Graduate students enrolled in Professor Marilyn Morgan’s “Introduction to Archives” class do a lot of reading. We read about the history of archives, core archival principles, and about challenges that modern archivists face. And we read theory- lots of theory. Information from books, journal articles, and even blog posts swirl around in our heads as we to get a handle on the essential practices and principles of the profession. The process can be frustrating– like when we have to reread the same dense sentence five times to ascertain its meaning– but it can also be immensely rewarding, especially when we get to apply our knowledge to real-world situations.
Enter Juliana Kuipers, Senior Collection Development Curator and Archivist at the Harvard University Archives.
Juliana visited our class recently, to talk about her experience in the field and also to lead a short exercise in appraisal. A week in advance, we broke into teams and, in addition to reading published articles about selection and appraisal, Marilyn assigned us a document containing five appraisal scenarios drawn from Juliana’s experience at the Harvard Archives. Our task was straightforward: after contemplating the theoretical readings, we were to put ourselves in Juliana’s shoes, and decide whether or not to accession materials for the Archives.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that this assignment was more complicated than it seemed at first glance. There were all kinds of questions to consider, from issues of provenance to ethical dilemmas to everything in between. Similarly, there were a host of materials involved in the scenarios, including diaries, correspondence, artwork, scrapbooks, and artifacts. As we weighed the benefits and drawbacks of accessioning each collection, we remained cognizant of the Archives’ Collection Policy, a document which clarifies much but also contains ambiguity.
What did it mean, some of us wondered, that the Archives sought “to gather an accurate, authentic, and complete record of the life of the University”? Did that mean that the institution should purchase or accept any collection remotely relating to Harvard? Were some materials more conducive to this end than others? What about resources? Should collections that require fewer resources (finances, personnel, space) take precedence over materials that are more costly? And if the archivist decided not to accession the collection, what then? Did he or she have an obligation to suggest other avenues for the donor to pursue? The Archive’s Collection policy provided clues, but no hard-and-fast answers.
Juliana smiled and nodded as we expressed our uncertainties. In many ways, she told us, uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of the accessioning process. The determinations that archivists make on a day-to-day basis require background knowledge, critical thinking, and even a little creativity. They argue for and against the accessioning of materials whose incorporation into the Archives is in no means inevitable. Juliana encouraged our class to keep working to develop the skills that will allow us to make informed decisions that will enhance the collections of our future institutions.
Our sincerest thanks to Juliana Kuipers for sharing her time and experiences with us. Stay tuned for updates on the ways in which our class continues to learn about archives and think as archivists!
I was in the unique position to work with and create a finding aid for an unprocessed archival collection for my Capstone Project during my final semester at UMass Boston. For those who are unfamiliar with a Capstone, it offers an equivalent alternative to writing a traditional thesis in the History MA program. Personally, a Capstone was a better fit for my career aspirations as an archivist—the inventory and finding aid I created, along with the collection I processed, are both tangible objects.
MacDougall, known affectionately as “Rocco,” taught at Newton North High School in Newton, MA. He dedicated his life to collecting items that he felt documented popular culture in the US. MacDougall used items from his vast collection as integral part of his teaching to instill a love of music and pop cultural history for decades. His massive collection was donated by his wife, JoEllen Hillyer, to the Center for the Study of Humanities, Culture, and Society (CHCS) at UMass Boston in the spring of 2015.
A musician and lover of music, MacDougall collected all genres and styles of recorded music, from the eclectic and obscure to popular hits that topped 20th-century American music charts. The collection also hosts the various formats on which music was created and stored over time, including impressive quantities of CDs, vinyl records, audio tape cassettes, and phonograph cylinders. First used by Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, to successfully record and reproduce sounds, phonograph cylinders were small grooved cylinders made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax. The sound recording format was popular in the late 19th through the early 20th centuries.
In addition to music recordings, MacDougall acquired extensive runs of British and American magazines, numerous trade journals and collectors’ guides. Titles included mainstream publications, such as Rolling Stone, Uncut, Word, and Billboard, as well as journals that are difficult to find and even more difficult for researchers to access. The collection boasts hundreds of issues of local Boston and New England regional publications, such as Broadside of Boston. Especially noteworthy is the breadth of magazines, journals, and newspapers devoted to jazz, blues, and folk music, as well as band and concert guides spanning the latter half of the 20th century. Included among the magazines is small but notable assortment of magazines about Elvis, Buck Owens, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles.
In addition to providing a wide range of music materials,the archive also houses more than 2,000 comic books and a wide range of popular culture ephemera, including hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings organized by topic, ranging from individual musicians to major corporations, from cultural phenomena to social problems.
The comic-book collection includes an impressive selection of mainstream comic books from the 1960s and 1970s, many of them superhero comics. But it also includes dozens of “humor” comics, such as Little Lulu, Casper, and Walt Disney comics. Perhaps the most distinguished feature of the comics collection is the remarkable number of “romance” comics, of which there are more than 200 from a variety of publishers.
