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

AmCiv Students and Alumni Share Research at Material Culture Symposium in Germany

By Alexander Lawrence Ames

Three doctoral candidates in the History of American Civilization program, as well as a program alum, shared their research at an international material culture symposium held in Mainz, Germany, from December 14th – 17th.  Titled “Objects of Refuge/Refuge of Objects,” the symposium examined the material culture of refugee movement, along with the various theoretical and methodological approaches scholars bring to the study of artifacts.  According to the symposium program, “the aim of this symposium is to reflect historically, methodologically, and theoretically on the material dimensions of ‘refuge,’ that is, on the way in which objects generate or confound refuge, or accompany or encumber refugees, in short, the materiality conditioning both the refuge and the refugees.”   


The symposium was a collaboration of the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware, as well as the Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library.  

American Civilization program alum Rebecca Sheppard of the Center for Historic Architecture & Design at the University of Delaware presented a paper titled “Landscapes of Refuge: Recovering the Materiality of Underground Railroad Landscapes in Delaware,” which she co-authored with Catherine Morrissey, also of the Center for Historic Architecture & Design.  American Civilization doctoral candidate Michelle Everidge Anderson read a paper titled “‘Housing is More Than Shelter’: The Material Culture of Migration in the United States.”  Doctoral candidate Jesse Kraft presented “The Money of Refuge: How it Survived the Transit.”  Candidate Alexander Lawrence Ames read a paper titled “‘The Quill is My Plow’: Religious Refuge, Reading, and Writing in German-Protestant Pennsylvania, ca. 1750-1850.”   

alex_mainz michelle_mainz jesse_mainz


The symposium offered a rich exchange of ideas surrounding the topic of movement of peoples and objects across space and time, as well as the various approaches to material culture study utilized by scholars today.  


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.

History Workshop Welcomes Tyler Putman

The conference room was packed on October 4th when Ph.D. Candidate Tyler Putman presented the first chapter of his dissertation, entitled “‘The Great Scarecrow’: Making Sense of Revolutionary War Combat.” Tyler is currently completing his dissertation, which explores how Americans came to define combat as an “incommunicable experience” of combat between the Revolutionary War and World War One. His abstract is below:

Joseph Plumb Martin went to war in 1776 and battle was the least of his worries. When he wrote his memoirs in 1830, he believed that his civilian readers could imagine what war was like. Combat made sense to Revolutionary War soldiers who compared it to other life experiences and used a variety of metaphors to describe it. Two centuries later, after serving in Iraq, veteran Kevin Powers wrote in The Yellow Birds (2012) that “war is only like itself.” The pre-circulated paper for this workshop, about the Revolutionary War, is the first chapter in a dissertation that investigates, using documentary and material evidence, how and why Americans came to see war as an “incommunicable experience” over the course of the long nineteenth century.


Professors from the Department of History, Hagley and Winterthur joined first and second year students and Tyler’s own cohort of fellow doctoral students. The talk was presided over by Dr. Christine Heyrman, a professor of Early American History and one of Tyler’s advisors. Dr. Heyrman commented on the manuscript, adding nuance to Tyler’s arguments and contributing her own perspective to the project.

Tyler’s talk was arranged through the History Department Workshop series. Every Tuesday a speaker presents on projects completed, in-progress or at the beginning stages. The workshops are a wonderful opportunity for introducing scholars from different fields and methodologies, from environmental history to material culture. This semester, the Tuesday Workshops opened the floor to museum professionals and historians outside of academia, including John Rumm, Executive Director of Nemours and David Caruso, the Director of the Oral History Project at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. University faculty and advanced graduate students frequently share their work, and guests occasionally get a sneak-peak on manuscripts in their early stages.


As people embark and progress on their own dissertations, Tyler’s workshop presentation reminded many of the History Department’s community of positive, constructive critique and reinforcement not always found in academia. We look forward to Tyler Putman’s forthcoming dissertation, “The Incommunicable Experience of War, 1775-1918.” You can also access Tyler’s recently-published article in Winterthur Portfolio, Joseph Long’s Slops: Ready-Made Clothing in Early America.”