Archive for June 25th, 2008

400 years of packratting

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The Emory family settled in Maryland in the 1660’s and pretty much kept every scrap of paper from then until World War II. This huge cache of documents mouldered in the attic of their estate, Poplar Grove, until this spring, when Washington College students began going through them all.

There are all kinds of papers in that attic, everything from sales receipts to letters to posters, including one trashing Martin Van Buren for voting to give every free black man the vote.

“Historians are used to dealing with political records and military documents,” said Adam Goodheart, a history professor at nearby Washington College. “But what they aren’t used to is political letters and military documents kept right alongside bills for laundry or directions for building a washing machine.”

Goodheart is working with state archivists and a crew of four student interns to collect the documents, which were found stuffed into boxes, barrels and peach baskets.

“Look at this: ‘Negro woman, Sarah, about 27 years old, $25,'” Goodheart says, reading from a 19th century inventory. “It was as though this family never threw away a scrap of paper.”

The documents include maps, letters, financial records, political posters, even a lock of hair from a letter dated Valentine’s Day, 1801. There’s a love poem from the 1830s (in which a young man graphically tells his sweetheart what he’d do if he sneaked into her room on a winter’s night), along with war accounts and bills of sale from slaves and crops.

The Civil War era documents illustrate the sad veracity of the brother-against-brother cliché. One son fought for the Union, the other for the Confederacy.

You can follow the researchers as they delve into this hoard of social history on their blog. They’ve just unveiled a War of 1812 roster in perfect condition from a week after the British torched the White House.

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