There are a notable number of books, VHS tapes, and DVDs as well. The sheer size of the collection combined with the small space it resides it proved overwhelming to me at first.
Luckily, I received help from two alumni of the American Studies Graduate Program during the semester, Andre Diehl and Scott Harris.
Scott provided the muscle—consolidating the collections and creating much needed “breathing room” in our location. Even though he worked with the archive for a short period, he played a pivotal role in my project. Andre knows the collection back and forth, up and down. He may have forgotten more about the collection than I’ll ever know.
Andre and others before him did an amazing job cataloging much of the magazines, journals, and comic books, as well as digitizing all the CDs in the archive.
Here are some numbers for you—as of spring 2017—that we have cataloged EXACTLY:
8,960 vinyl records—including sizes of 7”, 10”, 12”, and rare 16”
836 tape cassettes and another 500+ student-made mix-tapes
33 rare phonograph cylinders
A combination of 4,035 magazines, journals, and newspapers
2,277 comic books
110 VHS Tapes
If you are interested in learning more about the collection, reach out to CHCS!
Note: A few weeks after graduation, Connor Anderson became the new Public Records Access Officer/Archivist of the Town of Plymouth. Congratulations, Connor!
As a Public History student pursuing an archives certificate, I have spent countless hours in various archival repositories. The cardboard cartons, steel shelves, and chilly temperatures can give off a utilitarian feel that contradicts the richness of the records they contain.
Today, digitization projects have drastically changed the way researchers can access archival documents, enabling them to receive images of requested items via a website, zip drive, or email attachment. Thanks to technology, many researchers no longer have to travel to archives, such as the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, where I started working as an intern in February. However, the beauty and history of the location of this archive infuses the records stored here with a context that informs their meaning in ways I did not anticipate before I began working here.
Who knew an archive could be so beautiful? Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who designed the site which now houses the archive, is widely recognized as America’s premier landscape architect. His accomplishments in park design, town planning, landscape architecture, and conservation have earned international acclaim.
In 1883, he purchased a home in Brookline, Massachusetts, for both his family residence and professional office. He deemed the property “Fairsted.” Over the next decade, he designed the building and grounds to match his aesthetic vision, creating a space to celebrate nature and offer an oasis amidst an increasingly urban setting.
Fairsted continued to be a hub of landscape design far past Olmsted’s retirement in 1895. His son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and stepson, John Charles Olmsted, continued the business as the “Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects.” During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the work volume and staff of the firm increased significantly.
By the 1940s, the volume of work had begun to decline; however, during the 1960s and 1970s, scholars, landscape architects, environmentalists and historic preservationists showed interest in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. This academic and practical interest in Olmsted’s landscape architecture prompted individuals to collect and begin to preserve materials related to the firm’s history.
In 1979, when the firm’s landscape design activity formally ceased, Fairsted was acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) as a National Historic Site. The NPS became responsible for preserving and cataloging the documents, plans, and artifacts left behind by the firm and interpreting Fairsted’s history for the public.
The Olmsted archives contain more than 1 million original documents related to landscape design projects the firm took on between 1857 and 1979. The repository contains approximately 139,000 plans and drawings, as well as photographic negatives and prints, planting lists, lithographs, employee records, and office correspondence. Today, the majority of research requests the archives receives relate to the firms’ plans and drawings, which have been used for landscape restorations, academic publications, and historical exhibits.
In the early stages, the archives staff focused on preserving the plans, which were often brittle, dirty, and damaged. Next, the items were cataloged and made available to researchers, who, at that point needed to visit the site to view them physically. In recent years, reflecting archival trends and practices, a massive digitization project focusing on the plans and drawings began.
Initially, the plans and drawings were scanned into black and white tiff files. But the Olmsted National Historic Site is currently undertaking a four-year project to re-scan plans and drawings into high resolution color images that meet current industry standards and research expectations.
Working, as many archives do, without an in-house platform and hoping to provide widespread public access to the materials, the archives staff have been uploading the items to Flickr. The availability of scanned images has been extremely popular, so much so that it has greatly diminished onsite research visits. Staff members are currently working out a system to include visitors to the Flickr page to meet the annual visitation expectations of the site.
The shift, along with an option of offsite storage, has brought up discussions on the necessity of archival storage at the Olmsted site in general. Fairsted is made of wood and highly susceptible to fire and other environmental factors. The plans are stored in a protected vault, but many other items remain in the open. For that reason, storage of the Olmsted firms’ archival items is split between the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
For now, the items at the Olmsted site will remain there, due primarily to a consensus that their presence adds visceral meaning to the site as a whole. The visitors on public tours experience, that intangible feeling familiar to historians who physically interact with meaningful historical records. This feeling is even stronger at the production site, in this case a beautiful home among gardens and wildlife. The researchers looking at files on their laptops will miss this experience.
