Stephan Pigeon, ‘I too resolve to unravel these!’
Stephan Pigeon is a PhD candidate in the Department of History & Classical Studies at McGill University in Montréal, Québec. Stephan’s ongoing dissertation work examines Victorian readers, international copyright, and the nature of scissors and paste journalism in the Victorian periodical press with special attention to transatlantic texts. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram @digitalpigeons.
This post accompanies Stephan’s 2017 Journal of Victorian Culture article ‘Steal it, Change it, Print it: Transatlantic Scissors-and-Paste Journalism in the Ladies’ Treasury, 1857–1895. This can be read here.
In the autumn of 2010, I enrolled in Leslie Howsam’s undergraduate history course ‘Culture and Society in Victorian Britain’. At the time, I was finishing a combined honours degree in History and Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor. When I enrolled in the course, I must admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in the Victorians. If I was drawn to anything, it was Professor Howsam’s work on the history of the book, having completed a course dedicated to this field of study with her a few semesters prior. I never expected that a short undergraduate assignment coupled with Professor Howsam’s promotion of digital research techniques would open the way to a career in post-graduate research.
The Victorian Britain course was structured around the periodical press and the Gale-Cengage 19th Century UK Periodicals database. With an emphasis on digital primary materials with the intent to engage research, the course offered a wide-variety of nineteenth-century print matter that Professor Howsam picked from the periodical press to help situate and explain Victorian life. The periodical press was at the centre of the course with supplementary readings working to inform weekly topics. It was the week on gender and sexuality that set my current line of research in motion.
The assignment asked for a primary source analysis informed by a package of auxiliary materials. In this case, the readings included (1) ‘Our Mothers’ a short narrative about domesticity and the importance of mothers leading by example and instilling good habits and routines in their children from the Ladies’ Treasury, a popular Victorian women’s magazine; (2) Kay Boardman’s ‘The Ideology of Domesticity: The Regulation of the Household Economy in Victorian Women’s Magazines’; (3) Janet Howath’s chapter ‘Gender, Domesticity, and Sexual Politics’ in Colin Matthew’s The Nineteenth Century; (4) the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism as a reference source. Sitting in Windsor’s Leddy Library I read through the ‘Our Mothers’ story and started to think about my approach for the assignment.
As a student of Women’s Studies, the narrative was in my wheelhouse. Scanning through the account for something to situate my analysis I was drawn to the ambiguous authorship listed at the end of the account as S. H. Hayes. My thinking at the time was to see if I could determine whether Hayes was a man or woman. This would spearhead my analysis for a gendered interpretation of Victorian motherhood and domesticity. Already armed with Patrick Leary’s Journal of Victorian Culture article ‘Googling the Victorians’ I typed ‘S. H. Hayes’ into Google on the chance that this was an author of some notoriety. No such luck. Never discouraged, I entered strings of text from the story into the Google search bar. I struck gold. By the second or third try I had located another ‘Our Mothers’ text, this time printed in Arthur’s Home Magazine and attributed to Sarah Hepburn Hayes.
‘Our Mothers’, Arthur’s Home Magazine, January 1861, pp. 38–43, in Google Books [accessed 25 November 2016]
At first, I was just pleased to know that the text was written by a woman. However, I soon realized that this was not only written by a woman, but an American woman who published it two years earlier than the Ladies’ Treasury version assigned to me. A quick search of ‘Sarah Hepburn Hayes’ showed that she was the author of a small handful of didactic narratives published in American periodicals like Arthur’s Home Magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the Boston Cultivator. More googling led me to her husband’s obituary and biographical information that placed her as born and raised in rural Pennsylvania and a mother of two children. I became intensely curious about how Sarah Hepburn Hayes’s short story was reprinted in the British Ladies’ Treasury. However, looking back, I don’t think I had yet acquired the right knowledge or resources to consider this transatlantic ‘discovery’ seriously.
Now, I have a small confession. I would like to think that I was so filled with the exhilaration of finding something of some significance that I skimmed over the American article too quickly to notice the substantial language modifications that I unpack in my article. More likely is that I just didn’t recognize what this example of American content moving into the British press signaled and gave it a cursory look as I fixated on the excitement of a full name and the American provenance. No doubt, I was about to have my first lesson on the importance of conducting thorough research.
