Dispatches from the Archives

By Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger

The first day of my graduate assistantship in the Manuscripts and Archives Department of Morris Library did not begin auspiciously. A truck carrying blank pennies had overturned on I-95 just north of our house, snarling traffic for hours on both the highway and local roads. I was already nervous to begin my archives assistantship because the work seemed so different from my own research, teaching, and scholarship. Having spent the last few years deeply entrenched in the specialized research and historiographical minutiae of my dissertation, would I be able to research a broad variety of collections and provide helpful access points to scholars? Would my knowledge of nineteenth- and twentieth-century history and materials be enough? Would I get crushed by the rolling stacks as I went to retrieve a box???

Luckily, I still managed to make it to the library on time and did not have to negotiate the rolling stacks on my first day. Throughout Special Collections, I found a wonderful community of librarians, archivists, and scholars and an outstanding repository of rare books, manuscripts, and ephemera. My own scholarship had brought me to Special Collections periodically over the years to research topics as diverse as eighteenth-century recipes, prisoner of war narratives, and household account books, so I already knew this was an incredibly rich repository.

However, I did not know just how much work went into making the collections available to researchers like me. The learning curve of this assistantship has been steep. Since September, I’ve been on a crash course in archival processing, learning to arrange materials, research and describe collections, and even encode finding aids. My first project exemplified the wide range of skills I would have to master. I was given a large, green, leather-bound manuscript and asked to provide a physical description, condition report, biographical and historical note, and scope of the contents. Relying on my limited knowledge of book construction and a healthy dose of Google searches, I completed the physical description of the manuscript fairly quickly. However, I quickly ran into an obstacle. The manuscript was a detailed volume of industrial weaving techniques from the late nineteenth century…in French. My knowledge of French is limited to two (essential) questions—how to get to the hospital and where to find the bathroom. However, I had some experience with textiles and their construction. Relying on cognates, similarities to Spanish, and Google Translate, I was able to muddle through.

In doing so, I discovered a fascinating story. The creator of the volume was J. Mercier, a student at the École Municipal de Tissage et de Broderie (Municipal School of Weaving) in Lyon, France. The school taught “the silk business” to the children of the Lyon’s residents, preparing them to be skilled weavers. Mercier likely created the manual, entitled “Cahier de Théorie,” to fulfill requirements during his third or fourth year in the program. In addition to lengthy discussions on the properties of various fabrics, Mercier included painstakingly detailed drawings of weaving patterns and diagrams for warping textile looms. Most pages of the volume are illustrated with multicolor drawings of repeating patterns and adorned with related fabric swatches. For my first project, I had been given a material culturist’s dream: a mixed media object that chronicled a craftsman’s acquisition of skill and expertise.

MSS 0097, Item 0174, J. Mercier, Cahier de théorie : notebook on weaving, Special Collections, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware.

Following the Mercier project, I worked on several other French manuals related to textile production. Soon, I was also researching materials in German. For a brief moment, I was the expert in fin-de-siècle European industrial textile production manuals at the University of Delaware.

But I soon had to broaden my horizons once again. Since September, I have processed materials in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Italian, and, of course, English. My work has carried me to many times and places. I’ve processed a nineteenth-century devotional book created at a Catholic abbey in Ghent and a book casing constructed by a twenty-first-century paper conservator. I’ve read the accounts of itinerant Quakers, an American industrialist abroad, and a consumptive English poet traveling to Madeira in search of a cure. This assistantship has revived my interest in food history and allowed me to find a good home for my collection of gelatin ephemera (currently being processed by yours truly).

“It’s So Simple”: Jell-O, America’s Most Famous Dessert
The Genesee Pure Food Company, 1922.
University of Delaware, Special Collections
Formerly the Collection of the Author

I am now working on a processing plan for the U.S. Customs House papers from the port of Philadelphia, a collection spanning the 1790s to the 1930s. Once again, I’m encountering a steep learning curve, negotiating the myriad documents and specialized language generated by an expanding bureaucracy over three centuries. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I can’t be an expert in every collection I process. Instead, I need to rely on my research skills to identify reliable sources and make collections as accessible as possible to potential scholars. However, I’ve found that the Program in American Civilization has served me well, giving me a broader knowledge base than I realized I possessed and connecting me with a group of scholars willing to share their expertise when I’m out of my depth.

I look forward to further broadening my horizons in the coming months. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, PLEASE check the rolling stacks.

Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger is a doctoral candidate in the Program in American Civilization. For a sample of her work at the University of Delaware’s Morris Library, please visit https://library.udel.edu/spec/findaids1/view?docId=ead/mss0097_0084.xml

Combining Scholarly and Professional Development in the AmCiv Ph.D. Program

From AmCiv student Alexander Ames:

One of the wonderful things about pursuing a Ph.D. in the American Civilization program at UD is that, in addition to spending several years cultivating a research specialty and scholarly expertise in an historical subject of choice, one also has the opportunity to spend time developing specialized professional skills attractive to potential employers.  My years in the AmCiv program have given me the time and flexibility I have needed to gain valuable real-world experience in the fields of special collections librarianship and archival work, in the context of my broader scholarly interest in book history and material texts.  The best example of this is my work on a new exhibit now on display at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, titled The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present. The experience of curating this exhibit has proven to be one of the most unique and valuable aspects of my graduate education at the University of Delaware.  I’m very grateful that the History Department and History of American Civilization program allowed the flexibility to pursue this and other job skills-oriented opportunities while matriculated in the Ph.D. program.


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.

My work at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which is affiliated with the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, began when I was a master’s student in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture here at the University of Delaware.  Shortly after arriving at Winterthur, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career working in special collections libraries and archives, so I decided to seek an internship in this area.  I reached out to Judy Guston, a Winterthur Program alum and the Rosenbach’s Curator and Director of Collections, about working with her and her staff.  The Rosenbach appealed to me as an internship site because it is both an historic house museum and a special collections library, which seemed to combine different aspects of my experience at Winterthur.  During a semester-long internship at the Rosenbach, I undertook research to identify Rosenbach-owned items to feature as part of an exhibition on the ex libris art form.  I was very pleased when, upon completion of my internship, Judy invited me to see the project through to completion, which meant finalizing the exhibition checklist, researching and writing object labels and wall didactics, and generating ideas for the show’s aesthetic design and layout.  I spent the summer between my first and second years in the AmCiv Ph.D. program completing much of that research, hours which count toward my museum studies certificate.  Now that the show is on display, I will gain further experience collaborating with Rosenbach tour guides and giving public presentations to promote the exhibit.  


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.


Photographer, Ryan Brandenberg.










Having had this kind of professional experience will doubtless prove helpful as I enter the ultra-competitive library, museum, and humanities Ph.D. job market.  I am exceedingly grateful to all at the Rosenbach for welcoming me into their vibrant professional community over the course of my work on this project.  Derick Dreher, Judy Guston, Elizabeth Fuller, Kathy Haas, Patrick Rodgers, Jobi Zink, Kelsey Scouten Bates, and the rest of the staff have been gracious and supportive mentors.  I also recognize that I could only pursue this in-depth project at the Rosenbach with the support of my academic department.  The History Department recognizes the good that can come from public humanities work, for both students and the broader community.   Doctoral work within the context of the AmCiv Ph.D. program affords students the opportunity to grow as both accomplished academic scholars and marketable public humanities employees—an important combination in today’s professional environment.  

About the Author: Alexander Ames is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware and a member of the Grolier Club in New York City. He plans to write a dissertation about Pennsylvania German calligraphy and manuscript illumination practices between 1750 and 1850. He tweets @Alex_L_Ames.

Alumni Profile: Janneken Smucker

The History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware boasts many accomplished graduates currently working in a range of capacities at cultural heritage institutions and in academia. We sat down recently with Dr. Janneken Smucker (Am Civ ’10) to talk about what she’s been doing with her degree as an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University. Here’s what she had to say.

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ '10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ ’10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Am Civ: What attracted you to the University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Program? What had you done before coming to UD?

Janneken: Before I applied to the History of American Civilization program at UD, I had earned my MA in Textile History/Quilt Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working with the International Quilt Study Center. I knew I wanted to continue to study objects, specifically quilts, but within broader contexts of consumer and visual culture. I sought a program in which my niche research interests would be taken seriously, where professors and other students would understand the merits of studying quilts. But I wanted comprehensive training in the field of American history to accompany my more narrow focus on material culture. UD’s AmCiv uniquely provides this.

Am Civ: Your dissertation, which you published as Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon with Johns Hopkins University Press in 2013, gives readers a scholarly yet accessible take on the production and consumption of Amish quilts in American culture. In your book’s introduction, you explain that you are a fifth-generation Mennonite quiltmaker. How would you say your experience making the things you study has informed your research?