Is it really worth researchers travelling miles and miles for a feeling?That depends on myriad factors. But, after working at the Olmsted site over the past six months it is clear to me that seeing, touching, and interpreting the plans while in the historic office delivers a powerful impact. If Olmsted researchers are in Boston, I hope they will make a stop at Fairsted.
The group also facilitated community involvement in the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) planning and development process and orchestrated protests when MBTA service did not meet their community’s needs.
Three decades after the Coalition’s founding, the WSCC records provide a treasure trove for researchers interested in community organizing, grassroots activism, and resident resistance to development.
Along with three other collections, the WSCC records were entrusted to the graduate students of Professor Marilyn Morgan’s Archival Methods & Practices class in spring 2017. On the first day of class, I was assigned to process the WSCC collection. I spent the rest of the semester preparing it for researchers and preserving it for the future. To do these things, I needed to produce a finding aid that described the contents of the collection and the value of the story it tells.
The first time I set eyes on my collection, I confronted a single cardboard box with dividers and papers and spiral notebooks and more papers. Next to the box was a pile of bound reports, inches thick. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and I knew next to nothing about the WSCC. I had the urge to research my collection the way one would a person or artifact. But I couldn’t. Nothing had been written yet; the research materials weren’t in an archive or library. They sat in front of me, thousands of pages thick and unprepared for use by the public.
As a public history student and genealogist, I’ve learned how to interrogate a document from every angle, wringing every last drop of evidence. The urge to analyze is so ingrained, it’s practically instinctual. When faced with the WSCC collection, I wanted to pull up a chair and get to reading. However, I would not be assessing and describing every individual item in the collection. This would take too much time and prevent timely public access to the documents. It would be unnecessary and a waste of resources. Instead, I would be describing groups of documents.
To do this, I had to train my brain to work a little differently, to seek different kinds of information. Scanning each document, I had to consider intellectual content. Was it a letter, a memo, a map? Was there sensitive information? A date? What was it about? I also had to consider physical content. Did the document need to be photocopied, moved to the oversize folder, or rid of a rusty staple?
At first, this was an uncomfortable process for me. I couldn’t simultaneously assess the physical and intellectual content. But after practice, I began to see in a new way.
I scanned for the names and acronyms of key players, following the gist of their correspondence without reading every word, and understanding the general findings of reports without flipping through every page. By the end of the semester, I knew that the Elevated Orange Line train was a vital transport link which ran along Washington Street, through downtown Boston and neighboring communities.
When the MBTA moved the Orange Line to the southwest corridor and closed the “El” in 1987, community groups came together under the WSCC name to hold the MBTA accountable to their 1973 promise that they would replace it with equal or better service.
I learned that the WSCC had launched an extensive letter writing campaign in support of Light Rail Vehicles and worked with other organizations to hold community dialogues about replacement options. I also knew that the MBTA finally replaced the old Orange Line with the Silver Line, a Bus Rapid Transit system the WSCC deemed neither better than, nor equal to, Orange Line service. And as the Silver Line expanded, WSCC activity waned.
I was inspired and challenged by this collection. It was my first experience facilitating access to archival material, rather than mining the material, myself. The primary purpose of my investigation was to aid and encourage the investigations of others. This was a new goal for me, but, at the end of the day, it fit. As a public historian, I want to connect people to history and encourage historical thinking. Maybe, with a little more brain training, I can do this from within the archives, too.
In the fall semester, my HIST 600 class had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative project between UMass Boston and the Boston Police Department Archives. We were tasked with documenting the lives of the officers involved in the police strike of 1919. Policemen had demanded a higher yearly salary, adopting the slogan “$200 or nothing” (Puleo, 143). When their demands were ignored, 1,400 police officers walked out. From September 9th to the 11th, Bostonians rioted and reacted violently (often towards the striking officers). President Wilson found the found the strike so disturbing that he described it as a “crime against civilization” (Puleo, 155-156). The police head clearly felt the same, firing all striking officers with no chance of re-employment. The men’s duty cards, which detailed each officer’s employment history, were stamped with a large “abandoned his duty, September 9th 1919.” These duty cards lay in the BPD archives for years, largely forgotten. It was only by chance that a former BPD archivist discovered these cards and was immediately filled with questions: who were these men and what happened to them after the strike?
The scale of the project required collaboration, not only between UMass Boston and the BPD archivists, but also volunteers, the police officers’ descendants, and finally, my own class. While we entered the project in order to learn genealogical research skills, it was gratifying to see that our small contribution helped in a large-scale project. Each student was instructed to pick an officer and fill in vital information into a worksheet. We used public records to uncover these men’s lives, searching through the census, birth and death records, military records and newspapers. To me, the most engaging records were the census records, as they not only reflected a specific officer’s life, but also larger changing trends in America.
