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When Material Culture Invades Your Basement, Or, What do we do with this stuff?

September 1, 2017

With the upcoming HARN conference about archives and falling down rabbit holes whilst in them, I’ve been thinking a lot about archives themselves.  How do they form?  Who decides what to put in it?  Who decides what to reject?  I know the general answers to this, but there are choices made at every step of organization and, as there is always something to talk about with archival material, I’ve been thinking about these methods.  As historians, almost nothing goes unnoticed—we need to see receipts, pictures, clothing tags—even the smallest of postcard notes can help us make our argument.*  Many times, we see these items in controlled archives where they’ve been collected, catalogued, and displayed for research purposes. We all have stories of handling materials in different ways.  Some archives keep the whole area climate controlled to less than 45 F/7 C and remain glued to your side while you go through the materials while wearing cotton gloves.  Others toss some folders in your arms and wish you luck.  There are archives that do everything in between those extremes.  So what methods do you use when you suddenly find yourself in possession of a relatively small but focused archive?

This is where I find myself, right now.  A little back story (we are historians, after all…) My father’s father died 22 years ago and his mother died 20 years ago.  Since he was the oldest of 4, all of their belongings went to him.  His aunt died 15 years ago.  She had no children of her own so, again, she left everything to my dad.  In each case, we packed everything, from more than 24 decades of three lives, that they had kept in their homes.  My dad’s parents had kept loads of items from my dad’s and uncles’ childhoods, not to mention their own stuff. My dad’s aunt and her husband had entertained a lot, so there were a lot of dishes, glasses, and other items of that sort.  We sold a lot of their stuff, but kept the family heirlooms and documents.  In the last 5 years I’ve lost both of my parents, so their stuff—including what was left of my grandparents’ and Great Aunt’s items—has been split between my siblings and me.  As the historian in the family, I’ve become the default family historian as well.  I have family material history on my dad’s side going back to the late 19th century.


No names, but I wish I knew who this was.


I had no idea we had twins on Dad’s side.

My mother’s parents are still alive, and hopefully will be for a while, so none of the stuff on that side has been given to us. But I know it’s there, I just saw it a couple of years ago: a room full to the rafters of boxes, filing cabinets, and stuff.  But I digress.

My brother, sister, and I, in dealing with grief and stuff, ran across this interesting article from the New York Times, and thought it accurately described how we feel.  We love the memories, but neither need nor want the stuff.


Part of my basement.  There’s more stuff, I have just begun to put it away.

I don’t know what to do with everything.  None of us does.  I can’t really list everything I have, because I’m not completely sure what all there is—but I have a few big piles of pictures from when I was growing up, 8mm family films (I’m in the process of digitizing these and here’s a quick example of the awesomeness of technology.  This is 68 year-old film, and that’s my dad as a baby, with his parents), pictures from when my dad was young, record albums, dishes, my dad’s military uniforms, medals, pictures from his time in the service, paperwork, tax receipts, film from work events, diaries, letters, yearbooks, and did I mention pictures?


I can’t complain on the records. He had good taste and there’s more where this came from.


I decided to keep some dishes. 12-person place setting, complete except it’s devoid of soup or cereal bowls. I do have 3 different types of salad plates, though.

I’m writing this for a couple of reasons.  First, I’m betting someone else out there must have a similar problem, so I’m going to let you know what we are doing.  There is a lot of technology out there that can help us save our family materials in a less onerous form.  I’m in the process of digitizing a lot of the 8mm film (I bought this machine which can handle all of the 85+ small 8mm reels for relatively cheap–it just takes time), and possibly the pictures (there are hundreds, if not thousands), so that I can pass along USBs, DVDs, and file links to my siblings and my son (if these technologies hold) and they won’t have to pack up an entire SUV to save everything.

Loaded SUV

My SUV is small, but it was packed full, with enough room for me to fit in the driver’s seat.

In passing our lives down to our children, we have to be aware that they might not want our things. What then?

Second, my dad’s 3 brothers have expressed interest in taking some of the pictures and other items from me, but I worry that it would split up what should be a cohesive collection.  So what do I do with all of this stuff? Here I am, extremely annoyed that I have to go through all of these documents and items, but I know there is historical merit in these materials.  I know that families of scientists, authors, politicians, actors, and more give family collections to libraries, but what about those of us whose family lived full lives but lives that didn’t draw specific attention?  Surely these items have value for historians of the quotidian?  Where do they go?  I’ve gotten permission from my siblings to donate a few things to archives here and there.  My dad’s aunt worked for Mars, the candy company, and a lot of her documents are related to their events in the 50s and 60s.  I might ask the Chicago History Museum if they want some of the more general stuff, since a lot of the family history is based in Chicago.  Does any one have any experience with this?

