Top of page

Old Copyright Submissions — Hawthorne, Twain, Douglass and Thousands More

Share this post:

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Gettins, a digital library specialist.
Title page submission for “Tom Sawyer” with a sub-title that was dropped for publication.

In celebration of copyright’s 150th anniversary this month, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division launches a new digital collection, Early Copyright Materials of the United States 1790-1870, which puts online for the first time nearly 50,000 title pages that accompanied copyright registrations dating back to the foundation of the country.

The documents — just the first wave of tens of thousands of old copyright entries that we’re digitizing — form a uniquely American record of creativity, dreams and aspirations from a world gone by. The title pages sent in by authors and publishers to register their books for copyright feature serious literature, comedies, romance, true crime and plays for the theater. There are works on religious instruction, how-to books and educational texts. There are also applications for inventions, sheet music, prints, photographs and illustrated works of the sciences, most notably botany and zoology.

Submitted title page of “My Bondage and My Freedom.”

Mark Twain’s 1875 application for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” one of the landmark works of literature in the 19th century, bears a sub-title that didn’t make it to publication, “A Tale of a By-Gone Time.” Here is Frederick Douglass’s 1855 application for “My Bondage and My Freedom.”  Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage are here with a title page of “History of Woman Suffrage.” Other titans of the era are represented, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper, whose title pages are both ostensibly signed, like many applications, by the authors.

The documents stem from the first federal copyright laws in 1790 and 1831. They contain the earliest copyright records and materials that were held by the federal district courts and numerous government offices in D.C. The Copyright Act of 1870 — the birth of modern copyright law — consolidated previous records. The old entries were sent to the Library where they have since resided, nestled away in archival boxes, some scarcely seeing the light of day in 230 years. The Library, of course, has been home to the U.S. Copyright Office since 1897. It houses the modern records.

My bondage and My freedom” – Title pages – Frederick Douglass — Author” Possibly in Douglass’ handwriting.

As you go through the collections, it’s worth remembering that many items were never published or have been lost to history. And, because copyright registration preceded publication, many registrations do not correspond to a published work. These ghost books offer a fascinating glimpse of a “what if” in American cultural history.

The next phase of digitization will be the copyright ledgers, which comprise of the great bulk of the collection. Organized by state and date, these bound items were created and maintained by government clerks. Here they recorded in careful handwritten entries each copyright application noting the title, author and date of each work.

But, for now, these digital files will allow tens of thousands of titles to be discovered anew. They offer readers the chance to search them from their homes, laptops or smart phones. The items beg to be searched and discoveries made. We welcome you to use this new primary resource that contributes so much to the early canon of the nation’s historic works.

Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.

Comments (5)

  1. The link for “Early Copyright Materials of the United States” is not working.

    • Working on it!

  2. Hi,

    The first link to the “Early Copyright Materials of the United States” is broken. Can you please send me the correct link? Thanks!

    • fixed!

  3. Me encanta Lo que publican hay textos libros y demás que son preciosos y te cautivan el alma y es para mi lo mejor que existe

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.