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Dear Diary…

Posted for: Jennifer Pilling, Digital Library Intern, Spring 2010

Using the Barry-Hayes collection, I have recently completed a teachers’ guide for language arts, English, and history high school teachers. The guide focuses primarily on a journal that Patrick Hayes kept while journeying with John Barry to China on a merchant trade mission. Patrick kept meticulous notes on the weather, the various stops they took along the way, and customs that he experienced during the voyage. Other resources are also noted, including related primary documents held at the Independence Seaport Museum.

Patrick Hays His Book

As is the case with all primary source materials, Patrick’s journal gives us a window into the past, untarnished by interpretation. The goal of this guide is to highlight a primary source from history, to set it into historical context, and to use it for examination and comparison to better understand the history of written language. Teachers will first walk their students through information about written language in the 18th Century as it compares to writing conventions of today. They will then help the students understand the historical context in which Patrick Hayes wrote the journal, and lastly, the students will have the opportunity to read and interpret the journal for themselves.

There are several activities that teachers can assign to help bring the content of the guide to life. Students will be asked to learn how to transcribe excerpts from the journal, so they can see firsthand the differences that exist in grammar, punctuation and writing style at this time. They can also write their own journals and compare the types of adventures teenagers might experience today. Students can even learn how to make their own quill and ink.

This project has taught me the value of primary resources, and my experience transcribing the 78-page journal has increased my proficiency in reading 18th-century handwriting. I also learned quite a bit myself about writing conventions of the time, and the laborious process of preparing the paper, ink and quill before sitting down to write. The history that this single item holds is priceless, and worth exploring, with or without the guide. Enjoy!

Teacher’s Guide: Journey Back in Time: 18th Century Writing Practices & Modern Comparisons
Patrick Hayes’s Diary: “tho a bad Sailor…”

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Words, words, words

One of the most fun aspects of transcribing letters is getting a glimpse of a different time period with its different manners, customs, and turns of phrase—not to mention different styles of penmanship! I recently transcribed a letter from Philemon “Cump” Sherman to Eleanor “Ellie” Sherman Thackara, in which Cump asks Ellie’s advice about the area around the Adirondack Mountains. (Read the letter here.) Ellie had written an article about a trip to the Adirondacks and Cump wanted to know about the navigability of the lakes and rivers of the area.

Two words in this letter caught my interest, and I do love looking things up in the OED and other logophile sources, so I am sharing my findings below.

his nibs

Near the beginning of the letter, Cump refers to the plans of “his nibs,” a word that—according to the Oxford English Dictionary—originally referred to the person in question or the person being alluded to, but which later became an ironic method of referring to a person in authority, often with the “implication that the person referred to has an excessive sense of his or her own importance.” Used with a possessive such as his or her, nibs acts as a mock title, in the style of references to members of the British aristocracy (e.g., “his lordship”).

In concluding the letter, Cump writes: “The gyascutus is rejoicing as the time to go home approaches.”

gyascutus

The gyascutus is a “fearsome critter” from Anglo-American folklore. The Encyclopedia Brittanica describes the gyascutus as “an imaginary, large, four-legged beast with legs on one side longer than those on the other, for walking on hillsides.” The Wikipedia entry gives several variant names for the creature and further notes that the animal is unable to stand on level ground due to the uneven length of its legs.

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Becoming a U.S. Citizen, 1822-style

Posted for: Audrey Hamelers, Digital Library Intern, Spring 2010.

The Barry-Hayes collection, housed at the Independence Seaport Museum, includes the naturalization certificate of Patrick Hayes, the adopted son of John Barry. This certificate, issued on April 8, 1822, provides an interesting example of the naturalization requirements in Pennsylvania and the United States at that time.

Part of the certificate
Part of the certificate.

According to his naturalization certificate, Patrick Hayes applied for United States citizenship at the Supreme Court in the City of Philadelphia “having on his solemn oath declared, and also made proof thereof by competent testimony, that he had resided within the United States upwards of two years, and within the State of Pennsylvania upwards of one years immediately preceding his application.” This was on September 2, 1794, meaning that the naturalization process underwent by Patrick Hayes was that decreed by the Naturalization Act of 1790, which lists a residency of two years in the United States among its requirements.

