I feel like I probably spend too much time blogging about Civil War history on this site, when we have so many collections here at Special Collections and University Archives. But, what can I say? I’m not-so-secretly intrigued by reading dead people’s mail (it’s part of why I like working in archives) and Civil War letters are some of my favorites. I’m always surprised by what soldiers or families on the home front were writing to each other, what tidbits seemed of most value at the time, and how those pieces of information can be of interest to people today. I’m always excited to find food references (since my other love is food and drink history) and on more rare occasions, references to alcohol and spirits. This letter, for me, hits the trifecta.
Written from a camp near Petersburg, Virginia on December 15 1864, from Joseph Rule to his “Friend Silas.” Rule was part of Company B, 50th New York Engineers and his letter, among other things, talks about the regiment’s raid on Weldon Railroad, which was a significant supply line for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Like I said, though, I fixate on the stranger stuff. On page two, Rule writes, “we had chickens Turkeys geese Pigs Beef milk Preserves & in fact there was nothing that could be thought at but we had Apple jack there was by the barrel there could hardly be a cavalryman be found sober and there was some foot Soldiers drunk enough.” The fact that this amount and variation of food was available is a testament of sorts, to the success of the raid. As someone who actively goes looking for food and drink references, as I said, spirits and alcohol can be rare. A specific reference to applejack is exciting to see. It is no wonder that Rule reports on the drunkenness of soldiers–the barrel probably wouldn’t have lasted long to begin with and it was likely celebratory consumption, too.
Rule goes on, after his food talk, to detail a bit about the raid and the immediate aftermath–it involved not only destroying railroad tracks, but burning of houses and barns, seemingly in retaliation for the loss of lives in the regiment. Like many letters of the time, he talks about things he misses, has questions about issues at home, and contemplates a future furlough.
The finding aid for the collection has a little bit more detail and you can view it online. If Rule’s handwriting isn’t your thing (it’s not awful, but his punctuation is lacking!), we have digitized this letter. It’s online with the original envelope and a transcription, for your reading pleasure. Our digital site is full of Civil War letters and diaries, offering us tiny looks into the lives of people from 150+ years ago. There doesn’t need to be a lesson in there, but sometimes there can be. I guess, in this case: Don’t dive into your applejack barrels–Make them last a while, instead? (Cheers?)
It’s summertime in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech Special Collections, I always think that’s going to be my two-ish months to catch up on the rest of the year’s projects. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t–inevitably, I also end up launching new projects or initiatives. This summer, one of those new projects is working on our backlog of digital materials. Special Collections has been digitizing collections for reference and research long before we had our current online platform. Some images lived on our old website, some lived (or still live) in Imagebase, and some never made it as far as the world-wide web. So, this summer, we’re making more of that possible. With the help of a student, we are taking some of these digitized collections, creating metadata, and adding them to our digital site! Here’s just a taste of some new items:
First up, the Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080). This collection includes a handful of railroad menus from Norfolk & Western passenger trains. Below are a beverage menu, a dinner menu, and a blank patron check. Note the “Apple Pie (baked on car)” on the dinner menu–train travel these days has changed a little!
Front cover of the “Beverages” menu, Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080)
“Beverages” menu, Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080)
Front cover of “The Cavalier” dinner menu, Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080)
“The Cavalier” dinner menu,Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080)
Sample of guest check, Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080)
Second, the letters of Joseph T. Harris to his sister, Molly Swope. Harris served with the 12th Regiment, Ohio Infantry, during the Civil War. This collection contains four letters written from parts of western Virginia between August 1861 and February 1862. Below is the letter from November 23, 1861.
Letter, Joseph T. Harris to his sister, Mollie Swope, November 23, 1861 (Ms2018-016)
Harris was particularly around the Kanawha Valley western Virginia and he writes to his sister about his regiment’s actions there, as well as camp life. He tells her “Harris describes his rations as being good and lists what he is being issued and getting food from the locals. ‘We have all theas things, besides what we can steal witch is a good deal. Steal did I say, well I will have to take that back for us boys have quit stealing and took to takeing a good menny things without leave.'” You can view the full collection and the finding aid online.
Last up, for the moment, is the Yonson (Johnson) Family Collection (Ms2013-020). The Yonson family was based in Wythe County, Virginia, at the end of the 18th century. The collection includes family receipts, estate bills, tax documents, and some other family papers. It’s worth noting that you’ll see variations on the spelling of the family’s name throughout the collection, though research indicates that later generations of the family eventually settled on “Johnson.”
Receipt of payment by Baltzer Yonson, 1803. This is the earliest item in the collection and is one of several handwritten receipts on scraps of paper.
Receipt for tax on land from Wythe County sheriff, 1852. This is a partially printing item that would have been customized for tax-payers throughout the county. Yonson’s taxes were based on his land ownership.