I choose Hugh P. McGuire, who seemed to have a relatively good life before the strike: he lived in his rented house with his wife and four children and had been on the police force since 1896. However, his whole family was drastically affected by the strike. Just one year later, McGuire was working as a watchman for a lumberyard. His eldest son and daughter, then in their twenties, continued to live in his house. These two children may have stayed home to contribute to family finances, as both were employed. By the 1930 census, it is clear that he was experiencing still more trouble: he was now unemployed, and while his sons seem to have left home, his two daughters remained as the sole breadwinners in his household.
By 1940, Hugh McGuire was 74 years old. According to census records, he was “unable to work.” His eldest daughter, Anna, now 40, continued to care for her parents as a secretary for the Veterans Bureau. As the sole breadwinner, she received a yearly salary of $1,980, which in today’s money ($34,500) would relegate the McGuire family to the lower class. However, this census information has its drawbacks: even though it offers us Anna’s yearly income, we don’t know, if McGuire’s sons contributed to the household, if McGuire received Social Security benefits, or if the McGuire family saved money before Hugh lost his job. In other words, the whole family may have been struggling to make ends meet.
The census records also leave out vital information about McGuire’s wife. Was she unemployed because she was fulfilling the stereotypical duties of white women at the time, or did her lack of education (she only completed the further grade) shut her out of the scant opportunities women could obtain? As much as the census can aid researchers, it will never be able to answer these compelling questions, and may often leave researchers with more questions!
While census records offer the bare facts of an individual’s life, they are quite useful to demonstrate large-scale changes in health, education, immigration and even leisure through their questionnaires. For example, in both the 1900 and 1910 census, participants are asked to list the number of children born, as well as the number of children living. This distinction reflected the high child mortality rate during the time; Hugh’s wife was quite lucky that all four of her children survived. However, by the 1920s, efforts to combat childhood diseases increased, and the census no longer included this category. The most amusing category was in 1930s census, which included a category simply titled “radio set” reflecting the growing number of families with radios, including the McGuire family. This category disappeared by the next census in 1940, reflecting both that radio sets were no longer novelties and the assumption that most households owned a radio.
This research was so engaging that I chose to volunteer my time to help the project further. While completing the worksheets of three more policemen, I learned a valuable lesson about genealogical research: researchers should not always trust their internet searches. When attempting to find the birth records for a man named Owen Katon, I was unable to discover his information. It was only with the aid of UMass Boston archivist Joanne Riley that I noticed there had been a transcribing error between the physical documents and the online search results. When I searched for Owen Katon, I had only found one record for “William Katon” and promptly assumed it couldn’t be the correct person. However, Riley taught me an important lesson: never assume that the online search results are always correct. When I actually looked at the scanned records for “William Katon,” I discovered that the records were really for Owen Katon after all! This is not to say that websites are untrustworthy; rather, researchers must be aware of these human errors, and conduct their research accordingly.
The BPD Strike Project still continues, with the goal of completion by the 100th anniversary on September 9th, 2019. If you are looking to improve your genealogical skills, for your own personal or scholarly projects, I strongly I strongly recommend getting involved.
Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2004.
The NEDCC, founded in 1973, was the first independent Conservation lab in the US dedicated to preservation and conservation of paper and film based materials. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities it has grown to encompass Imaging and Audio services as well. With the advent of new technologies, preservation and conservation will become ever more important in the archival world and the NEDCC is leading the way.
I took a behind the scenes tour of the NEDCC facilities during Professor Morgan’s “Archival Methods and Practices” course. That experience, and my lifelong interest in preservation, led to the opportunity to work with the NEDCC.
Digitization as Digital Preservation?
Since the 1990s libraries, archives, and similar institutions have digitized select special collections materials at an increasing pace. This push occurred partly because technology enabled it. Digitization and the internet brought hidden collections out of the shadows and made them accessible to a much larger audience. This brought with it a host of challenges.
At what resolution should items be scanned or photographed? What storage should we be using to store digitized materials? What platform is easily accessible to the public? How often should we do fixity checks? Is an internal or external IT department better? How much storage space will we need? What happens to the materials after digitization?
All these questions, and more, became commonplace when talking about digitization. Quickly, archivists began to ask, who could and should create and provide answers and establish best practices? The Library of Congress, Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, and the Smithsonian Institute are some of the bigger institutions and groups that have taken on the task of creating and distributing best practices and guides. These standards are helpful, but often filled with jargon and might not be useful in small- to mid-size institutions who have limited staffing and budget resources. It is with this thought in mind my internship took shape.
The main objective of my internship centered on assisting in the creation and distribution of a survey about the present-day digitization and digital preservation practices of small- and mid-size institutions. NEDCC hoped to use the information gleaned from the survey to devise educational classes and webinars on digital preservation and digitization techniques.
I worked with the Preservation Services team throughout the entirety of this process. In the first few weeks of my assignment with the NEDCC, much of the time was pulling together a list of possible institutions to target for the survey. Researching each state, I collected information about statewide museum and archive associations to get the information out to as many people as possible. Then, I targeted smaller and specialized institutions, especially those whose focus pertained to minority groups. After targeting individual institutions and statewide institutions, I moved to looking at listservs and social media pages that could be helpful in distributing the survey. In the end, I created a list of over 200 individual email addresses compiled for distribution, along with other 50 listservs and groups.
