Friday, November 4, 2005
What Makes an Archival Collection? : The Wilson family papers
In the past six months the Carlisle Historical Society has received two collections of materials from the Wilson family, donated by Mary (Wilson) Gillespie, Sarah Andreassen's sister. Mary grew up in Carlisle, but has lived and taught for many years in Lexington. The Wilson family papers provide an example of the types of materials an archives receives, while demonstrating how such materials contribute to the repository's mission and in doing so expand our knowledge of the town's history.
The Wilson family papers do not form an extensive collection, filling just one document box, or about twelve folders, but it is a rich collection. It contains nineteenth- and twentieth-century materials and includes photographs, invoices and receipts, newspaper clippings, event programs, a business card, a victualler's license, and papers relating to the Ladies Union of the Unitarian Church. When I accession a collection like this, I begin by doing an inventory of the materials. If the donor has arranged them in a particular order, they will remain that way; otherwise, I impose a logical order on the collection. Steps are taken to preserve the materials by interleaving between pages with archivally-safe paper and putting photographs and more fragile items in mylar enclosures, before placing the materials in acid-free folders and boxes. The papers are then described in a finding aid, which contains both an inventory list and a narrative that includes the history behind the materials. At this point it is considered a "processed" collection and is available for use by researchers.
Through these papers we seek to document the Wilson family in Carlisle, but the collection provides an incomplete patchwork of information. For example, there are five pages of photographs mounted on black paper that have been torn from an album. The photos were all taken in 1934, have captions, and feature people who have familiar names and are clearly Carlisle-related, but without the album they lack context. There is another set of photographs illustrating various landscapes after a heavy snow. There are no identifying names or dates, but someone thought them important enough to keep. However, five mounted photographs of the Wilson Stock Farm are clearly linked to Captain Horace W. Wilson, who established the South Street business in the late nineteenth century. We're pleased to add these previously undiscovered views of the farm to others contained in the Society's collections. (An image of the Wilson Stock Farm was featured on the cover of Images of America: Carlisle.) The victualler's license is a very important artifact, because it relates to a tea room run by Nettie O. Wilson in the Wheat Tavern in the early 1930s, one of Carlisle's few businesses, and particularly important because the proprietor was a woman. The collection also contains her business card, which reads: Miss Nettie Barker is prepared to do all kinds of Dressmaking / At her home, Carlisle, Mass. so we know that she was a working woman both before and after her marriage.
One of the most important documents in the collection at first appears insignificant: an itemized bill from the Concord Municipal Light Plant, dated August 1, 1908. But in fact it is very important, because it provides evidence that Horace W. Wilson had electricity brought to his home and business several years before anyone else in Carlisle. Concord Municipal Light strung wires from the Middlesex School to the Wilson Stock Farm on South Street, providing Wilson with electricity in 1908, while the rest of Carlisle had to wait until 1911.
The Wilson papers are not as mysterious as some collections because the family had a strong presence in Carlisle, serving the town for many generations. Those familiar with Carlisle history are aware of the contributions of Waldo and Esther Wilson and their decades of work with Carlisle Fire Department. Waldo's daughter, Sarah Andreassen, served as Town Accountant, and later Town Clerk from 1975 until her death in 2003, assuming the former position from her father after he held it for forty-five years. Wilson family names appear in Carlisle histories, town reports, and local newspapers, but in spite of this, the collection still has a random quality. This random, serendipitous quality is true of almost all collections, and inspires us to ask ourselves: why do we keep the things we do? Among the materials in the archives are photographs, house histories, genealogies, and legal papers like wills, probate inventories, and certificates of indenture. These are important artifacts, often documenting life's milestones, but the most revealing materials — letters, journals, and diaries — are also the most rare.
If the voices speaking through the materials can be combined with human voices who remember the people associated with the collection, then interpreting the history of the materials is enriched. That is the case with the Wilson family, because there are people living in Carlisle who are able to provide oral history to supplement the archival history provided by the documents in the collection. When this is not the case, the materials have to speak for themselves, and tell only part of the story.
An archive is a repository of the past. Every daguerreotype, wedding invitation, receipt, postcard, and scrapbook provides insight into the lives of those who have gone before us, but the record is never complete. They leave us a scattering of clues from which we try to reconstruct the details of their days, the substance of their lives.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito