How I, Rare Books Cataloger, Became the World’s Expert on The Days’ Doings

Until now, it had been so simple and I had been having so much fun. Now, however, things were different. Now I was at my wit’s end. What started as the least complicated of the projects I had done using Archivists’ Toolkit, the library’s finding aid creation software, had suddenly become a black hole.

My task was to create a finding aid for The Days’ Doings, a sensationalist illustrated weekly newspaper from the 1870s.  A finding aid lists the contents of a collection to simplify the process of accessing and using it, and ideally, shows potential readers why they might want to use the collection for their research. The four issues of The Days’ Doings I was working with are part of the extensive collection of Mark Twain materials the library owns: the issues we have were at some point bound together in a flimsy volume with brown paper covers because each contains an article by Mark Twain.

The finding aids I worked on before The Days’ Doings required me to think strategically about how to organize the information they presented. Working on the finding aid for the post-bellum children’s magazine The Little Corporal, I had to list the contents of 38 separate issues. To make this amount of information useful to the reader, I decided to organize the finding aid by type of article (all the fictional stories under one heading, all the poetry under another, etc.) instead of listing the contents of each issue in order. This required me to make difficult judgment calls about what category to place pieces in – what to do with stories that included poems? Or scientific information packaged as fiction? – as well as keeping track of hundreds of titles. The Days’ Doings was different. There were only four issues, and really only one type of article: sensationalized “news” with intriguing titles like “Buried Alive and Shot as a Ghost” and “Female Ice-Boaters: Forty Miles an Hour on the Frozen Hudson,” paired with exciting illustrations of people nearly escaping death by falling rock or being ingeniously rescued from floods (see this blog’s feature entitled “Watery Grave of the Week” as well as selected images on our Flickr site). Rather than creating some complicated system for organizing the information, all I had to do to organize this finding aid was list the articles in order.

And the Twain pieces that brought these issues of The Days’ Doings together had me laughing out loud. After my previous projects working with self-serious children’s magazines and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament pamphlets announcing the end of the world as we know it, what could be better than Twain’s backwards map of France during the Franco-Prussian War with “official” commendations from Napoleon and Bismarck?

Spurred on by the visual interest of this page-turner of a newspaper, I had flown through the part of finding aid creation that requires listing the contents of the collection. I had then moved on to learning more about the Twain pieces so I could intelligently write the “Scope and Contents” note that accompanies the finding aid; after some initial frustration due to the evolution of Twain’s titles over time, I had been able to satisfy my curiosity about them. I had then proceeded to search for information about the newspaper itself so I could write the “Biographical/Historical Note” for the finding aid.

Like everything else about this finding aid, it had seemed relatively simple. Though my Google search didn’t return a large number of articles on The Days’ Doings, the first result was a useful article outlining the history and evolution of the paper. The article turned out to be entertaining as well as informative, and I happily read and took notes. But when I had finished reading, I thought for a moment about the provenance of the newspaper I was working on: the paper I had in front of me claimed that it was published in London by a man named W.D. Waller. The newspaper the article featured was published in New York by the infamous newspaperman Frank Leslie.

Refining my search terms, I looked for information about The Days’ Doings (London). Virtually nothing. One woman used a few images from the London paper The Days’ Doings in an article about the erotic Victorian press, but the article didn’t tell me anything about the paper itself. The 1200 page Waterloo Directory of Victorian Periodicals gave me the dates of the London paper’s publication and alerted me to a title change toward the end of its life, but provided no further information. The few references I could find to the New York paper aside from that first article said nothing about a British counterpart. Even searching the letters of Mark Twain for a possible connection between the author and Leslie or for a record of Twain’s submissions to The Days’ Doings proved unfruitful. For days I tried refining my Google searches, tooling through every reference I could find to the New York paper for clues, and emptying the open stacks’ Victorian periodicals shelf. Still nothing. My mind wandered: Maybe I should have taken more research-based English classes in college (I’m still in my first year out of school). What good was I as a research library staff member if I couldn’t even find basic information about a periodical less than 150 years old? And what good would a one-line Historical Note be to the readers of my finding aid?!

