Welcome to the 1880s. Baseball fever is sweeping the country! Urban centers boast professional teams of paid, recruited players, like the Detroit Base Ball Club pictured on the trade card below, part of the National League from 1881 to 1888. (The Detroit Tigers were created in 1901, as part of the newly organized American League.) The Detroit Base Ball Club is gaining some notoriety. They'll win the pennant (the forerunner of the World Series) in 1887, beating the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 10 out of 15 games.
Trade Card for the Detroit League Base Ball Club, Sponsored by "Splendid" Plug Tobacco, P. & G. Lorillard, 1886 / THF225148
Chief among the team's heroes is star catcher Charley Bennett (pictured upper right). Charley is the first professional-league catcher to wear a chest protector outside his uniform. Detroit fans so adore him that they will name their first official ballyard Bennett Park. Charley is the team's "muscle"; center fielder and team captain Ned Hanlon (pictured center) is its "brains."
The passion for baseball is equally evident in small-town America. Amateur clubs show up just about anywhere that nine men can agree on a time and place to practice. Games against rival towns and villages engender fierce local pride. Over in the village of Waterford, Michigan, some country lads have formed a team called the Lah-De-Dahs. Their exploits are well documented in the local newspaper. On September 2, 1887, local fans will smile to read, "George Wager is the best catcher in the township and of the Waterford nine; if he fails to catch the ball with his hands he will catch it with his mouth."
The back of the trade card features an ad for Lorillard’s “Splendid” plug tobacco, as well as the home and “abroad” schedules for Detroit. / THF225149
See the Lah-De-Dahs in Action
Would you like to see the Lah-De-Dahs in action? You can, every summer in Greenfield Village. Our own team borrows the look and playing style of an 1880s amateur baseball club like the original Waterford Lah-De-Dahs.
When you go to a Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village game, you will notice some different baseball terminology. For example, instead of "batter up," the umpire will declare "striker to the line." When he notes "three hands dead," he simply means that the side is retired.
Visit a Historic Base Ball game this summer and learn some new terminology for yourself!
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This article was adapted from the May 1997 entry in our previous “Pic of the Month” online series.
"American Sports, Base Ball, Striker & Catcher" Plate, circa 1850 / THF135816
"On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 10, at the farm of Louis Bradley, might have been seen a small gathering of people. They came to see the final game between the Lah-da-dahs, of Waterford, and the White Lakes of Webster neighborhood."
–Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887
In the 1880s, many Michigan towns supported baseball teams, including Waterford, in Oakland County, but the game's history goes back further. The game of base ball (as it was often spelled into the 1890s) had its origins in a number of children's games, but especially a British game called "Rounders." Rounders rules called for the game to be played on a diamond, with a striker (batter) who faced a feeder (pitcher).
The American game of base ball gained in popularity in the mid-1800s, so much so that English ceramic makers produced dishes such as the "Base Ball" plate above, depicting a "Striker & Catcher," to appeal to American consumers. American interest in base ball in the late 1800s is evident in the production and marketing of such a plate.
Americans purchased these English-made ceramics to celebrate their national game, but base ball did not have all the regulations we know in modern baseball today. Until the 1880s, rules stated that the pitcher had to deliver the ball underhanded with a straight arm. The batter could call for a high or low pitch. A high pitch was considered one between the belt and shoulders, and a low pitch was to be delivered between the belt and knees, a range close to the modern strike zone. Balls and strikes were usually not called until the 1870s.
Some rules called for home plate to be made of marble or stone, but there was no batter's box, only a line that bisected the plate. Consequently, today's historic base ball umpires will frequently signal the start of a game by calling, "Striker to the line!" Early rules discouraged, and often forbade, players being paid.
You can browse artifacts related to both the early and more modern forms of baseball in our Digital Collections. Or, if you want to see vintage base ball firsthand, check out the schedule for the Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs, who borrowed the name of the old Waterford team. The Village nine suit up to play teams from Ohio and Michigan throughout the summer as a part of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village. Though the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was not written until 1908, you might hear the band play it. If you wish, you can sing along and cheer on the base ball strikers for the Lah-De-Dahs.
