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Book History 9 (2006) 179-212

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Book History in Scarlet Letters

The Beginning and Growth of a College Yearbook during the Gilded Age


If a researcher were to look for early college yearbooks from Rutgers, he or she may encounter a disintegrating, leather-bound volume, with "Memorials, Geo. S. Duryee" stamped in gilt on the spine. Inside would be various copies of Rutgers College Catalogues from the 1860s and Scarlet Letter yearbooks from the 1870s. The researcher might notice that Duryee had penciled Greek letters beside his classmates' names in the Catalogue, and that subsequently, the first Scarlet Letter grouped young men by society affiliation without regard to class year. Looking at the materials more closely, a researcher might also see that Duryee was the first Scarlet Letter editor, or observe that his collection includes items from Princeton, Columbia, and Yale.

This interesting artifact speaks to many historical concerns. For instance, it could serve to document the early history of the Scarlet Letter, as well as to uncover the history of college publications, campus life during the Gilded Age, the capabilities of printers of the era, or developments in the illustrated book industry. The permanence of the Scarlet Letter—and of many other college publications founded in the late nineteenth century—is [End Page 179] both a curiosity and a great boon to print historians. Like students at other institutions, young men at Rutgers had attempted other publications, such as the short-lived Rutgers Miscellany (1842), Rutgers College Quarterly (1858–ca. 1861), and Ivy Banner (ca. 1881–4). But until the coming of the monthly Targum (1869) and the Scarlet Letter yearbook (1871), collegiate journalism enjoyed, at best, a precarious existence "on the banks of the Raritan." In contrast, the Scarlet Letter has been produced continuously for more than 130 years (except for a brief pause during World War II).1

Publications like the Scarlet Letter arose and thrived during the nineteenth century because of the convergence of various educational, social, cultural, economic, and technological trends. Student expression in campus yearbooks and newspapers was encouraged by a new "elective" curriculum of higher education; the rise of advertising and consumer culture; a surge in fraternal involvement, competitive athletics, and other pastimes; declining postage rates; and many other factors. Most important, college students were developing, recognizing, sharing, and defending a lifestyle all their own. Elements of Gilded Age Scarlet Letters indicate that they were compiled to capture a historic moment of the student community in print, but also to generate solidarity and pride among students and alumni. Therefore, the college yearbook was a document of both past and present.

Perhaps of greater interest to readers of Book History are developments in the illustrated book industry of the late nineteenth century, how the editors of the Scarlet Letter incorporated these innovations into their publications, and what contributions, if any, young people may have made in spreading the word about new styles and technological capabilities. Like assembling a football "eleven," Rutgers students appointed a board of editors to compete with their opposite numbers in other colleges. The editors' charge was to compile the most beautiful and informative publication that could be had for the money, effort, and technology available at the time. New editors responded to the criticisms of previous editions, continuously expanding and improving the book. Yet through their connections with students at other colleges, Rutgers editors also learned of the latest artistic styles, printing technologies, and modes of conducting business over distance. They borrowed ideas from peers at other colleges and patronized businesses recommended by them—sometimes with sample copies from other colleges in hand as they did so. Thus Rutgers students worked with businesses in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia, as well as regional and local companies based in Newark, Trenton, and New Brunswick, New Jersey. This tale of young men and their interplay with a growing industry is a fascinating story for those who explore connections between American popular and print culture. [End Page 180]