A Blot On History

Paw through enough manuscript collections, and you’ll eventually run across some advertisements printed on a thick, porous paper, usually with a pink or blue backing. For those not in the know, it’d be easy to dismiss these little items, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes–and often in bright colors– as simple promotional cards, but in fact, they had an ulterior and important function in 19th-century household and business environments.

This N&W Railway ink blotter promotes the company’s J-class locomotive no. 600, built in 1941 (from the Wayne Perkins Collection, Ms2010-078).

Through the 18th century, the best countermeasure that correspondents, clerks, and other writers had against the inconvenience of slow-drying ink was to sprinkle sand (or sometimes its more costly alternative, salt) over their handwriting to set the ink, then shake the page to remove the temporary coating. The early 19th century saw the invention of the blotter, a handheld device with felt attached to a curved base that could be rocked over the written page to absorb excess ink. About fifty years later, a soft, thick, porous paper was developed as an effective means to absorb excess ink and speed the drying process. Pressed against the written page, the blotting paper soaked up the surplus ink and allowed the writer to complete a task more quickly and with fewer smears and smudges. The paper was also used in used in removing the excess ink from the pen’s nib, making for fewer drips and stains.

Following its introduction, blotting paper quickly replaced sand as the method of choice in drying ink. As noted in an opinion piece within the July 6, 1883, edition of the Maryland Independent, lamenting the end of an era:

It is not so many years since blotting sand was an article of foreign export and domestic use. … Some of the merchants of to-day remember when, as clerks in stationery stores, they occupied leisure hours and rainy days in putting into convenient packages blotting sand that came from Block Island by the barrel … The use of blotting sand led to the manufacture of sand-sifters, which in itself was an industry of some magnitude. A piece of paper has displaced them, sand and all.

It was only a matter of time before some enterprising individual determined that desktop blotting paper would provide an excellent medium for commercial advertising, and in that same Maryland Independent piece, the writer notes that the sale of ink blotters would be even larger if the marketplace weren’t flooded with free blotters distributed by companies peddling their goods and services.

Among the advertising ephemera found in the papers of Fields M. Young (Ms1985-018) are ink blotters from several companies hoping to do business with the Grayson County, Virginia, merchant.

In a November 10, 1895 article about the role of job printers in a recent political campaign, the Omaha Daily Bee related the opinion of a printer who claimed that ink blotters were a much more effective form of advertising than traditional campaign cards: “Cards were thrown away, he argued, while blotters were kept for use on the desk and thus held attention of the voter to the name of the candidate. The blotters, good ones, could be furnished at $3.50 per 1,000, printed with the name of the candidates …”

As a free and useful item for household or business consumers, the blotters proved very popular. The Topeka State Journal of April 20, 1900 reported: “A man went through the court house a few days ago distributing advertising blotters. When he started he ahd two large bags full. When he escaped he had a few left, but very few.” At the turn of the 20th century, competition from blotter advertising led newspaper publishers nationwide–at least those not connect to job printers who benefited from printing the blotters–to denounce the medium as an effective form of advertising.

These blotters, all from businesses in southwestern Virginia, performed double duty by including a calendar, a ruler, a football schedule, and a list of early aviation records to insure that consumers would be less likely to discard them (click for full-sized images) (from the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, Ms1987-052).

The development of quick-drying ink and improvements in fountain pen design were harbingers of doom for the advertising blotter. In the 1940s, Parker Pens promoted a new design by claiming that it made the use of blotting paper unnecessary. Though blotters continued to retain their place among other promotional giveaways in the advertising world for several more years, the mass manufacture and ready availability of the ballpoint pen sounded the medium’s death knell. Blotting paper can of course still be purchased for many other uses, and I suppose it’s possible that there’s a manufacturer out there somewhere who’s churning out desktop advertising blotters for some niche retro market, but the day of the advertising blotter–like that of blotting sand before it–has long passed.

By the time this 1942 blotter employed patriotism and Mickey Mouse to sell Sunoco Oil, the advertising blotter was nearing the end of its popularity (from the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, Ms1987-052).

Inspiration, Comedy, and Drama in the Department of Geology

About a month ago, I had a chance to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers (Ms1973-004) for the first time. I don’t routinely transfer collections of faculty papers from storage just for my own entertainment, but I’ve been exploring collections weekly as part of a live Twitch broadcast, Archival Adventures, for nearly two years (the full playlist of past episodes is on YouTube and the live show airs Wednesdays on twitch.tv/VTULStudios).

I try to include materials from all of our collecting areas on the show and I thought a geology professor’s papers might contain some interesting things. While the collection did have some interesting geology-focused items (including an envelope of actual rock samples), the standout for me was Cooper’s writing. His speeches, lectures, and creative writing feature a strong narrative voice filled with personality and humor.

Note: There’s also a lot of misogyny and possibly some racism (I honestly haven’t had time to fully read Whisky for the Cat, included later in this post, but some skimming of it made me think there may be some Hispanic stereotyping happening.) Since these are historic documents, it’s not surprising to find these types of sentiments reflected as they were quite common at the time. Knowing about these problems in advance, one can look to see what else the documents have to offer beyond the problematic biases while still recognizing that the problems exist.

First, a bit about Byron Nelson Cooper. He was born in Plainfield, Indiana on August 19, 1912. We don’t have any information about his life before college but we do know that he attended a geology field camp run by Oberlin College before graduating from DePauw University in 1934. According to the Geological Society of America’s memorial of Cooper, this was his first introduction to Virginia geology. He then went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa with both of his theses focusing on the geology of southwestern Virginia. While researching the region, he established familial ties to the area through marriage to Elizabeth Doyne of Pulaski County. After his Ph.D., Cooper was an assistant professor of geology at Wichita University for five years (1937-1942). He then served as associate geologist of the Virginia Geological Survey for four years before joining Virginia Polytechnic Institute as the head of the Department of Geological Sciences in 1946. As head, Cooper led a two-person department to become nationally recognized. He also consulted for business, industry, and local governments throughout Virginia on geological matters, particularly issues relating to water supply. He died on March 26, 1971, suffering a heart attack in his office on campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Untitled Speech, 1964

Reading the text of his lectures, speeches, and other writings, it’s not hard to see how his leadership inspired excellence from the Department of Geology. Cooper is an excellent writer, crafting persuasive phrases that retain the audience’s interest. In Box 6 of his papers, there is an untitled speech from mid-December of 1964. The speech is clearly meant to inspire students in the program to work toward their maximum potential. (The last page seems to be an excerpt from another speech regarding campus unrest and student solidarity which is also quite interesting.)

I don’t know what Cooper’s voice sounded like, but I can almost hear him speaking with conviction the lines he has written.

