About Barbara

Barbara Austen is the Archivist at CHS and is responsible for all of the incoming manuscripts, which means she gets to read people's diaries or mail. She has a master's Degree in Library and Information Science and has been working in the museum and historical society world for 30 years.

In a chicken coop like place

I’ve seen movies and television shows that were set during World War I, but it still amazes me how relatively primitive things were in the early 20th century. That came back to me when I started perusing a diary kept by Oscar Sandell, who served with the Ambulance Corps  in France with the American Expeditionary Forces. He did not see any action but served as an orderly and later a chauffeur for the officers at a base hospital.

Oscar Sandell's diary, with an entry about landing at Harvre, France, in January 1918.

Oscar Sandell’s diary, with an entry about landing at Harvre, France, in January 1918.

When he arrived at Havre on January 11, 1918, he wrote “stayed at rest camp over night Lived in a chicken coop like place, all lying side by side. No windows or floors in the place. Open on one side like the old places folkes [sic] used for shelter for horses & wagons at churches.” Nearly every day in January it seems to have rained and the only way to keep warm was by the fire or the wood stove–evidently no central heating. Oscar went in to town to buy lamp chimneys (oil or kerosene lamps, I presume), although they did have flashlights. In the evenings, he mentions listening to “the talking machine.”  On February 21 he received his gas mask. Transportation was also an issue. The troops still used horses so he went horse back riding. He had a puncture in his tire and no extra tubes with which to repair the flat so he drove back on the rims (no spare tire, either, I suppose).

Oscar Sandell may have drawn this cartoon about his experiences with the Ambulance Corps in World War I.

Oscar Sandell may have drawn this cartoon about his experiences with the Ambulance Corps in World War I.

With the centennial of the Great War approaching, it is timely that we should acquire the diary and some of the other souvenirs Sandell collected in France. I will no doubt be writing more about the war as the anniversary approaches, highlighting other items in the CHS collection.

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How many copies does it take?

Sometimes you just don’t realize what you are looking at. I was reviewing the Wolcott papers to make sure I put the right volume- and object-numbered document in the correct “folder” of the finding aid (just one step in the project funded by NHPRC to get our manuscripts online through Connecticut History Online). I kept seeing the words “duplicate” and “triplicate” along the top edge of letters dated 1795 in Amsterdam and addressed to the Treasury Department in the U.S.

In the upper left, you can see the word "Duplicate". The letter was "mailed" July 1795 and did not arrive until October.

In the upper left, you can see the word “Duplicate”. The letter was “mailed” July 1795 and did not arrive until October. Note that the original was conveyed through Hamburg.

It was only by the time I had gotten through three or four folders that I realized that, in 1795, you did not pick up the phone, hop on a plane, or use any technology we are so used to today. In 1795, you sent multiple copies of a document (all done by hand, mind you, in perfect script) via several different routes to ensure the message arrived. I imagine the ones marked “Quadruplicate” were by far the most important. Even then, some letters took months to arrive. What happened to other copies? Did they arrive too and just not get saved? Or did they have some misadventure?

Three copies of this letter were sent to the Treasury Department.

Three copies of this letter were sent to the Treasury Department and took seven months.

In this day and age when Secretary of State Kerry can be in Ukraine in a matter of hours, how does one even begin to fathom the pace of diplomacy in the 18th century? The issue resolved in 1795, to which this letter was a part, was commonly called the Jay Treaty. The treaty averted war between the young United States and Great Britain and stipulated the final withdrawal of British troops from forts in the Northwest Territory. Maybe having to take your time meant you had to think about what you were doing in a more methodical manner.

Just what is on those tapes?

On  Saturday, volunteer VivianLea Solek and I launched a project that will take years to complete, but which I think is very exciting. Continue reading

John Trumbull, artist

John Trumbull, self portrait.

John Trumbull (1756-1843) was the son of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull and first cousin of M’Fingall poet John Trumbull. John the artist graduated from Harvard in 1773 and served as an aide to General Washington during the Revolution. In 1784 he went to London to study with the painter Benjamin West. Continue reading

Blue cloth coats with red facings and white lining

fireworksAs we prepare for the July 4th holiday and enjoy the fireworks celebrating American independence from Great Britain, it is hard to realize that our country faced a rather treacherous beginning. I thought about that when reading a series of militia brigade orders from the 1790s.

Continue reading

Samson Occom- Getting More Collections Online

The past few days I have been preparing the scans from the microfilm of the Samson Occom papers so I can publish them in Connecticut History Online. This is another of the collections we are getting online with funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. I have already blogged about the Wolcott papers, which are only about half done. Continue reading

Oh, you meant that Smith!

I love mystery stories and I find that reference questions let me play sleuth every once in awhile. That happened last week when a nice gentleman from South Dakota contacted me about a manuscript he had that was a “religious exegesis” on the book of Romans written in Greek and English. On the cover of this 13-page document was written the name “Professor Smith”. Having done some research, he thought Professor Smith might be Julia Smith, one of the Smith sisters of Glastonbury. Wow, that would be a great addition to our holdings on Julia Smith. Continue reading

Dr. Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water

Letter from Joseph Thompson to his uncle Isaac Thompson, 1842. Ms 101872

Letter from Joseph Thompson to his uncle Isaac Thompson, 1842. Ms 101872

Joseph Thompson of Bridgeport, Connecticut, wrote a letter to his uncle Dr. Isaac Thompson of New London, Connecticut, in May, 1842. Joseph related the peaceful death of two of his sisters within a week of each other and how devastated he felt. His mother, he mentions, is also dying.

While the above tale is a sad one, what is really interesting about this letter is the recipient. Isaac Thompson was a fairly well-known pharmacist who sold various “patent” medicines including “Dr. Isaac Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water”. Thompson introduced this remedy in 1795 and it was continuously available for nearly 200 years in Connecticut and the country. In fact it had the largest sale in the U.S. of any topical ophthalmic preparation in the 19th century. Continue reading

He survived Andersonville Prison

Diaries and letters of Civil War soldiers from Connecticut form a large part of our manuscript holdings, so I don’t go out of my way to add more material unless it tells a previously unknown or undocumented bit of history. That is how and why we acquired a certificate issued to Alonzo G. Case of Simsbury by the Connecticut Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War. We had nothing comparable to it in the collection. Who knew there was such an organization? Continue reading

“Book of letters”

One of my tasks in getting the Oliver Wolcott papers digitized and online is quality control—looking at each image to make sure it is clear and legible. I am up to box 18 (of 59!). When I got to the volumes of draft letters in box 16, I noticed the “docketing” on the reverse. It gave me some insight into how his office was run. Wolcott wrote his own letters, but then secretaries took those, copied them, and recorded each letter in a register of sorts. Then that information was written on the back of the page, as can be seen in this example. This letter was written to the Secretary of State and recorded in “Book of Letters No. 3 to Executive Officers.”

A check of the National Archives indicates that for the Department of the Treasury, there is an entire series of “Letters Sent”, including indexes and registers that are organized by the recipient—President, Cabinet Officers, Congress, Judiciary, etc. The indexes cover the years Wolcott was in office, but evidently registers from those years did not survive. Hmm, sounds like at some point I should make the trip to Washington to see these registers and indexes in person. I love learning new things!

Digitizing the Wolcott papers is being funded in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).