Letters from a Galvanized Yankee

Despite twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Union Army continued to sustain heavy losses–in the form of casualties and desertions–in 1863, leading President Lincoln to  authorize the somewhat unorthodox proposal of recruiting soldiers from among Confederate prisoners of war. Organization of the 1st United States Volunteer Infantry (USVI) commenced at Point Lookout Prison on January 21, 1864.

Among the first prisoners to take the oath of allegiance and enlist was Andrew Jackson “Jack” Lewis, formerly of the 40th Virginia Infantry. The Andrew J. Lewis Correspondence (Ms1988-097) in Special Collections and University Archives contains three letters from Andrew and one from Harriet Lewis, his wife.

A native of Orange County, Virginia, Lewis grew up in Spotsylvania County, where he married Harriet C. Tapp in 1859. By 1860, he was working as a laborer while he and Harriet lived with Harriet’s mother and family. Through the first year of the Civil War, Lewis apparently remained uninvolved in the conflict. When the 40th Virginia Infantry—composed of men recruited from Lancaster, Northumberland, and Richmond counties—encamped in the vicinity of the Spotsylvania-Caroline county line in April, 1862, however, Lewis may have found the lure of army life impossible to resist. On May 7, he enlisted in Company B. Whether he participated just a few weeks later in the Battle of Seven Pines, in which the 40th sustained heavy losses, is unknown. He most likely participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville the following May, and evidence places him in the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. While on retreat from Gettysburg, the 40th engaged Union forces in the Battle of Falling Waters on July 14. Lewis was among 500 Confederates (including 73 from his regiment) taken prisoner at the battle. After being imprisoned in Baltimore for a month, Lewis was transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland. It’s likely that their first news that Lewis’s family had of his whereabouts came from a letter within our collection, written at Point Lookout 13 weeks after his capture. In this brief letter, written to his mother, Lewis advises her that he is well but despairs of any hope of an impending release.

Organization of the 1st USVI provided Lewis with the opportunity for an early reprieve. While the choice of joining the ranks of a former enemy would have been a highly personal matter, subject to many individual considerations, prison conditions undoubtedly won the argument for many inmates. Andrew J. Lewis, whose Confederate service may have owed more to a yen for adventure than to ideology, became one of the earliest recruits, taking the oath of allegiance and enlisting for three years’ service in Company A, 1st United States Volunteers on January 23.

Nearly 6,000 other prisoners made the same decision. They came to be known derisively among both their former and future comrades as “Galvanized Yankees,” soldiers, who, despite the outward appearance of their uniform, were considered of suspect loyalty. As such, the regiments of former Confederates were generally assigned to duty far removed from the front lines of the war. Many of them ultimately were assigned to duty in the American west.

Following its organization, the 1st was assigned to provost duty in eastern Virginia and North Carolina for several months before being transferred in August to the Department of the Northwest in Wisconsin. While enroute, several companies were detached from the regiment in Chicago, Company A being among four companies continuing to Milwaukee for assignment to the District of Minnesota. In an interesting letter written to his wife on September 10, 1865, Lewis discusses a number of topics, among them his favorable impression of the local prospects for a farmer and the possibility of moving there permanently:

I think if you could Bee in this State a while and Enjoy the nice Breeses and good helth you would Bee Sadisfied to live in this Country, thir is plenty of good land and costes But little[.] men can get 160 acres in this State for fifteen dollars … I think that a man that has Bin Broken up By the ware can do Better, and make a Better living that any other State I have Bin Since I have Bin traveling [.] a man working By the month can get from 35 to 40 dollars per month and at some work he can get fifty.

Lewis further writes of his great desire to return home once more before deciding whether to permanently relocate to Minnesota following his discharge. He writes of being desperate to see Harriet again and that when he received her last letter, he and a friend “went out to the Bank of the Miss [Mississippi River] an he read it for me [postwar census records indicate that Lewis was illiterate] and I tel you we had a time of it we Boohooed an while and then we [illegible] our eyes allmost out.” Lewis notes that Company A is soon to depart for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and he hopes to be mustered out upon arrival “as I have Bin told that is a place for mustering out all ex rebel troops.”