One of the most important steps was writing clear survey questions and making sure that the answers would give us the information we wanted. I have only made one survey before this project and it was a customer service survey. In a way, being new to preservation, digitization and digital preservation helped me to create questions hat were easy to understand, even for those with limited knowledge of the specifics of digital preservation.
I designed the survey in SurveyMonkey. This was the most creative part of my internship and I had a good time with it!
The weeks following the opening of the survey became about data analysis. SurveyMonkey has an analysis tool; however, we collected so much odd and individualized data, the results of SurveyMonkey’s analysis were not great. Therefore, my job became attempting to do basic data analysis. Having never done data analysis before, I spent time watching YouTube videos and doing research about how to do data analysis. I found out from this survey how incredibly difficult data analysis is! I was not surprised to find out that the NEDCC previously hired data analysis employees.
The work with the survey culminated in the presentation at the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) conference in New York. I presented with NEDCC’s Frances Harrell. I was very nervous about speaking to such a large group of people but, in the end, our presentation went well by all accounts.
Preservation Services Work
Along with the survey work, which took up most of the time, I was able to spend time doing other tasks for the preservation services at the NEDCC.
One of my favorite tasks that did not directly relate to the survey was reference work. I read and answered questions that came to the Preservation Services email address . This enabled me to do research on preservation and conservation practices. Because of this task, I also spent some time in the conservation lab seeing what they were working on and the techniques they used regularly. This part of my internship I enjoyed more than anything else.
The NEDCC Preservation Services team showed me how important preservation is to all collections and how vulnerable almost all collections are. This internship was informative, educational, and challenging at times. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know more fully that preservation and conservation are where my true passion lies.
UMass Boston News featured a story about the exciting work that our Public History program has undertaken this spring. Text from the following article was written by UMass Boston News writer, Anna Fisher-Pinkert.
When most people think of Boston history, the images that come to mind are the Old North Church, the brownstones of Beacon Hill, or the Old South Meeting House. UMass Boston history professors and students are working to expand our knowledge and understanding of the history right in the university’s own Dorchester neighborhood through two new projects.
On April 22, Jane Becker, internship coordinator and history lecturer, and Monica Pelayo, assistant professor of history and director of the public history master’s program, collaborated with John McColgan, Archivist, Boston City Archives, to host “Building a People’s History of Dorchester” at the Dorchester Historical Society. The event was designed to encourage current and former Dorchester residents to take part in telling the story of their neighborhood.
Approximately 30 people attended this initial meeting, and contributed ideas for building a timeline of Dorchester history. For Pelayo and Becker, this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to help the community tap into their own history.
“What’s important about this process is that it comes from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Pelayo said.
She added that people don’t always realize that their family photos, documents, or keepsakes are potential historical resources for their communities. Pelayo and Becker plan to have more events in the future to encourage individuals and community organizations to participate in the project.
UMass Boston public history master’s students are also involved in revealing a piece of Dorchester’s history. This semester, students partnered with city archaeologist and UMass Boston alum Joe Bagley to tell the stories of women and girls who lived and worked at the Industrial School for Girls in the 1860s. The school was founded in the 1850s to train poor girls to work as domestic servants.
The history graduate students wrote about the women and girls at the school, and created a website to share their findings with the public. Much of the information on daily life in the school came from the objects uncovered by Bagley in a 2015 archaeological dig.
Want to learn more about the rich history of Dorchester Industrial School for Girls?
By: Heidi Gengenbach (Second of two parts. Here’s Part I)
Wuxaka ra tinhwari hi ku handza swinwe. (Kinship among partridges comes from scratching in the soil together).
Archives and oral traditions hold little information about rural African women’s history. How do rural women themselves keep track of the past? In Magude, a Shangaan-speaking district in southern Mozambique where I conducted research in the 1990s, women’s histories reside in places long invisible to scholars, but in plain view in everyday life.
Through their performance of tasks culturally defined as women’s work, rural women and girls carve out feminine social spaces where they create historical records with female actions at center stage. Using skills honed over centuries of specialized labor—as mothers, farmers, healers, artisans—they memorialize experiences that archives and formal oral traditions disregard. Academic historians have overlooked the evidentiary value of women’s “remembrances” (Shangaan: switsundzuxo), which take unconventional forms, defy disciplinary norms, and challenge the masculinist thrust of “official” stories. But without these sources, we not only lose the opportunity to glimpse rural women’s pasts; we also accept versions of history whose “truth” requires the exclusion of their knowledge.
