Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hallowe'en Decorations, Books, and Rev. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's - All Together in One Swell Foop!

In less than a week and a half, Hallowe’en will be upon us.

Mrs. Blogger will celebrate the annual return of industrial-sized bags of candy corn to the supermarket shelves and yours truly will be all a-goggle at the new crop of inflatable Hallowe’en lawn ornaments that populate the private manicured green spaces called “lawns” in local suburbias.   Frankly, as a confirmed and probably certifiable lover of both kitsch and bargains, it’s hard to resist (at only $179.95) the seven-foot animated inflatable skeleton that plays the pipe organ.  Yes, exactly!  A Pipe Organ!!!  Like Lon Chaney in "Phantom of the Opera!!!"

C’mon; you KNOW you want one!  Just follow the link here to admire it and perhaps to order one for yourself.   

Of course, Hallowe’en isn’t generally much of a genealogy or book holiday.  

At least that’s what I thought until a few days ago.  But then, I stumbled upon a website that dealt with the age-old question I’ve been pondering here for a week or so.

The Big Question: What to do with all the books that nobody really wants anymore?

After all, in spite of being the unrepentant “bookie” that I am, I’m still a realist. You can’t save everything.  There’s only so much shelf space. Eventually, some stuff has to go. And if truth were to be told, there’s a lot of stuff (book-wise) that should never have existed in the first place.

(Take no personal offense, Danielle Steele…)

Sooner or later, excess books can become a problem, for both libraries and “private-sector” owners.

As I said, you can’t save everything, at least not in book form.  So, what’s the solution – if, in fact, there is one?

Welcome to the world of the Crafting Mom.  It is, of course an online world of wonder for the Mom Who Does Crafts.

Who would have thought that the solution to the world-wide “book backlog” problem could be simply solved by a crafting mom with a razor-sharp Exacto knife and a bucket of paint?

Frankly, the holiday possibilities are endless.  Why stop at Hallowe’en?  Other holidays – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving - are now all fair game as book-recycling holidays.  The only limits are the crafting imagination, which, I am led to believe, knows no bounds.

Anyway, I know you’re intrigued by all this hype; so here’s the simplest of solutions.  Check out the website and wonder why this has not become some sort of national biblio-recycling policy.
Rev. Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745)
For some reason (and no doubt one that reflects the perverse nature of my own mental processes), this immediately caused me to think of one of my all-time favorite works in English dealing with recycling:  the Rev. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. 

Swift (1667 – 1745), the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and one of the greatest writers in English, is probably best known for his classic “Gulliver’s Travels.”  Nonetheless, “A Modest Proposal” is a fine example of social commentary written by one of the truly great masters of satire. 

Before writing this pamphlet and releasing it in 1729, Dean Swift thought long and hard about one of the pressing social problems of his time:  the widespread problem of poverty in early 18th century Ireland and the “excess population” of Irish children – children who were mostly the offspring of impoverished Irish Catholic families. 

As a descendant of some of the very-same children the Dean was writing about, I immediately saw the genealogical implications of Swift’s “solution” when I first read “A Modest Proposal” at university a long, long time ago.

What to do, what to do, thought the Dean?  Lots of Loony-Tunes ideas were being floated about in both Ireland and England by folks with pretty shallow thought processes.  The Dean figured that since nothing quite succeeds like excess, he'd pile on with a "why haven't we thought of this before???" solution of his own.

 If you haven’t read “A Modest Proposal” in a long time, here’s the link to an online version at Project Gutenberg

Remember as you read it – Jonathan Swift was perhaps the most gifted satirist of his (or, for that matter, any) time.   “A Modest Proposal” is a fine example of what a great artist can do with a serious question if he sets his mind to it and at the same time plants his tongue firmly in his cheek.  Solutions to complex problems are not always “9-9-9” simple, obvious or practical, no matter how “interesting” they may first appear. 

And sometimes, absolutely inane ideas can sound positively reasonable in the right set of circumstances.   