Yonson Estate Allocation, 1859. Baltzer Yonson, the head of the family, died around 1850 so it’s unclear if this is his estate being settled some years later, of that of another family member.
Summer is also the time I catch up on student processing work. We would be lost without the help of our amazing student workers in Special Collections. Often times, they help organize and describe collections faster than I can get them finished and posted online, so I’ve also been spending time on that. Here are a few of my favorite newly processed manuscript collections:
Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA], n.d. (Ms2019-002). This collection includes a Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA] with typed cocktail recipes and directions for their creation . Different sections include lesson plans for specific types of drinks, suggesting this was used in a bartending school or for bartending instruction. Some pages have handwritten notations or illustrations. Finding aid available online.
Herschel A. Elarth-Charles S. Worley, Jr. Architectural Firm Drawings, 1955-1961, undated (Ms2019-036). Related to both the personal and professional papers of Elarth and Worley, who were Virginia Tech faculty and architectural firm partners, this collection includes drawings from selected local projects. Finding aid available online.
Jaffe-Lankes Family Correspondence, 1930-1942, 1980-1985 (Ms2019-014). This collection contains two main sets of materials: Correspondence between Louis I. Jaffe and J. J. Lankes from 1930 to 1942 and correspondence between Alice Jaffe (Louis’ widow) and J. B. Lankes (J. J.’s son) from 1980 to 1985. In addition, there is a small folder of notes and letter excerpts created by J. B. Lankes in the early 1980s. We processed this collection as part of the Sherwood Anderson online exhibit that launched in April 2019. Finding aid available online.
Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection, 1926-1971 (Ms2019-009). The Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection includes materials from 1926-1971. The collection contains information relating to the operation of the sanatorium from 1918-1965. The collection contains administrative papers, published works of doctors, ephemera, and images. Finding aid available online.
We’re always processing new materials and making new materials online, so we always encourage you to check out our resources, but since this is on my mind lately, it seemed a good time to do a round-up/reminder. You can usually view our most recently posted finding aids online in upload order and see our most recently collections on our digital collection site’s “Browse Collections” page.
I’ll be honest. I’ve written about Sherwood Anderson on the blog before. Three times, to be more precise. And this makes four, but for a good reason. Among his many works, Sherwood Anderson was the author of Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories first published in May 1919. Why am I being specific about the month? Because this May will be the book’s 100th anniversary and Special Collections and VT Publishing in the University Libraries are doing something to celebrate!
On May 2, 2019, we will be hosting a reception and a guest lecture by Dr. W. D. Taylor about Sherwood Anderson. In addition to commemorating Anderson, the event will celebrate VT Publishing’s digital and analog publication of Dr. Taylor’s essay, “Requiem for a Wanderer: Sherwood Anderson’s Last Days.” During the event, select items from Special Collections relating to Anderson will also be on display.
But, of course that’s not enough Sherwood Anderson for the month! During May, Special Collections display cases in the reading room will feature an exhibit called “The Life, Letters, and Literature of Sherwood Anderson,” with a focus on Winesburg, Ohio, and contextualizing the work in Anderson’s life and time. Special Collections has editions of the book in more than eight languages! In addition, we will take the opportunity to launch a permanent digital exhibit called “Sherwood Anderson: His Life, His Letters, His Literature, and His Circle.” This digital exhibit will contain content from collections in Special Collections related to Anderson directly, as well as to his family, friends, and collaborators. It will feature highlights from collections already digitized, including the James T. Farrell Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, 1952, 1954 (Ms2017-005) and the Sherwood Anderson Correspondence with Llewellyn Jones, 1916-1924, n.d. (Ms2015-044), as well as newly digitized collections, photographs, book covers, dust jackets, and illustrations.
The calendar item for this event is online at https://calendar.lib.vt.edu/event/5228637 and more information about the forthcoming exhibits is available online at https://calendar.lib.vt.edu/event/5228708. “The Beautiful Truths of Sherwood Anderson” is an event open to all and we encourage you to join us for some refreshment and conversation! It begins at 5pm on Thursday, May 2, 2019, in the Multipurpose Room on the first floor of Newman Library. If you have questions, contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-231-6308)!
