Category Archives: Collections

Account books

A current research project has led me to peruse dozens upon dozens of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Connecticut River Valley account books. Used to maintain records of business transactions, account books have been an important component of the store owner and merchants’ trade throughout much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in America. While account books tend to be more frequently consulted for the items that were retailed by store owners, the inclusion of names and other data also make account books an invaluable genealogical source. Continue reading Account books

Returning Elijah

Elijah Burson (1807-1886)

A year ago last summer I was contacted by a gentleman from Zeeland, Michigan. While out weekend bargain hunting, he had come across an antique photograph for sale at a local flea market. The gentleman wrote with empathy about family history, and he seemed to have at least a hobbyist’s eye for old pictures. His curiosity was piqued by this one particular picture, so he purchased it, no doubt saving it from the fate of some Michigan land fill.  He said that the only identifier as to who the person in the photo might be were the words “Grandpa Burson” written on its back.

From what I could gather, the man from Zeeland enjoys following where the clues in any old pictures might take him. Continue reading Returning Elijah

‘In the dead of night’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
We tend to think of a bright line dividing North and South during the Civil War, but in families like the Grays of Boston there were a number of living connections between the two regions. Mrs. William Rufus Gray, the diarist’s[1] mother-in-law, was a member of the Clay family of Savannah, and during the war her younger sister and other family members resided in Georgia, near the South Carolina line.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Friday, 3 February 1865: We have had news of the destruction of Aunt Eliza’s[2] plantation and the burning of the homestead by [Major General William Tecumseh] Sherman’s army. We cannot but feel sorry for her – but as a military measure it was perfectly justifiable. The place had a powerful rebel battery planted on a bluff commanding the river – 4 miles below was Fort McAllister, on Matilda Clay’s brother’s[3] place; when that was taken by assault, all the places on the Ogeechee [River] up and down were burned and destroyed. Continue reading ‘In the dead of night’

Diary of an old house

Recently, after completing – without hospitalization or arrest (for significant abuse of a power tool) a major painting project involving thirty-five exterior louvered house shutters attached to My Old House – many people asked me how old the vinyl shutters actually are, when they had first been put up (“gee, when were they last painted?”),  and how did I know? Continue reading Diary of an old house

‘The flower of our manhood’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
The Civil War was drawing to a close, but there remained much suffering in store for Regina Shober Gray[1] and her circle:

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Sunday, 12 February 1865: Tomorrow Huntington Wolcott[2] goes off, as Lieutenant, to join his regiment, and enter on his new career. He is only 19, and leaves an indulgent and affluent home, a life of the most sheltered & cultivated refinement, for the rude privations of camp life. God protect him, the brave lad, morally and bodily.

He is but 8 or 9 months older than my Frank;[3] how thankful I felt when the war broke out nearly 4 years ago that my boys were all too young to go – but now, it lingers on so wearily & yet so necessarily, that I often think I may yet have to send my treasures in faith & trust as so many brave hearted mothers have done ere now. Dr. Gray however says Frank’s college course must be finished first – then will be time enough for him to think of the army if needed – now, he has not the physique for it either – and is only 18 last fall too. Continue reading ‘The flower of our manhood’

What the heck are they doing?

Image A. “Spirit of Wyoming”

We all have them. Yes, those stacks of old photographs passed down to us. They are images from someone else’s life; what can be daunting is that these are pictures we have to appraise even when we know nothing about what they mean. Often disorganized, unidentifiable, and fading, we can’t quite bring ourselves to put them out for the mid-week trash collection. It just isn’t who we are.

In going through my grandmother Alta Sage Lee Dixon’s old photographs, I understand that many of the people in her pictures may always remain unknown to me. Yet I can’t help wondering if there aren’t patterns in her collection. I’m resolved to try and put these “pictures of unknowns” into at least a few “photographic categories.” After all, this is my grandmother’s life – so maybe if I understand how she pictured her own collection, I might understand more about her. Continue reading What the heck are they doing?

Getting the most out of a library visit

A few years ago, I was having dinner with some friends when I learned that one of them did not know what microfilm was. This conversation then turned to talking about why only some of us had heard of and used microfilm and others had never heard of it. As a new archivist (at the time), but a relatively seasoned researcher, I was shocked. It is conversations like that that remind me that not everyone knows why archives and libraries do the things that they do, which can seem intimidating. For someone visiting a repository for the first time, there are a few things that you should expect and can do ahead of time to maximize the amount of time you have available to look through material. Continue reading Getting the most out of a library visit

‘The difference it makes’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
Even as she followed the last weeks of the Civil War in the press during the winter of 1865, Mrs. Gray[1] found time to contribute to her daughter’s happiness:

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Sunday, 12 February 1865: Mary [Gray][2] is in a state of very happy excitement because her father has withdrawn his prohibition against round-dancing.[3] It is very inconsistent I suppose and all that, but I have long felt a question about it; whether the old fashioned prejudices of her parents ought to enforce themselves to her exclusion from a pleasure all her young friends were allowed, and enjoyed so highly.

She enjoys dancing the “German” as much as any one – but has never remonstrated against our decision, and gave it up 2 or 3 years ago without complaint. Then several other girls of her set said they were not to dance it – and it seemed as if she would have plenty of companionship in abstaining, but one after another they have all concluded to dance it and she was left almost alone – and it does make a great difference in a young lady’s enjoyment of society: it sets her completely apart from the dancing and makes a wall-flower of her at once, for there are never more than two or three square dances of an evening. Continue reading ‘The difference it makes’

Arranging your family papers, part 3

[Editor’s note: This series began here and continued here.]

The last topic that I originally wanted to discuss in my article on organizing and preserving your family papers was digitization. For someone who wants to digitize their material there are a few things that you can do to have archival quality digital images.

The first of thing to do is make sure that you have the necessary equipment for a digitization project. This would likely involve a flatbed scanner (your printer may have one) or a digital camera to photograph larger items. The disadvantage of using a camera is that if the item is large, you may not obtain a focused image and if you try to take the photograph by hand you may end up with a blurry picture. If you are photographing material, a tripod will help stabilize the camera. Continue reading Arranging your family papers, part 3

Arranging your family papers, part 2

[Editor’s note: This series began here.]

When I begin organizing a collection, I start with a quick survey to help determine what types of material are in the collection. For me, this involves listing the formats in the collection, identifying the creators (if it is a collection of family papers), and the general years of the material. I also make note of any torn/damaged records, as I prefer to know about them before I start moving things around and possibly separate the pieces or completely tearing an item that only had a small tear because it snags on something. Continue reading Arranging your family papers, part 2