If you live for tomorrow with the objective of
making today’s dreams come true tomorrow, you
begin to pace yourself and to deny yourself small
rewards in favor of engineering bigger things. In
a matter of months one can gain a pretty accurate
assessment of his personal power and of his capacity for
work, and time enables one to not only
play the game but to keep his own side.

Every quarter or semester in a university is
a test of planning ahead. You learn to work,
you learn to meet deadlines, you learn to avoid the pitfalls
of goofing off. You learn how to pilot yourself to avoid
most of the bumps. Each setback only stiffens the determination
to win in the end. The daily lesson is the mind’s food, unless
you feed the mind it doesn’t grow.

Some silly students believe you learn in college
what you have to know + then you go out + use your
knowledge. This just is not so. You leave here with a
bullied and bruised head + many facts though they
be filed in your mind will never be recalled. You
do leave even if its by flunking out –
with an enlarged view – of the world + of yourself.

The great men of history have possessed a sense
of their histories being even as they lived. If
you tie your wagon to a star + work to reach the
goal you have set – you have given your life meaning
but perspective and some historicity – and in the
process if you do so I assure you that you will have
one helluva good time in the best sense of that
phrase.

Really, this entire speech is quite inspiring (if one can get past the students being constantly referred to as men). If offers some great perspective on what is important in the educational experience and acknowledges the fact that not all learning on campus comes from the details learned in the classroom. You can find a full transcription of the speech on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

How to Catch a Genius, undated, likely 1957

While exploring the finding aid, two other pieces of writing caught my attention thanks to their titles. The first is How to Catch a Genius, a play in two acts with a prologue and an epilogue. It’s a comedy about a professor (Dr. Claude Sidney Magnabrayne) coming to Virginia Tech for an on-site interview and the unacknowledged and vitally important role that the women of the university community have in persuading potential professors to accept offers of employment despite the clueless behavior of their husbands (Dr. George A. Blurt being an example). Again, this piece is misogynistic in its portrayal of women. It’s also full of stereotypes including ones about politics, brainy-but-clueless academics, stressed-out over-drinkers, and many more. While the play is undated, its portrayal of women and the stereotypes seem to fit the 1950s or 1960s. The play itself gives us a clue about the date being portrayed (if not the date it was created). At the beginning of Act I, there is a bit about a phone number:

                                                                                           As Scene
1 opens, we find Sid leafing the pages in the local phone book for the
Covington, Kentucky Area Code. So he dials 606—-then 5-5-5-­-
then 1-2-1-2. (For those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing, what
Sid is trying to do is find out his own phone number which was changed
recently—as a matter of fact about 26 months ago.)

The important part in dating the item is the parenthetical addresed to “those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing” and the notation that Magnabrayne’s phone number changed 26 months earlier. From the context of the play, it’s clear that we’re mid-20th century. According to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), the numbering plan we’re familiar with today (1-digit country code, 3-digit Numbering Plan Area code, 7-digit local number) was developed by AT&T in 1947 to allow consumers to dial long-distance calls without operator assistance. The plan began implementation in 1951. The NANPA database also tells us that area code 606 was put into service on January 1, 1955. This tells us that the play is set around March of 1957, 26 months after Magnabrayne’s phone number would have changed from something like “Covington-5000” to the 606 number given in the play. Given the 1957 setting of the play (which is probably also near in time to when the play was written), it’s not at all surprising to see the misogyny and stereotypes present in this piece.

The play itself is a short humorous play that would have been entertaining for faculty since it makes fun of a common experience. We don’t know why the play was written, whether for entertainment or some other purpose. Perhaps it was intended as a fun training tool to help orient faculty to the recruitment process for new faculty. I do find it interesting that the play is centered around recruiting a forensics professor. Forensics in this case is referring to public speaking rather than scientific analysis of physical evidence. Given Cooper’s skill with turning a phrase, this evidence of his interest in the field of forensics stood out to me. I think my favorite part of the play comes in the epilogue when Cooper basically suggests that recruiting Magnabrayne was ultimately all Myrtle Blurt’s doing:

Who can say that Mrs. Blurt may not have rendered the telling
act of consummate kindness in driving Sid Magnabrayne back to his
motel after the power went off. You know she just could have called
the Vice President and asked him to cut the power off and thereby
end those awful Beethoven symphonies. Sort of funny the way that
power came on just as she drove her guest up to the motel. He could
have stalked out of the house and headed back for Covington if that power
had not gone off during the playing of the redundant Sixth. Or perhaps
something she said about Blacksburg just convinced Sid Magnabrayne
that B-burg was the place for his Tillie and their six geniuses.
Remember, Sid Magnabrayne just could be President here some day,
and if my surmises are true, wouldn’t Myrtle Blurt have a reason to smile
knowing that she helped get old Sid Magnabrayne to sign.

The play, with a full transcription, is available on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Whiskey for the Cat, undated, likely 1960s

The last item I wanted to share today caught my eye because of the title. On the finding aid, it just said Box 6, Folder 28: “Whiskey for the Cat” n.d. (no date). How could I ever resist taking a look to see what this item was? What I found is 85 handwritten pages of what appears to be the first chapter of a novel. While the document is undated, I suspect it is set in (and likely written during) the 1960s based on a sentence on page 84: “In the brief span of the seventh decade of the twentieth century man suddenly begins to understand himself and the world in which he lives.”

As with the play, this story is set on a university campus. This time, it’s set at a fictional university in the midwest. While the book chapter is clearly in a crime or detective fiction genre, I notice what seem to me to be small bits of Cooper’s signature humor that poke through here and there. For example, the fictional university is named Enneagh University (pronounced Any University). Again, this work of fiction seems like it would most appeal to someone who had lived and worked at a university, but it’s also well written. Cooper crafts scenes well, providing just the right amount of detail for the reader to be able to imagine the scene without becoming bogged down in details. It does have some outdated language usage such as referring to the faculty and staff of a university as the “indigenous population” of a university town. Today, the term Indigenous peoples is understood to refer to the earliest known inhabitants of a geographic area and would correctly be applied to one of the many Mississippian peoples who inhabited the region referenced in the text.

     Most American universities go into some
level of hibernation during the summer and anyone
who has lived through a summer in the Middle Mississippi Valley
can readily understand why summer is the idling
period of the university year. It is too hot
and sultry in the midwest during the summer for
heavy thinking. The indigenous population in a
university community – the professors and
ancillary personnel who keep the faculty in line
have had it after nine months of intensive
association with students and they need time to
regain a modicum of patience and compassion to
fortify them for the next year. The ancillary
personnel need uninterrupted time during the hot months
to clean up the accumulation of junk, paper, the
cigarette butts with their indestructible cork tips, and the
decorative graffiti deposited on desk tops, toilet stalls,
dormitory rooms, and classroom walls has to
be cleaned off or painted over. The university admini-
stration needs the summer to process its final admis-
sions of new students conduct the on-campus visitations of bewildered
parents who want to examine the environment into which
their John’s and Mary’s will move as unprepared children
(or so the parents think).