However, Patrick Hayes was not issued this certificate of naturalization until 1822, thirty years after the listed date of application. One reason for this may have been that the 1790s saw naturalization law change not once, but three times. This certificate of naturalization may give us an idea of the experience of gaining citizenship in a young country, whose laws were still being developed.

naturalization21
Witnessed by William Atlee in 1822.

Just a few months after Patrick Hayes applied for United States Citizenship, the Naturalization Act of 1795 was passed in January of that year. This act, which replaced the 1790 law, states that a person seeking naturalization must “declare an oath or affirmation, before some one of the courts aforesaid, that he has resided within the United States, five years at least, and within the state or territory, where such court is at the time held, one year at least.” In addition, this act adds a required waiting period of three years between an application for naturalization and receiving citizenship.

Three years later, the Naturalization Act of 1798 increased the residency requirement from five to fourteen years, and increased the waiting period from three to five. This act, which was one of the controversial and short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts passed by a Federalist Congress, attempted to disenfranchise potential immigrants who might support their rival Democratic-Republicans. This act was repealed in 1802, at which time the law reverted back to the Naturalization Act of 1795, which is still used as the law of naturalization in the United States today.

It’s not clear whether Patrick Hayes’s status as a naturalized citizen of the United States was affected by these changes in the law, or whether there is some other reason for the date discrepancy. More complete information might be discovered through further perusal of the Barry-Hayes collection.

A star-shaped seal that appears on the certificate
A star-shaped seal that appears on the certificate.

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A Maritime Voyage to China

Posted for Jennifer Pilling, Spring 2010 Digital Library Intern:

Situated between two major rivers, Philadelphia finds its rich history formed by a bustling merchant trade shipping industry. The document collection of Barry-Hayes offers a first-hand account of trade practices in the 18th and 19th centuries. Commodore John Barry, founder of the United States Navy, began and ended his career as a merchant ship captain, sailing the globe. Toward the end of his service to the industry, Barry brought his adopted son Patrick Hayes on a journey to China, which marked the beginning of Patrick’s maritime career. Quite fortunately, Patrick Hayes kept an extensive journal of his journey, giving us a glimpse into the adventurous life of a sailor.

Journal Introduction

Hayes practices his seafaring skills by tracking his latitudinal and longitudinal location upon The Asia, while en route to each port for trading, making note of the wind directions:

“Longitude 17° W then we met the SE trade wind which blew mostly betweene SSW and SSE from the account nav-igation gives of them we expected to meet fresh breeze at SE if those accounts are true then winds have shifted Considerably within those few years the weather betweene the Equator and the tropick of Capricorn is very ples ant”

Journal Clip

Many of Hayes’s entries also note his experience on board, not all of which were as pleasant as the weather. Early on in the voyage, Hayes learned a tough lesson about the darker side of seafaring when one of the sailors took his life with a shot of his pistol through his heart. The man left no note behind to explain his suicide, and he was committed to the sea, a sailor’s funeral. Later, Hayes notes after an abundantly successful fishing endeavor that “in a few Days fresh fish became nauseous to us all” and “in a day several of our people was poison-d by eating some of those fish that lay in the sun moon all night which was attended with no foul Consequences”.

As instructed, no doubt, by Barry, Hayes also kept notes while in port. The ship’s first stop was Cape Town, a Dutch settlement at the time. Hayes describes his observations:

“the people are general-ly well dressed [agod] complexionce the Town is well fortifyed the dutch always keep a large body of troopes in the Town the small Sword and Cockade complats the dress of every Man who wishes to appear like gentleman they take a great deal of pains to kepp their Houses Clean and el-egantly furnished and well painted”

Hayes’s journal is an excellent resource for understanding a worldly view from the early American perspective. It is a glimpse into the life of a sea merchant, and is well worth a closer look. This journal represents only a small portion of resources available about American trade in the 18th Century. The Independence Seaport Museum hosts artifacts and documents that remind us of this nation’s independent embark into international trade. One document, a letter from congress introducing an American captain to the Chinese government, depicts an abundant display of respect in an attempt to show their dedication to international trade. Another series of documents from Captain John Green documents tips on how to trade in Asia, and with whom.