As in the rest of southern Mozambique, men in Magude have been migrating to South Africa in search of mine work since the late 1800s. Known in precolonial times for its agricultural prosperity, droves of cattle, and bustling trade, Magude became in the 20th century an increasingly impoverished labor reserve, whose patrilineal kinship and marriage rules pressured women to remain on the land and sustain communities in men’s absence. The limited archival evidence on these women falls into one of two categories: it either depicts them as powerless, dutiful appendages of their husbands and male kin, or it vilifies the minority of women who “abandoned” their marital homes and fled the countryside to live in town. Free from the “misery” and (according to European commentators) moral constraints of rural life, so-called “town women” earned money on the margins of the colonial economy, making their way as market traders, food vendors, prostitutes, or—for the fortunate few—low-paid factory labor. In the records of the colonial state as in scholarship relying on archives alone, rural women are the faceless, unchanging background to these events, toiling on in worsening poverty and helpless to improve their lot.
But rural women’s own accounts tell a surprisingly different story. In Lili Xivuri’s version of her family history, for instance, she refashions the Shangaan tradition of the clan praise song to foreground beer-drinking, marriage choices, soil selection, and common household objects (baskets, mats, awls), instead of the usual themes of chiefly politics or war. The designs female potters “write” on their clay vessels, on the other hand, document women’s experiences of long-distance overland travel and trade.
In the early 1900s, women such as Cufassane Munisse walked for days at a stretch to exchange her pottery for baskets of grain (or vice versa), visiting female kin and friends spread throughout southern Mozambique and in neighboring South Africa. In the course of this regional trade, potters also spread new vessel styles and decorating techniques, defying European stereotypes of rural women’s passivity, home-boundness, and resistance to technological change.
By the 1940s, female body-marking practices show that women in Magude were anything but passive victims of male migrancy and Portuguese rule.
Tinhlanga, the cicatrized patterns with which girls and women had adorned their bodies for centuries, offered a powerful medium for contesting the colonial hierarchies that threatened to divide women in new ways. Whether it was Christian missionaries offering literacy in exchange for rejecting “uncivilized” customs such as body-marking, or manufactured consumer goods accessible only to the most successful migrant workers, girls and women appropriated the power of these intrusions by incorporating them into new tinhlanga techniques and designs.
Older women who had once cicatrized girls’ skin with sharp stones or acacia thorns and ash took up imported shoe polish and sewing needles to create tinhlanga depicting the new commodities trickling into the countryside: scissors, flower pots, tins of Blue Cross condensed milk.
Surely aware of the irony, schoolgirls used the blouses and skirts missionaries insisted they wear to conceal prohibited tinhlanga, risking corporal punishment.
A few, such as Valentina Chauke, rebelled more openly, inscribing the letters of their xilungu (European) name on their forearms.
Unconcerned with missionary rules, adult women flaunted the “modern” images emblazoned on their skin, declaring that they were “civilized” too.
The memories women inscribed in their crop fields entered a higher-stakes public domain. Agricultural labor occupies most women here from dawn to dusk, and provides the bulk of household food supply. Although traditional land tenure rules give men the authority to allocate plots, in practice most women choose their own farming sites, and they lend, borrow, and transfer land among themselves as needed. They document these informal transactions in the boundaries (mindzelekana) they “scratch” in the soil around their fields—faint, squiggly lines whose location everyone can guess, but only adjacent field owners know with certainty. As long as there is enough land for all, this system causes few problems. But during the civil war (1976-92), when the stationing of government troops in Magude town (the district capital) made the area a magnet for displaced families, competition for land intensified. By the mid 1990s, acute land scarcity and the diminishing size of subdivided plots drove some desperate women to “steal mindzelekana,” surreptitiously redrawing boundaries to increase their cropping area.
Victims’ threatening response to this transgression—“I will bury you in the border!”—and the death by poisoning of several suspects made clear that mindzelekana were far more than just lines in the dirt. Field boundaries recorded agreements among women for whom every inch of cultivable ground was a precious resource, with life-or-death significance in wartime. Erasing these negotiated divisions undermined female authority and the bonds of women’s “cultivating kinship,” while challenging mindzelekana’s important memory work: reminding women of their shared responsibility for community survival.
Magude women’s practices of record-keeping preserve and pass on facts of the region’s past that would remain unknown to historians if we neglected the world of evidence beyond archives and official stories. But is such evidence relevant to researchers outside southern Mozambique? At the very least, it proves that historians don’t always need a paper trail; that important history-telling can happen without writing, even without words; and that gendered people leave gendered traces of their lives, if we know where to look.
HeidiGengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.
The family home in Beacon Hill and their summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire served as training grounds for Nichols as she came into her own as a peace activist. When Europe began to become embroiled in war, Rose Nichols banded together with other peace-minded women to form theWoman’s Peace Party in Boston in 1915. She organized lectures and fundraisers to broaden awareness of the anti-war movement. It was through this local organizational work that Nichols learned the skills she needed to enter the peace movement on a global stage. The focus of women’s activities turned toward political concerns with the establishment of current affairs discussion groups that Nichols and other women attended.
