Each year, Google hosts its holiday party in a different location. My favorite event is still the "Prohibition Repeal Day" themed party at the Moakley Court House in 2012, but this year's event at 60 State Street is a close second.

Although the "Masquerade" theme seemed a bit confused, the views of night-time Boston were incredible.

I did my best to capture the views with my smartphone camera. I hope you enjoy.


Customs House Ground

Old State House

Customs House


Zakim Bridge and Boston Garden


Quincy Market


Faneuil Hall


Bunker Hill Monument


Liz and Tim


Commemorating the Stamp Act Sestercentennial

1765_one_penny_stampThe sestercentennial (250th anniversary) of the first Boston Stamp Act riot took place on August 14, 2015.  I commemorated the event by releasing a bonus episode of Ben Franklin's World about the Stamp Act and the Boston riots and by hosting the first ever Ben Franklin's World Listener Meet-up. The meet-up consisted of a two-hour walking tour of Boston that focused on the Stamp Act riots and the role Boston played in the American Revolution.

I wrote the tour and offered it through Boston By Foot, an organization of volunteers who lead history and architecture walking tours of Boston.

Thirty-eight people took the tour, about twenty people heard about it through the podcast.

Stamp Act Tour CollageThe tour began in front of the Massachusetts State House and from there stopped by the Granary Burying Ground (we had to stop and say "hello" to John Hancock, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, and Robert Treat Paine), King's ChapelOld South Meeting House, the building that marks the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, the Old State House and Boston Massacre Site, Faneuil Hall, the Blackstone Block (the only street in Boston that resembles a colonial Boston street), Paul Revere House, the Thomas Hutchinson house site, Old North Church, and Copp's Hill Burying Ground (where we looked at and discussed Bunker Hill).

We had hot, muggy weather, but we enjoyed the day. After the tour six of us repaired to a pizzeria in the North End and had lunch.

Most of the listeners who came for the meet-up hailed from New England or New York. One listener dove up from Baltimore and used the meet-up as an excuse to visit Boston, the We Are One exhibit at the Boston Public Library, Boston's Haymarket, and Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts--all locations I have featured on Ben Franklin's World.

Ben Franklin's World Listener Meet-up

One of the most rewarding experiences of podcasting has been connecting with history lovers like the ones who came on my tour. This past spring and summer I have received tweets and e-mails from listeners telling me that they have visited the Library Company of Philadelphia, Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, the Wayside Inn, and Boston as a result of hearing about these places on Ben Franklin's World. My listeners are also buying books and attending lectures given by guest historians.

Ben Franklin's Birthplace

Combining history and new media technology like podcasts, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook work. They help historians reach new audiences and help new audiences connect with us and our work.

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Getting Access: Massachusetts Historical Society Digital Resources

MHS-LogoDo you research or teach United States history? Would you like free, online access to manuscripts, photographs, and objects related to the American Revolution, War of 1812, American Civil War, and other important events through World War I?

In this post you will discover the treasure trove of information and materials included in 10 of the 41 different digital resources offered by the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Brief History of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Founded in 1791, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) stands as the oldest historical society in the United States. It operates as an independent research library and makes its vast and impressive holdings available to anyone who cares to stop in or use its online collections.

Regardless of its name, you should think of the MHS as an archive of American history.

The MHS holds the papers of the Adams Family (including those of John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams), Horace Mann, and other notable Bay Staters. But, its collections extend beyond Massachusetts.

Some of its holdings may surprise you, such as the fact that it has the largest collection of Thomas Jefferson’s private papers. They also have the papers of Francis Parkman, including his Oregon Trail notebooks.


The Digital Resources of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The commitment of the Massachusetts Historical Society to make its records accessible to all has prompted them to dedicate time and funds to creating valuable digital resources.

library-cloudAs of January 2015, the MHS has created 41 digital resources, which stretch in time from colonial North America through World War I.