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‘Politicks Avaunt’: Thomas Hayes Shines a Light on the Petticoat Affair

It’s clear that the Barry-Hayes Papers collection, owned and housed by Independence Seaport Museum, offers a unique perspective on the early nineteenth-century shipping trade in America. Occasionally in the course of transcribing these fascinating documents we come across one that also has the potential to serve as primary source material for the biography of a famous American or some topic in American political history. Here I’d like to report on a letter I recently transcribed which will be of great interest to scholars of the Jacksonian era in American politics. (Take a look at it here.) It also includes a reflection on the final years of the namesake of a major thoroughfare in South Philadelphia, and quirky riddle for you to solve.

Series X, Letter 23.
Top of “Letter, To: Isaac Austin Hayes and Patrick Barry Hayes, From: Thomas Hayes, June 8, 1831″.

The Namesake

In 1831 brothers Isaac Austin and Patrick Barry Hayes were in Brazil using their maritime skills and connections to run an import/export business. Their elder brother Thomas Hayes occasionally wrote from Philadelphia with news of home, and several of his communications are gathered in Series X, the papers of Isaac Austin Hayes. Thomas’ letter of June 8, 1831, was an especially long one, full of news of friends and acquaintances both prominent and obscure.
Among his famous relations was Commodore William Bainbridge, naval hero of the War of 1812, and father of his wife Susan. Commodore Bainbridge had his share of ups and downs throughout his four decades of service, and at the time of this letter he had recently suffered the double shock of the death of his only son and his abrupt removal from duty after a brief disagreement with the current Secretary of the Navy, John Branch. In this passage, Thomas refers to his father-in-law as “the old gentleman” as he provides for posterity a first-person account of the famous naval pioneer’s decline:

poor Mr Bainbridge died last friday and was buried on Sunday. This event has caused much affliction in the Commodres family, and join’d together with his late unceremonious dismissal from the Command of this Station, weighs heavily on the old gentleman, and I should not be at all astonish’d if it seriously affects his health, which you well know, was already seriously impair’d.

Politicks Avaunt!

Secretary Branch figured into another major event of the Spring of 1831 mentioned in script by Thomas Hayes, this time receiving explicit mention of his role in the controversy. President Andrew Jackson was at the time suffering the political fallout of his non-adherence to the mores of Washington society, a tidal wave of opposition culminating in the resignation of his entire cabinet in what is now commonly referred to as “The Petticoat Affair”. Branch was one of the ministers who demonstrated his support for Vice-President John C. Calhoun by stepping down, but Branch’s public and private correspondence from the period directly following the cabinet crisis suggests that the circumstances of his resignation were not so clear cut. Thomas Hayes refers to Branch’s letters and the tense relations between the Secretary and the Jackson camp in this excerpt:

The Jackson cause is falling fast. Don’t think I say so because I am anti jackson, but tis really the case. Many of his original friends have left his ranks and are hurraing for Clay now. This of course was to have been expected but the recent resignation of his entire Cabinet has caus’d all his friends to open the […missing word…] Some letters letters that have pass’d between Mr Branch ex Secretary of the Navy and his friends in North Carolina seem to implicatey that the President wanted him to go further in forwarding his views, than the laws of honor would prompt him. Politicks avaunt…

Series X, Letter 23.
Politicks Avaunt!

The Riddle

And occasionally in the course of transcription work some word or phrase will appear that is so odd that it stops the whole endeavor in its tracks. Not just illegible—which is all too common—but odd! In the following passage Thomas is thanking his brothers for a “likeness” of themselves that they sent home to Philadelphia:

We never until yesterday recv’d the box containing the birds and illusting likeness, which I believe was forwarded some time last December. We all think the likeness excellent. lufwa der sreksihw dna riah. the old lady I believe has already shewn to all friends far and near Tommy Natt with his der eson now has it expos’d in his window and has promis’d mother that it shall be fram’d by tomorrow.

