This Week in History: Part Six

Part six of This Week in History will be diving into Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People, specifically the March edition from 1877. Scribner’s Monthly was a pictorial publication focusing on bringing art, science, and literature to the American people. Unfortunately, this publication was short-lived, only lasting from 1870-1881. Scribner’s Monthly was renamed to The Century Magazine following the sale of the company. Founder Charles Scribner came back and created Scribner’s Magazine in 1887 to compete with the highly successful Harper’s Weekly (which is discussed in Part Four of this series).

Interior of New York Aquarium
Fortunately, the March volume of Scribner’s Monthly is full of interesting articles, poetry, literature installments, advice, and a few other oddities. The headliner for March was the New York Aquarium, which opened December 10, 1876. The article has no author but the illustrations were provided by a local artist who documented their experience. 

The New York Aquarium was the first of its kind in the United States and was the creation of William C. Coup, co-founder of P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie and Circus. According to the article: “…it was during a European tour made four years since, that [Coup’s] attention was first attracted and his interest engaged by the number of great public aquaria there…” (p. 577).

Illustration of angler fish and its prey
Most of the article describes the challenges faced by the architects, namely the aeration and filtration systems needed for fresh and salt water tanks. There are numerous illustrations of aquatic animals, including: sea lions, angler fish, crabs, and a mermaid riding a seahorse, which is: “something that cannot be seen at the aquarium” (p.584). The aquarium also housed a free scientific library, naturalists’ laboratory, and reading room. Open to the public these rooms were intended to further scientific research in America.

The March volume also included works of fiction: part two of Farmer Bassett’s Romance and chapter eight of Nicholas Minturn by Josiah G. Holland. Holland was a founder and editor of Scribner’s Monthly and later went on to become good friends with poet Emily Dickinson.

Cane fight between Princeton freshmen and sophomores
There is also a second feature article detailing the founding and political importance of Princeton College. As one of the original four pre-revolution colleges in America Princeton’s history is illustrious and counts many statesmen as alumni. However, it was an illustration of “the annual cane fight on the campus between freshmen and sophomores” which got my attention. Nowhere in the article is this fight described or even mentioned, so I had to look it up. According to Princeton’s website:

"Cane Spree…grew out of riots between freshmen and sophomores…in the 1860s. It was the fashion of the times for gentlemen to carry walking sticks, but freshmen who did so were subject to hazing. Sophomores, provoked by freshmen flaunting their canes…felt obliged to wrestle the canes away. In 1869 the sophomore class issued a proclamation that prohibited freshmen from carrying canes, but it was often ignored…cane-equipped freshmen met the sophomores in front of the University's main gates, and melee ensued."

This spontaneous outburst has changed over the last 140 years, but the original is worth remembering.

If you are interested in reading about the New York Aquarium or Princeton College, please visit the archive’s Reading Room and ask about the Rare Books. We are open Mon.-Thurs. from 9am-5pm.


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