by Vicki Priest (c)
Today, generally speaking, history books are written by scholars and published by companies which think the book will sell enough to make a profit. Just like any other book today, the writer and/or publisher take on all the costs (and risks) of getting the book “out there.” In the past, however, the expense of writing and publishing a history book may have been at least partially paid for up front via “subscribers” who paid varying fees for the upcoming work. This type of commercial history was popular in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.
No doubt such histories vary in quality and value, but they are still very informative and useful for many purposes. Some might even be high quality indeed, as the method used to pay for the publication was simply the way it was done at that period in time and not a reflection of the author or authors. There is really no reason to automatically think a history from 100 years ago is less accurate and reliable than one written today (certainly, writers and publishers don’t produce biased works today . . . do they?), but fact-checking and various considerations should come into play when using them.
“Subscribers who paid a certain fee (ten to fifty dollars was common) were assured that space would be devoted to their lives and achievements. An additional fee would ensure that the subscriber’s picture or that of his home, place of business, or family was included. . . . The promoter generally accepted the narratives, biographies, dates, and other material that was submitted with little or no checking, eager to assemble information pleasing to as many subscribers as possible. After the completed work had been delivered, the promoter moved on to another profitable locale.
No doubt many subscribers felt a responsibility to describe themselves, their families, their businesses, and other matters accurately. Nevertheless, when commercial histories are used, the . . . likely under-representation of the lower socioeconomic groups and the neglect of darker moments of the community’s past” should be kept in mind (Kyvig and Marty 2010:75, 76).
In the above quote about the subscriber-type of commercial history, it is stated that “After the completed work had been delivered, the promoter moved on to another profitable locale.” Of course, not all histories that used subscriber financing were written by non-locals. I left that part of the quote in to make that very point, since the authors of St. Clair County histories vary in this aspect.
Let’s examine three substantial histories which include biographical sections, and therefore appear to be subscriber-based publications: (1) History of St. Clair County, Michigan, 1883, attributed to A.T. Andreas & Co.; (2) St. Clair County, Michigan, Its History and Its People, 1912, by William Lee Jenks (in two volumes, the first containing the history and the second the biographies); and (3) Historic Michigan, Land of the Great Lakes, in three volumes, the third volume “containing local history and personal sketches of St. Clair and Shiawassee counties,” by George N. Fuller (no publication dates were provided, but “circa 1924” can be found for the earlier volumes and “circa 1926” for the third, as the first volume’s forward has a 1924 date, but text within volume III includes the year 1926. “Circa 1926” will be used here).
To keep each blog post a reasonable length (well, a reasonable length for the internet) the article is divided into parts. This post is Part One. Each examined history is another part and can be accessed by a clicking its link below:
St. Clair County Histories (Part Three): St. Clair County, Michigan, Its History and Its People, 1912 (Jenks) [To come]
St. Clair County Histories (Part Four): Local History and Pioneer Sketches of St. Clair and Shiawassee Counties, ca. 1926 (Fuller) [To come]
A.T. Andreas & Co. (1883). History of St. Clair County, Michigan. Chicago: A.T. Andreas & Co.
Fuller, G. N. (ca. 1926). Local History and Pioneer Sketches of St. Clair and Shiawassee Counties. Lansing: Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society.
Jenks, W. L. (1912). St. Clair County, Michigan; Its History and Its People (Vol. II). Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company.
Kyvig, D. E., & Marty, M. A. (2010). Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. Lanham: AltaMira Press.