Given the length of this item, I haven’t yet had time to read it in its entirety; however, skimming through, it seems that in this first chapter (I have not noticed any point where a Chapter II begins) a university professor and his student endeavor to solve a mystery involving marijuana, organized crime, and murder on a typical American midwestern college campus. There are again stereotypes present in the work, with the professor and student being likened to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. There’s also possibly some racism present in the stereotypes with two criminal characters being Jose Rivera and Steuben Kessel (Kessel being noted in the text as “an alien whose work permit had run out”). But, I get the impression that this story is less blatantly misogynistic than the other works since I didn’t notice it in the portions I have read. A full transcription of this 85 page document is not yet available, but it will be on Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Looking over these three items, I notice a consistent authorial voice while also noting that Cooper can work in different genres and fit into them well. He seems equally comfortable writing a rousing inspirational speech, a situation comedy script, and a detective novel. They each fit their genre well, while still incorporating elements that can be seen in the others. These are just three folders from six boxes of material and I haven’t had time to search thoroughly to find what other stories might be in the collection, but I do hope I can find the time someday because I was very entertained by the inspiration, comedy, and drama I found in the papers of the former head of the Department of Geology.

If you’d like to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers in person, you are welcome to visit us on the first floor of Newman Library. Please note, this collection is housed in off-site storage and you should contact us in advance to request materials be brought to the library for your use.

The Future’s Past

Electric Vehicles of the Early 20th Century and the H. H. Skinner Papers

 

With all of the attention that electric vehicles have received in recent years, it may seem at times that they’re a new invention, a product of the same 21st-century march of progress that has brought us smartphones, 3D printing, and virtual reality. But in fact, battery-powered vehicles have been around since the 1800s. According to the Department of Energy’s website, electric vehicles accounted for about a third of all vehicles traveling the nation’s roads and streets in 1900, and sales remained strong into the 1910s. This first heyday of the electric vehicle is documented in the H. H. Skinner Papers (Ms1988-061), a small but fascinating collection in Special Collections & University Archives.

A native of New York state, Herbert Harold Skinner (1886-1971) had worked for several electric companies before becoming an engineer/salesman with the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company of Providence, Rhode Island, around 1909.  Three years later, the company became interested in electric vehicles, attracted by their potential as a source for additional sales of electricity, and Skinner’s papers suggest that the young engineer oversaw the company’s foray into electric vehicles. Included in the collection is an in-house report describing how the company would directly benefit from its own use of electrics and how it might realize as much as $188,000 ($5.5 million in today’s dollars) in additional sales per year through the use of such vehicles by its customers. In arguing for electrics, the report delves into their history, technology, and economy.

The Baker Electrics coupe (top) and Buffalo Electric Company roadster (bottom) were marketed to upscale residential customers.
While emphasizing luxury or sportiness when marketing electrics to residential customers, manufacturers focused on utility when promoting the battery-powered vehicles to business and industry. This electric truck (which looks like something from a post-apocalyptic movie) was manufactured by Boston’s Eldridge Manufacturing Company and  was owned by the Metropolitan Coal Company.

Although the gasoline-powered vehicle’s eventual and complete dominance of the automotive market may appear to have been inevitable in hindsight, such an outcome couldn’t be foreseen at the advent of the 20th century. The horse, as it had for millennia, continued to serve as the primary choice for personal transportation and short-distance haulage. (Steam-powered cars, relying on a long-familiar technology, also maintained a small place in the market during this era.) Early gas-powered vehicles were difficult to start and operate, and they emitted fumes, smoke, and noise. Battery-powered electrics, in contrast, were simple, clean and quiet–advantages that offset their higher price tags. The electric vehicle was particularly well suited for urban, short-distance driving, and many of the ad campaigns for electrics targeted women; others promoted the technology’s use for commercial delivery or for public services.

In marketing electric vehicles to Providence residents and businesses, Skinner and the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company performed a number of cost-analysis studies, several of which are contained within the collection. In late June, the H. M. Phelps Company conducted a five-day demonstration to determine the cost-effectiveness of an electric delivery truck for the Shepard Company’s local parcel delivery service. The report includes complete details for the demonstration routes and the power used  during the five-day period, determining that delivery by electric vehicle would cost the company between $.059 and $.061 per mile and between $.014 and $.019 per delivery. (Supplementing the figures are images of several electric truck and wagon options.) In concluding the report, Skinner extols the virtues of the electric vehicle and its battery, claiming that a full night’s charge would provide sufficient power for a 60-mile route in Providence under ordinary circumstances. Interestingly, one of the benefits listed by Skinner relates to labor. Knowing the desire by businesses to keep all costs low, Skinner asserts: “The electric does not require a chauffeur. When a man has learned to operate the car, he has learned nothing that will justify him in asking for a higher salary. “

A fleet of Baker electrics employed as parcel delivery trucks by Halle Bros. of Cleveland, Ohio. According to the promotional blurb on the back of the photo, use of the electrics had halved the company’s annual delivery expenses.

Skinner’s customer files contain many smaller studies and reports on electric vehicle performance and cost. In some cases, the reports provide head-to-head cost comparisons with other modes of transportation. A 1913 letter to the Outlet Company, for example, compares the costs of a 1-ton electric delivery truck to those of a horse and accompanying equipment, concluding that the truck would be 51% cheaper to operate. Elsewhere, in a study comparing costs of an electric 4-ton Baker truck with a 4-ton gasoline-powered Packard, the figures show that while the $4500 price tag of the Baker was $1000 higher than that of the Packard, the Baker would cost $1500 less to operate per year. The collection is full of such data and would lead anybody reading it to conclude that electric vehicles were fated to be the mainstay of personal transportation and short-distance haulage for years to come.

An electric armored vehicle used by a trust company of Newark, New Jersey. A note on the back of the photo claims that the vehicle was “absolutely burglar proof.”

As it happened, the Narragansett Lighting Company’s venture into the electric vehicle market was ill-timed, as the confluence of several developments would soon cause the collapse of the electric vehicle industry. Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908 further reduced the initial cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle, while the development of the electric starter simplified the starting process. Moreover, as rural road conditions improved, long distance personal transportation became more feasible and demanded a cheap, easily accessible fuel source. Few rural areas had electricity at the time, and gasoline had become a cheap, readily available and inexpensive. Internal combustion technology also continued to advance, somewhat reducing complaints about noise and exhaust.