The resources run the gamut from fully digitized manuscript collections to companion websites that contain highlights from exhibits hosted in the galleries of the MHS. Many of the resources include lesson plans, study questions, and materials for educators.

Below you will find brief summaries of 10 of the 41 digital resources. Each collection title serves as a link to that collection.

(Click here for listings for 39 of the resources and click here to explore the Civil War Manuscript and Photograph collections.)


Silence Dogood: Benjamin Franklin and The New England Courant

James Franklin published The New-England Courant, a newspaper independent of British imperial interests. Franklin published articles and essays that commented on society, current events, and government proceedings in a lively and satirical style. In 1722, James’ 13-year-old apprentice (and youngest brother) Benjamin contributed to the Courant’s commentary using the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.” Benjamin Franklin wrote fourteen "Silence Dogood" essays. This collection offers images and transcriptions of these early Franklin essays as well as full images of the newspapers in which they appeared.


Maps of the French and Indian War

This collection contains digitized maps that depict North America around the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). These charts illustrate how both French and British commanders used maps to determine their military strategy. Maps helped officers determine where to attack the enemy and what geographic features and areas they should attempt to hold or acquire.


African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts

A digital collection of 117 items held by the MHS. These items include manuscripts and early printed works that offer a window into the lives of African Americans from the 17th century through the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts (July 8, 1783).


Boston Massacre No FramePerspectives on the Boston Massacre

Read and examine materials that offer a range of perspectives about the Boston Massacre. Materials include diary entries, letters, pamphlets, newspaper accounts, printed depositions, orations, trial notes, seven images, and bullets recovered from the scene. This resources includes a comparison tool that allows you to closely view and compare any two of the seven images of the event.


Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr Jr.

Harbottle Dorr Jr. (1730-1794) lived in Boston. He owned a store, occasionally served as a town selectmen, and was a member of the Sons of Liberty. Dorr was also an avid reader and collector of newspapers. Between 1765 and 1777, Dorr collected 805 newspapers, which he arranged into four volumes. Of course, Dorr didn’t just read his newspapers, he annotated and indexed them. The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr Jr. digital resource offers high-quality images of Dorr’s newspaper and pamphlet collection and his indexes. It also has a search feature that will allow you to search for topics that Dorr indexed.


Siege of Boston

This collections offers more than 300 pages of manuscript materials about the Siege of Boston (1775-1776). This represents more than a dozen individual accounts of those who were either engaged in or effected by the Siege of Boston. These accounts represent the points of view of residents, soldiers, prisoners, and Loyalists.


War of 1812

In honor of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the Massachusetts Historical Society has digitized a selection of broadsides, letters, and artifacts about the war.


William Lloyd GarrisonBoston Abolitionists, 1831-1865

This collection comprises a range of materials held and preserved by the MHS that relate to abolitionists and the abolition movement in Boston. It includes issues of The Liberator as well as the first anti-slavery tract printed in North America, Samuel Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph (Boston, 1700).


The Case for Ending Slavery

This resource uses more than 50 primary sources (letters, diaries, songs, legal notebooks, and photographs) to reveal the complex nature of ideas about slavery and freedom that existed between the 18th and 19th centuries. Materials include lesson plans, study questions, and resources for educators.


Margaret Hall’s World War I Photographs

Massachusetts-native Margaret Hall served in the Red Cross during World War I. Between 1918 and 1919 she served at a canteen near the railroad junction at Châlons, France. While serving at this post, Hall kept a diary and took 294 photographs of the war. She compiled her journal entries, letters, and photographs into a typescript narrative, “Letters and Photographs from Battle Country, 1918-1919.” This resource will allow you to browse all 294 of Margaret Hall's photos as well as 29 additional illustrative items that sheincluded in her typescript.



The Massachusetts Historical Society offers an impressive collection of digital resources that will assist anyone who studies or teaches North American and United States history. Presently, the MHS offers 41 online resources.