This post was adapted from the July 2000 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542
Several million guests have seen a reproduction Sibley seed box, based on an original box in our collections, in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village since 1994, when the box became part of the reinterpreted interior. Commercial seed sales of pre-packaged vegetable and flower seeds began in earnest during the 1860s, and by the mid-1880s, Hiram Sibley & Company advertised itself as the world’s largest seed company. That might be true. Sibley, who made his fortune as executive of the Western Union Telegraph Company, invested in farms and packing houses in several states and engaged in seed trade in several foreign countries. His entrepreneurial bent warranted more exploration, as did the details of the seed packets, all stowed carefully in the box in the General Store.
The reference photograph in our collections database for the original seed box showed a box with seed packets. The accession number, 29.1987.18.1, indicated that this was an early addition to The Henry Ford’s collections—the first number, 29, means that it was acquired in 1929. The second number indicates that it was in the 1,987th lot acquired that year, and the third number indicates that the box was the 18th item in the 29.1987 grouping. In fact, as research ultimately disclosed, our collections included the box, plus 108 original seed packets and a Sibley & Co. Seed catalog.
My need to know more started a chain reaction. First, this object had been in the collection for 90 years. It has known provenance: Accession records indicate that it was purchased with other items from a store in the tiny, rural, upstate New York community of Rock Stream. The Barnes family—Charles W. and then his son, Alonzo S.—operated the store. Alonzo died in 1929, which may have precipitated the sale. Our registrars researched and catalogued all parts of the set. We also acquired archival documents—a map of the town from the time the Barnes family operated the store and two postcards of the town—for our collections to add context around the seed box.
Main Street, Rock Stream, New York, 1908-1910 / THF146163
Filling in details about seed packets required further reconnaissance. This required removing the seed box from exhibit at the end of the 2019 Greenfield Village season. Our Exhibits team moved the reproduction box and the authentic seed packets it contained to our conservation labs. Conservation staff removed the packets, checked for damage, then cleaned and prepared the packets for digitization. In the meantime, Collections Management staff located the original box in collections storage and moved it to the conservation labs for cleaning.
Once the packets were cleaned, they were moved to our archives, where the packets were imaged. After the box was cleaned, Collections Management staff moved it to the photography studio. The individual seed packets, once imaged, also were moved to the photo studio. There, the packets rejoined the box, fitting into compartments spaced to accommodate “papers” as well as multiple-ounce “packets” of seeds. The final photograph above shows the rejoined box and original seeds – cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, eggplant, onion, pea, rutabaga, tomato, turnip, and other vegetables.
Some of the individual seed packets that were digitized. See them all in our Digital Collections.
After the photo session, the seeds returned to the reproduction box, the box was sealed with its Plexiglas top to protect them, and Exhibits staff returned the box with its contents to the General Store in Greenfield Village.
It is important to note that the investigation, relocation, cleaning, digitizing, photography, and cataloging all occurred between January and March 2020, before COVID-19 closed the museum and delayed the opening of Greenfield Village. During that closure, between March 15 and July 9, the digitized records became part of numerous blogs written to meet the needs of patrons seeking information about food sources, vegetable gardening, food security—and about tomatoes!
It may seem difficult to justify the amount of time required from so many people to digitize one box and its many seed packets during the process. Each staff member involved in the process had to juggle numerous competing projects to make time to attend to the box and its packets. However, their work created invaluable digital resources that have already enhanced several of our blog posts. We may never know how many people were inspired to plant their own vegetable garden during a year of uncertainty partially, or wholly, because of “How Does Your Vegetable Garden Grow?,” or who just had to have a BLT after reading “Multiple Takes on Tomatoes.”
This is what digitization can do, and this is the effort that it takes. We all do it in the spirit of life-long learning.
Left side of J.R. Jones General Store featuring large grocery “department” and a cigar case on the counter up front. (THF53774)
During the 1880s, proprietor James R. Jones would have welcomed customers to this general merchandise store—now in Greenfield Village but originally located in the rural village of Waterford, Michigan. Jones sold everything here that townspeople, local farm families, or visiting out-of-towners might want—from groceries to fabrics to farm tools to fishing poles. The store also served as a community gathering place, for customers to exchange news, socialize, and pick up mail.