Series X, Letter 23.
Can you decipher the odd words of Thomas Hayes?

It took a bit of puzzling before these weird obfuscations came into focus. I figured it out—can you?

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Santa comes to town

Posted for Susan Ottignon:

The customary ‘Dear Santa’ letters, written by children every December 24th on Christmas Eve, is a time honored tradition. I encountered 3 such letters, from Mont and Ellie Thackara’s children, when I started transcription work for the Digital Library.

sant1a

In child-like cursive writing the letters to Santa, by each Thackara child, were penned with unique salutations to the ‘Jolly Old Man,’ and included spelling errors that endear us more to these letters We read from Eleanor’s letter “My dear Santa-Clause,” her brother, Sherman wrote, “Dear St Nick,” with the youngest sibling, Lex ,penned “Santy.” The boys knew Santa’s ‘address’ which they either included in the body of the letter or addressed it directly to him. Santa address, according to Lex, was “Master Santy Clause Up the chimney.” Sherman boldly demanded of St Nick, “Unhitch your horses from the North Pole.”

The ‘wish lists’ penned to Santa by Eleanor, Sherman and Alexander (“Lex) Thackara reflect each child’s deepest longings and are shared by today’s children whether one has been ‘naughty or nice.’ Such things as “a pair of skates and a little iron and iron holder” requested by Eleanor. Sherman wanted Santa to “bring me a sled.” Lex was ‘all boy” when he wrote, “Please bring me a rifle a pen-knife and a kodact.” My guess for Lex’s wish was for a Kodak camera available since 1888.

Dear Santy

Alongside the Santa’s letter, tradition beckons children to hang stockings for him to fill with gifts and sweets. The stocking is mentioned in 2 of the letters. Eleanor plainly states:

“. . . fill my stocking full to the brim I am going to hang up an
extra stocking and please fill it to”

Sherman notes his behavior as a good reason for his filled stocking.

“Please fill my stockings very full and do not think me a greedy boy.”

While working on these letters, I marveled over the simplicity of the times and experienced a child’s excitement in the penned letter to Santa on Christmas Eve. I enjoyed transcribing these pieces and many other of the Thackara correspondence. With over a thousand pieces in need of transcription the Sherman-Thackara Collection in the Digital Library has reassured me there many more items to still transcribe.

Dear Santa

Here is a link to the Finding Aid for this part of the Sherman-Thackara Collection.

Alex., Sherman & Eleanor S. Thackara to A. M. & E. S. Thackara (parents)
Corresp., 1892-1897, (including 3 letters to Santa Claus):
William T. Sherman Thackara, (1887 – 1983)
Eleanor Sherman Thackara Cauldwell, (1880s? – ?)
Alexander Montgomery Thackara, Jr., (d. December 27, 1921):

7/5/9
Letter, To: “Dear Papa and Mama” (Ellie and A. M. Thackara) From: “Lex” (A. M. Thackara, Jr.), Christmas 1893.
Xmas blessing to parents by Alex

7/5/10
Letter, To: “My dear Father” (A. M. Thackara) From: “Eleanor” (Eleanor Thackara Cauldwell), Christmas 1893.
Xmas bear story Eleanor

7/5/11
Letter, To: “Santa Claus” From: “Eleanor” (Eleanor Thackara Cauldwell), [December, 1895?].

7/5/22
Letter, To: “Dear Father” (A. M. Thackara) From: “Sherman” (William T. Sherman Thackara), December 1896. Xmas Blessing Sherman

7/5/23
Letter, To: “Santy” From: “Your loving friend Lex” (A. M. Thackara, Jr.), December, [1886?].

7/5/24
Letter, To: “St. Nick” From: “Sherman” (William T. Sherman Thackara), December 20, 1896.

