Long ago, when it was snowing a lot and often, Alina Josan and I spent eight weeks at the Germantown Historical Society. The majority of our time at GHS was spent with the records of the Germantown Theatre Guild, but at the outset we worked on a much smaller project, the (very) Small Manuscript Collection.
This collection was made up of a smattering of many things. Full of treasures, but usually only one or a few records concerning an individual, family or organization. The legacy decision had been to collect these items together into a catch-all collection and we were foldering the records and creating an inventory. As we worked our way through these disparate pieces, I remembered a question that Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe had asked during my interview for the Hidden Collections project, “Will you have any problem moving quickly through materials that interest you?” My answer was, “No problem—I’ve handled many interesting things in my career and I’ll be able to resist the urge.” Well, here’s to report, it’s difficult to glide by some things, without pausing to wonder! I’ll call it the inevitable minimal processing speed bump—you fly along, until you just have to stop and take a good look at something.
The Small Manuscripts collection had a number of speed bumps, especially since foldering meant, in many cases, item level labeling. I noticed that Alina was riveted by some materials relating to Thomas Meehan (the 19th century botanist and nurseyman), but I resisted temptation until I encountered the Billmeyer waste books. The manuscripts were dated 1795, and while very handsome in themselves, with elegant handwriting on fine paper, they were fairly mundane account books representing “the mony, goods or debts owed to me.” However, on further inspection I noticed something special: Anna Billmeyer—perhaps a daughter, or granddaughter—had co-opted one book at a later date and used it as a sketch diary. Careful sketches and notes pasted on top of the accounting records reveal this well-educated girl’s world view: several pencil sketches of “Mr. Chew’s House,” a series of watercolor vignettes, maps of the South Pole, Bolivia, and “Ethiopia Unexplored Region,” a botanical watercolor of “The Drooping Lily,” architectural renderings with simple perspective diagrams, and pressed violets are just some of the things that Anna chose to document and preserve in the recycled Waste Book.
I had to stop and admire. I had to stop and consider. I was drawn by the mixture of romance and smartness; the dreamy yet precise nature of this girl’s mind that was so clearly reflected in these drawings tucked into the back of an account book. So there you have it, no matter what your processing cruising speed or how short the deadline, sometimes the records simply deserve a pause, an extra few beats of inspection. No matter how many things you may have seen, no matter how many objects you’ve handled, you’re not immune to the allure of “The Drooping Lily.”