The more “sane-sounding” inane solutions appear to be, the more insane the times.

Imagine what the Dean might suggest could be done with all the excess books in the world.  He’d likely put the Crafting Moms to shame with his solutions.

Cherub Kitsch or Great Art?
Oh, and I wasn’t kidding about loving kitsch-y things:  Here’s a pic of one of the “presents” I got folks several Christmases ago.  I just hadda keep one for myself, perhaps as a collectible “inflation hedge” in the event of hard economic times.  

I understand art collectors will likely pay big money for fine ceramics like this…

At least - - - I live in hope ...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Public Libraries Are Free; So, Does That Mean They Don't Cost Anybody Anything?

Lots of folks took the time to read the last post here about libraries and books.  And, as I suspected, real books still matter to lots of folks.  Nobody likes to see books go to “book heaven”, even if they’re the umpteenth copy of really bad teen paranormal romance novels.

And with regard to the destruction of actual manuscript public records  -   that's a special legal issue all unto itself.

There was, of course, an ulterior motive behind the post in the first place.  It wasn’t just about pulping books.  It was to subtly suggest that “free” public libraries aren’t really “free” at all.  Choices have to be made.  Choices cost money.  The physical space that libraries need is not “free.”   Publishers do not provide books for “free.”  And – surprise – the companies that provide libraries with online databases don’t do this for “free.”

Somebody pays for it all in the end.  You pay. I pay.  Pretty much everybody pays something.  And while public libraries are “free” to use, that doesn’t mean that they’re, well, “FREE.” 

Like lunch, ferinstence.

Look, everybody loves libraries.  Just ask ‘em.  But when you ask them to actually PAY for libraries, their tune starts to change a bit.  In fact, the melody gets to sound a bit off-key.

Back in 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dropped a bunch of money on OCLC (OCLC – the library cataloging gurus   - the people who bring you WorldCat and one of the leaders in the field of library research) to look at the “support” status of libraries as the 21st century was getting underway.

When all was surveyed, said and done, here’s what they found:

  • Public library use is increasing.
  • Public library support from government at all levels (federal, state, local) has either flat-lined or declined and ballot initiatives for additional funding haven’t been doing very well.
  • Ballot initiatives for new space have been doing especially poorly.
  • Largely funded by local tax dollars, libraries compete with local police, fire, public works and other “key services” departments for public funding. Guess who wins?
  • Being “supportive” of libraries in the abstract and actually being willing to fork over actual cash to actually support them financially in the “real” world aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Lots of these “on the surface” public library “findings” were predictable.  

However, it gets really interesting when you drill down in the report and see some of the more specific findings.  For example, more than half of the people who described themselves as “financially strapped” felt that their local public library already had enough government funding and said that they would be unlikely to vote for increased support. Less than 30% of the respondents overall felt this way.  

40% of these “financially strapped” folks thought that tax increases for libraries would be “a waste of the public’s money”, compared to 16% of overall respondents.

Remember – this report came out way back in 2008, before “financially strapped” took on its current meaning and encompassed even more of the population.

Another interesting finding was that the segment of the population identified as “Detached” – that is, the “higher income than average” (29% earn $100,000+), well-educated, non-library users are no friends of libraries when it comes to public funding.  While more than 40% would be willing to spend more for fire, police, schools and public health, only 20% would support increased library funding. 

Libraries were close to the bottom, beating out the last-place “park services” only by 3%.

The really interesting finding was the report of the views of what OCLC called the “Web Wins” segment of the population.  These are the folks who felt that the Internet beat the public library five ways to Sunday.  They tend to be well-educated, technologically savvy, gainfully employed and economically successful.

Turns out that the public library is the “least likely” of all public services that they’d support.  Police, yeah, sure.  Fire, yup.  Even “parks”, that’s a “go.”  But libraries – not so much.