Lewis’s optimism for an early discharge was misplaced. On November 27, Harriet writes from home, expressing a desperate need to hear from him, having recently written three letters with no response. She then shares news of family members, including Andrew’s mother, who is soon to be remarried, and asks Andrew to send her an ambrotype of himself.

By this time, Company A was in western Kansas, manning the outpost at Monument Station, an “eating station” along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. Responding to Harriet’s letter, Andrew describes the territory as “a lonesome Country – we cant get Stamps or nothing Else except Buffalow meat.” His lonesomeness spurs him to offer to pay Harriet’s way to Kansas and to ask about the possibility of finding a substitute to complete his military service obligation: “I think you had Better make up your mind to come out hear – if you will come I will Send you money to come on – please send me word who that is that wants to take my place in the army, and then I will let you know what I can do – I will send you Some money the first opportunity[.]”

Andrew and the rest of the 1st USVI mustered out at Fort Leavenworth on May 22, 1866. Whether Harriet ever had the opportunity to visit him while he was in Kansas, we don’t know. We do know that after returning home, Andrew relinquished the idea of moving to Minnesota. Postwar census records show that the Lewises continued to live in Spotsylvania County with their three children. Andrew Jackson Lewis died in Spotsylvania County on April 25, 1883; Harriet, on September 9, 1914.

John Counselman Talks Football

As we’re well into college football season, I thought this would be a good time to share a letter, relevant to the game’s history, written by a one-time Tech player and found within our collections:

Born in Wythe County, Virginia, in 1880, John Sanders Counselman matriculated at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (often referred to as VPI, for the sake of much-needed brevity) at the age of twenty. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science in 1903, he was awarded a fellowship in surveying and drawing, and he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering the following year. Soon afterward, Counselman accepted a position as instructor of mathematics and civil engineering  at the Georgia School of Technology (today, Georgia Tech).

On January 7, 1906, Counselman sat down to write a letter to his friend and former civil engineering classmate, Louis O’Shaughnessy, to acknowledge receipt of the solutions to some shared mathematical problems. Counselman then discusses at length a particular problem involving the area of a cone. Those who aren’t math nerds might be forgiven for not reading past the opening paragraph, but those who are football nerds might regret the decision.

John S. Counselman (from the 1903 Bugle)

In addition to his mathematical prowess, John Counselman displayed great skill on the gridiron from 1901 to 1903, starting at fullback for VPI’s team, then most often known as the Polytechs or the Techmen. For his abilities, Counselman was named Second Team All-Southern in 1901. He may have received many more accolades had he not been overshadowed on the playing field by VPI’s legendary halfback, Hunter Carpenter.

After discussing mathematical conundrums, Counselman quickly transitions to other matters, noting that he’d recently sent O’Shaughnessy a “copy of the system of F. B. … [m]ost of it being Heisman’s.” It takes only a moment to realize that “F. B.” is “football,” and that “Heisman” is none other than John W. Heisman, the iconic coach for whom college football’s Heisman Trophy is named. Over a 35-year career as a head coach, Heisman amassed a record of 186-70-18, and he’s credited with a number of early football innovations, among them the forward pass. In January, 1906, Heisman had just finished the second season of what would be a 16-year stint at Georgia Tech. Counselman apparently served as assistant coach during both of Heisman’s first two seasons at Georgia Tech.

I find no record of Heisman having published anything about his system of coaching prior to his 1921 book, Principles of Foot Ball (or “Football,” in subsequent editions), but it’s obvious from Counselman’s letter that the coach had already made a name for himself as a football guru.:

“The old maxim that tricks won’t win games in F. B. is true till Heisman takes charge of affairs, and then the ‘saying’ is false. Since his migration to the South since when he has coached Auburn Ala. 4 years, Clempson [sic] 4, [Georgia] Tech. 2 and coached 3 yrs prior to them, he has lost few games.” He continues by lauding Heisman’s system and claiming that a team coached by him would defeat any team of similar skills. Counselman expresses wariness of running any of Heisman’s “trick plays,” however, concluding that “no coach can make them go, but Heisman.”

