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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » Finding Gold

Finding Gold

Written by Courtney Smerz on January 4th, 2010

As I mentioned in my last installment, I have been working at Haverford College on the Sarah Cooper Tatum Hilles family papers.  This was my first real experience with a true family papers collection, loaded with handwritten correspondence, and I am dazzled and delighted, and exhausted by it!  So, please excuse my reflections on the collection, which may not seem so novel to those of you already indoctrinated in the family papers world.

This collection ranked 8 on the survey and I can see why – it’s pretty amazing and though I admit I have not read most of the letters, the collection seems thorough, at least for a period of time in and around the 1850s and 1860s.  Though the collection is named for Sarah Hilles, as she was the compiler and primary recipient of a majority of the letters, the collection actually provides evidence of the lives of dozens of her family and friends through the letters they wrote to her.  Not only do they speak about the goings on in their own lives, they often reflect on the happenings in the world around them.  For starters, this is a great Civil War era resource.   Sarah’s husband, John Smith Hilles, who wrote often, was a Quaker involved with helping freed black men and women in the South in the 1860s, and at least one letter written to Sarah by a friend or cousin reflects on the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Another potentially interesting topic evidenced (though possibly only slightly), is John Hilles’ work managing shipping operations for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

This is also a good collection about family relationships.  For me, one of the most striking relationships in the collection was that of Margaret Hill Smith Hilles with her son and daughter-in-law, John and Sarah.  Margaret Hilles wrote with incredible frequency, always expressing deep pride and affection for her children and grandchildren.  My favorite parts of her letters, however, were her (dare I say) complaints, intermingled among the declarations of love and family news, to her children who did not write frequently enough.  Just goes to show that some things don’t change—family relationships, even in the most obviously loving and attentive of families, are very familiar throughout time.

Most of the letters are between women, from friends and cousins of Sarah, but there is a fair amount of correspondence from John to Sarah during his seemingly frequent times away from her and their family.  The letters are written with the casualness of speech and, more than anything, this collection has made me want to pick up a pen and start writing to the people most important to me in my life.  I have been thinking a lot about email and telephones, and what will ultimately be missing in the archives someday about our world and lives because of these technologies–technologies which oddly enough keep us more in touch with each other than ever before.  I guess I am not bringing up anything new for those archivally minded readers, but this problem has been particularly apparent to me in the past few weeks.  As I said before this is my first real family papers processing experience, and one thing that I learned is that as personal as institutional or business records can be at times, they do not compare to papers and letters that were produced as intimate and candid communications between close friends and families.

Minimally processing this collection was a challenge, an admittedly unexpected challenge by me personally, but completely anticipated by others (a testament to my lack of experience with such collections).  What I have learned is that simply removing nineteenth century letters from envelopes and unfolding them is time consuming.  Even more than that, correctly identifying correspondents and dates is even more time consuming.  This is ALL I had time for.  What’s worse is that I have no idea the scope of information that may be obtained from the collection.  Based on what I know now, this could be a gold mine or it may just be another collection of correspondence written between family members with only one or two truly insightful or especially telling letters.  My gut tells me that this collection is a gold mine–but, I cannot say for sure.


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