After all, they rarely use the public library. They're convinced that they can do it all online at home. Plus, they think that librarians do not add value to the research process.  Here’s the kicker:  in answer to the question “It’s easier to do research on the Internet using search engines like Google and Yahoo than in the local public library”, 69% of the “Web Wins” respondents agreed, while only 37% of the total respondents agreed.  Of course,  most had high-speed internet access at home.

45% of the “Web Wins” group think that all the great TV programming and all the great kids’ activities make public libraries much less important to kids than they once were.

So, if you’re one of these folks and you think it’s all on the ‘net and that librarians don’t add value to the research process – please – do me a big favor.  Don’t vote.  Don’t teach my grandkids.  Don’t do anything that puts you in charge of any kind of “public policy”, especially when it comes to libraries.
Still, the most interesting finding was simply this: support for libraries was strongest among those people who felt that libraries were “transformational”, not just “informational”.  

Libraries and librarians make a difference.  Plus, it’s more than just about storing printed information in book form.  It’s about learning.  More people are using libraries.  More people are seeing their value.

Libraries are all about transforming lives.  

Transformation doesn’t come cheap.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Everything! We’re Genealogists! We Want Everything! Free! Online! Whaddaya Mean You Pulped It???

Today was a “book” day.  

I’ve been choosing and packing books for our vendor exhibit space at the Connecticut Society of Genealogists annual fall event this coming Saturday – this year in North Haven, Connecticut – and also ordering books for the event the week following in Bergen County, New Jersey

(I’m doing one talk at the Connecticut event, should you be interested.)

So, to continue with the “book day” theme, let me point out that the brand-new New England Historic Genealogical Society book catalog was released today.  We stock a number of the NEHGS titles, so it was good to find some new things in print.

In print. In  paper. As in real paper-and-glue books.  

You know, the kind of things that don’t need a special “reader”, will work when the power goes out and can be loaned out or given to friends.  Real books.   You may have heard of them.

Now, before you get on my case, call me a Luddite, tell me to get with the program and suggest it’s only a matter of time till everything of value is (a.) digitized and (b.) online for free, please permit me this simple indulgence to point out that you’re probably grossly mistaken.

No question, more and more stuff is being digitized.  Similarly, more stuff is going online.  That’s all to the good.  But not everything.  Not even close.

Moreover, there’s a dirty little secret that nobody talks about.  Real glue and paper books are being destroyed.  Pulped.  Dumped.  Sold for waste paper. Burned. Ground up.  Shredded.  Turned into blown-in insulation for the thousands of overpriced McMansions that now dot the landscape in ex-urban America.  The very same McMansions that offer convincing proof that there are Schools of Architecture and licensing boards that should be sued for malpractice, at least as far as architectural aesthetics and design are concerned.

But I digress.  The issue at hand is books.  As I said, today was a book day.

First, let me say that I LOVE Google Books and all the other digitization programs.  Nonetheless, when I swivel my desk chair around to look at the stuff on my own shelves – my personal reference collection of real honest-to-Murgatroyd books – most of them are not digitized.  There are both copyright issues and “popularity” issues that keep that from happening. 

Let’s face it: a book titled “The Record : a History of the Graduates' Association of the State Normal School, Worcester, Mass. ; Revised and Brought Down to 1904” is not a title that makes the heart beat quicker.   

In fact, our friends at WorldCat locate a single copy at the Worcester Public Library.

That’s it.  One copy.  In one library.   

There may be others, but WorldCat doesn’t know about them.

Were you to check the out-of-print booksites for that title, you’d find that currently there were exactly NONE for sale. 

So, my personal copy on the shelves behind my desk is – to use the technical term – “hard to come by.”  Of course, most people will never want or need a copy, so it’s a “low-priority” item for reprint or for digitization.

Besides, there’s a copy at the Worcester Public Library.  You can always go there to look at it.

Oh, wait… there’s that “dirty little secret” thing I talked about.

That’s all about space and storage being expensive and libraries being “patron demand-driven”.

