#hamildays: A Hamilton-Inspired Journey Through the American Antiquarian Society’s Stacks

By Amy Tims, June 10, 2016

I became a fan of Hamilton as soon as I listened to the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. One of the ways I enriched my Hamilton experience was to seek out materials related to Hamilton: An American Musical and Alexander Hamilton, the man who died in 1804, in the stacks of American Antiquarian Society, where I work as a rare book cataloger. This exploration that culminated in a 50-post series on Instagram archived under the hashtag #hamildays, which is now being re-posted in full at AAS’ website as #hamildays: A Hamilton-Inspired Journey Through the Stacks. The following is the story of how I created #hamildays.

Last October, I listened to the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording while on a train to New Jersey. I immediately started exhibiting common traits of a Hamilton fan: quoting Hamilton at the drop of a hat; checking the biography on which the Broadway musical is based, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, out of the library; mourning my inability to acquire tickets; delighting in #Ham4Ham shows; et cetera.

One of the (many) things I love about Hamilton is how it incorporates the words and texts of history into its reimagining of the past. For example, the song “One Last Time” quotes George Washington’s Farewell Address verbatim, and “The Farmer Refuted” draws from a pamphlet war between Alexander Hamilton and Samuel Seabury. My professional life immerses me in early American books and pamphlets, and, as I listened to Hamilton on repeat, I began to wonder if I could find tangible connections to the story of Hamilton in the stacks of the American Antiquarian Society, where I work as a rare books cataloger.

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) was founded in 1812 by Revolutionary War patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas, and today it is both a learned society and a library. The library, where I work, houses the largest and most accessible collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, music, and graphic arts materials printed through 1876 in what is now the United States. I work with books and pamphlets, describing them in the online catalog, and the breadth of AAS’ collecting means that I might handle a copy of Handel’s Grand Hallelujah Chorus, a pamphlet about waterworks in a small town, and a book written by a woman mourning her daughter (including a lock of her daughter’s hair) in a single afternoon. I usually work with materials printed during the mid- to late-19th century, not during the Revolutionary era and early Republic, so I was curious to see what I would find.

My first inquiry was actually inspired by the end of Hamilton. The last song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” is a meditation on how history is told, and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s wife, speaks of what she did in the decades after his death. In addition to preserving his memory and telling his story, she co-founded the New York Orphan Asylum, which still exists as Graham Windham, in 1806. I’ve done a lot of work in AAS’ Institutions Collection, which contains materials generated by organizations like medical societies, churches, and orphanages, and I wondered if AAS held a copy of the orphanage’s constitution or proceedings. To my delight, I found a copy of the New York Orphan Asylum’s first constitution, as well as later proceedings that listed Eliza as the first directress, a position in which she started serving in 1821.

After the success of my hunt for Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and the New York Orphan Asylum, I expanded my exploration to see if I could find materials in AAS’ stacks that connected to all forty-six songs in Hamilton. However, rather than bombarding my friends and colleagues with incessant emails enthusing about what I had just found, I decided to post my journey through AAS’ stacks on Instagram. As a social media platform designed to share pictures, Instagram seemed like a good way to let interested people see what I had found. Furthermore, since Instagram allows users to tag posts by using hashtags for keywords and phrases, making them searchable across the platform, I could gather all of my Hamilton-inspired posts using a common hashtag. The hashtag I chose was #hamildays, and on October 20, 2015, I made my first #hamildays post, featuring portraits of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton facing each other underneath an image of their dueling pistols.

By #hamildays’ last post on March 4, 2016, I had posted fifty images from twenty-eight of AAS’ collections, taken hundreds of pictures, and performed innumerable catalog searches. A colleague called it a romp through AAS’ collections, and that description accurately reflects my feeling about creating #hamildays. I got to dig into some of the material artifacts of United States history, and I learned a lot during the process about both the historical figures featured in Hamilton and the collecting practices of AAS.