Along with the discussion groups, Rose and Margaret Nichols established theCornish Equal Suffrage League on 1 December 1911, and it soon became the “second largest in the state, having at present sixty-eight members…[with] annual dues of fifty cents.”1) Letter, Rose Nichols to Elizabeth Homer Nichols, 1911. The Schlesinger Library. The women mainly met in the gardens designed by Nichols for her neighbors. Cornish suffrage leaders Lydia Parrish, Annie Lazarus and Rose Nichols used these gatherings to foster their personal causes, such as advancing the suffrage and peace movements.2)Judith Tankard, A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2000), 16.
Before the US entered the war, the women of theCornish Colony began to explore how they could influence policymakers to avoid US intervention. In 1913,President Woodrow Wilson and his wife,First Lady Ellen Wilson, made Cornish the nation’s “summer capitol.”3)Ibid, 34. Ellen Wilson spent time in Cornish without the President and wrote many letters to Wilson during that first summer in 1913 that described her busy social schedule with the women in the colony, including Nichols and Mabel Churchill, wife of American writer Winston Churchill.
In 1915, after Nichols established experience in organizing discussion groups in Cornish, New Hampshire, she began to work with the Woman’s Peace Party (WPP) in Boston as a nascent member. Nichols became the Chairmen of Meetings by 11 November 1915 and sent out letters to the membership regarding the organization of anti-war conferences around the state of Massachusetts. Nichols wrote that the aim of the conferences were to inform participants about international problems that are “pressing the civilized world” for a solution.4)Letter, Nichols to Elizabeth Glendower Evans, 1915, SCPC. Nichols believed in the three tenets set forth by her fellow founding women: that women best understood the value of preserving human life; women were committed to providing individuals the best quality of life; and that women were able to resolve conflicts without ostracizing individuals or nations.5)Linda Schott, “The Woman’s Peace Party and The Moral Basis for Women’s Pacifism” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol 8, no 2, (Women and Peace 1985), 19. JSTOR. (3346048).
The WPP and Nichols flexed their influential muscles again in March 1916 when several hundred Mexican guerrillas under the command ofFrancisco “Pancho” Villa crossed the US-Mexican border and attacked the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico. It was unclear whether Villa personally participated in the attack, but President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Army into Mexico to capture the rebel leader dead or alive. The WPP responded by
writing to President Wilson an address entitled “What the Woman’s Peace Party Thinks about the Mexican Crisis” that reprimanded Wilson for sending US troops 200 miles past the US-Mexico border after Pancho Villa disappeared. The WPP demanded President Wilson consent to mediation, withdraw the troops, and ask that Congress endorsePresident Wilson’s Mobile address that the US would never again take any land by conquest.6)Memo to WPP members, WPP Massachusetts Collection, SCPC.
Not long after the Mexican crisis, Nichols began shifting her efforts away from the local WPP and more on the international anti-war efforts after the United States entered the war in December 1917. Nichols began traveling more to Philadelphia and Washington, DC to meet with women who had been present at the firstInternational Congress of Women that met in The Hague in 1915. In early November 1918,Lucia Ames Mead, chairman of the Massachusetts WPP, sent a letter to Jane Addams recommending
Nichols to the Zurich Congress: “As there is a vacancy, I want to propose Miss Rose Nichols of 55 Mt. Vernon St who is a very able woman whom Mrs. Andres and I think would be an acquisition. She is well-posted and is one of only a few with which [Wilson] is associated.”7)Letter, Lucia Ames Mead to Jane Addams, November 1918, WILPF Collection, SCPC.Nichols, a longtime acquaintance of Addams, was accepted in 1918 as a delegate for the International Congress held in Zurich in 1919.
In 1919, Nichols went to theParis Peace Conference before theZurich Congress and sat in on all the public meetings after President Wilson refused to appoint a woman to the Peace Delegation. Wilson had written her to on 1 May that it would be impossible for him to secure her a spot in the plenary session as she
requested.8)Letter, President Wilson to Rose Nichols. The Nichols House Museum and Archive. Nichols wanted to use the connection she made in the Cornish Colony with the President to attempt to exert political influence as the terms of peace were being negotiated.
TheWomen’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) officially declared itself an international women’s peace organization at the Zurich congress in opposition to theTreaty of Versailles set forth by Great Britain and the United States. The women argued the treaty would only lead to more war and they became disillusioned with world leaders’ statements about their ability to keep the peace. But in the hopes of preventing another conflict, the women of WILPF remained determined to raise their collective voices as women for international peace.
In WILPF Nichols continued organizing women as she did for the WPP. By 1920, Nichols was the chairman of both the Oriental Relations Committee and the Pan-American Relations Committee.9)WILPF Meeting Minutes, 1920. SCPC. In 1921, the women of WILPF gathered together in Vienna, Austria for the bi-annual international congress and Nichols was in attendance as the head of the Pan American Committee. WILPF’s membership was growing in great strides in the lead-up to the Vienna Congress, due in part to Nichols’ recruitment efforts. Emily Green Balch noted that Nichols was “doing pretty well in Japan and Mexico” and was particularly pleased that Nichols had secured at least three Japanese students and two Chinese women to attend.10)Letter, Balch to Addams, Jane Addams Collection, SCPC.