Counselman then diagrams and describes a favorite play of Heisman’s, one that he had used when coaching Clemson against VPI in 1901. “You see that Quarter faces slowly to the left, taking one step in that direction but not moving one foot. The Back who finally takes the ball hides behind the Q and the two other Backs running between these two completely hide the runner. Suddenly the Q shoots thro [through] in front of them, taking out any defensive player in the road.” (Whether or not the play itself was successful, Clemson fell to VPI in that game, 11-17.)

Counselman shares Heisman’s “criss-cross” play with O’Shaughnessy

Why Counselman would be showing Heisman’s plays to O’Shaughnessy is something of a mystery. By early 1905, O’Shaughnessy had been working as an instructor at VPI for nearly a year, but I find no record of his having been associated with the football team in any way. As athletic programs were then less structured than they are today, however, it’s not unlikely that members of the faculty may have been pro viding informal assistance to VPI’s head coach at the time, Clarence “Sally” Miles.

Counselman’s letter is written on the letterhead of the Georgia School of Technology, but the envelope was posted from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and by the time of its writing, Counselman was halfway through a year’s study at the University of Michigan. Counselman would soon be searching for a job. The former Polytech writes that Heisman has been using his influence to win him a teaching/coaching position at Mississippi A. & M. (today Mississippi State University), but he expresses reservations about taking the position: “[T]heir math course strikes me as being rotten.”

Counselman then discusses the future of college football: “What is going to become of the game? They are surely giving it h—. Representation from the Big Nine meet next Friday in C— to discuss it, and they are discussing it lots in the East. Well I don’t care my self what they do. It is a brutal game and one that I got damn tired of playing at V. P. I. I love to watch it, however, and am of the opinion that the more they open it, the more dangerous it will become. I think Billy Ried [sic] is correct in his views and especially when he says that those who expect the roughness to be eliminated had as well abandon the game entirely. “

As indicated by Counselman, representatives of the Western College Conference, the “Big Nine,” met in Chicago that January to address the problem of a game that had become increasingly violent. Between 1900 and 1905, according to the Washington Post, more than 40 players died from injuries sustained on the playing field.  In the east, talks were held in the White House. Together, these and other reform meetings resulted in a number of changes that made the game safer and led to the formation of a rule-making authority, the Intercollegiate Association of the United States, now the NCAA. (The “Billy Ried” to whom Counselman refers was William T. “Bill” Reid Jr.,” who coached Harvard in 1905/1906 and, despite initially resisting changes, would eventually play an important role in reforming college football.)

In the end, Counselman didn’t get the position in Mississippi. Later in 1905, he was hired as physical director at Cumberland University (Lebanon, Tennessee), where he also served as football coach. On October 28, Counselman faced his former boss when Cumberland met Georgia Tech on the playing field. Despite having firsthand knowledge of Heisman’s system and having a hand in developing it, Counselman was no match for his mentor. Georgia Tech came away with an 18-0 win, largely credited to the “double-pass” play, on which Counselman himself had drilled the Georgia Tech players the previous season.

Counselman ended his first season as head coach with a 5-4 record. The following year found him at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama, coaching the team to a respectable 6-2-1 record in his first year. The following season, at 3-6, was much less successful, however, and after losing the first two games of the 1908 season, Counselman resigned. It was his last experience as a head coach. Counselman’s career in education continued, however. He remained in Birmingham, heading the Central High School Mathematics Department until 1920. He also had stints as professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary and superintendent of schools in Tallahassee, Florida.

Counselman could never quite give up participating in the game he loved. Beginning in 1912, his name appears among those officiating games at Auburn. The former fullback continues to be listed as a game official in various directories and game summaries through 1924. John S. Counselman died in 1955.

This isn’t Louis O’Shaughnessy’s first appearance in our blog. More can be found here. And more about the J. S. Counselman Letter (Ms1993-009) may be found here.

