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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > An American Time Capsule

[Detail] Millions of acres, Iowa and Nebraska, 1872

An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera presents a unique opportunity for students to examine American political and social history through analysis of a wide range of documents including broadsides, song sheets, notices, advertisements, proclamations, petitions, manifestos, ballots, and tickets to special events. The collection provides both digital images and searchable electronic text. The items shed light on innumerable topics from the seventeenth century to the present: the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Civil War, women's suffrage, and the emergence of the United States as a world power, to name a few. The printed material was produced as the events unfolded and offers unique snapshots of our past.

As the name would suggest, the collection comprises primarily documents created for a specific purpose and intended to be discarded. The primary purpose of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century printed ephemera was the distribution of information and opinion in the days before radio and television. The Special Presentation, Introduction to Printed Ephemera Collection, provides an excellent overview of the collection's contents.

The richness of An American Time Capsule can be illustrated with a few examples of documents found there: the classic illustration of the monster "Gerry-mander" an 1838 broadside calling for a meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston to oppose the annexation of Texas; an 1851 advertisement for the return of "a lost lap dog with long white curling hair, — feet trimmed close, — answers to the name of 'Fancy'"; an 1863 advertisement using the name of Confederate General Beauregard to promote "wonderful cures of bronchitis, asthma, sore throat, consumption, &c. &c."; an 1876 broadside presenting a "declaration and protest of the women of the United States"; a menu from a gala dinner held in 1930; and Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool," written in the 1960s.

It should be noted that printed ephemera express the language, experience, and viewpoints of the era in which they were published. Therefore, before exploring the contents of the collection, students should be aware that they often will encounter attitudes and language that are jarring to contemporary sensibilities.

The American Revolution

When British troops were sent to Boston in October 1768 to enforce imperial policies, the action caused deep resentment among the citizens of the city. The arrival of troops stimulated protests and minor clashes rather than the full-scaled armed resistance that had been threatened by the Sons of Liberty. On the afternoon of March 5, 1770, a fistfight between a worker and soldier developed into a riot. That evening, during a confrontation on King Street, shots were fired and five civilians were killed. A broadside described "The Late Military Massacre at Boston." Read the broadside, as well as your textbook's account of this event:

  • According to the broadside, what happened in Boston on March 5, 1770? What does the broadside cite as the cause of this event?
  • Is the broadside's description of the incident accurate? What is your evidence?
  • What evidence, if any, do you find of bias in the relation of the series of events?
  • What averted a major confrontation following the massacre?
  • What action was taken to bring the matter before Parliament when news of the incident reached Britain?

Another event that provoked tension in colonial America was passage of the Tea Act of 1773, which gave the nearly bankrupt British East India Company a monopoly on tea exports to America. When news of the arrival of ships carrying tea reached Boston and other port cities, from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, crowds gathered in protest. Conducting a Keyword Search using the term tea will produce a preponderance of documents relating to agitation over tea shipments, including a song entitled "Tea Destroyed by Indians" celebrating the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. Read the resolutions agreed upon in Philadelphia on December 17, 1773, condemning the shipment of tea to America and the October 20, 1774, broadside concerning the arrival of the brig Peggy Stewart in Annapolis, Maryland.

  • Why did the authors of the Philadelphia resolutions argue that the British Parliament was introducing ""arbitrary government and slavery" in her American colonies?
  • According to these resolutions, what was the duty of Americans regarding the payment of the duty on tea?
  • What happened to the cargo on board the tea ships Polly and the Peggy Stewart?
  • How did the citizens of Philadelphia and Annapolis respond to the arrival of the tea ships? How did their actions differ from those taken by the Sons of Liberty in Boston?
  • What were the consequences of the Boston Tea Party? How did other colonies respond to the Coercive or "Intolerable" Acts imposed on the Massachusetts colony?