I was considering throwing myself off Niagara Falls as did one woman whose story was recorded by The Days’ Doings

…when I remembered that the article I read about the New York paper was posted on a personal website. Maybe the author would have some information, or at least some leads, for me! Lo and behold, his contact information was listed on the site. I sent him an email immediately. I was just starting to wonder how I’d keep myself busy for the days it took him to get back to me when I got a response from him. He didn’t know that there was a London version of the paper, he said. Here was the email address of a periodicals expert who might know. He was curious to hear what I uncovered and would I please get back to him with the results of my research. Relieved, I sent an email to the person he recommended. Again, I settled in for a long wait, but again I was surprised by an almost immediate response. This scholar told me that he’d always assumed the London paper was just a British edition of the American paper, but he didn’t know more than that – and would I please let him know what I found out. Again, relief! The people who would know about the London edition of The Days’ Doings didn’t. I wasn’t incompetent, just searching for information that probably didn’t exist.

With my desire to learn about the publication renewed by the possibility of a real research project and bolstered by the curiosity of others, I collected my questions. Was the London paper really just an edition of the American paper printed in Britain? Was the mastermind behind the New York paper, Frank Leslie, also behind the British paper?

How to find out? With the help of the Rare Books’ staff, I searched for other copies of the paper, printed either in New York or London. Perhaps if I could compare the American and British papers or just see more issues of the British paper, I could uncover some connection between versions or learn something more about the British paper. Some of the copies of the publication are pretty far from home (fieldtrip to the British Library, anyone?), but luckily, the Library Company of Philadelphia, just across town, holds an issue of the American paper. With special permission from the curator to take our issues with me, I set off for the Library Company.

Though the Library Company’s issue is from 1874 and our issues are from 1870 and ’71, comparing the two proved a very helpful research method. With the two papers sitting next to one another, it was easy to see that they were laid out identically: the title fonts are almost identical, the mastheads match, the front page is a full-page illustration, each subsequent page has four columns of text, and perhaps most strikingly, what can be found on each page of an issue is the same in both papers. For example, page 3 of the American paper is a text-only page, while page 4 alternates text and illustrations; in the British paper, page 3 is similarly a text-only page, with page 4 alternating text and illustrations. Both the American and British papers have sixteen pages an issue and the page-to-page layout of both papers is identical.

The sorts of articles that could be found in the American paper were also the sort that I had become accustomed to reading in the British paper as I created my finding aid. “Female Barbers: A Barber-ous Innovation,” an article from the American paper, reminded me of those “Female Ice-boaters” from Penn’s London issues. In both articles, women are now participating in an activity that has usually been reserved for men; both articles condescend to women, not by suggesting they can’t participate, but rather by taking an amused stance on their participation.

Female Ice-Boaters

My visit to the Library Company led me to the conclusion that The Days’ Doings (London) is in fact the British edition of Frank Leslie’s New York paper. Most likely, Leslie opened a British office of the paper and from there reported and published a version full of British and continental “doings” rather than American ones. I lay out a full argument for the connection between the American and British versions of the papers in the Biographical/Historical Note of my finding aid for The Days’ Doings, but there are certainly some questions yet to be answered. We know, for example, that Leslie had been unsuccessful in his journalistic endeavors in Britain and so came to America to make his name; opening a London bureau of his successful New York paper seems like the sort of thing he would do. But who ran it? Leslie published the New York magazine under the pseudonym Watts; one can guess that Waller, the publisher given for the London paper, is also a pseudonym. Who contributed the articles? None of the articles in either the British or American version have bylines. Were any of the articles in the British paper simply reprinted from the American paper? The female ice-boaters on the Hudson featured in the London edition make me wonder. Furthermore, how was the paper received in London? Who read it? How did it evolve over time? What can this tell us about transmission of news across the Atlantic?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to explore any of these questions – I’m on to the next 19th century periodical and the next finding aid. But there’s a really good finding aid for The Days’ Doings (London) online now: please, come to Penn and use it.

A Woman In Trousers! “Shebeening [selling alcohol illegally] in Glasgow”

Ellen Williams is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working in Rare Book Cataloging and exploring ways to use Archivists’ Toolkit to create finding aids for printed ephemeral collections and serial publications.

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