Charge It With Charga-Plate!

The O’Shaughnessy Family Papers (Ms1987-052) is one of those manuscript collections that keeps pulling me back for another look. (For those few who had the misfortune to miss my previous post about the collection, you can read it here.) In brief, Louis O’Shaughnessy was a 1903 VPI graduate who returned to his alma mater in 1918 as a professor of applied mechanics and continued to teach here until his retirement in 1954. Professor O’Shaughnessy, his wife Ida Surface O’Shaughnessy, and their daughter Betty lived at what was then 120 Pepper Street, but is today home of the Alpha Phi Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, on Turner Street.

While at first glance the O’Shaughnessys’ papers don’t appear to hold anything of great historical significance, the collection is full of interesting little items that are worthy of exploration and discussion. Among these is an aluminum identification token, somewhat reminiscent of a military dog tag, measuring just 2 ½ x 1 ¼”. The front is embossed “L O Shaughnessy, Blacksburg, Virginia.” On the reverse, the plate holds a card imprinted with “Charga-Plate Associates of Richmond” and a blank line for the holder’s signature.  (The O’Shaughnessys’ card  remains unsigned, indicating that the family never actually used it.) The item is housed in a red leather case, with “Charga-Plate” embossed on one side and “Richmond” on the other.

Charga-Plate and carrying case issued by Charga-Plate Associates of Richmond to the Louis O’Shaughnessy family of Blacksburg.

Largely forgotten today, Charga-Plate was an outgrowth of the time-honored practice by merchants of extending credit to favored customers. While retail credit provided advantages to both seller and buyer, the recording of individual credit transactions presented a cumbersome task for the salesclerk and a time-consuming inconvenience for the customer. Developed by Farrington Manufacturing in 1928, Charga-Plate was an attempt to streamline the process so that salesclerks could forgo writing customers’ names and addresses on every credit sales slip.

Upon charging a purchase, the consumer presented the identification token to the clerk, who placed the plate in a small imprinter (about the size and shape of a stapler), with a charge slip on top of the plate. Downward pressure on the imprinter recorded the customer’s data from the plate onto the charge slip via an inked ribbon. Upon receiving a bill for their purchases, customers could pay the amount in full or maintain a revolving credit account.

In addition to the customer’s name and city of residence, each Charga-Plate contained two additional, unseen pieces of information: the position of the circular notch in the edge of the plate represented the city for which the plate was issued, while the position of the square notch represented a specific store  within that city. A single plate might contain several square notches, if more than one local retailer participated in the Charga-Plate system.

The O’Shaughnessys’ Charga-Plate is accompanied by this timeworn postal card, showing that the plate was issued by Thalhimers department store. The small print in the lower right corner suggests that the card was issued in 1949.

Charga-Plate soon became a common way for larger stores to offer their customers credit. As such, retailers often promoted their use of Charga-Plate in newspaper advertisements, touting the system’s  convenience, accuracy, and security for customers. Use of the credit tags grew throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but the advent and expansion in the 1950s of general-use credit cards, with credit issued by a third party, spelled eventual doom for Charga-Plate, restricted as the credit tags were to local, single-store use.

In the 1950s, Ida Surface O’Shaughnessy made frequent use of Charga-Plate at Heironimus, a Roanoke department store, as evidenced by the many Heironimus credit sale slips within the collection that bear her inked name and address.

As is the case with many superseded workaday conveniences, the demise of Charga-Plate went unheralded. And so despite the Charga-Plate era being not so far removed from our own, I couldn’t pinpoint the year of the system’s final abandonment. While several sources indicate that the system reached its end around 1960, newspaper advertisements show that Charga-Plate remained in use, albeit in scattered pockets, well into the 1970s. Miller & Rhoads of Roanoke, for example, continued to offer Charga-Plate to its customers as late as 1974, even as the department store extended credit through BankAmericard and Master Charge (now Mastercard). In Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania, newspaper advertisements for both Oppenheim’s clothing store and Hess’s department store touted their use of the system as late as 1977, while an advertisement in the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, hints that at least one St. Louis store continued to use Charga-Plate as late as 1981.