Some of the most enjoyable posts were ones that took me to entirely new collections and let me touch artifacts of daily life. I work with a portion of AAS’ collections, but there were — and still are — collections that I’ve never encountered and, in some instances, didn’t know existed. For example, I didn’t know AAS had a currency collection until the curator of graphic arts, Lauren Hewes, pointed out to me, but it fit perfectly with the song “Stay Alive.” (“Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance, / they only take British money, so sign a song of sixpence.) Additionally, seeing the large number of bills counterfeiting currency issued by the Continental Congress makes one realize why merchants might prefer British money. Also, honestly, I found it fascinating to see paper money printed on normal paper (although sometimes colored printing was used) and for denominations of a fraction of a dollar or several pence. It’s the kind of quotidian detail that makes my picture of the life of Hamilton and his contemporaries a little richer.

Many songs took me in multiple directions, and many items that intrigued me didn’t make it into #hamildays. Aaron Burr’s correspondence during the war, the Report of the committee appointed to enquire into the truth of the information, that a son of General La Fayette, is now within the United States, and also, what measures it will be proper to take, if the same be true, to evince the grateful sense entertained by this country, for the services of his father. 26th April, 1796., a bright yellow mug with the portraits of Lafayette and George Washington — none of them ended up in #hamildays, but discovering them was a delight. My reaction when I found out that AAS held some of Aaron Burr’s papers was an exclamation-filled email to a fellow Hamilton fan, and the excitement Lafayette generated still makes me grin, because now, over 180 years after Lafayette died, I can hold Lafayette playing cards and wonder what a “Lafayette comb” was. The 1804 Hamilton mourning textile is beautiful, and I never would have encountered it if I hadn’t been seeking out materials for #hamildays.

Unfortunately, not every quest through the catalog inspired by Hamilton ended successfully. Angelica Schuyler Church, Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, is a vivid presence in Hamilton; however, I couldn’t find her in AAS’ holdings, and so she’s absent from #hamildays. I tried to locate Hercules Mulligan and Cato, Mulligan’s slave, both of whom spied on the British and passed information to American troops, in the stacks, but I didn’t succeed. This isn’t to say that Angelica Schuyler Church, Hercules Mulligan, and Cato aren’t to be found somewhere in the 25 miles of shelves at AAS — they probably are! I just did not succeed in doing so.

Some posts are more loosely inspired by Hamilton than others. Whereas a sixpence bill neatly illustrates “Stay Alive,” for the song “Washington on Your Side” I looked into the publication history of “The Emperor’s New Clothes in the United States,” using Jefferson’s line “the emperor has no clothes,” referring to Alexander Hamilton, as a springboard. Ultimately, I posted the earliest illustration of the story that I could locate in the Children’s Literature collection.The process of exploring took me to maps and manuscripts, printing plates and portraits, treasury circulars and sheet music, books and broadsides, newspapers and New England almanacs.

Now, the entirety of the #hamildays series has been re-posted on the American Antiquarian Society’s website at #hamildays: A Hamilton-Inspired Journey Through the Stacks. There have been some minor edits between #hamildays’ original form on Instagram and its new iteration on AAS’s website. Typos have been cleaned up, some phrasing has been tweaked for clarity, all posts have been put in track order, and some citations have been expanded. However, the changes are minor: all of the images, the text, and the random asides are included.

#hamildays: A Hamilton-Inspired Journey Through the Stacks is not a faithful overview of Hamilton or a complete window into the history of the Revolutionary era and early Republic — many voices are absent, and it favors people well-represented in the archive, such as George Washington, and topics that interest me, such as women’s lives. That being said, I found exploring AAS’ stacks for #hamildays to be a rewarding way to relate to Hamilton and the stories it tells.

I have to admit that I’m excited about the launch of the #hamildays website, and I hope that you enjoy exploring it as much as much as I enjoyed my journey through the stacks.

All images courtesy the American Antiquarian Society


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