Exploring Hidden Collections - The 18th-19th Century Equivalents of Email and Pinterest

The diaries and journals from the Quaker collection are finally cataloged, and finding aids for these collections can be found on the Quaker & Special Collections website

Posted on September 15, 2015

The first page of the commonplace book of Deborah Haines, 1753

By Kara Flynn

While I have enjoyed my time cataloging Quaker diaries and journals for the past few months, I am happy to announce that the diaries and journals from the Quaker collection are finally cataloged, and finding aids for these collections can be found on the Quaker & Special Collections website!

Diaries and journals were particularly fun to work with, as they give a bit more of a personal narrative than many archival materials, but after pouring over seemingly endless collections of them over the past two months, I was eager to move on to other 18th and 19th century mediums. So, for this post, I thought I would talk a bit about the kinds of materials I’ve been working with this month-- letterbooks and commonplace books.

Imagine a time before email, when you couldn’t simply track the thread of a communication through your inbox or sent mail tab. A time before photo copies, faxes, or even carbon copies (!). How would you remember what you’d written to who, and when? This is where letterbooks come in. Letterbooks essentially serve the same functions as your inbox/sent mail--people would copy each letter they sent, and the reply, into a bound volume. The really organized people would even include an index of letters by author. For both business and personal correspondence, this allowed our 18th and 19th century counterparts to stay up to date on their correspondence, and allowed them to refer back to past letters they had written or received.

One particularly fun letterbook I cataloged this past month was the Sharpless family letterbook, in which seven members of the Sharpless family wrote what they referred to as a “circulating family letter.” The first correspondent would start the letter and sent it on to the next person in the family, that person would then read the first letter, write their own, and send both letters on to the next person, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants style. Not only is this format unique within the Quaker collection, but it also provides insight into the dynamics of this Quaker family, including family squabbles and the experiences of one of the Sharpless son’s, who was homesteading in Colorado during the mid 19th century, while the rest of the family remained in Pennsylvania.

In addition to letterbooks, I have been working with commonplace books this month as well. My favorite way to describe commonplace books is through my newly coined slogan: the Pinterest of the 19th century. Commonplace books essentially function as a Pinterest board- like a particular quote or poem? Copy it into your commonplace book. Commonplace books were popular among both men and women, though the majority of commonplace books in the Quaker collection were written by women. Different people organized their books in different ways, but many commonplace books are at least partially organized by topic. For example, someone might compile a list of quotes or excerpts of scripture on the topic of compassion, before moving on to the topic of friendship or family. Commonplace books provide a slightly different angle into a topic, time period, or individual, as they serve as more of a cultural artifact, or a snapshot into the interests of a particular person at a given time, as opposed to diaries or letterbooks, which provide a more cohesive narrative.

Have I piqued your interest in archival materials by pandering to the millennial crowd with my 21st century comparisons? Interested in learning more? Come by Quaker and Special Collections, and be sure to check out our new finding aids online!