Its use limited to haulage over very short distances, this lift, manufactured by the Automatic Transportation Company of Buffalo and owned by Atlantic Mills of Providence, illustrates the somewhat unglamorous service to which electric vehicle power would be relegated for several decades.

Of course, none of this happened overnight, and electrics continued to be a significant part of the automotive market for several more years. Soon, however, the battery-powered vehicle virtually disappeared from the nation’s roads and streets. While electricity continued to power such niche vehicles as forklifts, it would be decades before concerns over the environment and the availability of fossil fuels would again spur serious interest in electric and hybrid vehicles as a viable mode of transportation. None of that was obvious to H. H. Skinner and the Narragansett Lighting Company in 1912, however, and in this small collection we can see an optimistic outlook for a then-flourishing industry.

More on H. H. Skinner and his papers may be found in the collection’s finding aid.

“The Words of Children” April 16th Remembrance Exhibit

Displayed on Newman Library’s 2nd floor now through April 22 during the library’s open hours, “The Words of Children” exhibit highlights items that Virginia Tech received following the tragic events of April 16, 2007. It features children’s letters, drawings, condolence books, and objects from elementary, middle, and high school students from around the world. The more than 150 items are filled with messages of love, hope, and peace, many of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
 
A complimentary digital exhibit includes the letters and drawings on display as well as memories of those affected by April 16th collected in the April 16, 2007, Oral History Collection and from VT Stories. The digital exhibit is available at https://tinyurl.com/April162022Exhibit.
 
The exhibit is one of many events honoring the 23 Hokies we lost 15 years ago. Visit the Remembrance website at https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for more information.
 

We continue to remember the 32 victims:

Ross A. Alameddine
Christopher James Bishop
Brian R. Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Jocelyne Couture-Nowak
Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Rachael Elizabeth Hill
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee

Liviu Librescu
G.V. Loganathan
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain Daniel
Patrick O’Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Maxine Shelly Turner
Nicole Regina White

Addressing difficult topics can be stressful and cause anxiety, difficulty concentrating, sleep loss, and even concerns about safety. If you or a loved one needs help, visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for available resources.

The Unrealized Vision of Architect Merle Easton’s “School Street Concept:” A Window Into Public Education Reform in 1970s West Philadelphia

The Merle Easton Collection is fully processed and the finding aid is available here.

Born in 1940, Merle Easton grew up in Sitka, Alaska, a port town on Baranof Island, southwest of Juneau, just to the west of British Columbia. She attended several schools in the Pacific Northwest before ultimately earning her Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966. Interested in patterns of urban development and accounting for community needs in design, she developed a plan for a Community Center in central Seattle for her thesis project.

Following graduation, Easton found steady work in the Mid-Atlantic states. She worked independently, but also with agencies focused on concerns around urban renewal, affordable housing, and community displacement. As an independent architect, Easton developed the “street school” concept that was an outgrowth of the Mantua-Powelton Mini-School (MPMS) in West Philadelphia. Her conceptual design was intended to become a template for decentralized, modular schools, using inexpensive prefabricated units, integrated into their local neighborhoods. While the mini-school itself wasn’t a product of Easton’s design, it was her direct inspiration. An urban renewal project focused on refurbishing an abandoned factory building to house a small, integrated, and community-controlled school, the Mini-school sought to implement a radically different curriculum in a “found” space. The school served roughly 120-150 students (nearly all Black) in the two years it was open, all drawn from the surrounding area, and was meant to be a bridge between the middle class Powelton neighborhood and the predominantly Black and underserved Mantua neighborhood.

Riffing on the underlying philosophy of the Mini-school, Easton collaborated with neighborhood activist and MPMS principal Forrest Adams to develop a design geared toward scaling the existing school into a “mini-school system.” This prototype would offer affordable and sustainable growth that would expand the school without disrupting community life – it would rehabilitate and reuse space and resources, minimize waste and impingement, and weave community life and experiential learning into the fabric of elementary education. Easton developed drawings, scale models, and a film to promote the concept and get critical buy-in from the Mantua and Powelton communities and various funding agencies.

The project was written about in two issues of Progressive Architecture, Design and Planning: The New Schools by James Morisseau, and in Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, edited by Susana Torre. In Torre’s book, Easton’s vision is described as “designed to cut time and expense in school construction, to revitalize high density inner city neighborhoods and to provide a more complete and relevant education including the entire community in the process. The school utilizes ‘found’ spaces, such as streets and empty lots. Prefabricated classrooms and toilets, multimedia domed meeting rooms and retractable barrel vaults plug into a community and draw upon people, existing businesses, and institutions as educational resources” (Torre 164). Adams and Easton both advocated for the idea of a “street school” as more cost effective than the traditional alternatives, arguing it would cost $7-10 per square foot compared to $21-30 per square foot of conventional school construction (Progressive Architecture 34). And yet the idea failed to garner enough critical traction to be fully realized.

The Mantua-Powelton Mini-School foundered for a few reasons, some rooted in a lack of critical oversight, others located in the novelty of its power structure. In Seven Schools, a 1972 publication from The Young Great Society Building Foundation, the authors cite the fact that the school had too little time to fully develop multiple radical approaches to education. This, coupled with not making good on its promise of engaging the community, lack of continued funding, and disagreements among its teachers regarding both curriculum and discipline, made for chaotic implementation and practically doomed the school from the start (Goldfarb et al. 33-35). On top of these problems there was the additional stressor of the refurbished factory being poorly adapted as an educational environment.

The mission of the school and, later, the “school street concept” was and continued to be community empowerment, but as Mark R. Shedd, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1967 to 1972, admitted in a private interview: “In the early days I thought community control was the thing. Now I think shared power is more realistic. I don’t think the central administration or the board or the superintendent can abdicate. I don’t think that’s proper or realistic. The mini-school represented, in part, an abdication of our responsibilities. We didn’t insist from the outset on the proper kind of management controls… We should have insisted upon a much closer audit and monitoring function. But we didn’t” (Shedd as qtd. on 35). Here there are multiple interlocking structures at play: the educational system itself, local power structures, community participation incentives (needed to generate buy-in), zoning (and redlining), resource allocation, and so on. While the mini-school and Easton’s “school street concept” were distinct from each other, I think it’s an interesting exercise to map the lessons of the mini-school onto the larger vision of the “street school.” That’s not to say that the school street or mini-school system would necessarily have failed in its implementation, but the exercise aims to understand how fraught it can be to navigate multiple entrenched systems while trying to generate innovative design solutions.

