The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cascade of title pages, and one squashed fly, help mark 150 years of the U.S. Copyright Office

The Library of Congress has posted over 50,000 title pages of works sent in for copyright registration between 1790 and the 1870s

The U.S. Copyright Office is pictured here around 1900. The Copyright Act of 1790 was the first federal copyright act to be instituted in the United States, predating ratification of the First Amendment and Bill of Rights. (Library of Congress)

The poor fly. It could have been squashed on the title page of Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” or Frederick Douglass’s “My Bondage and My Freedom."

It could have landed that day on poems by John Greenleaf Whittier. Or a book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. But, no.

Sometime after 1831, it seems, in the vast copyright files now at the Library of Congress, this unfortunate fly got plastered on the title page of “The Republican Compiler,” an obscure collection of biographic, scientific and miscellaneous writings in “prose and verse.”

This summer, the fly claimed a spot in history as the U.S. Copyright Office marked its 150th anniversary, and the Library posted online almost 50,000 title pages of works sent in for copyright registration between 1790 and the 1870s.

The digitized image of the fly’s flattened corpse remains on the collection’s title page, right near the word “miscellaneous.”

The Library’s collection is a huge and varied catalogue of American culture of the time, copyright and library officials said, with tens of thousands of writers and thinkers sending in title pages of their work for copyright protection.

Literature, music, drama, crime, biography, poetry, history, entertainment — some of it racist — geography, and advice poured in from American authors.

Copyright law is enshrined in the Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Congress passed the first federal copyright law in 1790 “and has been updating it ever since,” said Catherine Zaller Rowland, director of public information and education at the U.S. Copyright Office.

The aim is to prevent illegal copying of intellectual property, protect original work and “encourage creativity and innovation so people have an incentive to go ahead and create things,” she said in a recent interview.

Before 1870, registration for copyright protection took place at local federal courts, she said.

In 1870, the process was centralized at the Library of Congress, and over time, past applications have been gathered there. “We’re in the Library, and we’ve been here for 150 years,” Rowland said.

The collection is big.

“We haven’t been able to see what we have, because we have so much,” said Elizabeth Gettins, a digital conversion specialist in the Library’s rare book and special collections division. “It’s open to everybody to make those discoveries.”

The project took over a year. Each title page had to be checked for conservation and then digitally scanned in the Library. “It was quite the process,” she said.

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It was also “a fascinating glimpse into … topics and writers … different pamphleteers …[and] their political viewpoints,” she said. “You can just go down so many rabbit holes.”

The titles paint a landscape portrait of much of 19th-century America in colors both bright and jarring.

“The American Velocipede Manual Illustrated,” a cyclist’s guide, was filed for copyright in 1869, the same year as “The Bureau of Negro Oddities,” a collection of racist jokes used by minstrel performers.

Yet 1859 had seen “The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book,” a collection of stories for children about the horrors of slavery.

Many American writers did not bother to file for copyright protection, and even titles from people like Edgar Allan Poe and Benjamin Franklin have so far not been found, Gettins said.

But Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) did. He was regularly victimized by book piracy and was a fierce proponent of copyright protection

In 1875, he sent in the title page for “Tom Sawyer” with a subtitle — “a tale of a bygone time” — that was later discarded.

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The next year he sent in a handwritten copyright application for a play, “Ah Sin,” he was co-writing with fellow author Bret Harte.

“PS: Please find $1 enclosed,” Clemens added. Registration fees varied over the years.

The title page for Douglass’s autobiography was filed in 1855, bearing what looks like the author’s ornate signature.

There were somber religious tracts, and racy pieces like the “The Female Spy … A Romance of the Revolution,” written in 1846 by B. Barker Esq.

But there were also disturbing titles like “Bob Hart’s Plantation Songster” by the White minstrel performer James B. Sutherland, filed in 1862.

Known as “the senator,” Sutherland’s stage name was Bob Hart, and he was hailed as “the Celebrated Ethiopian Vocalist and Comedian.”

He became an evangelist in later life and killed himself in 1888 after being accused of assaulting a 15-year-old girl.

There were reference works of all kinds.

“The Republican Compiler,” which predated the political party, sought to promote American life and culture.

It covered such subjects as:

  • “Alligators, extraordinary ferocity of … ”
  • “Brandywine, battle of … ”
  • “Niagara, falls of … ”
  • “Independence, Declaration of …”

There was also “The Republican Harmonist” from 1840, a collection of patriotic songs, odes and sonnets.

It opened with:

While hard oppression’s iron chain

The sons of Europe dragg along

We who its links have snapt in twain

Will chaunt to Liberty a song

The 1830 “Camp-Meeting Chorister” was a collection of hymns “for the pious of all denominations to be sung at camp meetings, during revivals of religion and on other occasions."

“The American Remembrancer and Universal Tablet of Memory” was a 1795 encyclopedia of biography and history.

Its list of important people began with the Old Testament’s Aaron and ended with the 18th-century religious figure Nicolaus Zinzendorf.

Its list of inventions and discoveries began with algebra, anchors, and animal magnetism and ended with the zodiac.

In 1794, educator Robert Davidson filed the title page for “Geography Epitomized or, a tour round the world,” a work of geography in verse.

It said of British explorer James Cook:

From the Cape of Good Hope, in the year seventy three

Sail’d the brave Capt. Cook on the wide southern sea.

O’er the high swelling waves while his vessel he steers

Rising fast to his zenith, the South pole appears.

There was crime.

The 1847 “Authentic Account of Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, Two Notorious Highwaymen” told the tale of two famous bandits in Britain in the early 1800s, including “Their Bold and Daring Robberies and Hair-Breadth Escapes."

The story of a fatal duel outside Chester, Pa., that stemmed from an insult at a billiards game and killed a Philadelphia lawyer was filed in 1830.

Medical texts included the pioneering physician Benjamin Rush’s “Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever” that raged in Philadelphia in 1793, Benjamin Smith Barton’s 1800 “Memoir Concerning the Disease of Goiter,” and Robert Bates’s ″A Description of the Appliances for the Cure of Stammering” in 1862.

Yellow fever led half of Philadelphians to flee the city. Ten percent of the residents still died.

There was humor, of sorts, with “Turner’s Comic Almanac” for 1842, which featured cavorting skeletons on the cover and “astronomical calculations for the whole United States, Territories, Texas & Canada.”

The Civil War brought copyright filings for “Beadle’s Dime Knapsack Songster” and Augustine Duganne’s illustrated “Ballad’s of the War” in 1862.

It also brought “Scott’s Report of American Fashions” that year, a roundup of “goods in fashion for gentlemen’s dress,” that included the latest in military uniforms.

But the war’s aftermath produced the grim reality of “The Empty Sleeve or the Life and Hardships of Henry H. Meacham in the Union Army by Himself.”

Meacham had lost an arm to an artillery shell at the Battle of Petersburg in 1864.

“I did not suffer as some of our soldiers did,” he wrote in the preface to his 1869 book. The shell had killed five of his comrades.

“But having lost my right arm … I have taken this method of gaining a living,” he wrote. “I have myself and wife to care for … With these few remarks I throw myself on the generosity of the public.”

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