Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mapping Subscriber Lists: Examples and Potential

Back in October (in fact two months ago today), Simran Thadani tweeted1 a preliminary Google Map she'd created of some of the subscribers to one of George Bickham's books (Penmanship in its Utmost Beauty and Extent, 1731). I thought it was a brilliant idea, and decided to try one of my own.

I've long been fascinated by the subscriber list in Thomas Prince's 1736 A Chronological History of New-England In the Form of Annals2 (which you can read online, via the Internet Archive). The list, which takes up a full twenty pages in the book, comprises some 736 names, including 28 who had died between the time they subscribed and when the book was published.3 An 1852 New England Historical & Genealogical Register article reprinting the list noted that the subscribers "may be justly regarded as the principal Literati of New England, who flourished about the beginning of the last century."

Starting with the list, off I went; you can see the resulting map here.4 The different pin colors represent the number of copies subscribed for: of those subscribing for more than a single copy, 87 took six copies, 57 took two, 24 took three, 11 took twelve, 3 took four, and 1 subscriber requested a whopping twenty-four copies.5 In most cases the subscriber's town was also listed; in almost all cases where the town wasn't listed the subscriber proved to be from Boston.

I attempted to locate Boston subscribers within the city using newspaper databases and other sources (an overlay of the 1722 Bonner map also proved very useful); for those not yet located to a specific street I've placed the pins on Boston Common for now. When I get a chance, I'll spend some time with the Thwing Index of early Boston residents, and if readers can more precisely locate any of the subscribers I'll be more than happy to update the map.

The map probably would have been quite enough, but as I mapped I began adding short annotations for each subscriber. Beginning in 1852 and for several decades thereafter, the NEHGR printed a sporadic series of "Brief Memoirs and Notices of Prince's Subscribers," and I started using these and another partial set of annotations from 1910. I quickly realized that the NEHGR annotations were too idiosyncratic to be useful, and the 1910 annotations were frequently simply wrong on the identifications or the facts. At that point I probably ought to have just stuck with the map, but in for a penny, in for a pound, right?

For each of the subscribers I could identify, I included what information I could find on their birth and death dates, education, occupation, family connections, &c.6 The Colonial Collegians database (accessed through NEHGS) proved extremely useful, since a significant number of the subscribers were Harvard graduates (a much smaller number graduated from Yale). I also may go through the records of extant copies of the book and see how many I can trace back to original subscribers, so that information can be added as well.

As I worked, I was thinking about the possibilities of all this, and I began to imagine a digital Atlas of Subscription Printing, combining GIS visualizations of a body of subscription lists with a layered database allowing filtering by demographic factors, publication data (location, date, &c.) occupation, education level, subscriptions to other books, relationships between subscribers and between subscribers and authors, &c. Wouldn't that be something?!

Comments, feedback, suggestions, thoughts always appreciated!

1 Alas, I cannot link to the tweet, since it is locked.

2 Full title: "A Chronological History of New-England In the Form of Annals: Being a summary and exact Account of the most material Transactions and Occurrences relating to this country, in the Order of Time wherein they happened, from the Discovery by Capt. Gosnold in 1602, to the Arrival of Governor Belcher, in 1730. With an Introduction, Containing a brief Epitome of the most remarkable Transactions and Events Abroad, from the Creation: Including the connected Line of Time, the Succession of Patriarchs and Sovereigns of the most famous Kingdoms & Empires, the gradual Discoveries of America, and the Progress of the Reformation to the Discovery of New-England."

3 On the final page of the subscription list is the notice "Our Subscription being begun in 1728, and several of the Subscribers being since deceased, who are marked with a [*] This may notify the Relatives of such deceased Persons, that if they incline to take up the Books subscribed for, they may do it, provided they come or send for them in a short time."

4 Google Maps annoyingly doesn't allow maps with more than 200 points to be displayed on a single page, so the regular view of the map (here) shows four pages and won't display all the points at once. If anybody knows a workaround for this, I'd be more than a little glad to know of it.

5 Many of the multi-copy subscriptions were probably for resale. The 24-copy subscriber was Jonathan Whitney of Wrentham, MA. Just one of the subscribers was a woman, Lydia Draper of Boston (for two copies); she was the widow of printer Richard Draper.

6 I'm sure I made mistakes, and there are still a few subscribers I didn't identify conclusively. If you've got information, please do send it along, I'd love to include it.

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