By that time, of course, the use of plastic, bank-issued credit cards had become increasingly commonplace and soon would become ubiquitous. Today, the plastic credit card is, in turn, giving way to systems that no longer require the customer to use any physical artifact to make a credit purchase. Charga-Plate, and other systems like it, represented a significant step from the burdensome task of recording credit transactions by hand to the instant, automated systems that we have today.

For more on the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, see the collection’s finding aid.


Saving Professor Woodruff (from Obscurity)

It’s said that in archaeology, context is everything. The physical relationship of found items allows researchers to accurately identify the time and place of their origin, thus providing a more comprehensive picture of the past, one that goes beyond a mere description of the item at hand. Much the same can be said about archival records. If context isn’t everything when looking at a particular document, it’s certainly a big chunk of everything. Let’s consider the Marion Eaton Woodruff Diary (Ms1988-118), which until recently had lingered in a state of anonymous semi-obscurity for several decades. The diary provides a good example of how just a little detective work can immeasurably increase the research value of an item.

The Woodruff Diary was purchased by Special Collections and University Archives in 1988. The rare book dealer who sold the small, thick volume had assigned the diary a short, workaday title (“Diary, 1924-27”) and provided the briefest of descriptions, noting that the item “[i]ncludes entries in 1924 about [a] trip to France and Italy (year long trip)” and concluding that the diary had been kept “by an American woman?, possibly from Boston.” Upon its accession by Special Collections and University Archives, the diary came to be known simply as “The Travel Diary.”

Pages from the Marion Eaton Woodruff Diary

When the author of a diary isn’t explicitly identified, the contents can sometimes provide clues that will eventually yield the writer’s name and offer us that all-important context. Any place names or personal names—the more unusual, the better—mentioned within a diary’s entries are potential clues to the writer’s identity. The volume at hand, bearing the title “A Diary of Days” and manufactured by Jordan & Company of Chicago, provides its owner with a format designed for four years’ worth of entries. Because the years aren’t pre-printed on the pages, and because the diary entries were often recorded out of chronological order, it can be difficult to follow the sequence of events, but the diary seems to commence with September 5, 1923, with the writer having just left Elgin for Chicago, bound for New York. The writer also mentions Wilda. So, right away, we have two clues: the writer likely lived in Elgin and is acquainted with somebody named Wilda. With a Google search revealing that there are 22 communities named Elgin in the United States and with no surname provided for Wilda, the clues may seem of little value, but still we can file them away for future reference.

Through the next year, the diary’s entries detail the experiences of the unknown writer during a lengthy tour of Europe, with long stays in France, Italy, and Switzerland, before a return to Elgin the following August. During the European tour, the writer names restaurants, shows, and historical sites visited. Returning home, the writer describes a busy life of social engagements and entertainments (e.g., attending the play Boris Gudunov and seeing a vaudeville performance by Sophie Tucker). In all, the diary chronicles the social life of an unidentified upper-middle class woman living a century ago. As interesting as this may be, the contents would be so much more valuable if associated with a specific name.

The diarist makes frequent mention of “Helen” while traveling in Europe and elsewhere. In 1925, the two traveled eastward so that Helen could lecture at Wellesley College. And it’s here that the identity of the writer finally comes to light. Fortunately for us, the Wellesley College News has been digitized and is available in the Wellesley College Digital Repository . An online search on the name “Helen” within the newspaper’s contents isn’t likely to reveal much—or, more correctly, is likely to reveal too much, with too many extraneous, irrelevant hits—so we search on “Elgin,” expecting that if a visiting scholar were delivering a set of lectures on campus, her place of residence may be mentioned in any articles about her. And so it is: in the October 1, 1925 issue of The Wellesley News, under the title “Art Department Note,” we learn that Helen Woodruff of Elgin, Illinois, had been hired as a substitute instructor in the college’s art department. With that little piece of information, everything else begins to fall into place. Through quick searches of census and other vital records, we learn that Helen was the daughter of Marion Eaton Woodruff (1899-1939), widow of successful iron foundry owner Charles H. Woodruff. By now checking known information about Marion Eaton Woodruff against clues found elsewhere in the diary, we can establish beyond doubt that Marion Woodruff was the diary’s author.

