Wherein We Contemplate the Things We Leave Behind

This is the fourth post in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program

From the Winterthur website: “Named for Winterthur’s first curator, the Downs Collection contains about 3,000 record groups…including personal and business accounts in the form of diaries, family papers, tax records, and letter books of craftspeople and merchants. In addition, the Downs Collection contains drawings (architectural, artistic, and amateur); wills and household inventories; children’s toys and games; scrapbooks and journals; and fabric swatch books.”

How could you not want to dive head first into that?! The problem for the researcher is not so much finding something to work on, it’s deciding what to leave out. It makes me smile to think about how passionate the librarians and curators are about the materials they conserve. Their engagement led me in new directions (and opened new ideas for next time) as they wanted to show me things they thought would be interesting and helpful. It’s one of the cool things about being here, you are working with other people who geek out about this stuff as much as you do. Faded 19th-century copperplate documents listing trade rates in Calcutta in 1812? Bring it on!

The Downs Collection, like so many archives of ephemera, is a truly random collection. While there are many groupings of items from family donations, even those sets of things are incomplete and contain a random sampling of objects. There is no constructing a complete record of a voyage, for example, as only one or two related papers out of the veritable mountain of documents needed to record all aspects of the enterprise are housed at Winterthur. So each document or item is a mere glimpse into a missing whole. It is both tantalizing and frustrating!

It all does leave me contemplating our own “leavings.” In this digital age, what are we leaving behind that will tell the future about who we are? What bits will tend to survive, and how will they shape cultural research in the 22nd century? Should we as individuals be deliberate about that and start to set aside the “hard copy” stuff that tells our story more fully? After all, you never know what your heirs might donate to Winterthur someday!

Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library. COL 235 Latimer Family Papers, 1801-1876, bulk 1815-1838.

A cool thing I found in the Collection:

One of the less well-known aspects of American merchant and whaling history is that members of the Society of Friends were pretty major players. They owned ships and trading organizations, not to mention factories and warehouses, in ports all over the east coast and in Britain. Some of the biggest names in commerce today (such as Cadbury’s) had their origins in Quaker family enterprises. The Winterthur collection includes a number of papers from Abraham Bell & Co., a New York merchant house, and I can just imagine a clerk sitting at his desk scratching out these documents in 1841 as they are paying off the ship’s crew.

Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library. COL 294 Shipping Records, 1821-1910.

Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020

Pamela Wik-Grimm writes historical maritime fiction based on her lifelong love of sailing and the sea. She holds a USCG captain’s license and is active as a commercial and recreational sailor. http://www.pamelagrimmauthor.com

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