Did you know that libraries actually got rid of (i.e., destroyed) books?  Given much thought lately to how/why they did that and how/by whom that was decided?

I spent a large number of years as a trustee of an urban public library and also as a board officer of a large library system.  The concept of “library of last resort” – the library that kept one single reference copy of things that needed keeping – was a much talked about and little acted upon issue, but that was before space was an issue and before digitization got a foothold in the library/book world.

Now it’s a major issue, but still a little talked-about or acted-upon one.

So, if you think that “books in libraries” are safe from extinction and destruction, you might just as well believe in gardens of prancing unicorns and free pie for everybody.  Ain’t gonna happen.

Here’s an article by Linda Holmes on the NPR Blog website that underscores what’s really going on in the book/library world with regard to books going “bye-bye.”  It’s called “Hard Choices: Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?” 

Read it.  Be surprised. Weep.

Then go buy a real book and save it for future generations.

Because what you think is probably happening ...probably isn't.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Censuses Behaving Badly: The Case of the Two Therman Lockharts

Ennis, McDowell County, West Virginia has never been much of a metropolis.  

In a “Coal Country” county with few roads and lots of sparsely populated “hollers”, surrounded by places with names like Antler, Switchback, Jed, Six, Johnnycake and Panther, it doesn’t appear as a “destination” in tourist guidebooks. 

Remember, in the 2010 census, the population of the entire county was just a hair north of 22,000 people – about the same as in a square of apartment blocks in some parts of Manhattan.

In fact, if it weren’t for geology and if easy access to the Number 3 Pocahontas Seam had been located somewhere else, there’s a very good chance that Ennis, West Virginia wouldn’t exist at all.  However, because of that seam, about 300 men who worked for the Turkey Gap Coal and Coke Company dug out nearly 1200 tons of coal from deep inside the earth around Ennis every year.   Mules and steam locomotives hauled the coal out to be loaded into railroad cars.  From Ennis, it was hauled on the railroad track that hugged the twists and turns of the Elkhorn Creek that cut through those McDowell County hills.

Coal mining has always been dirty, dangerous work. Men went in in the morning clean and came out in the evening covered in black dust – on the outside and on the inside. In 1910, the “Annual Report of the West Virginia Department of Mines” noted that the Turkey Gap mine in Ennis needed careful attention  “…for it has been known to liberate a large quality of explosive gas…”

The McQuail family’s Turkey Gap mine at Ennis was not the only coal operation that cut into the rich Number 3 Pocahontas seam.  In between Ennis and nearby Elkhorn, men worked at the Upland mine, the Houston One and Houston Two mines and the Crozier One and Two mines.  Each mine employed hundreds of men, some of them off-the-boat eastern European immigrants who spoke little or no English and who lived together in rooming houses.  The 1910 census noted that their first languages were Russian, Slovenian, Slovak, Hungarian and Russian, the sound of which had not been heard much in this part of West Virginia until coal brought boom times.  And because the census taker couldn’t ask the questions in a language they could understand, the age and marital status of many of these miners is simply listed as “unknown.”

Coal mining towns needed all sorts of workers to keep things running smoothly.  There were carpenters, blacksmiths, storekeepers, cooks, rooming-house keepers, barbers, and doctors.  There were foremen, managers and superintendents. There were preachers and teachers. There were single men and large families with children.  Folks who were born a few miles away and folks who had traveled there, sometimes from the other side of the earth, all there because of that Number 3 Pocahontas Seam.

One of those many travelers from afar was a single 23 year old man whose census entry indicates that he was a “teacher – public school.” His full name was Therman Allen Lockhart, but most people simply called him “T.A.”  He lived in Edith Piles’ rooming house in Elkhorn District - probably just a walk from his school - along with eight other boarders, plus Edith’s extended family and some hired help.  His father and mother were living on a farm in Grant District, Jackson County, West Virginia, more than 175 miles to the north, and too far for the occasional casual visit home during the school year.