Choices between similar products even in country stores like this one were quite plentiful. Decisions by shoppers depended upon such things as their family background, gender, financial means, and personal values.
Here’s a sampling of some of the products that 1880s customers to the J.R. Jones store might have purchased.
Sugar barrel (THF176665)
Sugar (approximate price: .08-.12/lb)
In a study of general store accounts from the era, customers purchased sugar more often than any other single product. It was, of course, used in cooking and baking, but large quantities of it were necessary for preserving fresh seasonal produce in the days before refrigeration.
Sugar was available in many grades, from “A” (the highest) to brown to “X” (the lowest). Sugar was available in bulk and, unless a storekeeper stocked several grades, customers had little choice in the quality of sugar they obtained at the local store.
Store canisters for tea (THF176669)
Tea (approximate price: .45-.75/lb)
The Grocer’s Companion (1884) called tea the “foremost of all beverages in reference to its invigorating and restorative qualities.” Tea came in a tremendous variety of grades and types in the late 19th century, and store canisters were often specifically designed to hold the various types. They came from only one species of evergreen shrub or small tree. The differences came in how the tea was grown and how the leaves were treated. All the tea in the J.R. Jones General Store came from China, which was considered the center of the tea industry at the time. This included:
“Black” teas, which underwent a fermentation process before drying.These included Oolong (strong and pungent, made from young leaves) and English Breakfast (in the 19th century, a blend that came from China, but was popularized in England).
“Green” teas, which were submitted immediately upon gathering to a high temperature in iron pans.These included Gunpowder (made from young leaves, fragrant and pungent taste with a greenish hue and shaped like round small shot); and Imperial (like Gunpowder but with larger leaves).
Cans of tomatoes (THF176668)
Canned tomatoes (approximate price: .15/can)
Tomatoes were one of the most popular commercially available canned food products. By the 1880s, improved manufacturing techniques in canning had raised the production of canned goods to a major American industry, making all manner of fruits, vegetables, and meats available year-round to just about everyone but the very poor.
Canned goods, however, had many critics. Some claimed that the food tasted “tinny,” that it was unhealthy, and that products were adulterated to add weight (this was before the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906). In some cases, women also could be looked down upon for relying on canned goods rather than canning and preserving themselves. Nevertheless, the presence of canned goods in store accounts and advertisements attests to their popularity.
Packages of Magic Yeast and One Spoon Baking Powder (THF176670)
Magic Yeast and One Spoon Baking Powder (approximate price: .15-.25/box)
Despite the introduction of several different brands of baking powder during this time, yeast still remained the most popular bread-leavening agent. Many women made their own yeast and numerous recipes appeared in cookbooks. As for the commercially processed product, compressed yeast introduced by Gaff, Fleischman & Company in the 1860s, was considered the purest and most dependable form of yeast.
But many brands of packaged yeast cakes and powders, including this Magic Yeast, vied for competition in the market. Critics of these commercial yeast products claimed that their vitality could be easily destroyed by heat, cold or movement, and that they could make bread sour or moldy. Still, they were much more convenient than the homemade.
Baking powder, a leavening agent usually made from a proportion of cream of tartar and carbonate of soda, was fairly new on the scene in the 1880s. It saved careful measuring of one or both of these ingredients in baked goods, and saved hours of time over yeast in making bread. Dozens of baking powders, like this One Spoon brand, were available on the market.
But baking powder, more than just about any other cooking ingredient of the late 19th century, raised suspicion and complaints among housekeepers and advice writers alike. High cost, poor performance, and leaving a bitter taste in foods comprised some of these complaints. But even more alarm was raised by accusations of adulteration—that is, the addition of impure ingredients like lime, earth, or alum, which could actually injure people’s health. Fortunately, most of these problems were worked out in the next decade or so, when the advent of “quick breads” really began. It was the adventurous housewife that tried baking powder in the 1880s.
