Thoreau Imagines The Greatest History Never Written

“You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer’s wood, or chopping alone in the woods, men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat; who were out not only in 1775 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and plowing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.”

The Field.jpg

Alice Pike Barney, The Field. c. 1892. National Museum of American Art.

I was reading Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” and this passage struck me. In my work as an archivist, I spend a lot of time thinking about historical records and the stories and information they contain. When I appraise new records to see if they should be in the archives, I try to prioritize documentation of underrepresented communities, stories, and perspectives in. It’s always a struggle to predict what kinds of records researchers will want to use in the future.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau. Library of Congress.

Thoreau argues that many important stories from history were never recorded by conventional means, and we need to think creatively to learn about them. On top of that, there is an important difference between histories that are written by people who can speak for themselves, and those who cannot (or choose not to).

Just because history isn’t recorded in your typical books, newspaper articles, diaries, etc., doesn’t mean it’s lost, it just needs to be unlocked. I think this is a really important lesson as historians today are getting more interested in the experiences of historically marginalized groups such as racial minorities, people with disabilities, people of various sexual and gender identities, etc. We should try looking for other types of non-traditional “documents” these communities left behind (or possibly didn’t leave behind as well) and think about them carefully. This requires a lot of thought, but these stories are too important not to tell.

We do need to be very careful about how we interpret these unique records. It’s a lot harder to “read” and understand a farmer’s field than your every-day book, and I’m sure what I would notice or pay attention to could be very different than that farmer. I know many historians are already thinking really hard about how to find non-traditional sources and use them to diversify and expand our understanding of history, and I think Thoreau would be happy to know that.

Are there any fields, or buildings, or other non traditional texts you can think of that record stories and experiences outside our main stream history? How would you use them to write history? I’m really interested to find new types of “records” and make sure that we’re preserving them for the future!


Another Century Turns Two!

I can’t believe this blog is two years old! It really doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but my first post was published on this day in 2016. I started writing about nine months after I got my Masters degrees in history and library science from the U. of Maryland. Once I had entered the real world and was working a 9 to 5 job, I realized that I missed doing research and writing about history. At the same time, my tenure in graduate school was marked by a hundred books that I never had time to finish and a thousand more ideas that I thought would make a good paper one day. My first post, “Are you a Cowboy or a Colonel?” was actually an extended review of a book I stumbled upon one day in school and never got a chance to read until after I graduated. If you haven’t read that post, it’s a fun one that you can find here.


Last year I conducted a records inventory in an abandoned patient ward in a Philadelphia mental hospital. There was no power and broken windows made for a dark and drafty job.

When I started this blog, I was a few months out of school, recently married, and just starting my career. At the time I was a lowly contract processing archivist at the Smithsonian National Anthropology Archives. A few months later I got a job offer at the Pennsylvania State Archives and Andra and I moved up to Harrisburg. I’m working in acquisitions section, traveling around to different government offices and institutions to look for their historical records. I’ve gotten to dig documents out of squirrel infested attics and moldy basements that were just as creepy as you might imagine. My job takes me to places like prisons, fish hatcheries and executive offices; anywhere historical records are to be found I go and check them out!

Being at the PA State Archives has also had an impact on this blog. You may have noticed that there are a decent number of posts I’ve done on topics from Pennsylvania history. This seems pretty natural since I sift through the state’s history 8 hours a day. I have also gotten into more posts that touch on my own family history. A lot of genealogists  visit our archives and I guess I got hooked too! It has been fun finding my own family’s connections to interesting historical events, especially in the travel adventures of Frank and Nell Felter and in the tragic death of Albert Sergeant at Dimmock Hill. I’m still working on several more posts like these so check back soon for those.

I started this blog just as a personal exercise in research and writing, and as a way to keep a running list of historical books I’d like to read one day. I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, and am excited to see what happens in the next two years. Thanks for reading!

Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers

“Is it not a cruel civilization that allows little hearts and little shoulders to strain under these grown-up responsibilities?”

Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1907

Children have always worked. But the Industrial Revolution turned children’s labor from something positive and good for development into work that left “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves.” Grueling working conditions and unscrupulous business owners robbed young workers of their childhoods, educational opportunities, and their dignity.

Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.

Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.

Danville messenger

#2183. Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands. A Western Union boy eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier. Continue reading

Pennsylvania Weighs in on the Smithsonian

Apparently Pennsylvania politicians had mixed opinions on the Smithsonian Institution when it was first opened in the mid 1800s. I was looking at some early documents in Smithsonian history and happened across some coolquotes from two Pennsylvanians, George Dallas and Simon Cameron, both politicians that left their home state to work in Washington D.C. in the middle of the 1800s. In D.C., they both encountered the Smithsonian Institution, a brand new research organization that had been founded in 1847. Their reactions to the young Smithsonian, were totally opposite and pretty interesting! Continue reading