Helen Marion Woodruff—from the Wellesley College Legenda, 1922 (Wellelsey College Digital Repository)

Helen (1899-1980), the Woodruffs’ youngest daughter, graduated from Wellesley College in 1922. Upon obtaining her master’s degree from Radcliffe College the following year, Woodruff (accompanied by her mother) departed for a yearlong study in Europe, through a fellowship in medieval and renaissance archaeology awarded by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Returning to Elgin in 1924, she worked as an instructor at the local junior college and as curator of the Sears Museum. (Entries in the diary reveal that during this time, Woodruff was briefly married to Daniel Crane Taylor, a 1919 graduate of the University of Chicago who later became an English professor and published works on William Congreve and John Stoddard. The marriage isn’t documented in any published sources.)

After teaching at Wellesley for a year, Helen Woodruff returned to Radcliffe, where she obtained her doctoral degree in 1928. By 1930, Woodruff was employed by Princeton University as an archaeologist. That same year, her dissertation was published as a monograph by Harvard University under the title The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius. In 1933, Woodruf became director of Princeton’s Index of Christian Art, and in 1942, she published the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University: a Handbook. The standards that Woodruff established in the handbook are said to have revolutionized the process of iconographic classification and to have guided the format of the indexing project for decades to come. That same year, Woodruff took a leave of absence to join the U. S. Navy WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. She was discharged from the WAVES in 1945. Woodruff seems to have retired early: the 1950 federal census shows her still living in Princeton, and—despite being without a recorded occupation—being of sufficient means to afford an older, live-in housekeeper. Mentions of her in Princeton University’s newspaper indicate that, following retirement, she busied herself with club work and other civic activities. Helen Marion Woodruff died in New York in 1980. Apart from her professional accomplishments, a bequest secures her legacy through funding of the Helen M. Woodruff Fellowship of the AIA and the American Academy in Rome.

Though it was written by Marion Woodruff and chronicles the life of an upper-middle class woman in the Midwest and her travels abroad, the frequent mentions of Helen Woodruff provide insights into the life of a professional woman and her work in higher education, art history, and archaeology during the early 20th century. And that’s something worth a little digging.

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).

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.

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.


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.

Pulaski’s Calfee Training School

As often happens while looking for something in Special Collections and University Archives’ Historical Photographs Collection, I recently ran across an unexpected item that caught my interest. In this case, it was a school photo that I’d never seen. Captioned “Calfee Graded School, Pulaski, Va., 1917,” the photo features students and teachers of Pulaski County’s segregated school for African-American children. The caption identifies the principal of the school, more formally known as Pulaski Training School, as M. E. W. Buford.

I was unable to find much information on the school’s early history, unfortunately. Conway Howard Smith’s The Land That Is Pulaski County (1981) tells us that the two-story, brick school was built on the west side of Main Street in 1894. A 1921 education report records that year’s enrollment of the school as 276 students.

By the 1930s, the 40-year-old Calfee Training School had fallen into a state of disrepair, and leaders in the African-American community were pushing for an accredited replacement. Local physician Percy C. Corbin and others called for a school that would be of equal quality to that of its counterparts for local white students.

The need for a new school became more urgent in 1938, when the school pictured above was destroyed by fire. Ultimately, the school board funded a new elementary school, to be located across the street from the original location. The new facility, featuring eight classrooms, was completed the following year at a cost of approximately $35,000.  

