JOHN K. MATTHEWS produced this selection,
presented with the permission of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Notes on the Writing of
General Histories of Kansas

Part Five: The "Vanity" Histories


The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1955, pages 598-639.

This is the concluding article of the series which began in the Autumn, 1954, number of the Quarterly.

The late Dr. James C. Malin, was associate editor of The Kansas Historical Quarterly, and also professor of history at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.


Introduction to Part Five
Andreas-Cutler Introduction
The Preparation

The Reception Given "The Big History"

Authorship and the Adams-Cutler Correspondence
Evaluation in Retrospect


      THE financing of history is always a problem, but the costs of local history, because of the limited audience of readers, makes its publication through conventional channels very nearly prohibitive. Some types of books using more or less of historical material may sell on the commercial market in a volume sufficient to pay for themselves. Highly popularized history, thrillers, or sensational fictionalized stories of several varieties, seldom are good history, and more often are not history at all. Of course, history may be subsidized, but that presents problems also. When interested parities provide the costs, they usually control the results.

      The experience of Holloway and Wilder, related in earlier essays in this series, is the fate that overtook most projects of serious local history launched independently regardless of quality. In spite of the artificial enthusiasm about history during the centennial celebration agitation of 1875 and 1876, and all of the friendly publicity provided gratuitously by Wilder's fellow journalists, few of his friends and admirers proved their interest in Kansas history to the extent of the five dollar purchase price of the Annals of Kansas.

      One method devised for financing local history was found in what is sometimes called "Vanity" histories, sometimes called subscription histories. The latter term is not exact, because Holloway had announced that his history was sold only on subscription. By that he meant only that it was marketed by agents or canvassers who sold it by personal house-to-house calls. His agents offered for sale, on its merits, a printed book. The procedure of the vanity histories was different. Whether a single volume or several volumes, such a project included two categories of material; history and biography. The feature of special interest here is the biographies. The persons included were not selected upon the basis of their importance to the area whose history was being presented but on the test of whether or not they placed an order for the history. With a few possible exceptions, the only biographical sketches included were those of contracting purchasers. The principal attraction offered to convince a prospect that he should place his order for the forthcoming history was that the purchaser would see his own biographical sketch in print. As a further inducement to appeal to his vanity, at an additional price, his portrait might appear also. On account of this feature, the derisive name "Mug Books" was often applied. So far as the history proper was concerned the purchaser was contracting only for a promised history, of unknown quality, to be delivered at some future date and to be paid for in full on or before delivery. Details about conditions and payments varied with the several projects. Whether the history would be of any value as history depended upon the reliability of the company promoting the enterprise. In any case, the outcome must be judged upon individual merits, but as highly speculative commercial ventures, the companies that produced them must of necessity place the profit motive first.

      (Transcriber note: material in sections I and II not duplicated here.)

History of the State of Kansas


      In 1891 N. L. Prentis chose to give the Andreas-Cutler History of the State of Kansas a facetious though complimentary notice in his Kansas City Star column. His story revealed that a substantial legend about the book had accumulated during the eight years since it was first published. After summarizing the main facts which emphasized the great size and cost of the work, Prentis continued humorously:

      "But when the book was ready and the publisher should have gathered in his sheaves, Kansas took a freak and suddenly landed on the great book with both feet. The frisky commonwealth turned on "Andreas's History of Kansas," just as she has turned on several "favorite sons," and on one occasion on a favorite political party. The agreed price of the book -- which it was well worth -- was $12. A country justice of the peace decided that it was worth $3, and the decision was heralded all over the state. But this was not last nor worst; somebody attached to the great work the name of "The Kansas Herd Book" and the joke "took." When anything is made ridiculous in Kansas its day is done. In Kansas men have been "pilloried," and "ventilated" and "nailed to the counter," and all that, but the man who is laughed at is lost. The state is a trifle wild on the question of fun. It is doubtful if in any other state a burlesque syllabus would have been preserved in the supreme court reports. At any rate it was moved and seconded that the biggest and most elaborate book ever published about Kansas be called the "Herd Book," and the motion carried.

      "In the loud guffaw that rolled over Kansas on the adoption of the motion the sale of the book by any publisher seems to have ceased . . . Justice travels with heavy shoes, but her arrival can be safely calculated upon. The merits and value of the book with the unlucky nickname are being recognized . . ."