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“Chimney Soot and hogs lard”: Lloyd Family Household Book

  • Posted by: Michael Foight
  • Posted Date: June 5, 2009
  • Filed Under: Transcription

The Lloyd Collection contains correspondence, deeds, receipts, newspaper clippings, and account books related to Thomas Lloyd know as the “Father of United States Shorthand” and his family. One of the most interesting items from this unique collection is a household book dating from the years 1783-1826. This book contains home remedies, recipes, prayers, and a record of financial dealing.

Recently transcribed in full by Digital Library Team Member Ward Barnes, here are a few choice selections:

A Cure for a Burn

Take Chimney Soot and hogs lard—mixt well and anoint the part removes the pain immediately— for a sore leg—or any running sore Apply the Snuff of a Candle—and it certainly cures in a few days

To make Shrewsberry Cake

Take Half a pound of sugar a little Cinimond cloves beaten very fine add a pound and a Half of flour and a pound of butter Without salt then break in three Eggs and work all well together roll it very thin and bake in an oven not too hot

To make Catchup

Take the large flaps of Mushrooms pick nothing but the straws from it then lay them in a broad earthen pan throw a good deal of salt over them let them lie till next morning then with your hand break them, put them into a stew pan, let them boil a munuet, or two, then strain them thro’ a coarse Cloth and wring it hard take out all the juice let it stand to settle then pour it off clear run it thro’ a thick flannel bag then boil it; to a quart Of the liquor put a quarter of an ounce of whole Ginger and half a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper. Boil it briskly a quarter of an hour then strain it and when its cold put it into Bottles in each bottle put 9 or 10 blades of mace and 12 of cloves cook it tight and it will keep two years– This gives the best flavor of the mushrooms to any sauce If you put into this Catchup a pint of rum or old clear strong Cyder it will taste like foreign Catchup

Sauce for Steaks

Get a glass of ale two anchovies a little thyme Savory parsley an onion and some nutmeg shred all these Together adding a little lemon Peel; when your steaks are Ready pour the liquor from them then put your ale and the other things into a pan with a piece of buter roll’d in flour and when hot strain them thr’o a sieve over your steaks

Prayer

Thou foamy Ocean’s Star
Star of the wide and pathless sea.

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“Lost in a sea of conjecture”: Stokes collection fully transcribed

This week marked the completion of the first fully transcribed collection available in the Digital Library. The Stokes Collection contains a small number of letters to and a speech by William Axton Stokes (1814 – 1877) who was a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attorney who contributed notes and references to an U.S. edition of Mathew Hale’s (1609-1676) Historia placitorum coronae (History of the pleas of the crown) published by R. H. Small of Philadelphia in 1847. Stokes later served as a major in the U.S. Infantry during the American Civil War, including a period in 1861 commanding at the 18th U.S. Infantry Headquarters, Camp Thomas, Franklin County, Ohio.

stokes1a.jpg

His stirring speech, at the Union Convention of Westmoreland County, PA in 1861, was delivered in support of the united American Republic and in favor of the war to crush rebellion. He denies the rebel cause by systematically positing that the rebel states have no right of secession, no grounds for revolution, and no justifiable argument against Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. [Images ]

In 1874, Stokes was part of a committee appointed to report upon the operations of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. [Images Transcription]

In addition to the Villanova University Collection, a small collection of Stokes documents can also be found in the Special Collections Department at the University of Delaware Library.

Over the last month both Susan Ottignon and Ward Barnes worked on deciphering the letters to Stokes. Seven manuscript letters are included in the collection spanning the years from 1839 to 1870. Some of these letters are to his wife Mary and relate to the death of a friend in the Western Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. While others ask for assistance about military duty in the Civil War.

The longest letter, which is also authored by Stokes, describes in detail the courtship, and his proposal of marriage, to Mary. This is a serial letter written over a number of days and may very well have not been mailed. It thus shows the inner dialog of Stokes as he deals with Mary’s rejection of his initial proposal:

But am I mistaken? Can I love? – I should think not, and yet how am I to account for this repulse and its manners so cold and so indignant – Could any woman who loved as one should in her situation should, could any such one do as she did? I do not know – Lost in a sea of conjecture, without knowledge [or] skill, I am tossed about by doubts and fears of this most painful nature.