When enamel-coated ironware was introduced in 1874, it was marketed as light (compared to cast iron), handsome (the gray mottled surface was considered picturesque and elegant), wholesome (wouldn’t rust or corrode like tinware and didn’t contain poisonous arsenic, lead, or antimony like cheap imitations), and durable (actually, it chipped easily but 3 out of 4 points in its favor weren’t bad!). Manufacturers of this so-called granite ironware, or graniteware (because of its visual appearance like granite), optimistically claimed that these goods would entirely supplant the “common and unserviceable” stamped tinware. (Actually, it was aluminum that did this in the early 20th century.) In the 1890s, enamel-coated steel replaced much of the earlier granite ironware.
Coffee, as an accompaniment to breakfast and other meals, was an extremely popular beverage at this time. The most common way of preparing it was in an open boiler on a cookstove.
Package of Rising Sun Stove Polish (THF176674)
Package of Rising Sun Stove Polish (approximate price: .08-.10/pkg)
This product would have been used in conjunction with blacking to clean and give luster to cast-iron stoves. It was mixed with a liquid agent (e.g., turpentine or soap-suds) for application to the stove. This was a crucial task for cleaning cast-iron stoves, but it was also marketed as necessary to maintaining a tasteful home. Rising Sun Stove Polish was very aggressive in its marketing. Advertisements boasted that it was “the oldest and most reliable stove polish in the world” and that it would “keep stoves looking good and operating efficiently.”
Case of boxes of cigars (THF176666)
Cigars (approximate price: .04-.08 apiece)
During the 1880s, cigar-smoking was extremely popular, especially among men who wanted to appear prosperous and ambitious. Unlike smoking tobacco (for pipes) and plugs of chewing tobacco, where production was monopolized by a few large national manufacturers, cigars were still produced at thousands of small, local manufactories across the country as well as in Havana, Cuba. Detroit had several cigar factories. As a result of this great number of producers, cigars came in a daunting array of sizes, colors, grades, and flavors. To the uninitiated, sometimes only the eye-catching images on their boxes in the store’s showcase distinguished one brand from another.
Packages of Ayer’s Hair Vigor (THF176671)
Ayer’s Hair Vigor (approximate price: .50)
The hairstyles of the 1880s required an abundant supply of healthy hair in order to make it stand up as high and look as natural as possible. Hair dressings and restorers abounded, with Ayer’s Hair Vigor among the best known.
This product claimed to promote hair growth, restore color and vitality to faded or gray hair, and render the hair soft, youthful, and glossy. It contained cream of tartar (removed the reddish color in hair caused by rust from iron-rich well water); glycerin (a moisturizer); lead acetate (which claimed to remove the gray hair); and a caustic soda (a.k.a. sodium hydroxide or lye), which claimed to be a hair relaxer or straightener. The colorful images of young women with long, luxurious hair on Ayer’s trade cards and packages must have encouraged older women to try this product as well.
Medical journals attacked Ayer’s Hair Vigor as unsafe and denounced its manufacturer as deceiving the public. But the product’s allure persisted, and certainly J.R. Jones and his customers would have been unaware of any safety warnings from such journals.
Jars of Woodworth’s Ursina Bear Grease (THF176672)
Pomades, oils, and dressings for keeping hair in place and sometimes for promoting hair growth were popular men’s grooming aids in the late 19th century. In fact, that is the major reason why ornamental lace tidies and antimacassars were so common—to protect the surfaces of chairs and sofas from these often greasy concoctions. This particular product claimed to be “real bear grease procured from the Rocky Mountains and very carefully refined.”
3 varieties of castor sets (THF176678)
Castor set (approximate price: $1.50-2.25)
In the 1880s, silver-plated castor sets frequently formed the centerpiece of the dining table for middle-class families, reflecting the families’ good taste and economic status. Castor sets would have been a necessity in places like hotels and boardinghouses, where large groups of people dined—each with different tastes in food. They were available in a tremendous variety of styles and prices. Most contained two to six bottles, generally for holding pepper, mustard, oil, and vinegar, and sometimes other spices.
Boxes of men’s and women’s collars (THF176676)
Men’s and women’s collars (approximate price: .10-.30)
A white shirt with a white collar and cuffs marked the man as someone of means, or at least on his way up. But clean collars and cuffs were always a necessity, no matter what color and style shirt a man wore. Enter replaceable collars and cuffs.
