Primary Sources: Actual Books

Dan Allosso

Project Gutenberg, Google Books and the Internet Archive have been incredibly valuable to historians. I’ve personally downloaded hundreds of old books in pdf form, that I’ve been able to read, highlight, annotate, and link to my own documents, to enrich my research and improve my understanding of the past. Google's team has been places I can’t afford to go, and has scanned books that 25 years ago I probably wouldn’t have known existed. And the ability to “mine” all these old texts with keyword searches means that I can use a wide variety of sources for a project like my search for all the Massachusetts Darwins, that I’d never have had the time to look at one by one for each individual.

But sometimes there’s no substitute for seeing and touching the actual book. In addition to the antiquarian coolness of handling something old, the physical properties of old books are sometimes very meaningful. I learned this lesson well when I saw a little book recently at the American Antiquarian Society.

I’ve been interested in Dr. Charles Knowlton (1800-1850) for a couple of years. A lifelong resident of western Massachusetts, he is famous for publishing The Fruits of Philosophy, the first American book on birth control. Between 1832 and 1835, Knowlton was fined in Taunton, imprisoned in Cambridge, and then dragged into court again in Greenfield. A further illustratation of the radical nature of Knowlton’s birth control message and the social forces that opposed it: Over fifty years later Londoners Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were tried by the Queen’s Bench for republishing Knowlton’s book!

There’s a full text copy of The Fruits of Philosophy available on Google. Printed in San Francisco, it’s an 1891 edition of Bradlaugh and Besant’s reprint, suggesting that Knowlton’s material remained interesting for generations after its initial publication. I thought this text had already told me all I needed to know about Knowlton’s book, so I asked to see the originals at the American Antiquarian Society out of a purely geeky desire to hold something that Knowlton might have once handled himself.

The Society’s two copies of The Fruits of Philosophy arrived at the librarian’s table in small cardboard boxes. As I carried them back to my desk, I thought they might contain fragments of the books or torn pages. When I opened the first box, I was surprised to find inside it a complete, palm-sized book in a blue cloth hard cover. In an “aha” moment of clarity, I remembered that when Knowlton was released from prison in Cambridge in 1833, he made a speech in which he referred to the Fruits as his “little book.” Later, in his 1835 article on the “Excitement in Ashfield,” he again said he had been persecuted for publishing a “little book.” It had never occurred to me that he was speaking literally.

The Fruits of Philosophy was contraband when it was published. Knowlton was fined, imprisoned, and continually harassed for several years after its printing. Abner Kneeland was tried and imprisoned for blasphemy, but people familiar with his case at the time understood he had been targeted for his role in publishing of the 1834 edition of the Fruits, and for advertising it constantly in The Investigator, his free-thought newspaper. It is completely obvious, in this context, why buyers of the book would have wanted it to be little, pocket-sized, easily concealable. But that obvious fact had never occurred to me, looking at the Google scan of the 1891 reprint.

The threadbare blue cover of the Society’s 1832 edition, and the low production quality (the title page has a faint double-strike) also tell us about the way the first edition of the The Fruits of Philosophy was produced, and about how it was probably passed from hand to hand secretly, by women who had decided by the 1830s that they ought to have some say in their reproductive lives. It’s easy to imagine women (and sometimes maybe their husbands) palming the little book, and handing it off literally under the noses of church and civil authorities who sought to suppress it. The 1834 “Kneeland” edition used higher quality type, paper, and binding, but it significantly retained the tiny dimensions of the original.

We’re very lucky that a few of these books have survived, to tell the story that surrounds, but is not included in the printed words.