In Memoranda: For Lydia and Literacy

Cunningham Family Bible; 1885
Gift of Dana Cunningham
Private Collection of Owner
Leather, paper, ink

Printed in 1885 by the Kansas City Publishing Company, the Cunningham Family Bible was one of the first American Bibles printed with the new English Revised Version in parallel to the King James Version. The King James Version, completed in 1611, was one of the first authorized translations of the Bible into English. In the nineteenth century, however, Americans were so attracted to a contemporary edition of the over 200-year-old King James Bible that over three million copies of the ERV were sold in the first months of its release. However, after the initial excitement wore off, Americans returned to their trusty King James Version. Inside the Cunningham Bible, pages are provided for genealogical records. A family Bible this size would have cost $15 in 1885, which would be around $383 today.

In 1886, Thomas Cunningham presented this bible to his wife, Margaret. Born in Tennessee in 1833, Thomas was a farmer like his father. Census records report Thomas as illiterate and neglect Margaret’s literacy. But it is likely she also had a limited reading proficiency. Despite the inability to read the Bible himself, Thomas bought the 12.8-pound volume articulating a desire for knowledge and print culture. The Bible’s family birth, death, and marriage pages provided Thomas and Margaret an avenue to create a record of their family. Here, for example, we find a record of Lydia, their second child, although no official record exists for the one-month life of the baby. This record makes the Cunningham Bible not only a symbol for Thomas’s faith and social aspirations for his children, but also articulates a longing for his transient life to be remembered within the enduring world of book culture.

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Rachel Cunningham