Snooping into the Past

Jessie: On the coast of Maine enjoying the seaside no matter the weather!

This magazine was a surprise gift from our own Sherry Harris! I just love it!

Have I ever mentioned how much I love research? Maybe it is because it is a way to justify spending hours snooping around on the internet. But, I think it is more likely that I just enjoy learning how the people who have gone before us lived, loved, persevered and triumphed. I especially like learning how things have changed and, more often, how they have stayed the same over time.

Articles written about the past are always interesting but it is especially delightful to get my eyeballs on books written during the time period I am researching. I also adore newspaper and magazine articles of the day and am fascinated by the advertisements. The problems readers were trying to solve seem to be very similar to our own. Readers are advised on slashing food budgets, making the most of new household technologies and new advances in personal grooming.

But most delicious of all such records, at least in my opinion, are pieces of personal correspondence. Journals, letters and postcards that were not meant for public consumption are often remarkably revealing about the writer and his or her slant on the atmosphere and events of the day. I particularly love the sorts of notes that are not meant to be of earth-shattering consequence like postcards mentioning an upcoming visit or a fine day spent in the mountains. It makes the past feel alive to me to read everyday sorts of remarks between friends and loved ones.

Since I love to poke about in historic personal papers I was delighted to recently come across a way to make my inclination be of service to something greater than my own curiosity. The Library of Congress has embarked on a program, named By the People, to crowdsource help from volunteers in deciphering, transcribing and tagging documents from the past! Anyone is welcome to help out and there is no account or commitment necessary!

The projects already underway include Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, Mary Church Terrell, Clara Barton and Abraham Lincoln. Upcoming projects are slated to include Women’s Suffrage and Branch Rickey. I have already started working on the Civil War campaign and am finding it really intriguing. Not only does it appeal to my interest in research, the handwriting often needs deciphering and I end up feeling a bit like a sleuth! I would encourage any of you who are interested at all in the project to check it out and to consider participating!

Readers, do you love to read old letters and newspaper articles? Do you have any cherished papers from a loved one? Do you save your own for people who will come along later? Writers, do you love to do research?

25 Thoughts

  1. I love reading old letters and newspapers. You’re right that it’s such a fascinating look back in time. And that gift from Sherry is awesome!

  2. What a wonderful project! And people often were more careful with their handwriting a century or more ago. I treasure the only letter I have written by my Barton great-great-grandfather, who was serving in the Army during the Civil War (he enlisted when he was 16)–he writes to his mother to say he hopes to become a better person.

  3. I actually do love researching the past, I love looking back on the city I was born & raise in because it was once a real thriving city.

  4. Oh, I love research! The rich trove of vintage White Mountains newspapers, postcards, booklets, and so forth got me started on writing historical projects.An attempt to capture that long-gone world, or the more romantic aspects anyway. Modern Priscilla has the best covers. I used a couple on my website (public domain) for a 1920s project. I love old ads, too, a real window into the thinking of the day.

      1. The town I used to live in had 30 hotels! Bethlehem. Always wished I had a time machine….next best thing, writing about it.

  5. I have some things that I cherish, including a Valentine sent from my Great Grandmother’s brother to her during the Civil War, And a letter from my Great Uncle Oscar to my Great Aunt Lena before they were married – she kept it with a handkerchief in a box that my mother found after she passed away. It was an ordinary but very sweet letter.

  6. It’s one of the reasons I love old postcards with their messages and addresses that are just a name and town. Some of them are as simple as I went to town today and others are more personal — It was an honor to see you today. I hope we see each other again soon. I’m always trying to fill in the blanks of those messages.

    1. I love the way you describe it so succinctly! It is a case of filling in the blanks! You gave me much fodder for my imagination with the gift of that magazine!

  7. I love reading old magazine articles. The most chuckle-worthy I have come across recently is an article with advice on how to catch a man from…I think the 40s or 50s. Maybe earlier. Definitely funny.

    I saved all the letters my grandmother, now deceased, wrote me in college.

    And I loved doing research into the early 40s when I was writing my historical novel (yet to find a home).

  8. I do love history, so I am intrigued by this Library of Congress initiative. If only I had more time to really get involved.

    1. I think that is the really great part, Mark! You can just drop in now and again to the website and transcribe few lines. You could have fun with a bite sized portion if you want to!

  9. Jessie, that LOC project is so intriguing! Keep us posted!
    My folks volunteer at their town’s historical society and often share interesting stuff they find. Last week my dad showed me a will written in 1613 – the handwriting is so gorgeously ornate but SO hard for my modern eyes to read (I think Elizabeth Stoddard of Boston left 100 pounds to Elizabeth Shrimpton – but I’m not sure.) What fun this is! I wonder if future historians and writers will have as much fun with our Facebook messages.

    1. That is such a fun question! I love to watch the program, The Orville, with my husband and there is an episode in which the crew unlocks a cellphone from today many centuries into the future. They find the social media and texting endlessly fascinating!

  10. Love today’s blog. I have a small box of letters written by my father to his mother back in the 1930s. He lived in AZ and CA and she was in Indiana. I learned a lot about my father by reading those letters for the first time a few years ago.

    I also found in an old trunk several Godey’s Magazines from the ’30s, and Old Farmer’s Almanacs from before 1900. They were all fascinating.

  11. Love this blog. I was a history major and now am president of the local historical society. Research is one of my favorite things to do and always has been.

    Once did a history lesson with students where we read Civil War letters from the South and the North. The students then had to become a contemporary to the era and try to write a letter that sounded realistic of a war time period. Even the students had fun with that!

    Obviously, I still read old newspapers, books, handwritten accounts of something in history and try to build what the social history was around the events.

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