By Jessica Dunkin
This is the first in a series of posts called The Home Archivist, in which a professional historian discusses her experiences with a private collection of 19th-century letters.
In the two years leading up to their wedding on June 29th, 1891, Amelia Wilkinson and John MacKendrick exchanged letters almost daily. Unlike most collections of courting letters, this one has survived along with more than two decades of the family’s correspondence. At some point after 1918, the letters were packaged into a box and dispatched to the attic of the MacKendrick family home in Galt, Ontario. They remained there until John and Amelia’s eldest daughter, Norah, passed away in 1984. At that point, the letters were moved to the family cottage in Windermere, Ontario. Eventually, the collection travelled to Bob and Marge MacKendrick’s home in Milford, Connecticut. Bob is the grandson of Amelia and John.
In August 2014, I (temporarily) acquired the MacKendrick letters. Although Marge and Bob had lived with the box for many years, they had only opened it a few times and when they did, they found the task of deciphering nineteenth-century handwriting daunting. Thus, they were unsure of what the letters contained. They assumed, however, that because of John’s active involvement with the American Canoe Association (ACA)—he was a member from at least the early 1880s until the 1910s and was elected Commodore in 1896—there might be something of interest for me in the letters. My doctoral dissertation, “Canoes and Canvas: The Social and Spatial Politics of Sport/Leisure in Late Nineteenth Century North America” (Carleton University, 2012),” explored the annual encampments and regattas of the ACA from 1880 to 1910.
When the MacKendricks first offered the letters to me in April 2014, I was both thrilled and terrified. Here was a box filled with at least 25 years of correspondence; to date, I have found letters reaching back to 1879 and forward to 1903. There are hundreds of letters connecting John and Amelia to family, friends, fellow canoeists, and colleagues. As you might expect, the size of the collection was as intimidating as it was exciting. The condition of the letters also gave me pause. A cursory survey of the box revealed that its contents were filthy and in some cases damaged. In addition to a number of moves and a long life in attics and basements, the letters had survived a fire.
Having completed an MA and PhD in History, I am comfortable working with archival materials, but I know next to nothing about how they are processed. How does one open a bundle of letters bound together by time, smoke, and mold? I have decided to take this opportunity to learn more about the journey that some historical documents make from attic to accession number, to dispel some of the mystery I feel around archival practices. In addition to processing, I’m curious about the decisions that are made in the organization of archival collections. As I have begun to open the letters, I have developed a system for arranging them, largely based on their original order. However, I have a sense that this won’t be the final configuration of the collection. The MacKendricks have given me permission to study the letters for my own purposes, but they have also asked that I evaluate the collection as a whole should they decide to donate all or part of it to an archive. My dining room table, in other words, is just a way station for the letters.
I thought it might be useful to give some structure to this process by writing a series of blog posts on the subject. I have chosen to call the series The Home Archivist as an homage to the very amateur, very DIY approach that I am taking to processing and arranging the letters. I may be a professional historian, but I am not a professional archivist. Rather, I am exploring, experimenting, and learning as I go.
The series will map my life with the letters beginning with our introduction in Milford, Connecticut, in April 2014. Having spent a month working with the letters to date, I have some sense of where this story is headed. As I have alluded to already, my encounters with the letters have raised interesting questions about how the collection should be organized, what is to be done with fragile and moldy letters, and the conundrum of digitizing, so you can expect to see posts on subjects like these. However, every time I open the box, I encounter something unexpected that sends me off in new directions. I anticipate that the trajectory of this series will be no different.
While this is ultimately a project of one, I have spent many hours in conversation with family, friends, and colleagues about the letters. I have also shared portions of the experience on Twitter. These exchanges have produced interesting questions and useful feedback. More recently, I have begun to reach out to professionals in the field. Throughout this process, I have also been reading about archival processing and arranging. I look forward to sharing the outcomes of these conversations, this research, and my activities in the posts to come. Let me conclude by saying that I welcome any comments or questions. This is very much a work in progress and I am happy for the opportunity to think more deeply about the letters, their contents, and archival work.
Jessica Dunkin is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. In addition to working with the MacKendrick letters, she is researching physical activity programming for urban working-class women in Canada in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. You can follow her on Twitter at @dunkin_jess.
Ohhh! Very cool! I look forward to reading more. I, too, have DIY “archived” letters, with a great sense of uncertainty and excitement, and it is thrilling to learn about your experiences. Thanks!
Very very cool indeed!
Thanks, Samira and “caledonhills”!
Samira, I would be curious to know what your experience was like if you have a few minutes to share. This is very much a work-in-progress!