      Prentis' reputation as a humorist and literary artist betrayed him in several ways. People came to expect him to be funny regardless of the occasion or subject, and he felt obliged not to disappoint his public. Also, his facility with words misled him into over-emphasis upon literary form. Under the impulsion of these drives, Prentis lost sight of the primary importance of accuracy in facts and interpretation. For contemporaries, what Prentis wrote so entertainingly, was accepted as true. In cold print, separated by two thirds of a century from the charm of the Prentis personality, there is reason to ask some questions, and to test his allegations against verifiable facts.


      The History of the State of Kansas, or "Herd Book," was published by the Western Historical Company, of which Alfred Theodore Andreas (1839-1900) was proprietor. Andreas had embarked upon a formidable program of preparation and publication of state and other local history. This was in the early 1880's after some experience in a related field. His Western Historical Company was the outgrowth of the Andreas Atlas Company, which among other things had published in 1874 An Illustrated Historical Atlas of State of Minnesota, and in 1875 a similar one of Iowa. Also, he published several county histories of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The first enterprise of the state history series was a History of the State of Nebraska . . . issued in 1882, a quarto book of 1,506 double-column pages in minion type, with notes and documents in nonpareil, a still smaller font. [10] The History of the State of Kansas . . . in 1883 came next, and then a History of Chicagoin three volumes in 1884-1886, a total of 2,304 pages using the same page format.

      The editor in charge in the field and the principal author of the Nebraska enterprise was William G. Cutler. Upon completion of that work he was assigned to Kansas, arriving in Topeka during the first days of February, 1882, to organize his work. After some negotiations, the board of directors of the Kansas State Historical Society, at a special meeting February 8, at which time Cutler presented his program, granted him permission to make use of the materials owned by the Society under such regulations as the secretary might direct. [11]

      Cutler's staff of assistants mostly recruited in Kansas, but including his son, H. G. Cutler, was put to work under uniform instructions preparing county histories and interviewing subscribers for their biographical data. Cutler and his wife Mary, with some additional help, worked intensively from February to December, 1882, studying, taking notes from manuscripts, newspapers, and public documents assembled there, and in public offices in the Statehouse, and writing the general history of the territory and state of Kansas. The quantity of work done and the degree of thoroughness with which it was performed in approximately 11 months in Kansas was all but incredible. The task the Cutlers had performed in Nebraska had provided some background for their Kansas work, but so far as Kansas itself was concerned, in February, 1882, they had virtually started from scratch. Necessarily, working under such pressure over so short a time, they had little choice but to follow essentially the beaten paths. Time did not permit original thinking and the investigations essential to its verification even where the source materials calling for such revision were met at every turn.

      In the general state history section a few biographies appeared. One group was the state governors since admission of Kansas as a state. Another group, 14 in number, were listed under the heading: "In Memoriam," most of whom were entitled to inclusion in any moderately extensive list of distinguished Kansans. The question that was disturbing was why some of these were chosen to the exclusion of others obviously more important. One more word is in order: Kansas was so young as were most of its leaders, that the majority were still present, and many were actively and acrimoniously disputing honors and credits. To make a selection for distinction among them was hazardous.

      The theory of history under which the Andreas enterprises were operating and rationalizing their activities requires some attention. The word history as defined by "the acknowledged authorities, quite imperfectly defines the scope of an American history of to-day," is the dictum found in the preface to the Nebraska history. Among the reasons listed for the change in meaning were "the widespread dissemination of intelligence; the marvelous increase in printed records . . . ; the quick . . . growth of States," and the fact that under American conditions the whole history of a state might lie within the lifespan and memory of living persons, "to be subject to the hot and merciless criticism of the still living survivors, whose lives make the page."

      More was involved in this definition than might be apparent, because it provided the transition to a justification of the role of biography, invoking the authority of Carlyle and Macaulay in support of the dictum that: "True history is biography."

      In consequence, the Andreas creed was represented in the boast that:

      "We have undertaken, for the first time in the annals of literature, to cover the entire domain of history, and to publish a history of a Commonwealth, embracing its full scope as to time and detail . . . even down to the present time . . . Never before has a work of like magnitude been undertaken and performed. It combined the labor of more than a single life, and has required the investment of more capital than was ever before risked in a single literary enterprise of its kind in this country."

      In conclusion emphasis was placed upon the fact that the county sketches were written by different authors under uniform instructions. This gave to them a status supplementary to the general state history although in bulk overshadowing it.