After her work on the mini-school Easton went on to work as a draftsperson, job captain, and staff architect at several firms and on a variety of projects, including hospitals, churches, and schools. As job captain at Victor H. Wilburn & Associates, she produced a report, included in her collection, analyzing the programs of the Wilmington Housing Authority and proposing measures and policy adjustments to make their programs more effective. In the introduction to the WHA report she summarizes the problem with Wilmington planning: “policy sprawl.” Quoting an interviewee: “‘Policy sprawl’ – that ungraceful, bits-and-pieces spread of plans and projects without any overall vision to offer the public” (representative of Gauge Corporation quoted in WHA Report). A consistent thread running through Easton’s materials is her commitment to “big picture” thinking about long-term development and planning and I’m so glad her collection is now fully accessible to researchers.

References

  • Epstein, Ed. Race, Real Estate, and Education: The University of Pennsylvania’s Interventions in West Philadelphia, 1960-1980. Diss. University of Pennsylvania, 2020.
  • Goldfarb, Lawrence, Peter Brown, and Thomas P. Gallagher. Seven Schools: A Story of Community Action for Better Education. The Young Great Society Building Foundation: Philadelphia, 1972.
  • Materials relating to the Mantua-Powelton Mini-School and “school street concept,” Folders 9-13, Box 2, Merle Easton Architectural Collection, Ms2021-028, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.
  • “School in the Streets” in Progressive Architecture. New York: Reinhold, October 1970. Print.
  • Torre, Susana (ed.). Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977.
  • Victor H. Wilburn and Associates, Progress Report to Wilmington Housing Authority, Folder 7, Box 2, Merle Easton Architectural Collection, Ms2021-028, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.

 

 

An Incident of Reconstruction

Very often when reading old letters, it’s easy to lose a large part of the writer’s meaning, even when the penmanship is perfect and the grammar impeccable. Being far removed from the writer’s time and place, we lose a great deal of the context, of the experiences and culture shared by the correspondents, and may, in our ignorance, overlook accounts of significant events. The C. L. Porcher Letter (Ms1988-072) relates an event in Black history–albeit from the perspective of a white woman–but that aspect of the letter could easily be missed without a careful reading of its contents.

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Clelia Lightwood Porcher was living and working as a teacher in that city when she sat down to write a letter on September 12, 1876. After briefly discussing a family matter, Porcher remarks that “Isaac was summoned and was out until after one, but Sunday + Monday night the rain was so steady that no disturbance was even looked for …” (“Isaac” was probably Isaac Mazyak, or Mazyck, who appears in the 1880 census as a 24-year-old clerk, boarding in the Porcher home.) Later, Porcher adds that “[t]he Mayor’s and Governor’s proclamation has only had the effect of making them more determined than they were before.” She continues by noting that the city is well protected and the danger likely over, then describes a large meeting of women at the Confederate Home, held for the purpose of organizing refreshments for men serving guard duty throughout the city. (She’s not optimistic about the women’s organization, however: “We were there three blessed hours and came away as wise as I went about what was to be done.”) Porcher also expresses her feelings about the mood in the city: “I have never been so excited in my life before + every body can think and talk of nothing else … We hear the slightest unusual sound during the night, so as you may imagine our sleep is not very profound.” But the following day, Porcher reports that the unrest has been quelled: “[I]t is thought that everything now will be quiet, the only thing is, our men cannot relax their vigilance.”

     

All of this hints at some civil disturbance experienced in Charleston, but what was it? Who were the “them” to whom Porcher refers? Why were they “more determined” after hearing the mayor’s and governor’s proclamations? A few online searches reveal that Porcher’s letter relates to politics and race relations in Charleston near the end of Reconstruction.

Early in September 1876, Charleston saw two Democratic Party meetings in which several local Black residents spoke about their reasons for abandoning the Republican Party. In a Black Democratic Party club meeting held on King Street on September 6, two Black speakers spoke against the Republican Party. Afterward white Democrats escorted the speakers through a crowd of Republicans that had gathered outside the Democratic meeting. Violence between the two groups ensued, and the intervention of federal troops and an integrated local police force was of little consequence. (Not on hand that first night were the city’s many “rifle clubs”–essentially local militia–which were the clubs to which Porcher refers.) Windows were smashed, stores were looted, a number of people were assaulted, and one white man was accidentally killed.

That Porcher’s letter was written six days after the incident suggests that the unrest continued for some time. In response to the violence, Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain issued a proclamation promising to “secure to every man, of whatever political party, the right to speak, act and vote freely and safely …” Neglecting to state what actions he would take to restore order, Chamberlain called on all citizens to do their utmost in preserving the peace: “The spirit of poiltical intolerance, in all its forms,” he wrote, “is the direst curse which now oppresses our State, and peace and prosperity will never come until that foul spirit is finally exorcised.” Despite his lofty ideals, Chamberlain was seen as ineffective in suppressing the violence. A lack of voter confidence in his ability to quell the violence, coupled with suppression of Black voters and the defection of others to the Republican Party, led to Chamberlain’s defeat in November.

The feelings aroused that fall in Charleston and elsewhere would play out in the national election. Losses by Republicans in November, together with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the withdrawal of the remaining federal troops from the South, ended the promises of Reconstruction. A close reading of the Porcher Letter provides a look at this incident of Reconstruction.

 

Physics and The Man: Cold War Science and Dr. Robert Marshak

Robert Eugene Marshak was born October 11, 1916 in the Bronx in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents Harry and Rose Marshak. He excelled at school, attending City College of New York for a brief time before finishing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. He then went on to receive his PhD in Physics from Cornell in 1939. He and his thesis advisor, Hans Bethe, researched the role of fusion in star formation. This work landed him a spot on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos a few years later, where he assisted in the development of atomic weapons technology. Of particular note were his contributions to our understanding of how shock waves behave during high energy events such as nuclear explosions, which led to such waves being known as “Marshak waves”. 

After the war, Marshak returned to New York to take up a position in the Physics Department at Rochester University in Rochester. In 1947, as a participant in the Shelter Island Conference, Marshak presented a hypothesis theorizing the existence of a new class of subatomic particle, which was shortly to be confirmed. After becoming head of the University of Rochester Physics Department in 1950, Marshak established the Rochester Conference, now known as the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which still meets to this day. His work on weak interactions was instrumental to establishing the electroweak theory, which won Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann a Nobel Prize.