Rather than investing in a new facility for students of high school age, however, the board chose to bus the county’s older Black students to Christiansburg Industrial Institute in neighboring Montgomery County. (At the time, Pulaski County was served by three high schools for white students.) Because the bus ride of approximately 30 miles was so time-consuming, it deprived the transported students from participating in after-school activities, limited their study time at home, and created untold additional problems. The unsatisfactory arrangement ultimately led to a 1947 lawsuit,  Corbin et al., v County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, which became part of a larger collection of local class-action lawsuits initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense fund to equalize the education of the races. According to the National Archives website, the Pulaski County suit ended in a victory for the plaintiffs on appeal in Baltimore’s U. S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1949. A hollow victory, however, the case’s conclusion apparently brought little change in practice, and it became the last in the NAACP’s efforts toward equalization, as civil rights activists soon began to instead focus their energies on the goal of school desegregation.

The Pulaski County school system finally became integrated in 1966, and the Calfee School closed. Through the succeeding decades, the school building has served several different purposes and has gradually fallen into disrepair.

Today, the Calfee Training School—the school built in 1939—is again in the news, as efforts are underway to restore the building and give it a new purpose. If existing plans are realized, the new Calfee Community & Cultural Center will include a museum, a childcare center, a community kitchen, and office space for non-profits, all while preserving a significant piece of local history.

Where Sporty Beat His Drum

Remembering Charles Owen, a Beloved Early Campus Figure

Last year, while helping to assemble images for a photographic history of the Roanoke and New River valleys, I ran across a wonderful photo of Charles Owen, known to the students of Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Virginia Tech) as “Uncle Sporty.” Sometimes a photo really captures your interest and makes you want to learn more about the person shown.

Charles Owen, 1910

Charles Owen’s longstanding presence at the university began in 1890, when he was hired as a janitor for Barracks Number One (today Lane Hall). (Note that while some sources, including his own daughter’s death record, provide his surname as “Owens,” campus sources invariably identify it as “Owen,” so that is what I’ll use here.) Soon afterward, Owen assumed an additional duty that he’d perform for many years to come: according to Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, an exhaustive history of the university’s early decades, Owen “took charge of a large snare drum which he attached to a leather belt about his waist. Ten minutes before Reveille each morning he would parade the area in front of the barracks, beating his drum. Sporty could actually beat out tunes on that drum; where he learned the art no one knew.” For nearly 20 years, Owen’s was one of the most familiar faces on campus and likely one of the first to be recognized by new cadets. Reminiscing on his years as a VAMC cadet,  Henry Harris Hill (BS, 1907) recalled his first morning at college:

Very early in the morning I was awakened by a far off rumbling sound. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what the noise was. It gradually came closer, so I got up and went to the window to look. Out on the parade ground was an old colored man beating a drum that looked like it was about five feet deep. The colored man was Uncle Sporty who was waking the boys preliminary to Reveille.

Unfortunately, despite some rather in-depth searching, I could learn little about Owen. The 1900 census recorded a Charles Owens living in Blacksburg with wife Ellen. The Owens’s sizable household included three daughters, Bell, Lucy, and Nellie; the daughters’ husbands, Lev, Hiram, and Reuben (all with the surname Collins); four Collins grandchildren; Charles and Ellen’s adopted son John Hickman; and niece Ella Collins. The census describes Charles Owen as a janitor but fails to record his and Ellen’s ages.

(To throw some confusion on the matter, the census lists a second Charles Owens living in Blacksburg and also working as a janitor in 1900. Later census records indicate that this Charles Owens also worked on campus, but following this man’s documentary trail we learn that he is not the man who came to be known as Uncle Sporty.)

Owen’s photo first appears in The Bugle (the college annual) in 1899. He is shown in a composite photo of other maintenance staff and is identified only as “Sporty Sam.” Given the time period and the fact that another African-American campus employee is referred to as “Smoky Sam,” we can infer that the name “Sam” was almost certainly being used here as a diminutive of “sambo,” a derogatory term that, even if used in jest, showed a flagrant disrespect.

Charles Owen, 1899 Bugle

Owen’s photo would again appear in the 1908 Bugle. By that time, he’d picked up the nickname “Uncle Sporty,” and while the term “uncle” when applied to African-American men of that era was also unquestionably derogatory, its use by the cadets in referring to Owen would seem to indicate an improvement of sorts in his status and the affection that they held for him. (We might also bear in mind that the cadets invariably referred to William Gitt, a white man who succeeded Owen as a worker in Lane Hall (and about whom I posted three years ago), as “Uncle Bill.”)

