Don’t Be Fooled by Unassuming Packaging

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
February 16, 2021

Thomas Jefferson was a longtime subscriber, and occasional contributor, to The Port Folio despite the publication’s Federalist leanings.
Joseph Dennie published The Port Folio under his own name for the two years before his death.

This past spring, in a giant case of taking lemons to make lemonade, MCHS undertook a reorganization of our archives and library. Among the sea of boxes that screamed “open me!” from “Autographed Letters” to “Civil War Photographs, Exemptions, Court Martials”, two archival boxes simply marked 982.18 didn’t exactly stand out. However, inside were 45 issues of The Port Folio, a magazine read, subscribed to, and contributed to by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The first issue ran in 1801 when the magazine was edited by Joseph Dennie of Philadelphia, a man with great interest in politics, under the remarkably Dickensian pseudonym “Oliver Oldschool, Esq. assisted by a confederacy of men of letters.” Although he dropped the pseudonym after 1810, Dennie remained editor of the publication until his death in 1812, and The Port Folio remained in circulation until 1827.

Initially political, it shifted its scope after Dennie found himself in spectacularly hot water (he was reportedly charged with sedition in 1804), and became a very eclectic magazine, touching upon travel to far-flung places, poetry, literature, natural science, and a variety of other topics. The magazine reflected that era’s fascination with the Classical world and, regardless of topic, few articles were free from references to dryads, nymphs, ancient cities or scholars. Annual subscription was $6 a year by 1814 (about $100 today), a substantial sum for all but the most wealthy.

The earliest edition in MCHS’s collection. Dennie began a “new series” in 1806 after he extricated himself from his legal troubles.

The issues in MCHS’s archives, spanning from 1807 to 1813, represent some of the earliest writings in our holdings and provide a fascinating snapshot of the interests, tastes, and world views of American gentlemen in the years surrounding the War of 1812. Research related to individual issues in MCHS’s archives is ongoing, but they are now in properly labeled boxes so as not to be overlooked again.

An original version was printed in MCHS’s Summer 2020 Newsletter.