In the spirit of the LGBTQ History at Virginia Tech and the Black History at Virginia Tech exhibits, I’ve been part of a project working on another underrepresented community for quite some time now. Working with the Women’s Center at VT, faculty, retired faculty, students, and other volunteers, since 2015, the History of Women at Virginia Tech (http://vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu/) has been a digital humanities project in the making. We started back in 2015, digging into the history that we knew, and went from there. Over the course of the last few years, contributors on the project have begun collecting oral histories, dug through boxes of former administrators’ papers, flipped through photographs, digitized and described items, and learned A LOT! This March, in honor of Women’s History Month events on campus and the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Center, we are excited to launch the site! As we move toward the 100th anniversary of the admission of women to what was then VPI (which occurs in 2021) and the 150th anniversary of the university (coming up in 2022), we will be adding more content and features to the site, including integrated oral and video histories. Here’s what it looks like now:
At the moment, the site contains more than 75 items (many of which include multiple photos, documents, clippings, and other files). The homepage (pictured above), shows recently added items, a rotating gallery of “featured” images, and a link to the interactive timeline. There are also ways to browse and search items. There are a few collections of materials where we have grouped items. For example, there is a collection for The Tin Horn that contains pdfs of the yearbooks created by women students for themselves in 1925, 1929, 1930, and 1931 (women students did not appear in The Bugle until 1941). Another collection brings together items digitized from Special Collections’ Historical Photograph Collection. We expect, as we add to the project, that new collections will be needed to help organize materials, too.
While we are trying to highlight many of the “firsts” for women on this campus, this project has wider goals. We are using primary sources to tell the story of the many roles that women have had in the history of Virginia Tech, both before they were students and since then! We’ll also use primary sources to help contextualize events, places, and people connected to women in VT history. (There are a LOT of stories to tell!) One way we are doing that–other than through the items themselves–is through an interactive timeline (screenshot below, but you can go to it live here: http://vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu/exhibits/show/timeline/timeline-womens-history):
The timeline is something we will continue to expand, but for now, we’ve added about 20 events, some of which contain links to digitized content and more information, like the excerpt from the Board of Visitors minutes pictured above. Timeline points with a related item or items have a “learn more” link in the description to take you to those resources.
Our hope for this project is that people will learn some new things about campus history and women’s history and perhaps be inspired to learn more. Did you know that although women were admitted in 1921, there was not a dedicated women’s dormitory on campus until the opening of Hillcrest Hall (aka the “Skirt Barn”) in 1940? So, where did women live between 1921 and 1940? (Hint: Some of the documents in the project site might have some answers!) We encourage you to explore now, help spread the word, and to come back and visit the site often, as we continue to expand the project. In addition, if you are a part of the VT community and you have history you think belongs in the project, we welcome your input! We are happy to talk about donations to the project and/or to Special Collections, to hear your stories, and to learn about women’s history on campus together!
On a related note, if you want to know more about what’s happen on campus for Women’s History Month 2019, “Celebrating Milestones,” the full calendar of events is online. Other than our project launch, there will be presentations, discussion groups. film screenings, exhibits, and performances.
This semester, I embarked on a new adventure: Teaching a Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) class! From their website: “The Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech is a member-driven, volunteer organization that draws on the wealth of academic and community resources in the New River Valley to provide intellectual, cultural, and social experiences for curious adults 50 and older.” My course is called “Finding Hidden Treasures in the Archives” and its goal is to introduce the students to Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives, as well as learn the basic of archives/special collections generally. Since much of our instruction in the department is based around 1 session with students (2, if we’re lucky), this 5-session course with 9 students has given me a place to experiment and try out some crazy ideas! We started the first Monday in October and have one final session on the 29th. Each week, we’ve had a theme, a mini lecture on the theme & how it relates to our materials/how our materials represent the theme, learned about special collections resources, and gone hands-on with materials.
Here’s what we’ve been up to (in short form–more details in a moment):
Week 1: An Introduction to Special Collections and Archives–Who we are; What we do and why we do it; What we collect
Week 2: War and Conflict–a look at the home fronts and the battlefields of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II
Week 3: Hidden and Silent Voices–documenting and discussing underrepresented communities
Week 4: History of Science–a crash course in engineering, flight, aerospace, and technological marvels
(and coming up on Monday, for Week 5: Society and Pop Culture–celebration through song, advertising, food and drink, and fun locations–essentially, what people do with leisure time)
Although I had some plans at the outset, I’ve also tried to be proactive and flexible. So, if the students were interested in a particular topic or had particular questions, I’ve tried to visit and address those through the materials and themes. As a result, some recurring “bits” have evolved. Each week, we talk about challenges to collecting materials around the theme (from the archives perspective) and challenges to researching around that theme (from the researcher perspective). So, for example, when we talked about underrepresented and minority communities:
Each week, we’ve also talked about the kinds of materials in we have that include representation of the theme. Of course, that can vary, but it’s allow us to talk about the wide range of formats we house in Special Collections. This past week, while talking about the history of science, technology, and science fiction, we looked at personal and professional manuscript materials, photographs, published books, secondary sources, maps, and even listened to part of recording of a 1969 “Face the Nation” interview with Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins (digitized from reel-to-reel). Since the Michael Collins collection also includes artifacts and even a painting, it was also a great opportunity to talk about some 3-D objects like this statue and our 19th century stove:
Each week, we’ve also talked about and looked at resources available through Special Collections: digital collections, finding aids, catalog records, and LibGuides. I’ve made up one “cheat sheet” for our resources and collections, and hope to have another done for our final session about locating materials online and at other archives and special collections. And as the final part of each week, we go hands-on with materials. Some of initial plans have gone out the window, but during our week on war and conflict, I tried something new. We had nine items (three from the Civil War, three from World War I, and three from World War II), one for each student. They had a few minutes to study their item and come up with some keywords. Using a whiteboard, we were able to list out some of those keywords and see where the similarities and differences emerged across and between conflicts.