T.A. was a country-schoolhouse teacher.  He taught everybody everything that needed teaching, from history to math to science to spelling. He had coal miners’ sons and storekeepers’ daughters in his class.

This is what his teaching certificate looked like (and you can see that he was very, very good at history):

You can also see him in the photo above, which came from T.A.’s own collection.  He’s the last person on the right, in the dark suit and tie, looking somewhat uncomfortable and very serious and teacher-ish.  Almost all of the other people in the photo are his pupils at the Ennis School during the 1909 – 1910 school year. 

Here's a close-up. The stern-looking woman to his left may well be the 30 year old teacher Essie Shelton, also a resident of Mrs. Piles’ boarding-house, whose name is next to his in the census – however, it’s hard to tell the young-ish teachers from their “almost as old” students.

T.A. didn’t stay long in Ennis.  He taught in several other locations, found a wife, moved back to his home area in Jackson County and stayed there for the rest of his life, raising a family, and keeping livestock, chickens, and hives of honeybees.  In between those activities, he delivered the local mail for the post office, wrote frequent local history columns for several local newspapers and in the 1930s, worked on his family genealogy, interviewing his older relatives, keeping copious notes and writing family sketches. 

T.A. Lockhart wrote many of the family stories that our own grandkids will read someday. You see, T.A. was one of their eight great-great grandfathers – each of whom has a unique North American story.

The point of telling you a small part of T.A.’s story today was to draw your attention to something you may not have thought much about lately.

Simply put, for genealogists, census work can hold lots of surprises, especially in this “new age” of digitized and indexed images.  Here’s an example:

Years ago, genealogists cranked away at microfilm readers, searching for a family or name.  When the sought-after name was found, the information was recorded or printed and that was that. After all, once you found what you were searching for, why keep on looking?

Enter the wonderful world of online census indexes.  Now, the search time for a record is often reduced from hours to fractions of seconds, especially when everything goes right.  But every now and again, an anomaly shows up.

Like “The Case of Two Therman Lockharts” in the 1910 Census of West Virginia. 

One Therman Lockhart is listed in Elkhorn, McDowell County.  He is the teacher-boarder living in Mrs. Piles’ boarding-house who is pictured above. 

His boarding-house entry, seventh from the bottom, dated 4 May 1910, can be found on sheet 6-A of ED 85 (Elkhorn District, McDowell County, WV):

The other Therman Lockhart is the teacher-son living on the family farm in Grant District, Jackson County, with his parents, Jonathan and Virginia (Full) Lockhart. 

Here is that entry, dated 22 April 1910, found on sheet 5-B of ED 44 (Grant, Jackson County, WV):

They are, in fact, the very same person, even though both census takers in Jackson and McDowell Counties spelled his first name wrong.  (That spelling issue may be why he called himself “T.A.”)

Without this census anomaly, a researcher would not likely think to look for Therman Lockhart in more than one place in 1910 – the Jackson County entry being the most “logical.”  In fact, if you were researching the family in general and T.A. in particular and had never seen the “Ennis” photo above or did not know about T.A.’s very short teaching career in southern West Virginia, you’d have no reason at all to look for him in McDowell County. 

After all, why would a researcher expect that someone – all of whose census entries from 1900 to 1930 reflected continuous residence in Jackson County, West Virginia  - might be found “elsewhere”?
No question, finding him in McDowell County provides the researcher with important data not easily found anywhere else.

That’s one of the marvels of technology – being able to find those little things that probably should not even be there in the first place – like Therman Lockhart’s double entry in the 1910 census.

Oh, and by the way, check out two of the guys sitting directly to the left of the teachers.  Here’s an enlargement (see photo left) of that part of the photo.   

Look in their hands.  A gun? A playing card? 

Teaching has always been a tough job.  Kids act up and kids act out, whether it's 1910 or 2010. 