It is unclear what Marshak’s beliefs were before World War II, but, following his work on the Manhattan Project, he became a staunch supporter of open science and an end to the militarization of science and technology. He worked tirelessly to enhance scientific communication, protest nationalist scientific policies, and promote peace. While people who knew him frequently described him as being prickly, arrogant, and difficult to work with, he nevertheless used his position and renown within his field to support and advocate for scientists who found themselves persecuted by their own governments. He maintained an active correspondence with physicists and scientists all over the world and attended conferences, symposia, meetings, and workshops to learn and share his own knowledge. 

 

A letter to Marshak from Albert Einstein.

 

In 1970, he was offered the position of President at City College of New York, which he had once attended. He accepted, and ran the school for 9 years. As time wore on, he found he missed physics and teaching, so in 1979 he took up the position of University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. In 1983, while at Virginia Tech, he also served a year-long term as President of the American Physical Society, which is the largest organization of American physicists. 

One incident in particular highlights Marshak’s commitment to scientific freedom and openness.  Andrei Sakharov was a nuclear physicist from the Soviet Union. His life had a similar trajectory to Marshak’s. He too worked on nuclear technology for his country, and he too came to believe that weaponizing science was a sure path to war and destruction. However, his life turned out much differently than Marshak’s. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Sakharov began to advocate for peace and an end to nuclear testing. He became a well-known dissident within his own country, work which would eventually lead to his arrest, exile, and a Nobel Peace Prize. It is during this period where his story intersects with Marshak’s. In Marshak’s papers, one can trace the American’s growing concern with the danger and persecution facing his Soviet colleague, as well as his efforts to bring the situation to the attention of the global community and prevent harm from coming to Sakharov, who by now was known much more for his political actions than for his work as a physicist. Marshak did not face such overt threats, but his support of and communication with Soviet scientists throughout the Cold War period brought him under scrutiny at a time when the specter of communism made any connection to the USSR a dangerous one. He was forced to undergo several investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a result of his work. Despite this, Marshak never stopped being an advocate for the peaceful sharing of science and technology. 

This only skims the surface of Marshak’s papers. The finding aid for his collections can be found here.  

 

This project was supported by a grant from the American Institute of Physics.

Deadly Obsession

Homer Davis and His Unusual Legacy

With the Halloween season upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to the eerie and macabre, and so I thought I’d tell you today about the morbid souvenirs collected by a creature who once haunted American cemeteries from coast to coast.

Okay, Homer Davis was no ghoul. But if I’d opened by saying that this would be a post about somebody who enjoyed visiting cemeteries as a pleasant past-time (as many people do) and took photos of the noteworthy graves that he found within them, you’d have been less inclined to take a moment to read about a nice  little collection here in Special Collections and University Archives that deserves some attention.

The Homer E. Davis Papers (Ms2001-051) contain materials collected by a Civil War enthusiast and amateur historian, including Civil War maps, memorabilia, and publications—the types of things found in any number of other such collections. Born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, Homer Davis was working as a stockbroker when health problems forced him into early retirement in 1971. It was this forced retirement that led to an unusual component of his collection.  In his newfound leisure time, Davis began visiting and photographing the gravesites of Civil War generals. Because that’s a relatively short list of people, Davis’s interest soon expanded to the resting places of other Civil War veterans, and eventually he began documenting the graves of other noteworthy individuals, including  politicians, entertainers, authors, and others. And so the Homer Davis Papers include photographs documenting approximately 12,000 gravesites in all 50 states.

Davis was hardly alone in his interest in graveyards. Cemeteries have long been frequented by those seeking a tranquil retreat or a link with our shared past. The hobby of visiting cemeteries with a view toward preservation of gravesites through photography is a relatively recent one, however. Today, millions of gravesites are photographically preserved on findagrave and other websites through the efforts of “gravers,” but during Davis’s active years, 1971-1982, few people were making a systematic effort at photographic preservation, and it’s a good bet that some of the gravesites visited by Davis have since fallen into ruin or have even disappeared, with his photographs being their only surviving record.

 

 

A few random gravesite images from among the thousands photographed by Davis: poet-author Carl Sandburg, abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass, and actress-singer Lillian Russell.

Though without attention to craft, seemingly composed in haste, and sometimes lacking in sharpness, Davis’s photographs preserve the setting and appearance of the subject matter. He often took multiple photos of a single gravesite, attempting not only to document the entire monument, but the inscriptions thereon. Like a good hobbyist of any kind, Davis was a stickler for details, and the verso of each photograph contains the name of the interred, the location of the grave, the date of the photograph, and a brief description of the deceased’s claim to fame. Complementing the photo collection are Davis’s cemetery research folders (one for each state and the District of Columbia), including research notes, correspondence, local maps, and—most significantly—information on individual cemeteries.

Among the lesser-knowns memorialized by Davis is Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, identified by Davis on the verso as an “[e]ccentric merchant and author of a humorous autobiography. The town clown.”

The back of the photograph documenting the grave of Philip John Schuyler contains a mini-biography of Philip John Schuyler, Revolutionary War major general and congressman.

Tragically, Homer Davis’s life was cut short as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident during a Michigan graving excursion in 1982. When Peggy Davis, his wife and graving companion, died in 2000, Davis’s papers (and a sizable Civil War book collection), were donated to Special Collections and University Archives. (A selection of Davis’s gravesite photos from southwestern Virginia were scanned soon after the donation and may be found in our Imagebase.)

Because the Davis papers were the first that I processed at Virginia Tech, I have a bit of a soft spot for them, and I hope they’ll see more use in the future. Certainly, they’d be of interest to anybody researching general burial practices and specific burial places, or possibly the nature of celebrity, or somebody exploring graving as a hobby or even the compulsive world of hobbyists. In fact, Special Collections and University Archives and our researchers have been the ultimate beneficiary of the disparate passions of a number of hobbyists, from the collections of amateur ornithologists Eugene Law and Harold Bailey, to the railroad memorabilia collected by Wythe County’s Wayne Perkins, and from the research notes of several family and local historians to the scrapbooks of many Virginia Tech students. But none are quite as unusual as the legacy of Homer Davis.

A Collection of Distinction: The William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879

A few days ago, a colleague asked me to distribute a job announcement from a nearby university. This is a pretty common practice and there are a lot of job searches underway. But this one caught my attention because the position description referred to building “distinctive collections.” I found the phrasing as an attempt to be clever, but more importantly it highlighted an archival challenge—to decide which archival and manuscript collections are the most or least important. Assigning the value of “distinctive” to collections is problematic since all collections are unique in some way and thus distinctive. Perhaps “distinctive” is another way of saying that the origins or provenance of the collection are significant (e.g., an unpublished manuscript that unearthed in J.D. Salinger’s backyard), that the collection is the “crown jewel” for the institution, or perhaps that it was just very expensive. 