The nice thing about teaching around a theme is that I’ve been able to look for–and find–connections between our main subject areas that I might not have otherwise considered. So, for example, when we talked about the history of science/technology, I started thinking about transportation. I pulled together a picture of a mule-driven team for hauling coal, images of railroad engines, and pictures taken of the lunar module from Apollo XI. The idea of getting from one form of transport to another was something I had certainly thought about, but never put together in this specific way to share with an audience. And the thing that has surprised me is how many questions the students have! (The “curious” part of the description of LLI is no lie!) There are lots of questions about the materials, but also many on the more practical, logistical, and functional aspects of archivists and archives (or what I lovingly call “how the sausage is made”). While I love to talk about these topics, when teaching a single 50 minute session, you don’t usually have time to get into those kinds of details. The majority of my work is behind-the-scenes, with a focus on making materials accessible, so it’s fun to able to talk about what I do in a day, show people the finished product, and share my enthusiasm for why I do it.
While we still have a week to go, I have had SO MUCH FUN teaching this course. I’m especially looking forward to our last week, when we’ll look at diaries, sheet music, photographs, ephemera from social events, a scrapbook, and food & cocktail history (among other things). There is a lot we have historically done with our leisure time, but we don’t often try to talk about all of it at once! So, I hope we get to talk about why we do them (what makes them “fun”), what these kinds of activities have in common, and how they differ. Instruction isn’t something I do too often, but I love engaging with students of any age, when it gives me a chance to be an advocate for archives. I really enjoy sharing our collections and connecting students (and researchers) to materials. With this LLI class, I think we’re all learning from each other….and having fun!
In October of 1962, Private N. B. White was at Boliver Heights, not far from Harper’s Ferry. White is likely N. Berdett White, a private in Company B of the 145th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. On the 19th of the month, he wrote a letter to his cousin, Darius, in reply to one received on the 12th. Like many soldiers, he offers an account of mutual acquaintances and fellow soldiers: who has fallen ill (measles was making the rounds), who was on picket duty, who has or hasn’t written (or should write more!), a request for news, and even an apology for his spelling (“I dont know that I can think of eny more for my bad writing and spelling”). Like many other Civil War letters from soldiers, it offers us a snapshot of White’s days in mid-October. But in the middle, he has a rather interesting story to tell. First, here’s the letter itself. We’ll get to that story…and a transcript…shortly.
Around the start of page three above, in the midst of telling his cousin about his own sickness and a recent fight, he suddenly states “there was a grate explosen the other day.” That, of course, might catch someone’s attention–as it did ours here at Special Collections. He goes one: some of the men built an arch to cook on. there was fore cooking the other day and there happened to be a shell in the dirt under the arch and when they built the fire the shell bursted and kild fore men.” White then goes back to talking about who his cousin got a letter from and who he wants to write him. He skips right over the lessons we might learn from this story: Always look where you dig? Don’t light a fire until you know there’s nothing under it? Don’t stand near a cooking spot someone else built? It seems like there could be several takeaways. White, however, seems to place it in a different context. And “context,” I think, is the key word.
To us–or to me, at any rate, as someone who spends too much time around food history–I find this surprise story fascinating. What did this cooking arch look like? What was it about that particular spot that seemed appropriate to build one? Was there any hint of something beneath the surface? What where they planning to cook? What kind of supplies did this Union regiment have relatively early in the war? For White, this was an off the cuff mention. After all, wasn’t the news of the recent fighting, in which no one was killed and only seven wounded, far more important than an accidental explosion and death of four men? Isn’t it better to focus on who is still alive, rather than think about who has died, especially during wartime? In the context of the time and his letter, most certainly. And of course, White had no idea his letter would last 156 years and I would have questions about this incident and he may not have had the details himself. He may have simply included it because it was an event of note or because it was something different to report back home.
If you’d like a little more context for this collection, the finding aid is available online. As a final note, this letter came with a transcript, so here’s the content in its entirety (I just didn’t want to spoil it before). Enjoy!
Due to Commencement exercises on campus, Special Collections (along with the University Libraries) will be opening LATE on Friday, May, 10, 2018. We will open at 10am and close at our normal time (5pm). We will be CLOSED for a staff event on Monday, May 14, 2018, and we will resume our normal hours on Tuesday, May 15, 2018.