Rediscovering the Past Through Print: Dr. Steven Smith Discusses Recent Publication

by The Cowl Editor on February 28, 2019


By Kyle Burgess ’21

Dr. Smith teaches various courses on American history at PC.
Dr. Smith teaches various courses on American history at PC.

Students and faculty of Providence College gathered in the Ruane Center for the Humanities this past Tuesday to help celebrate the publication of Dr. Steven Carl Smith’s book entitled An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic. 

In addition to hosting a small reception with a cake baked in the book’s likeness, PC’s Department of History and Classics’ very own Dr. Adrian Weimer sat down with Dr. Smith to get an inside look into the story behind the writing process.

Dr. Smith traced the origins of his work back to the summer in between his junior and senior years of college. While gathering research from  New York City newspapers on the infamous duel between former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and then Vice President Aaron Burr, Smith made an intriguing observation. He discovered that there were no studies on papers in the Big Apple prior to 1830. This was a void that, in Smith’s opinion, needed to be filled.

Upon enrolling in graduate school at the University of Missouri, Smith set out with a focus on New York printing culture at the turn of the 19th century. His findings inevitably led him to shift towards the business side of printing, allowing him to uncover fascinating stories such as brawls between rivaling publishers in the city streets.

In researching how booksellers and publishers engaged in business, Smith realized that he would have to uncover how these small businesses expanded on a national level and thereby put NYC on the map as the publishing capital of the early American republic. 

This quest put him on the road for three consecutive summers, traveling to prestigious centers for learning, such as the library archives of Columbia University, and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

During this laborious process, Smith learned that patience truly is a virtue when deciphering frustrating fragments of data. “As historians, it is our job to tease out interesting stories from our findings,” Smith explained, “I would get goosebumps at each new library thinking about what potential stories I would uncover.”

Sean Gray ’21 shared what it meant to see a former professor in print. “The history department here is lucky to have so many awesome professors and accomplished scholars in its ranks. Dr. Smith and his latest book are a testament to their capabilities.”

Smith also revealed his future plans of covering the life of Peter Force, part-time mayor of Washington, D.C. in the 1800s and full-time American Revolutionary War historian. Force’s collection was donated to the federal government, establishing him as a founding father of the Library of Congress.