Men’s collars of the 1880s were plain in style and were made of paper, celluloid, or linen. Collars were high and tight, either “standing” (straight up around the neck) or “turned outward” (tips or side edges turned outward or over and slightly down), complementing the coats which buttoned high during this time. Paper and celluloid collars were considered disposable, while linen collars could be washed and ironed and kept fresh for a period of time.
Women’s dresses were time-consuming to make and costly to have someone else make. Purchasing a new collar was an inexpensive way of freshening or updating the look of a dress that had been around for a while. Ladies’ collars were detachable and could be used multiple times on various garments. They ranged in price, from fairly plain linen collars to intricate lace ones.
Men’s derbies and straw hats (THF176675)
Men’s hats (approximate price: .50-1.75 for straw; $1.00-2.50 for derby)
While top, or silk, hats might have been worn by a wealthy city gentleman going to a fancy affair, Waterford men would have generally worn a bowler hat, supplemented by a low-crowned straw hat for summer occasions. The hard felt bowler (usually referred to as a derby in the United States) was a staple, durable hat that could have been worn all day long—even at work—and was generally considered a symbol of respectability.
Also during this time, the hat industry aimed to persuade every man to purchase a new straw hat at the beginning of every summer. Straw hats tended to be water-resistant to hold up even on rainy days.
Bolts of fabric (THF176677)
Fabric (approximate price: .05 for print to 1.30 for silk)
Women’s clothing was not ready-made yet, so all dresses had to be fashioned at home or by a seamstress. Bolts of fabric and trims lined numerous shelves of general stores like this one. The bolts of fabric in this store include:
“Print”– a general term for a fabric onto which patterns were printed or applied by dyes after it was machine-woven.Available in a huge variety of designs, it was about the cheapest and most durable, but least elegant, dress fabric available.
Linen – One of the oldest textile fabrics known, this would have been imported.It was more elegant and fashionable than cotton, but also quite a bit more expensive and harder to maintain.
Wool – A very warm and durable fabric, produced in mills in the eastern United States.(In fact, the fleece from sheep raised on farms around Waterford was shipped to these mills.)Wool was very serviceable for winter clothing.
Silk – Noted for its resiliency and elasticity, this would have been imported.It was quite a bit more expensive than wool, and dresses made of this material would have been elegant and stylish.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Portrait of J.R. Jones taken about 1890 (THF277166)
It took only a little bit of capital but a lot of business ingenuity and risk-taking to run a general store in the late 19th century. Because of the great financial risks involved, many storekeepers went out of business and stores changed hands often. The general store in Greenfield Village was one such store, changing hands at least nine times before being purchased by Henry Ford in 1927. J.R. Jones, the store’s proprietor between 1882 and 1888, was like many other storekeepers of his time—low on funds but high on ambition and filled with the dream of prosperity just around the corner.
James R. Jones was the youngest of seven children born to James, a stonemason, and Eliza Webb Jones. James, Sr. and Eliza, both originally from England, had moved to New York State, then to Stillwater, Minnesota (where James R. was born on January 5, 1858), before finally settling in Holly, Michigan, about 1865.
Recreated interior of the general store in Greenfield Village, showing bolts of fabric, clothing, hats, and clothing accessories (THF53760)
Jimmie (as James R. was called well into adulthood) must have fancied himself quite a salesman when he clerked at his brother’s store while still in his teens. By the time he was twenty, he was already in charge of operating T. G. Richardson’s store in Waterford. And he must have been pretty good at that. A newspaper account of the time reported that, “Mr. James Jones, the accomplished ‘how many yards ma’am,’ from Holly has charge of Richardson’s store here and is well liked.” A few years later, in 1882, he decided to venture out on his own and he took over the proprietorship of the store that would eventually move to Greenfield Village.
Front window of J.R. Jones store with display of sporting goods (THF176664)
The ingenuity that Jones demonstrated in attracting customers is evident in newspaper accounts of the time. For example, in 1884, “with the enterprise characteristic of the man,” Jones opened up a trade in sporting goods, in which he bought and sold second-hand guns (for the sport of hunting). That same year, as an added incentive for customers, Jones offered a free “chromo” (or colored lithograph) with every large bill of goods.