Janneken: First of all, my hobby of making quilts inspired my interest in studying these objects. I didn’t even know the phrase “material culture,” but eventually figured out that I could combine quilts with my academic fields of History and Women’s Studies. Because I make quilts—or at least did when I wasn’t frantically juggling being an Assistant Professor and mother—I understand the process of making choices, adapting patterns, adding personal touches, while maintaining aspects of tradition. I knew that quiltmaking is both an individual act and a communal one, and one influenced by many other media and forms of consumer culture. I find understanding the process an essential part of studying these objects.

Am Civ: Before starting as a professor in the Department of History at West Chester University, you worked for Night Kitchen Interactive, a firm that works with museums and other cultural institutions on producing websites and other types of interactive experiences. Now, you teach courses in history as well as in digital humanities at West Chester University. How do you think digital tools enhance the study of the humanities among scholars and the public alike? 

Janneken: I am most interested in “public humanities” and how digital media and technologies can enhance public engagement with humanities content. New tools and platforms for disseminating historical and cultural content promote not just one-sided consumption of content, but participation and co-production of knowledge. Members of the public can share their own stories and perspectives, contribute by volunteering their own expertise through initiatives like Wikipedia, HistoryPin, and crowdsourced transcription projects. History should not be a conversation only among academics, but one that has relevancy to a broad public, and digital history helps make this possible.

Am Civ: What projects are you working on now?

Janneken: On campus I’ve been working with my colleague Professor Charles Hardy and students to create Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia. Our students created a digital archive of images and primary sources, detailed oral history indexes, and imaginative digital storytelling projects, which re-created the world southern newcomers encountered in early 20th-century Philadelphia. The Oral History Association named it the best non-print project of 2015, and we’re planning to expand the project, teaching the course again in Spring 2016.

In my own research, I am continuing to investigate the role of quilts in American culture, analyzing how New Deal era governmental programs including the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration drew on the symbolic power of quilts to help advance the nation’s economic recovery.

Am Civ: Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students currently studying for advanced degrees in material culture studies?

Janneken: I encourage students to think imaginatively about what their futures may hold by taking risks and pursuing unforeseen opportunities. We tend to enter grad school with a distinct vision of a future career; but actual paths during and after grad school may lead in unexpected directions. I took a low-paying internship upon defending my dissertation, and this position led me to develop a whole new skill set in digital technologies, which I would have missed if I had stuck to a more conventional path.

Am Civ: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions, Janneken!

On the Material Culture of Pet Keeping: A New Blog

Postcard of Puf the Pug

Photo postcard (Collection of Katherine C. Grier)

Want to know what happened when our intrepid program director, Katherine C. Grier, tried a vintage electronic pet brush on her cat? (Don’t worry, no pets were harmed in this experiment!) To learn about the V.I.P. Electric Pet Brush and others examples of the material culture of pet keeping (like this postcard above), check out Prof. Grier’s new blog. If you can’t get enough there, try her book, Pets in America: A History.

Semester Roundup

As usual, Am Civvies have been busy this semester publishing articles and giving talks. Here is just a sampling of some of the things they’ve written and the places they’ve gone:

Nicole Belolan

  • “Collecting Disability History,” UK Disability History Month 2013 series, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, November 25, 2013.
  • “About Something of for Someone? Curatorial Ethics and Curatorial Debts,” roundtable participant, discussed early 20th-century art museum program for disable children, American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C. (November 22, 2013)
  • “Aunt Patty’s Furniture: Adult Cradles and the History of Physical Mobility Impairment in Early America,” New Thoughts on Old Things: Four Centuries of Furnishing the Northeast, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (October 4, 2013)

Lisa Minardi

  • “The Muhlenberg Family and the War for American Independence,” The Transatlantic World of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg in the Eighteenth Century, eds. A. Gregg Roeber, Thomas Müller-Bahlke,and Hermann Wellenreuther (Halle, Germany: Franckesche Stiftungen, 2013).
  • “Palladian architecture, Germanic style: The Hiester House in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (September/October 2013): 140–147.

Nalleli Guillen

  • Book review of Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern MythologyWinterthur Portfolio 47, 4 (Winter 2013: 304-306.

Tyler Putman

  • “‘Every man turned out in the best he had’: Clothing and Buttons in the Historical and Archaeological Records of Johnson’s Island Prisoner-of-War Depot, 1862-1865,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 40 (2011, published 2013): 86-103.
  • Civil War-style military drill instructor (experiential history) for Prof. J. Ritchie Garrison’s innovative undergraduate history course “The Emancipation Project.”