The most commonly cited genres of early American popular reading – sermons, almanacs, New England primers, Psalm books, advice books, children’s books, novels, newspapers, and political pamphlets – were popular in the sense of being frequently reprinted and widely read, but they were usually written or recommended by men in positions of authority. These books were in a sense assigned reading, and in the case of school books, literally so. Historians sometimes distinguish between cultural forms imposed on the lower or middling classes from the top down and truly popular culture that emerges from the bottom up. The upper classes often participate in popular culture too, even to the extent of imitating or appropriating it; and of course upper-class cultural forms are commonly incorporated into popular culture.
This sort of popular or folk culture was everywhere in colonial America, in dance, song, needlework, handicrafts, foodways, games, parades, and the like, but in such a highly literate population, it was also expressed in print. This literate popular culture is not well understood, partly because it took the form of ephemeral imprints that are today quite rare if not unique. Nevertheless modern viewers will see many parallels between today’s popular print culture and that of early America.
This exhibition includes ballads, joke books, songsters, dream books, elegies, political ephemera, pornography, and deviltry, as well as sensational accounts of disasters, crimes, executions, atrocities, and abductions. It also includes print that captures aspects of oral or non-literate popular culture in taverns, theatres, pleasure gardens, and race courses, as well as evidence of reading and writing by people on the margins of society.
The Michael Zinman Collection, acquired by the Library Company in 2000, is the largest collection of early American imprints— books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed in the colonies and states before 1801— formed by a private individual since days of the pioneering Americana collectors of the 19th century. It is rich in rare and unique imprints of all kinds, but one of its greatest strengths is in popular reading and writing “From the Bottom Up.” All these materials are rare. Of the 117 items in this exhibition, 62 of them (over half) are unique, in the sense that no other copy is recorded in bibliographies or known to be in a public collection. Another 13 are known in only one or two other copies.