To me, a distinctive collection is one that has the potential to attract great research interest and can be used by researchers for multiple purposes. It is easy to pursue a collection, either through purchase or as a donation, that you believe has great research value, but it is always unknown whether others, such as colleagues and researchers, will have the same opinion. I spend a large amount of time considering which archival and manuscript collections would be a good fit for Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech. Most days, I spend some amount of time talking or corresponding with potential donors, reviewing dealer catalogs, seeking opinions from others on potential acquisitions, or searching through online auction listings. My goal is to identify collections that support research and the major collecting areas that we highlight in the blog. Working closely with collections once they arrive is not my normal routine, but sometimes I remain involved in organizing and creating access to the material that I helped bring in the doors.

As a recent example, I have spent many hours working with the William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879, which is one of my favorite acquisitions in the past five years. The story begins in early 2017 when I saw a listing for the collection in an auction catalog. Newton’s story fit well with the department’s collecting areas and researcher groups. The collection includes about 170 letters Newton wrote to his wife and children during the Civil War. The letters document the Civil War experiences of an Ohio surgeon serving in Virginia and West Virginia from 1862-1865. The collection also includes a postwar letter describing his experiences at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, which occurred in Pulaski County, approximately twenty miles from Blacksburg. Newton was assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry and near the end of the war served as surgeon of the 193rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

William S. Newton spent most of his Civil War service in Virginia and West Virginia. The following map includes many of the locations mentioned in Newton’s letters. John Formby, The American Civil War: A Concise History of Its Causes, History, and Results, Maps (New York: Scribners, 1910), map 10.

As for some background, William Smith Newton was born on February 6, 1823, near the small town of Harmer, in Washington County, Ohio. The town, now part of Marietta, was located where the Muskingum River flows into the Ohio River, with Virginia (now West Virginia) located on the other side to the south. He was the son of Oren and Elizabeth Fuller Newton. His father, Oren, was an important figure in the community and was involved in farming and the grindstone industry. Like other members of his family, Newton attended Marietta College. He completed his freshman year, 1842-1843, but he did not continue with courses or graduate from Marietta College. Instead, he took an interest in medicine and enrolled as a medical student in fall 1843 at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. Newton graduated in 1845 from the Medical College of Ohio and returned to Harmar.

In 1845, he married Frances Ann Hayward of Gallipolis and they relocated to Ironton, Ohio several years later. They had seven children during their marriage. Three of their children, Oren Hayward (1846–1858), Lewis Garland (May–October 1848), and Fanny Lillian (1857–1858), died before reaching adulthood. In 1862, when William enlisted in the Union Army, they had three children, Edward (Ned) Seymore (born 1850), Valentine Mott (born 1852), and Kate May (born 1860). Another child, John Beverly (born November 9, 1863), arrived during Newton’s military service.

In the fall of 1862, Newton was appointed assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry which has just been organized into five companies at Ironton. For the next three years, Newton wrote a steady stream of letters to his wife and children. Those incoming letters were kept together and most likely stayed with the Newton family after the war. At some point, the letters ended up in private hands, most recently with a well-known collector of antique firearms. Sometime in the 1970s, the owner of the collection at that time allowed most of the collection to be microfilmed for use at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. Thus, only a handful of researchers who either knew how to contact the owner or were willing to suffer through using microfilm made use of the collection. My search yielded one master’s thesis and a few books on Civil War military history that referred to the William S. Newton Papers. Clearly, access to the collection was limited and it deserved to be in an archival repository. I shared these details with colleagues on campus and in the department and all agreed that the Newton Papers would be a wonderful addition.

On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, I waited on the phone as a live bidder for the Newton Papers to be auctioned. After several bids, we were the successful bidder and a few weeks later the Newton Papers arrived Blacksburg. In the weeks and months that followed, the collection was given a catalog record and put in the backlog for later processing. In the meantime, I shared the news with many potential researchers and invited them to come look at the collection even though it was still unprocessed. In the months that followed I continued to suggest the Newton Papers to graduate students and other Civil War researchers. Surprisingly, I received a very small response and the collection was hardly used.

Despite limited interest from researchers, I was still convinced that Newton deserved more attention. In 2019, I decided to make the Newton Papers a priority. I began working through the included transcripts (which were rife with errors) and in just a few weeks I had become very familiar with the collection. A surprise offer of weekly hours from a graduate student from the history department to help with the transcription work kept the project active. As a potential output for all this work, I had a random conversation with a colleague at the University of Tennessee Press about the collection and they suggested that it would be a great fit for the Voices of the Civil War series. After a lot of consideration and some hesitation, I decided that a book of Newton’s edited letters (not an interpretative work) would be a great way to promote the collection and draw researchers to Civil War collections at Virginia Tech.

I was astonished with the depth of the letters and the range of topics discussed. Newton’s letters focus on many significant topics of the Civil War era—military maneuvers, race relations, politics, medical practices, and life among officers in camp. Newton reported on his work as a surgeon. He managed several hospitals (both in seized buildings and in the field), tended to patients, ordered supplies, arranged for the wounded to return home, and informed families of the loss of a loved one. Newton’s letters mention taking care of soldiers who he knew personally from his medical practice. Although a non-combatant, Newton experienced frequent skirmishes with Confederate raiders and was part of several significant military campaigns. His letters describe significant battles in West Virginia and Virginia, most notably the Second Battle of Kernstown, the Battle of Opequan (Third Battle of Winchester), and the Battle of Cedar Creek. Of note, Newton’s October 8, 1867 letter to Ohio adjutant general Benjamin R. Cowen documents his most harrowing moments during the Civil War—Newton’s capture by Confederates following the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, his role in operating on wounded Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins, and his brief imprisonment and release from Libby Prison later that month. Other letters describe his working relationships with officers in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

After the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, William S. Newton and other medical staff were captured by Confederates and sent to Libby Prison (pictured above) in Richmond. Newton stayed at Libby Prison only three days, but later attributed his poor health to the deplorable conditions he experienced there. Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.41823

Newton’s letters reveal the close connections between friend and enemy. For example, in October 1863, Newton was given charge of a Union hospital located in Charleston, West Virginia. In an October 10 letter, he explained “Our Hospital is in one of the finest houses of the town, and I am quartered in the parlor with a nice bed, cane bottom chairs & sofas, all belonging to some rebel, but I will take good care of them, and see they are not abused.” Two days later, Newton wrote “Last evening on examining the portraits hanging around the parlor, I discovered one that looked like John Ruby. On going to the book case, I found two or three with John C. Ruby written in full. I then enquired and found that not only his, but that of wife sister-in-law, Mother-in­law, & Father-in-law, all in very large gilt frames, was this not a discovery.” Ruby was born in Gallia County, Ohio, which may explain why Newton knew him and his family. Newton concluded the letter saying “John Ruby is Quartermaster in 22nd Va. Reb Reg., and I am here living in his house & using his furniture. So the world moves, and such is war.”