Jones’s desk and office area recreated at the back of the general store in Greenfield Village, with an 1880s-era telephone on the wall (THF53764)
Jones was also resourceful in running his business, drawing customers by having his store serve as the site of the local post office from 1882 to 1885, during the presidency of Republican James A. Garfield, as well as having what was the first—and for a time the only—telephone in town installed in his store (probably in 1882). By 1887, the local business directory referred to Jones not only as a general store merchant but also as manager of the Michigan Bell Telephone Company in Waterford. To remain frugal, he and his wife lived upstairs from the store from about 1883 on, partitioning the space into several small rooms.
J.R. Jones (right) with his brother-in-law, John Maybee, outside the Jones and Maybee General Store in Holly, Michigan, about 1890 (THF277163)
Around 1887, Jones must have decided that he could not make a profitable go of running the Waterford store. By 1890, he had returned to Holly where he ran a general store with his brother-in-law John Maybee, then he went on to stints as a salesman for the Cyclone Wire Fence Company and as a boot and shoe dealer.
Portrait of J.R. Jones and his wife, Alice Isabelle Maybee Jones, about 1920 (THF277164)
Probably the high point of Jones’s later life came a few years before his death in 1933, when Henry Ford invited him to Greenfield Village to get his reactions to the historic installation he had just completed of the very general store that Jones had operated in Waterford back in the 1880s!
We would like to acknowledge the generosity of J.R. Jones’s great-nieces—Marion H. Roush, Isabel Maybee Stark, and Charlotte Maybee—for providing access to family photos in order to help us document J.R. Jones’s life.
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Jacket, Worn by Robert H. Hendershot, circa 1890. THF 155871
In the 1880s and 1890s, Civil War veteran Robert Hendershot wore this elaborate jacket when he played his drum at Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) events and at other community gatherings. The accompanying “souvenir” card is actually an advertisement, letting interested parties know Hendershot was available for hire.
Trade Card from Major Robert H. Hendershot, "The Original Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock," circa 1895. THF 115938
Since the 1860s, Hendershot had billed himself as “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” But was he? In December 1862, during the fighting at Fredericksburg, Virginia, reports had come of a brave young drummer boy who had crossed the Rappahannock River with the 7th Michigan Infantry under a hail of Confederate bullets. The 12-year-old Hendershot was indeed with a Michigan regiment at Fredericksburg at this time. But so were several other young drummer boys.
The controversy over who really was “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock” raged for decades among Civil War veterans—reports from members of Michigan units engaged at Fredericksburg offered conflicting stories. But Hendershot used his savvy promotion skills to keep his name before the public, receiving recognition from some G.A.R. members and even from prominent men like newspaper editor Horace Greeley.
Hendershot may or may not have been “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” But throughout his life, he certainly used his celebrity to his advantage.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
The Gettysburg battlefield monument depicted in this painting honors the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. The figure of the soldier looks out over the field where this famed unit fought fiercely on July 3, 1863 to help assure Union victory on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Their commander was 23-year-old Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, promoted only three days before. Gettysburg was the Michigan Brigade's first major engagement.
This "Wolverine Brigade" fought in every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from Gettysburg to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. A number of the surviving veterans were present at the monument's dedication in Gettysburg on June 13, 1889.
Jessie Zinn created this painting of the monument soon after. Did a proud Michigan Brigade veteran ask the 26-year-old Gettysburg artist to paint it? Did Michigan veterans commission the artwork to hang in their local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall?To learn more about Jessie's story, take a look at this special visit To Henry Ford.
When Chris Lauritzen at YouTube in October 2014 to start a book design and publishing studio called Epilogue, he expected to have a working version of his first title — a reissue of Edwin A. Abbott’s cult classic "Flatland" — ready by the holidays. So much for expectations: The launch party was held in April 2016.
Not that Lauritzen was slacking off in the intervening year and a half. Independently publishing a print book these days, especially one conceived as a beautiful art object, takes a serious, long-term commitment. Lauritzen didn’t just have to design "Flatland" — to conceptualize it, typeset it, illustrate it and prototype it. He also had to crowdfund it and then look all over the country (plus Canada) for those few remaining specialty shops that would suit his various printing, binding and shipping needs. All of which raises the obvious question: Why? Who would want a meticulously crafted print edition of a 130-year-old public-domain text in 2016? Especially when print is, if not dead, then certainly struggling?
