Monday, July 12, 2021

L. Libbie Adams and her Youthful Enterprise

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Our exhibit Fit to Print, on display until July 31st, showcases printing materials from Chemung County. Although we have nothing (yet!) from a nineteenth century publication written, edited, typeset and printed by teenager L. Libbie Adams from Elmira, her story offers a fascinating glimpse into the area's early printing culture. 

Example of a small press from our collection

Laura Elizabeth or "Libbie" Adams was born in 1859 in Carbondale, PA, 
the only child of Lucy and Oscar H. Adams. In May of 1864, her father joined the Union army and mustered in Elmira as an assistant surgeon for the 8th NY Calvary out of Rochester, NY. He was scheduled to serve three years. One month later, following a disastrous raid on the Weldon railroad, he was reported among the 117 missing. It turned out that he had been shot in the head and captured. He was discharged in February 1865 and considered a pensioner for the rest of his life. In 1866, the Elmira City Directory lists Oscar H. Adams as a physician living at 400 High Street where he had moved with his wife Lucy and daughter Libbie.

400 High Street

Two years earlier, Libbie printed her first amateur journal, which she called the Youthful Enterprise. The word amateur was initially used to identify the age of the journalist, not whether they earned any money. Libbie was one of many young journalists who made use of the small novelty presses that became popular during the mid-nineteenth century. These tabletop-sized presses were first designed for shopkeepers to print labels but were soon adopted as a way for people to print their own cards, broadsheets and even newspapers, depending on the size of the press. Their small size and relatively inexpensive cost also attracted young people of modest means. In some ways, small presses were the social media of their generation: children and teenagers used presses as a new means to express themselves, sharing ideas and forming communities through print.

The idea of youth or adolescence as a distinct time of life was something new for nineteenth-century Americans. Earlier generations of young people were often expected to go to work after attending grammar school. Through efforts of the newly established US Office of Education, and the National Education Association, however, education changed. Students were now recommended to have twelve years of instruction: eight years of grammar school, followed by four years of high school. This change increased the number of US public high schools. It also influenced the growth of American higher education, which at the beginning of the century counted 23 colleges and universities, and at the end of the century tallied close to 1,000. It was also when the nation's first Black colleges, now known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, were established. Post-Civil War, education was seen by everyone as a way to improve one's status in life. This change resulted in many students, aged 11 to 19, finding free time to fill. Some youths joined newly formed clubs, sports, and other social associations, while some middle-class youths embraced new technological hobbies like printing.

Most young printers were boys between the ages of 11 and 16. The journals or newspapers they produced followed a familiar template and included news, fiction, poetry, miscellaneous topics, editorials, puzzles, and anything else that they thought other teenagers would want to know. Some papers included advertising sections for products or services marketed for the first time to this age group. Young printers looking for social connection formed the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). They called their world Amateurdom, or the ‘Dom and  organized regional fairs. In 1876, they held the first national meeting to share their work. 

There were apparently no girls at this first convention, but Libbie Adams and other girls were printing nonetheless. When Libbie first started the Youthful Enterprise in Carbondale, she printed her ten-page, thirty-column papers on an eighth-medium, hand-inking Star press, which cost $38 in 1873. In today's dollars that would be over $1,000. In addition to her editing, printing and editorial work, Libbie was a poet who wrote under the name Nettie Sparkle. When the family moved to Elmira, she continued her work and now used a quarter medium job press to print. A notice in the 1876 Carbondale Daily News reads:

 “Miss Libbie Adams, formerly of this city, is making an interesting paper of her amateur Youthful Enterprise at Elmira. Miss Libbie is improving rapidly as a writer, and we congratulate her thus far.”

Later that year, her work was challenged by a rival printer who questioned whether Libbie, a mere girl, was actually doing the work herself. Apparently, this was a common event among amateur printers who would then respond passionately and refute any claims. Libbie responded and not only printed a testimonial in her paper, but she had it confirmed by the Chemung County notary and signed by such local notables as Edwin Eldridge, John Arnot, Jr., H.W. Rathbone, and both editors of Elmira’s newspapers. 

In 1877, Libbie attended the second national UAPA convention, one of four girls to do so. She was asked to help draft a constitution for the Western New York APA organizing in Buffalo. It was enthusiastically adopted. 

In July of 1878, Libbie’s father, Oscar H. Adams, died. He was forty-four years and was buried in Woodlawn cemetery. No obituary was printed, but his death certificate lists cancer as the cause. The Elmira City Directory for 1879 lists Lucy A. Adams, widow of Oscar H., living at 400 High Street. The next year she is listed at 701 East Church Street. 

Libbie continued to print her paper but changed the name to the Elmira Enterprise. She used the money from printing to pay for college classes at Elmira Female College. There she met, fell in love and married Edwin B. Turner. He had been taking art classes at the college, and was notable for being the first man to enroll there.  After the couple married, he joined her in the printing business. Edwin B. Turner went on to start other businesses, some with more success than others, and the couple had six children. Edwin died in 1940, followed one year later by Libbie Adams Turner died. She was 82. Both are buried in Woodlawn cemetery.

We wish we had a copy of Libbie’s Youthful Enterprise, but in the meantime will have to print her story ourselves.


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