The limited status of emancipated slaves in society was another element in Newton’s correspondence. In August 1863, Newton’s letters first mentioned Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union army following the raid of Wytheville. It is likely that Mary was sent to the hospital for examination and Newton claimed responsibility for her wellbeing. He decided to send Mary to Ironton to assist his wife and family. As part of the plan, Ned and Mott met her in Charleston, West Virginia, and took her back to Ironton. He was concerned that “negro traders” in Charleston might “steal her away from the boys before they get a boat,” but she safely made it to Ironton. Newton explained to his wife that Mary “belongs to you, that your interests are hers.” He suggested that “the boys teach her to read” and possibly write, but Newton made clear that Mary did not have any level of independence. In an August 23 letter he told his wife “You can make, or mold her into anything you desire.” The addition of Mary to the Newton household was not an easy adjustment. The letters were unclear on the details, but rumors about Mary’s trustworthiness circulated through Ironton and found their way back to Newton. The breaking point was the accusation that Mary had stolen personal items from the family. Some of the lost articles were later discovered and had simply been misplaced instead of stolen. Newton’s inquiries confirmed that all accusations against Mary were unfounded. Nonetheless, by October Newton’s wife had lost all trust in Mary and discharged her from service. She was no longer mentioned in their correspondence and there are no existing records to trace what happened to Mary Ann McDonald in the decades that followed. These and other letters make clear the overt racism throughout white society during this period.

In August 1863, William S. Newton sent Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union Army following the raid of Wytheville, to Ironton to work for his wife. In this August 23, 1864 letter Newton explained that Mary could learn how to ready and write, but he outlined few other freedoms. A few weeks later, Mary was wrongfully accused of stealing personal items and the arrangement ended.

Newton’s letters expressed a deep interest in family affairs. His letters advised on family matters such as buying and selling property back in Ohio, naming his newborn child, advising his teenage son Ned to live an upstanding life, prescribing medicines to remedy illnesses in the family, and preparing a new farm for when he could return home. His letters conveyed a deep sense of loneliness, especially for his wife.

As a possible cure for Newton’s homesickness, two of his children, Ned and Mott, visited him in camp. During the day, while he attended to the sick and wounded, his children would fish in nearby rivers and streams for their evening meal. On July 5, 1863 Newton explained:

Ned hardly has time to accompany me. He is very busy fishing, spends the day catching the little ones for bait, then at night puts out his trot, with 30 or 40 hooks. He wants me to tell you that he caught one on Friday morning weighing ten lbs. The soldiers had a good laugh, for he used one of the boat oars as a club, with which to pound the fish over the head, because it did not hold still. The only wonder is, that he did not knock it loose from the hook. He was alone at the time, and captured five in all.

In a July 5, 1863 letter to his wife Newton described the fishing exploits of his teenage son Ned.

My favorite letters were those written directly to Ned. In a February 24, 1864 letter, Newton scolded Ned for a variety of offenses. He wrote:

What would be your feelings, if a man, should you see another man, a stranger, impose upon your mother; would you not risk your life in resenting the imposition, or insult! If not, you are not of my blood or kindred. Then how much more despicable is he, that would abuse, or offer an insult to his own mother! . . . You certainly are not demented, or crazy, yet how could I suppose a boy almost 14 years of age, could commit such indiscretion. I truly hope no one knows of it.

In addition to disrespecting his mother, Ned was also playing with firearms. In the same letter Newton wrote:

Did you think it would afford me any happiness, to know that you were taking the gun out, contrary to my express command, and have you reflected that if, some accident should take place, how much misery you might cause to your parents & others.

Like any parent would, Newton outlined a remedy to get Ned back on the proper path—penmanship. Newton explained:

Character is said to be exhibited in the penmanship. If yours is the true exhibit of character, how uneven & unbalanced it must be. I fear your energy & resolutions are short lived, and to little purpose. Can you not do better! Will you not try! And before I see you, let me see some specimens of improvement, both in penmanship & character. Your happiness as well as mine depends upon it.

In a February 24, 1864 letter William S. Newton advised his son Ned that penmanship built character and contributed to a successful life.

Newton’s later letters, especially those written in 1865, focused on his dreams for the postwar. He purchased a farm in West Union, Ohio from Benjamin F. Coates (colonel in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry) and advised his boys to begin preparing it for the family. There was a clear sense that Newton believed that farming represented an idyllic lifestyle and way to teach his children the value of hard work and patience. He wrote more letters to Ned during this period, and it appears that the teenager was again having behavior problems but took an interest in joining the church. Newton wanted both of his boys to be men of business instead of “town loafers.” Newton’s instructions for growing crops, cleaning fencerows, and tending to a new home were aimed at teaching Ned important life lessons in a more wholesome setting with fewer temptations.

After the war, Newton and family settled in Gallipolis and not in West Union. Newton resumed his medical practice, served as postmaster in Gallipolis, and participated in reunion activities with his former regiment. Included with the collection is a copy of Newton’s pension application. He suffered from several maladies which he attributed to his brief imprisonment at Libby Prison in 1864. Newton died on Saturday, November 18, 1882, just a few months shy of his sixtieth birthday. 

Newton’s letters are as much about daily life and society of the 1860s as they are about the military or medical details of the Civil War. The more I followed clues in Newton’s letters the larger the puzzle of people, places, and topics became. I connected with descendants of the Newton family in Ohio and Florida, who were excited to learn more about their ancestors. In the months that followed, which included working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I continued to work on the project. During the summer of 2021, I finalized the processing and posted the finding aid to the Virginia Heritage database. The book of edited letters was accepted as part of the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War series and is scheduled to be published sometime in the spring of 2022. My involvement with this collection was significant, but the good news is that there is much more for researchers to discover by reading Newton’s letters.

I suppose the Newton Papers count as a distinctive collection for Virginia Tech because they were expensive, expansive in content, and touch on multiple research areas. But, the more I thought about the concept of a “distinctive collection” the more I wanted to avoid the term which sounds like certain collections should be prioritized from the larger whole and treated differently. Instead, the Newton Papers are an excellent addition to the already strong collecting areas of the Civil War in Virginia and Appalachian history at Virginia Tech. In other words, on its own merits the collection is wonderful, but it is even more significant when placed alongside other similar primary sources. As usual, I will be on the lookout for more collections that have such attributes. In the meantime, please come to the first floor of Newman Library and spend some time with the William S. Newton Papers, which are significant, unique, and far more than just distinctive.