By 1926, Nichols’ active involvement in WILPF had begun to taper off. Although she was still a member until her death, her days of organizing had ended. Rose had turned fifty-four and wrote to her sister Margaret that she no longer had the vigor to continue.120She remained a voting member until her death in 1960.
To learn more about the extraordinary life of Rose Standish Nichols, visit the Nichols House Museum.
Corinne Zaczek Bermon is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Archives. She earned a B.A. in American Studies in 2009 and a M.A. in American Studies in 2015 from University of Massachusetts Boston. This series of articles on Rose Standish Nichols represents her award winning research in American Studies. Currently, her work explores the social history of the Otis Everett family living in the South End of Boston in the 1850s. She is designing a digital exhibit that explores Victorian life for the merchant class conducting business in Boston and abroad through the Everett letters.
By Heidi Gengenbach (First of two parts. Here’s Part II)
Avavumbeli mbita eku cukumeta.
(Potters don’t fashion clay into a pot just to throw it away.) 
How do historians study people who left no written traces of their life, no paper trail hinting at who they were or what they accomplished? Questions of “truth” and “fact” suddenly dominate American politics and news media. But debates about how we know what we know, about the reliability of the evidence behind claims we make about the world, are as old as history-telling itself, and they haunt historians every day. It is difficult enough to reconstruct someone’s past from the documentary fragments we unearth in public and private archives. When no such records exist, when people leave no evidence behind, can—or should—historians pay attention to their lives at all?
During the millenia of human history before 1900, when most African cultures relied on sophisticated oral rather than written forms of communication, the number of writing women was truly minute. As happened during the peaceful spread of Islam into Africa from the 7th century on, European missionaries and colonizers brought writing skills to the parts of the continent they occupied or conquered between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some liberated African slaves who had converted to Christianity in the Americas similarly introduced literacy when they returned to Africa, sometimes as missionaries themselves. But African girls had limited access to the Quranic and Western-style Christian schools these men established. And because the colonial state ignored “native” women unless they broke the law, appeared in court, or engaged in political protest, neither European officials nor the male African clerks who did much of their record-keeping documented women’s ordinary activities or opinions.
The lives of rural women, especially, escaped the notice of Europeans, who lumped them together derisively as “peasants” or “beasts of burden.” In colonial eyes, rural African women were less troublesome than their sisters in the urban “educated elite,” but less deserving of attention too.
In other words, the vast majority of sub-Saharan African women in the past possessed neither the means to write about their experiences, nor the power to be represented fairly in the written archives of their place and time. And while the continent’s wealth of oral traditions—performed narratives that recount past events and are transmitted across generations—offer another body of evidence, women seldom appear as speakers or subjects in these histories either.
There are some exceptions, but in most African oral chronicles women’s voices and deeds are sidelined by patriarchal cultural norms and a gender division of labor that assigns women the arduous work of subsistence, leaving them too socially marginal (and too busy) to challenge the public histories their menfolk tell.
Given women’s absence from traditional written and oral accounts of Africa’s past, it might seem that their lives—and African women’s history as a whole—must be hopelessly beyond our reach.
In the rural communities of Mozambique where I have been working since the 1990s, the devastation wrought by Portuguese colonial rule (1895-1975) and protracted independence and civil wars (1965-75, 1976-92) further complicates research on women’s history.
In addition to the spottiness, racism, and sexism of colonial archives, and the androcentrism of oral traditions, the scars from nearly 30 years of violent displacement and traumatic loss—of family, belongings, homes—can make it exceptionally difficult to interview women about their experiences.
Too many elders did not survive the civil war, leaving a generation of youth bereft of the knowledge their grandparents would have taught them.
Memories of brutal conflict, particularly the atrocities committed against civilians by Renamo rebels, can be too painful to speak aloud.
Girls and women suffered both wars in distinctly gendered ways, including rape and sexual enslavement but more commonly by shouldering the burdens of food provisioning, childcare, care for the sick and elderly, and ritual mourning of the dead—often while on the run as “internally displaced persons” or refugees in neighboring countries.
A person’s understanding of the past can’t help but change in such harrowing times. Post-war grief and nostalgia, and the urgent need to rebuild shattered communities, also raise the stakes of remembering “correctly,” while discouraging memories—of injustice, victimization, betrayal—that distract from the business of moving on. How does one analyze women’s testimony in these circumstances, let alone separate “truth” from nightmare?
Part II explores these questions next week.
HeidiGengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.
Henri P. Junod, The Wisdom of the Tsonga-Shangana People (3d ed. Braamfontein: Sasavona Books, 1990), 162-3.