I included a copy of the American Arthur’s Home Magazine article when I submitted my assignment to Professor Howsam and a week later she returned it with a number of annotations to the American text. It wasn’t a complete account of the language changes but enough to show me that I had missed something critical. Someone, likely the Ladies’ Treasury’s editor, Eliza Warren Francis, had revised the American article on mothering so that it read in a British vernacular. Pointing these changes out to me, Professor Howsam suggested that perhaps I should revisit the two ‘Our Mothers’ texts and give them a closer look. I felt a bit foolish to have not noticed this the first time. After reading the two moralising tracts side-by-side several times over, I returned with a long list of modifications made to the British text. In a moment of encouragement that I’ll never forget, Professor Howsam asked if I would be interested in co-authoring a short piece about this find and her pedagogy for the Victorian Britain course. Needless to say, I was thrilled.
‘Our Mothers: A Tale of Working Day Life’, Ladies’ Treasury, January 1863, pp.10–13, in 19th Century UK Periodicals [accessed 25 November 2016].
While that proposed article never happened, Professor Howsam supervised the major research paper I wrote for my MA at the University of Windsor which I defended in 2013. This was my initial attempt to show the complexities of ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism, the different ways that the Ladies’ Treasury appropriated American texts, and demonstrate the possibilities for born-digital research methods. The article that appears in the Journal of Victorian Culture is a revised version of that research.
While I now understand the ‘Our Mothers’ case to be tied in with ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism, this area of research on the nineteenth-century press was still emerging in October 2010 when I had my first delight of serendipity in the digital archive.[i] By placing this project on the backburner while finishing my undergraduate degree I benefited massively from the investigations that other scholars were undertaking. Bob Nicholson’s research from 2012 comprises crucial pieces of scholarship on ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism. Having access to his work in particular allowed me to better understand the editorial operation of ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism and the Victorian’s appetite for American culture. I remember reading Joeline DeRidder and Marianne Van Remoortel’s 2011 article, “Not Simply ‘Mrs. Warren’”, on the Ladies’ Treasury and its editor and being nervous that other scholars were working on this material before having a sense of relief when I realized how many gaps in my own work I could quickly fill in because of it. Joel Wiener’s 2011 The Americanization of the British Press was published just as I was writing the methods paper for my MA research and it helped me consider where my work on motherhood and domesticity might fit inside the less-studied American influence on British periodicals. Aileen Fyfe’s Steam Powered Knowledge from 2012 gave opportunity for me to think more deeply about the importance of technology, the mass-production of print materiality, and where ‘scissors-and-paste’ practices fit into all of that. It was around the time that I was nearing the completion of my major research paper that I got my hands on a copy of James Mussell’s 2012 The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age. This had me scrambling to rewrite how I situated my digital methodology. If I had started to write this piece of research in 2010, I don’t think it would have been as effective. However, within less than two years there was a rich collection of research to inform my investigation. Through chance and circumstance, I benefited from this particular moment of research on the Victorian periodical press. Research on the periodical press and transatlantic exchanges has grown immensely in recent years. In particular, organizations like the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, the European Society for Periodical Research, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and their affiliated publications, along with the Journal of Victorian Culture, have helped promote this area of inquiry.
Writing about the Victorian periodical press in 1971, the late Michael Wolff mused, ‘I resolve to unravel these; to bring into proper association enterprises and individuals; to reconstruct the scattered elements into something of concrete life. But the means of doing this—here lies the difficulty!’[ii] In 2010 when I read those words as an assigned reading in Professor Howsam’s course I hadn’t a clue about the complexities of this challenge. Today, as I’m working on a PhD in History at McGill University that explores ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism further, I feel fortunate to have access to digitized collections and online databases that make my research possible. Even more, I feel a great sense of gratitude for the scholars who have helped in this vision of what Wolff called ‘charting the golden stream’.
And lastly, I must insist: For the love of all that is good and decent, read those transatlantic reprints carefully!
[i] For an excellent discussion on relationship between digital research and unexpected connections, see Paul Fyfe, ‘Technologies of Serendipity’, Victorian Periodicals Review 48:2 (2015), 261-266.
[ii] Michael Wolff, ‘Charting the Golden Stream: Thoughts on a Directory of Victorian Periodicals’, Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 4:3 (1971), 23-68 (p. 23).