Been there, done that.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Redactio Ad Absurdum"? Can't Tell You: It's Classified

One of the many advantages of having received a university education outside the United States and in a country that is officially bilingual is that I am no stranger to the word “rédacteur.” 

It was hard not to see the word on a daily basis in the Province de Quebec. You find it on the title page of many French anthologies or other works of literature.  You find it in newspapers. You see it on the credits of Quebecois news programmes. In French, it simply means “editor”, or the person who gets the work ready for publication.

The real issue comes when you loosely translate that simple French word into English in the United States these days. 

At that point, when rendered in good ol’ American English, the “rédacteur” can become something different – in fact, the word itself is laden with a whole lot of highly-charged political and social implications.  In effect, the French word “rédacteur” becomes the English word “redactor.” In the United States, that person - the “redactor” - is the individual charged with the responsibility of deciding exactly what you, in your role of reader or researcher, will NOT be allowed to see.  
These days, “redactor” equals “censor” when rendered in American English.

Of course, redactors are not editors in the traditional sense – they’re the folks with those thick black markers who cross out sensitive passages prior to publication - passages that they think could endanger national security, disclose protected personal information or embarrass the people in power (or the folks formerly in power).

That’s why I was interested to see that the Brennan Center for Justice has just issued a new 76 page report called “Reducing Classification Through Accountability” that focuses on the “national security – government secrecy – who’s really in charge here” conundrum. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but the concept discussed is important.  A culture of secrecy pervades parts of government and the twin tools of classification and redaction can have a chilling effect on the distribution of information.   

It’s easy to classify or redact things in the name of “national security”; fear is a powerful motivator.   

Unfortunately, getting stuff “de-classified” or “un-redacted” isn’t quite as easy.

These days, it’s not uncommon to find something like this in the reviews of any recently published book about foreign policy written by a former employee if the government:

The recent work describing the United States’ role in [fill in the blank with non-European country of choice] has been heavily redacted by the [fill in gov’t agency here] in the interest of national security.

The “national security” issue trumps everything for the redactor; the black Magic Marker is king.

Generally, for genealogists, the issue of “classification & redaction” isn’t much on the radar.

Still, it should be. 

Not because of concern for the records of the long-ago past, but rather - for the records of the recent past, the immediate present and the not-too-distant future.  While it won’t much affect you in the search for your 3rd great-grandpa, it may present a major barrier in your search for information about your third cousin, once removed.  And it may very well affect your great-grandchildren in their search for you and your offspring someday.

Genealogists need to be concerned about the state of future records, not just for the old stuff that they use themselves; future records are those that will be needed by future researchers not yet born.  And it’s not just about government records; other records repositories are already affected as well.

For example, there’s been a discussion about redaction that’s been going on in the professional archives world for some time now. Earlier this week, it took up a lot of space on the Society of American Archivists listserv. Archivists – in search of collegial guidance – continue to ask each other, “What should we do about all the stuff in archives that has that troublesome “personal identifier” information, especially if the person whose info we have might still be living?” 

“Personal identifier” information (aka “PII”) includes such things as Social Security numbers, birth dates, credit card numbers and home addresses.  Stuff like this ends up in archival collections all the time, especially when some descendant is cleaning house and donates “the personal papers” of her semi-famous professor-grandfather to a university archives. Problem is, a lot of this information is “almost old”, often dating to the dim period after World War II.  But not quite old enough. Some of the information concerns other people, not just the professor-grandfather.   There are letters, bills and receipts.  Pay stubs.  Tax returns.  Some of it is already public, easy to find elsewhere. This can make for difficult decision-making. There are only so many hours in an archivist’s day to look stuff up.

Then there’s the privacy issue, especially when it relates to things that many folks find embarrassing.

When I describe early 20th century newspaper research in one of my talks, I usually point out that yesterday’s privacy is not today’s privacy. For example, it is unlikely that this snippet, which appeared in the Johnstown (NY) Daily Republican in August 1893, would appear in any local paper today.  Editors would fear a lawsuit for “invasion of privacy.”