Illustrating the standing that Owen held in the cadets’ minds, his photo appears near the front of the annual, preceded only by the volume’s dedication page.

Charles Owen, 1908 Bugle

Below Owen’s photo is a poem, attributed to “J.D.P., ’08” (John Dalrymple Powell of Portsmouth, Virginia), written in the “Negro dialect” commonly used by white writers of the day. While the delivery is demeaning, the sentiments seem heartfelt:

Bein’ as I’se de fust to see yo’ when yo’ come,

And as I says Good-bye to every one,

And since I takes most painful care

Of all my boys throughout the year,

It seems to me most sartin’ sure

Dat I should be right here befor’

De folks of all dese friends of mine

And gib’ a greetin’ which dey’ll find,

Dat dough dey lib’ to be past forty,

Will make dem tink of “Uncle Sporty.”

According to The Bugle’s Echo, Owen continued to perform his campus duties until mid-1909, when,  due probably to age and failing health, he retired and left Blacksburg. “He took with him,” writes Temple, “the great well-wishes and gratitude of the cadets.” The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times) of March 2, 1910 reported that Owen had suffered a stroke, leaving his entire left side paralyzed. Just three weeks later, the newspaper announced Owen’s death. In eulogizing him, the editor offered what he considered high praise, but even here the newspaper could not resist inserting a backhanded “compliment”:

Charles Owen, the old negro janitor who for years has been known by the familiar name of “Uncle Sporty,” and who was loved and respected by hundreds of students and alumni of V. P. I., died at his home last week after a lingering illness. Owen had for many years been janitor of Number One barracks and his sterling honesty and respectability as well as his never-to-be-forgotten duty of awakening the sleepers each morning with the rumbling of his ancient drum, had made him a familiar and unique figure here. He was of the old order, now seen no more among the negroes, and his death is sincerely mourned by everyone who knew him. He is survived by several children, two of whom occupy positions with the college.

The Bugle’s Echo notes that Owen’s standing at the university was such that students proposed providing the pallbearers and a firing party for his burial service, only to find that the funeral had been held before these arrangements could be made. Still, the cadets collected a “substantial sum of money,” according to Temple, “and a huge spray of flowers was ordered to be placed upon his grave.” Shortly thereafter, The Virginia Tech published a poem by M. W. Davidson (BS, 1901) entitled “Uncle Sporty’s Drum,” the third stanza of which reads:

No matter where roams Hokie’s man, his memory never failing;

He ponders on the long ago, though often rough the sailing.

The strife is long, the fight grows hot, and is ever lost by some,

But not by them who learned the way, where Sporty beat that drum.

A memorial also appeared in The Bugle for that year, featuring Owen’s photo and another poem.

Though the newspaper mentioned that two of Owen’s children continued to work at the university in 1910, nothing about them could be found. The 1910 census shows Ellen “Owns,” Charles’ 35-year-old widow, still living in Blacksburg, together with son-in-law “Rubin” Collins and two grandchildren. The census-taker noted that Rubin was working as a janitor in the “VPI Halls.” That same census shows another son-in-law, Hiram Collins, working as a janitor in the “YMCA Hall” (today the College of Arts and Human Sciences Building).

It isn’t easy, given the length of time that’s elapsed since his death and the little information at hand, for us to draw conclusions about Owen’s daily life, to put it in the context of the times, to know how he felt about his work at VPI and the students with whom he regularly interacted. (We haven’t even managed to conclusively identify his surname.) The little that we’ve learned of Charles Owen and his term of service here illustrates the larger, complicated topic of race relations of the era. It may be naïve and overreaching for us to say that Owen’s legacy was one of a slowly evolving, growing acceptance of and respect for African Americans in the campus community, but there can be no doubt that his work contributed to the university’s growth in its early decades, that his longstanding presence helped to instill in the students an affection for their school,  and that he continued to be fondly remembered by university alumni for many decades following his death.