Leaves of history: Some interesting stuff.

Page from the District Court 1855 Record Books

The image to the left shows a page from the 1855 record books of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York containing the original registration for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  Whitman provided the title to the court on May 15, 1855.  The record shows his claim as author and proprietor and it was signed by the Clerk of the Southern District, George F. Betts.

Until 1870 when copyright functions were centralized in the Library of Congress, claims in copyright were recorded by the Clerks of the U.S. district courts.  The district court record books are now located in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.  Microfilm copies of the books are available to the public in the Copyright Office.

Page from the Library of Congress 1883 Record Books

Under the Copyright Law of 1831, Whitman’s original registration of Leaves of Grass had a term of 28 years. On March 15, 1883, two months before the end of the term, Whitman renewed the registration for an additional 14 years in accordance with the statute. The image to the right shows the page of the Library of Congress record book containing the renewal record signed by the Librarian of Congress at the time Ainsworth Rand Spofford.  The record shows Whitman’s street address in Camden, New Jersey.

Whitman continually updated Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892 and registered other editions.  Original registrations for two of these are found in the 1876 and 1881 record books.  Images of those registration records are shown below.

Page from the Library of Congress 1876 Record Books

Page from the Library of Congress 1881 Record Books


These four records are just a glimpse at the interesting stories found within the leaves of the Copyright record books.  The principal purpose of the Copyright records is to identify ownership of intellectual property, but collectively they tell the much larger story of creativity in literature, music and art since the founding of our nation.


  1. Susie
    February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    This is a great insight into the genealogy of a single title, capturing its registration history, and telling a broader story. Thanks for sharing!

  2. wfiske
    February 18, 2012 at 1:41 am

    Thomas Tanselle pointed out in a paper in 1969 how valuable these papers can be to the literary researcher. Let’s hope that the Copyright Office’s plans include the rapid digitization of the microfilm so that these invaluable records become better known and more easily accessible.

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