Lauritzen’s answer is to question the question: He believes it’s a glorious, singular time for the print medium.
SMALL BOOK, BIG IMPACT At one time, everything was printed on paper: ads, fliers, brochures, pamphlets, notes. Or, as Lauritzen characterizes that stuff: “Junk. Ephemeral noise.” But over the years, much of that material has gone digital, clearing the printed world of clutter.
“By choosing to do something in print, you’re saying this thing is worth a damn,” Lauritzen said. “Print is starting to become its own quality filter.”
Lauritzen knew he wanted to apply that filter to something in the public domain, a vast collection of works that anyone can use, print and distribute without permission. But he wasn’t aware of "Flatland" until a friend suggested he check it out.
Written in 1884 by the English scholar Edwin A. Abbott, "Flatland" is a small book about a big subject: multiple dimensions. The narrator, a square named (fittingly) A. Square, lives on a flat 2-D plane, but he’s forced to consider what the 3-D world of Spaceland might look like when a sphere from there pays him a visit.
Ian Stewart, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick in England who published an annotated version of "Flatland" in 2002, considers Abbott’s book one of the earliest works of popular science. “There’s really nothing else like it,” Stewart said. “It was completely original and unusual.”
The book wasn’t just about having fun in multiple dimensions, though. Abbott used geometry to challenge Victorian norms about the role of women in society — math as a tool for social progress. Some didn’t get it; many did. The first edition sold out quickly, and it has been in print ever since, a favorite among a wide range of readers who wonder about their place in the world.
Lauritzen was an immediate convert — it was exactly what he was looking for. Given its largely two-dimensional setting, he felt it would play nicely with his skill set as a graphic designer. But more than that, "Flatland" had a following, not huge but passionate, that was rather unhappy with the editions of the book currently available.
NOT JUST FOR SHOW Because works in the public domain can be accessed for free, there’s not much financial incentive for a publisher to put out nice editions. "Flatland" is no exception. It exists in a variety of terrible formats, from websites and PDFs to cheesy print runs that feel more like pamphlets than books. “It’s really unsatisfying,” Lauritzen said.
So, when he launched a Kickstarter in April 2015, that was his selling point: the chance for a beloved classic to get the makeover it deserved. The goal was $24,000; he raised well over three times that ($81,777, to be exact). Then the real challenge — making the book — began. Even though Lauritzen intended the reissue to be something of a collector’s item, he didn’t want a finished product that was destined for a coffee table, untouched and unread.
“It shouldn’t be a fetishized object,” he said. “The sooner you throw it on the ground, the better.”
To that end, he chose to make it softcover, with thick paper and extra-wide margins for writing in. The floating spine means you can bend the pages back as much as you want and the binding won’t crack. Lauritzen also appended a visual guide, full of exquisite black-and-white illustrations that illuminate various concepts in the text. He’s now working on a supplementary online library of shapes — “an education/ art experience for students of geometry,” he said. Finally, to add heft, he designed an elegant gray slipcase, stamped with a silver tesseract.
This wasn’t a solo production, of course. At last year’s launch party, held in a small shop in San Francisco, Lauritzen thanked all of the people who helped him along the way — friends, family, the workers in Vancouver and Phoenix and Oakland who printed and bound and shipped the books. Of the 2,000 copies Lauritzen printed, roughly half were sent to Kickstarter backers, and the remainder are now available for $65 each, a price Lauritzen hopes will decrease in subsequent print runs.
You can tell Lauritzen is proud of the result. He flips through it lovingly — though he’s not afraid to bend a corner or mark up a page. The whole point is to get people to read it.
“Time was spent writing this thing, time was spent designing this thing, time was spent producing it, time was spent getting it into your hands,” he said. “That’s contagious. That’s something you can sense. It gives you permission to take time with it, to sit down and really delve in.”
Jason Kehe is a writer for The Henry Ford Magazine. This story originally ran in the March-May 2017 issue of the magazine