The organization’s strong commitment to making its collections accessible to all undoubtedly ensures that it will continue to add to its impressive offerings with each passing year.


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Colonial Printing Press 101

printingpressHave you ever operated an 18th-century printing press? On June 30, 2014, I took a couple of friends around Boston’s Freedom Trail. We stopped in the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, a recreation of the printing office where Benjamin Edes and John Gill printed The Boston Gazette and Country Journal between 1755 and 1798.

In this post you will learn about the colonial printing press and what it was like to print a copy of the Declaration of Independence on one.


Brief Overview of Colonial Printing

Reverend Joseph Glover brought the first printing press to English North America in 1638. After Glover died enroute to Massachusetts Bay, his widow Elizabeth Glover inherited his press and established a print shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay. Glover's indentured servant Stephen Daye operated the press on her behalf.

Scholars believe The Freeman’s Oath broadside was the first tract printed in English North America.

By 1777, the 13 British North American colonies had nearly 100 master printers living in 25 towns.


How the Colonial Printing Press Worked: An Overview


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA printer uses a composition stick to place the letters of his text in the order he wishes them to appear.

He places the stick in his left hand and picks up type from his cases with his right hand. As the printer has memorized the location of all the characters in his type chests, he does not look at the letters as he places them in his stick. Instead, he relies on feel and memorization to guide him through the composition stage.

The printer must compose his text upside down and backwards (right-to-left) so that it will appear right-side-up and left-to-right on the printed page.

The printer composes his text one line at a time. After he has composed his line, he sets the type in a large tray known as a galley. The galley allows the printer to view several lines of text at once and to correct any mistakes he made when composing his lines.

After the printer is satisfied with his composition, he moves his type from the galley into an iron frame known as a chase. He places wedges and fillers in this frame to tighten it up before he places the form on to his press.


Printing Press Labeled 1The printer inks his type with an oil-based ink. He applies the ink evenly across his type with inking balls.

After he applies the ink, the printer attaches a damp piece of paper to the tympan, or the part of the press that folds over the type. A frame called the “frisket” holds the paper in place on the tympan.

The printer folds the tympan over the type. Once folded, the printer refers to the paper-over-type combination as the “coffin.”

The printer turns a handle on the side of the press to bring the type and paper (the coffin) under the press platen or stone.

The printer pulls the bar (the Devil’s Tail) connected to the platen to apply pressure evenly across the coffin. Depending on the press and the type he has set, the printer may have to move his coffin under the platen several times. Once he is satisfied that all parts of the coffin have been pressed, he pulls it out from under the platen and removes his printed page.

Printing Press Labeled 2

Liz the Printer

On June 30, 2014, the recreated print shop of Edes & Gill had set the type of its printing press to print copies of the Declaration of Independence.

After the informative talk where I learned how printers ran their shops and used their presses, I asked to purchase one of the freshly printed copies of the Declaration.

Liz the PrinterThe interpreter must have sensed that a “history geek” stood in his presence because he asked me if I wanted to print my own copy.

I said “yes” without any hesitation.

With the type set, I rolled the two ink balls in the oil-based ink on the inking block. The ink proved very sticky, which the printer attributed to the air conditioned room.

Once I coated the balls, I rolled them together to make sure I spread the ink over them evenly.

I took the ink balls and inked the press. As you can see from the picture, I took the job of coating all parts of the type seriously.

As I inked the type, the printer placed my damp paper on the tympan and secured it with the frisket.

I took the liberty of forming the coffin, which I then cranked under the platen.

I used the “Devils Tail” to evenly apply pressure to the coffin.

I performed the tasks of a printer perfectly until I opened the coffin and dropped my Declaration on the type. (A rookie mistake.)

Regardless, I am pleased with my slightly flawed copy of the Declaration of Independence.


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*Labeled press pictures courtesy of Common-Place Object Lessons by Jeffery D. Groves