I know that she would not voluntarily deceive me. Can she deceive herself? But for this one single sentence and its manner I should at once repudiate such an idea. But how else am I to answer for this?

Perhaps she may know enough, (although not very experienced) to think that an occassional repulse will … to increase the exhibition of my feelings. She forgets that this is a very dangerous scheme in its self and besides it is a game at which two can play. I will do it. I will be as reserved as she is and as she wants me to be more dignified I will give enough dignity to make her tired of it forever.

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Joseph McGarrity, the Emerald Miner

One project of the Digital Library is to make unique physical objects available to a wider scholarly and public audience by digitization. Letters and personal papers of Joseph McGarrity housed in Special Collections have begun to be scanned into a new digital collection. As these items of Joseph McGarrity are processed and transcribed new connections between photographs and texts can be made, telling a living story.

The year 1927 finds Joseph McGarrity, noted Irish-American, in the rural mountainous region of Columbia seeking to renew his fortune by mining emeralds. As McGarrity ranges across the countryside he keeps in communication with his family by frequent postcards and letters. Here is the text of a recently transcribed letter from McGarrity to his son Joseph written in April 1927 in which he described the rugged yet beautiful countryside and offers some parental advice:

Chapinéro

Bogata, Colombia

April 14, 1927,

My dear Son Joseph

I was delighted to receive your very well written letter and to hear that you are getting along good at school. I advise you when you write letters to use a pen and ink and always try to write your very best and neatest in this way you will find that each time you write a letter it will be better than your previous effort and so on until you will find it as easy to write with a pen as with a pencil. I have been very lonely for you and all your sisters and Brother […] Mama and Gram. I was very sorry to hear of your poor Uncle Hugh’s death God Have mercy on him pray for his soul every time you Kneel He was a good friend to us when we needed a friend let us now repay his great Kindness by our prayers that God may be Kind to him and take him to His Bosom

Well Joseph I will tell you of my trip to Muzo a place where the beuatiful Green Jewelery Precious stones called Emeralds are dug up from the Earth. It was a weeks trip about 5 days on Horse back and the rest of the time by train. The scenery was wonderful flowers of various colors and shapes many of which I had never seen before, groves of orange trees you could help yourself from your Horses or Mules back, pull them and eat them as you went. Great hills and cliffs that made you dizzy to ride along. If your mule should miss his step you might roll a thousand feet to the valley below

[p.2]

[…]where no trains nor auto travels. For miles at a time I was forced to dismount and lead my mule along the cliffs and deep gorges. Sometimes the path cut away by fllod from the hill was so deep and narrow that you were forced to raise your feet and stirrups to the mules back or your feet would get crushed by the mules sides as he walked along. My mule climed cliffs of stairs fifty times longer and steeper than any stairs you ever seen Jumping like a good from one rock to another at one time with me on his back He jumped right into a great gulch filled with water down He went all you could see if you were there was the mules head and the upper part of my body I got off and by a great struggle rescued the mule we were covered with yellow mud and dirt and had to go to a pool and wash off and dry in the sun.

But the scenery was so beautiful the Hills and vallies so green and silent. I longed to have mother and you all near me to view and enjoy the beauties of Gods wonderful works Strange beautiful birds piped and sang as we rode along Streams gurgled down the sides of the hills and united with larger streams in the vallies travel and food so cheap that it is cheaper to travel than remain at a hotel […] cocoa and orange trees every where quaint beautiful and silent villages hid away in the hills beautiful Catholic Churches and plenty of good people praying in them. […]

Well Joe as I have a detailed description which I will mail to mama or bring home with me I will say no more of it now we were where the > tigers and lions abound and I hope to bring home the skins of some of the wild animals that I may kill before I return