Committees of Correspondence were first established in the 1760s as a means for the various colonies to communicate with each other (and the world) about important issues. In 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses called on all the colonies to establish permanent Committees of Correspondence to communicate about the increasing conflict with Great Britain. Nearly all the colonies did so, as did many towns and counties. The network of Committees of Correspondence allowed the colonies to communicate about their common grievances and possible responses and was an important precursor to the First Continental Congress. Read the resolutions issued by the New York Committee of Correspondence on July 19, 1774, and the response published under the pen name Democritus.

  • What issues were raised by the Committee of Correspondence?
  • How did Democritus respond to these issues? How effective was his use of satire?
  • Why do you think the author used a pen name? What is the significance of the pen name chosen?
  • What can you discern from these two documents regarding the political differences between Patriots and Loyalists on the eve of the American Revolution?

Once war began, the American forces faced many problems. For example, the Continental Army's dire need for supplies is demonstrated in a broadside posted at Cambridge in August 1775. Thomas Paine in "The American Crisis (No. 1)" described the hardships on the battlefield during the retreat through New Jersey in November and December 1776, starting with the well-known words excerpted below.

"THESE are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain, too cheap, we esteem too lightly: — 'Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value."

From "The American Crisis (No. 1)"

Read the entire document by Paine and answer the following questions:

  • What did Paine mean by the phrase "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot"?
  • According to Paine, how difficult is the struggle for independence?
  • What specific problems facing the American troops did Paine describe?
  • Search An American Time Capsule for other documents relating to hardships faced by the Continental Army. Make a list of the hardships you identify. For each, try to find at least one way in which American leaders sought to address the hardship.

A topic rarely dealt with in textbooks is the existence of conscientious objectors who sought exemption from military service on religious grounds. The Pennsylvania Assembly initially agreed to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors. A community of Pennsylvania Mennonites sent a declaration to the Assembly expressing gratitude for recognizing their religious beliefs and agreeing to serve in other ways.

". . . [W]e find ourselves indebted to be thankfull to our late worthy Assembly, for their giving so good an Advice in these troublesome Times to all Ranks of People in Pennsylvania, particularly in allowing those, who, by the Doctrine of our Saviour Jesus Christ, are persuaded in their Conscience to love their Enemies, and not to resist Evil, to enjoy the Liberty of their Conscience, for which, as also for all the good Things we enjoyed under their Care, we heartily thank that worthy Body of Assembly, and all high and low in Office, who have advised to such a peaceful Measure, hoping and confiding that they, and all others entrusted with Power in this hitherto blessed Province, may be moved by the same Spirit of Grace, which animated the first Founder of this Province, our late worthy Proprietor William Penn, to grant Liberty of Conscience to all its Inhabitants, that they may in the great and memorable Day of Judgment be put on the right Hand of the just Judge."

From "A Short and Sincere Declaration, to Our Honorable Assembly"

Read the entire declaration and answer the following questions:

  • What was the tone of the Mennonite declaration?
  • Why did the declaration invoke the name of William Penn?
  • What services were Mennonites willing to perform?

The role of American women during the Revolution, another topic not extensively covered in texts, can be examined using documents from An American Time Capsule. The author of "The Sentiments of an American Woman" expressed frustration that women could not do more for the cause:

"ON the commencement of actual war, the Women of America manifested a firm resolution to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country. Animated by the purest patriotism, they are sensible of sorrow at this day, in not offering more than barren wishes for the success of so glorious a Revolution. They aspire to render themselves more really useful; and this sentiment is universal from the north to the south of the Thirteen United States. Our ambition is kindled by the same of those heroines of antiquity, who have rendered their sex illustrious, and have proved to the universe, that, if the weakness of our Constitution, if opinion and manners did not forbid us to march to glory by the same paths as the Men, we should at least equal, and sometimes surpass them in our love for the public good."

From ""The Sentiments of an American Woman"

Read the entire document and consider the following:

  • What actions did the author of this document urge women and girls to take to contribute to the war effort?
  • When was this document written? What events might have prompted the writing of the document?
  • How do you think Thomas Paine would have responded to the ideas expressed by this American woman?