      The Kansas history was similar in plan to the Nebraska history, but proved even more elaborate, 1,616 pages. Again the claim could be made that: "It is the most complete and exhaustive history of a single State ever published . . . as well as the most expensive, in the United States. But Kansas was represented as being a special case: "Kansas is richer in historic lore than any other region of the Great West. Its traditions go back to the time of the Montezumas and the Spanish conquest of Mexico." Included were the French, the Indian, and the America relations. Also, in the spirit of the day, the American Civil War was reviewed as a conflict between two types of American civilization: "In Kansas the war was begun; and there the first victories, presaging the full triumph of Liberty, were won." In telling this story, especially of the territorial period, "the editors were not embarrassed from lack of material so much as overwhelmed by a superabundance of conflicting and often untruthful accounts . . ." Andreas differentiated three principal categories. First,

      "each tale, as now read through the perspective of retreating time, shows most plainly the tinge of that subtle yet mischievous form of falsehood which comes from an unconscious perversion of facts on the part of the earnest writers. In addition to this, unscrupulous newspaper correspondents, instructed to write only for the northern or southern political markets, sent broadcast over the country, contradictory or false reports of every new phase of the exciting contest as it developed. [Third,] Many books on Kansas affairs were published during the territorial troubles, some of great merit and of rare historic value, as furnishing corroborative testimony; but of the whole. it is not believed that a single volume is now acknowledged as authoritative, or even approximately accurate, in a historic sense."

      Against these adverse factors, however, Andreas enumerated "advantages" which he insisted "were not inconsiderable." First, Wilder's Annals of Kansas provided a chronology of events 1854-1875. Second, the Kansas State Historical Society's materials on Kansas and the West was "more varied and complete . . . than can be found in the repository of any like society in the Great West." The co-operation of Secretary F. C. Adams was acknowledged. Next mentioned, were the Kansas State Library, the Biennial Reports of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, and other state agencies, and for military history, the archives of the state adjutant general. Defects in the history, the readers were assured, derived from other considerations, and it "is only so far complete as to point the way to future historians."

      The relation of the county histories and the biographies to the general history received more specific attention than in the preface to the Nebraska volume:

      "The County histories are supplementary. They have been written by historians who have visited each county, and are made up more directly from the remembrance of old residents, and less from documentary sources than is the general State history. They have been written by different authors, each having his peculiar style, but all working under one general supervision. No attempt has been made to force a correspondence or agreement between the statements concerning the same general occurrences as detailed in the general history and the sketches of the counties . . . Where differences appear they should he attributed to the different sources from which the information has been obtained, and treated as two honest versions of the same story, rather than reviewed as a proof of the unreliability of the whole work. In all cases the proof-sheets or manuscripts of the County histories have been submitted for revision and correction to old and reliable citizens of the County before going to press."

      The subject of the biographies, was given special attention and theoretical justification, but without any admission that primarily they were limited to subscribers to the history. "The data from which they were written," Andreas insisted, had been "gathered from personal interviews with the subjects of the sketches, or from their immediate relatives." To insure accuracy, "the biographies of Kansans still living" were "submitted for revision . . . to those most interested . . . " He argued that they showed "what manner of men make up the population, from whence they came, and what experiences or circumstances drove, drifted or lured them thither . . . It matters little that many of them are poor, or that a few of them are rich." A history of Kansas, "containing no record of their lives, would be incomplete indeed." Of course, this fit into the Andreas theory of history, and of the manner in which American history differed from European -- a history of the people themselves in the whole of their range of interests. In a new state this meant that history dealt not only with the remote past, but was brought down in time to the present including the people whose stories were told by the biographies.

      The arrangement of the biographical sketches of subscribers is important to an understanding of the adverse criticism at the time of publication. They followed in each case the historical sketch of the locality, city, town or township, with which the subscriber was identified. Thus the history of the locality and of the individual biographee were linked. That association was in accord with the Andreas theory of history and of the relation of biography to history.

      It is clear that Andreas as publisher determined the policies and wrote the prefaces to both the Nebraska and the Kansas histories, explaining his point of view. Cutler's role was that of managing editor and chief author in charge of the execution of the writing program. In spite of these essential functions, Cutler's name did not appear on either book.

[10] These are the type sizes specified by the Daily Kansas State Journal, Topeka, July 27, 1883, in its review of the Kansas history, which was in the same format. In current 20th century terms these would be approximately, if not the exact equivalents of, six point and eight point. Both were set solid without leading.

[11] "Proceedings" of the board of directors, K. S. H. S., "Record A," pp. 56, 57.

[Article Table of Contents] [part 2]

[Cutler's History] [Andreas' History]

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