Would not a big tiger or two make a wonderful coat for mama I know you would be proud to see her wearing one. Pray hard Joe for mama Gran your brother and sisters and for my protection and safe return and always for your uncle Hugh who was so good to us. God love and bless you my dear son Joe your loving father Js. McGarrity

McGarrity also documented his journey and explorations with photographs. In this photograph taken in the mountains of Columbia, he sits astride a mule [Digital Library original].

jan1mc.jpg

While in this photograph taken in 1927, McGarrity with walking stick nearby and hat pushed back, sits at the end of the day near Bogota, Columbia [Digital Library original].

jam2mc.jpg

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From Ellie with Love

Posted for Scott Grapin, Digital Library Team:

ellie2.jpg

Sometime in the 1890s, the love letters shared between Eleanor Mary Sherman (Ellie) and Alexander Montgomery Thackara (Mont) were donated with the rest of the Sherman-Thackara Collection to Villanova College, presumably by Ellie herself. Surely, Ellie saw the value of preserving documents pertaining to her famous father, General William Tecumseh Sherman, as well as to her husband Mont, who was appointed to serve as a U.S. Consul at Le Havre, France in 1897. As the library and its patrons have been discovering, this collection also reveals much about Philadelphia and the Main Line toward the end of the nineteenth century and is a rich primary source for studies of middle-class Victorian life. Because they are available in both Falvey’s Special Collections and Digital Library, these letters are also situated to reflect how different technologies might impact the ways we write and receive personal correspondence.

Although Ellie could not have envisioned their digitization, wide dissemination, and nearly instantaneous accessibility, her donation ensured that letters to Mont would become letters to each of us. At the same time, personal letters are characteristically private. We generally ensure this privacy by sealing a letter in an envelope intended for one recipient. Privacy, therefore, also personalizes the document. Letters may be sealed by drops of wax imprinted with a unique stamp or by glue moistened with the sender’s own mouth. In her letters, a young Ellie repeatedly claims this sort of private intimacy with her “own dearest, dearest Mont” , anticipating the days when she would be his wife in singular devotion. Until that time, the tangible letters would often serve as a surrogate presence when Ellie and Mont were apart. Just as we can see, touch, and smell one of these letters in Special Collections, Ellie would repeatedly delight in her beloved’s epistolary touch, even were Mont unable to drop by to share one of their customary four o’clock walks.

Combined with Special Collections, digital availability might seem to compromise the private intimacy of these personal letters. However, while electronic communications are popularly blamed for the handwritten letter’s fall from favor, the Digital Library potentially balances the direction of influence between electronic and written texts. Generally, the investment of personal time, energy, and attention valued by letter writers is deemed an unnecessary expense by digital correspondents. But a digital transcriber steadily gains an intimate appreciation of Ellie’s letters as he faithfully reconstructs them, collaboratively renewing her creative energy and attention. Any reader can likewise peruse digital images of Ellie’s letters and participate in the slower pace of time and human correspondence in which intimacy deepens.

A reader will also witness the impassioned frequency of Ellie’s letters, sometimes several in a day (see, for instance, March 12, 1880; letters 381, 382, and 383), whose impatience is necessarily tempered by the tension of time required for Mont’s response. Ellie creatively delights in these spans of time. In one instance, she opportunely poses an impromptu riddle to Mont and promises an answer for when they next meet, thereby sweetening the expectation of their intimacy. This game may seem quaint in an age of truncated text and instant messaging, when cascades of emails often overwhelm our ability to respond, let alone contemplate, our textual relationships. Here in the Digital Library, however, some of the best qualities of electronic and handwritten correspondence complement one another. Right now, everyone can repeatedly examine and enjoy any image in the collection, much as Ellie would have pored over Mont’s letters. In time, users will be able to search transcriptions for particular keywords with a virtual familiarity akin to Ellie’s attentive devotion. In the process, the digital medium will preserve and exhibit—and possibly inspire us to participate in—the kind of correspondence we can savor like an intimate walk with a companion … perhaps Ellie, Mont, or someone else we’ve been meaning to write.

ellie1.jpg

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Last Modified: August 19, 2008