This is what happens when I’m left to my own devices—on so many levels—to deal with an archive.  Our work and archive dives are very personal, but this is doubly so.  I’m worried that if not kept in check, I’ll spend the next 5 years organizing and cataloging receipts for dishes, insurance payments, and fur coats, and then writing up something that no one will read. I have a little experience with that, too.


*Really. I used a one-line postcard note in my MA thesis (2006) to show that Flinders Petrie, Francis Galton, and Karl Pearson were neighbors, and that they hung out at each other’s homes together. At the time I found this, there was no real proof that they were buddies.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. David Fleming permalink
    September 1, 2017 9:28 pm

    The photos of the young man are clearly American – the left-hand photo, if you look closely, was taken by the Louis Jacobs studio, at 725 West 12th St. Blvd in Chicago. The right-hand photo shows the same young man wearing what was probably a late-19th century or early-20th military academy uniform; I doubt very much that this was the US Military Academy (at West Point) because cadet uniforms there were not cut in this style (the frogging was different, if you want to get technical); however, there were many other military schools and academies in the United States (Wikipedia lists over 50) that modeled themselves on either West Point (for putative footsloggers) or Annapolis (for would-be sailors). At least this narrows it down to one country …

    • Monica Barnes permalink
      September 2, 2017 9:52 pm

      Worth checking to see if the photo studio records (negatives, names of sitters, dates) have been acquired by any library or archive.

      • harngroup permalink*
        September 7, 2017 3:26 pm

        Good point, Monica! Thank you!–Kate

    • harngroup permalink*
      September 7, 2017 3:26 pm

      Thank you, David! Yes, all of the family history since 1870 or so on my father’s paternal side is American. Interesting points about the military uniform.

  2. Monica Barnes permalink
    September 2, 2017 12:50 pm

    I believe the china pattern is Franciscan’s Desert Rose, made from 1985-2003. It was a very popular pattern in its day. If so, various sizes and shapes of bowls are still available from sites including

    The twins–dead or alive? I say dead–propped up on seat, eyes open and, tellingly, mouths open. However, my husband points out that one of the eyes has a reflection, something that disappears shortly after death as fluids evaporate. I’m not sure that early photographers didn’t have their tricks like drops to restore the live look. Lots of postmortem photos were made in the 19th and 20th centuries. In some the subject is obviously dead, in his or her coffin with sunken features. Sometimes children were photographed as frankly dead, but often they were posed to look as alive as possible. If the twins were dead when photographed that could explain why knowledge of twins in your father’s family was lost. No descendants. There are fake postmortems, too. In one series, portraits of a young model supposedly on her deathbed have sentimental captions like, “I went to my grave a maid” or “I never told my love”. If one assembles a whole series one can see the young woman aging a tad and her hair is at various lengths.

    As for what to do with the family records–have you considered genealogy society libraries, local history museum archives, etc?

    • harngroup permalink*
      September 7, 2017 3:29 pm

      Oh, I’ve looked up the bowl replacements. To get one bowl that I want is $20, and I’m willing to spend $250 to get the set of 12. 🙂

      I had wondered about the postmortem babies as well, but there are pictures of them in this same collection later in life, so for some reason that gives me some relief (even though they’re obviously dead now). When I mentioned the postmortem thing to my husband who isn’t a historian he was really creeped out.

      As for other records, I think that’s where I’m going to have to go. I was thinking Chicago History Museum, but there are other smaller groups around the NW suburbs up there.

      Thank you!–Kate

      • Monica Barnes permalink
        September 7, 2017 3:45 pm

        I’m also somehow relieved the twins lived on. When my mother was a girl (this would have been in the 1930s), her grandfather had photos of dead relatives on display. As soon as he died, the family burnt them all. They had been creeped out, too. Because of that attitude, postmortem photographs are now among the rarest.

        A few years ago I went to a lecture by a rather well-known photographer illustrated with her own work. One of her projects was a longitudinal study of a schizophrenic, bisexual, homeless, drug addict. We saw photos of this guy shooting up, passed out on the floor, in sexy women’s underwear, etc. The sophisticated New York audience took all this in their stride.What did elicit gasps of horror, though, was the photo of him contemplating his sister in her coffin.

        What was normal, respectful, and even pious in Victorian and Edwardian times is now upsetting.

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