Some of my favorite moments at the bench are those of quiet surprise, when turning the page of a book reveals a pressed flower, or a letter unfolds to reveal a lock of hair. These small gifts from the past interest and delight me. These mementos communicate, in their own non-textual way, the everyday moments which ultimately make up that idea we call History.
Recently, I was assessing and stabilizing several folders of late nineteenth-century letters from the Adams Family Papers in preparation for digitization. (Look for letters from Mary Newbury Adams to be added to our Library Digital Collections in celebration of Women’s History Month, March 2014). As I turned the pages of the letter pictured above, I noticed that its accompanying envelope seemed a bit puffy, as if something were still tucked inside. I opened it to find two swatches of fabric which are slightly crumpled but otherwise in excellent condition, sent from one sister to another in consultation over a new dress.
Archival materials speak to us in more ways than one. Another letter from later the same year shows evidence of “acid burn,” indicating that there was once a bit of ephemera tucked inside, something acidic such as a newspaper clipping. Whatever was enclosed has been lost, but the physical evidence of its existence remains.