The paper utilizes What Middletown Read, an NEH-funded database, as a medium to track socio-economic patterns of popular readership during the 1890s, America’s so-called Gilded Age. The 175,000 borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library in Indiana, the main source of the database, are uniquely valuable for complementing the choice of Muncie as the proto-typical Midwestern small city, first explored in depth by Robert and Helen Lynd in their iconic Middletown: A Study in American Culture (1929), a book that is still widely used in today’s classroom. Prompted by the “Tides” theme of the 2020 CEA conference, I have chosen J.T. Trowbridge’s frequently reprinted children’s novel, The Tinkham Brothers’ Tide Mill (1882) as my exemplar. Identification of the ninety borrowers of this book through their entries in the 1900 U.S. Census and other sources allows us to capture their broader reading choices in terms of such factors as their societal background, education, age, and gender. Our records also show that books intended for a juvenile market often had a wider appeal prompted in part by serial publication. In preparation for an upgrade to the database, I examine its particular strengths and limitations, and flag its present-day utility as a teaching tool.
Dr. Frank Felsenstein is the Reed D. Voran Honors Distinguished Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Ball State University in Indiana.