“Bracketing” for Historical Detectives

October 8, 2014

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For my collection of dictionaries (which also includes various related volumes such as antique spellers and other wordbooks), I recently purchased a little primer (about 3 x 4 12’’ tall) bearing no publication date. I usually pass over undated works because their use in literary investigation is therefore limited.

Nevertheless I picked this as the best of two such volumes (the other had a missing page and more damage), and after some minor archival repairs (applying some acid-free glue to secure the covers and mending a torn page), I had a nice collector’s item at a very low price. I set to work to try to date it.

The title (printed on the front, reproducing the title page) reads, “The New England Primer; or, an Easy and Pleasant Guide to the Art of Reading. Adorned with Cuts. To Which is Added The Catechism. Mass. Sabbath School Society, Depository No. 13 Cornhill, Boston.” (A cut—according to my Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1849—is, in this context, “A picture cut or carved on wood or metal, and impressed from it”; the primer is illustrated with little wood engravings.) Unfortunately, there were many similar volumes and numerous editions of this particular work, and these were invariably published without date.

However, bibliographic information can provide an alternate method of dating, so I asked CFI Director of Libraries Timothy Binga for assistance. He soon discovered the following facts (online at OCLC’s WorldCAT data base):

• Publication of that particular work began in 1836;
• Reference to a source published in “14 vols.” was evidentiary since that 14th volume was published in 1848;
• Mention of the society’s treasurer, M.H. Sargent, was very useful, because he is known to have served “between at least 1859 and at least 1864”;
• Sargent’s predecessor served until “at least 1854”; and, finally,
• the publisher was at the address given from 1836 to 1867.

With these facts, and by the process of elimination, one can thus “bracket” the possible time period for publication as “1854–1867,” which I so noted in pencil on my copy’s front flyleaf.

The principle of bracketing is used in many similar investigations, such as dating old photographs (see for example my Camera Clues, 1994, pp. 55–57 for the dating of a photograph of a town by the presence or absence of buildings of known date). Other instances can be found in my Real or Fake, 2009, e.g., pp. 63–64 (dating a manuscript), pp. 131–132 (a “Lincoln” photo), and pp. 182–190 (a “Jefferson Davis” musket). I also used the bracketing of iconographic elements to determine that the forgery of the Shroud of Turin occurred in the later Middle Ages, subsequently confirmed by radiocarbon dating to 1260–1390 C.E. (see my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, 1998, pp. 54–56, 150–151).