I was casually perusing Thomas Jefferson’s bookshelf at the Library of Congress, when I came across several volumes entitled, The American Museum. My interest was piqued by the title. The volumes appeared to be bound copies of a periodical…but why was it called a museum?
A quick Wikipedia search revealed the The American Museum was a late-eighteenth century literary magazine edited by Matthew Carey. In addition to Jefferson, subscribers included Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Noah Webster.
According to a list from Frank Mott’s A History of American Magazines, early American periodicals were frequently titled “museums”. Of course, the title alone does not reveal if this term was commonly used in other early American writings. Using the Google Ngram Viewer, I searched a corpus of American English books from 1750-1850 for the terms “museum” and “magazine.”
This chart shows that during this period, the term “magazine” was used much more frequently until about 1820 when “museum” starts to become more popular. Google Ngram allows the user to view the source material by date, allowing users to get a quick feeling for how these terms were actually used. Although the term “magazine” is consistently used to describe serialized publications, the meaning of “museum” changes gradually throughout the period. Before 1820, the term “museum” refers to a printed collection of works by assorted authors, such as A Museum for Young Gentleman and Ladies. By the mid-ninteenth century, the term “museum” began to align more closely with our current-day conception of the term; for instance, The Antiquities and Marbles in the British Museum.
I have now identified a change over time, but why is it significant? IS it significant?
In The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, Jared Gardner argues that it is. In early America, the term “museum” was not simply interchangeable with “magazine” or “periodical,” it had a unique and distinctive meaning. Gardner argues that early American museums were communal efforts, sometimes circulated privately, and sometimes marketed to the public. The collections were loosely edited, dependent on the contributions from its readers, and full of “contradictory evidence and ambiguous conclusions.” (p3) As Gardner notes, the early American museums share many parallels with today’s internet culture.
The shift away from periodicals being called “museums” was not just a simple change of name; it marks a literary and cultural shift.