Today, local and state privacy statutes and Federal laws like HIPAA and FERPA (laws governing the release of “protected” medical and educational information, respectively) are putting archives personnel on the defensive, especially if they work in an environment circumscribed by staff attorneys who live in fear of having to defend their agency in a lawsuit.  Or face the wrath of angry donors.

The concept of “best practices” is in a constant state of re-examination, especially if there is no specific law covering specific records.  Should parts of files or whole documents be redacted? If so, for how long? Should “sensitive” information be removed altogether or be restricted in some way?  What about really old information, such as late 19th century medical records or early 20th century student records?  Where to draw the line, especially if it’s not clear if a record is actually “covered”? 

Does the death of the individual named in the “protected” record change things? Should a living relative embarrassed by information (say, evidence of illegal drug use or cheating) in an ancestor’s file in a public university archives be able to keep that information from researchers? What if the ancestor was a “public” person and the embarrassing information had already been reported in the press?  Should only “scholarly” researchers be allowed access?  What exactly is a “Scholarly Researcher?”  Does wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket fit the definition?

None of the questions above have hard and fixed answers; in a lot of places, it’s still “under discussion.”
One archivist in a local government archives noted that a record series covering records of juvenile offenders – including cases dating back to World War One – could only be accessed with a court order from a judge.  Another working in a non-public setting wrote that she had found a simple solution to the redaction issue: black out the offending personal information on the original with Magic Marker; photocopy the original; place the photocopy in the collection in place of the original; shred the original.  Problem solved. The offending tell-tale “private” information is no more.

In some states, records of institutions providing treatment to the mentally ill are archived, but kept unavailable for a very long time.  The entire series is redacted and locked down. Forever.

What if the records we used looked like this:

The more I read, the more complicated the issue becomes, especially when I consider a series of “what if” questions. What if I couldn’t access my great-great grandfather’s brother’s Civil War pension file today because someone 60 years ago observed that it contained detailed and highly personal medical information?  What if some early government record keeper decided that those Revolutionary war pension applications contained too much personal financial information about applicants’ families and ordered them burned?  What if somebody in the not too distant future determines that the “72 year rule” for the release of census information is entirely too short and needs to be lengthened by 50 years? Or decides that only redacted copies of federal records can be released (a.) in the interest of national security and (b.) to prevent identity theft?

Already, people get upset when county clerks place current property records and property tax information online for all to see. Some folks have requested that clerks remove their ancestors’ names from online record indexes in the name of “privacy.”

Bureaucrats are risk-adverse and cautious creatures by nature.  Bureaucrats tend to supervise and control people who run archives and records management programs. Sometimes, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance and keep things under wraps rather than to decide on the side of transparency and open records.

In private archives circles, this is a purely “academic” issue and open to internal discussion and debate; private archives and private records can be kept private for any reason whatsoever, especially when there’s no government law that “protects” them.  Archivists and their attorneys make those decisions about who gets access. They get to decide what gets kept and what gets “weeded”.

Still, public archives are another matter.

Here we enter the bizarro world of conflicting public priorities.  On one hand, we want complete transparency and total openness in our government. We want our politicians and government employees to disclose every tiny little detail of their private lives and personal finances so that we can all look it over if we want to.  We want to know all the nitty-gritty details of those government contracts and we want to watch them negotiated.  The argument often boils down to this - If it’s produced or paid for with taxpayer dollars, it should be public and open for inspection.  That’s good government, folks say.

On the other hand, we want our own “personal” information kept private, especially if it’s financial, health-related or potentially embarrassing, even when we’re receiving government payments.  If Aunt Sallie is entitled to Medicaid and food stamps, no newspaper should publish that information.  That’s private. The amount of Uncle Freddie’s Social Security check and pension from the bank that employed him should be private, but the pension of his next-door neighbor, who was a driver for the city sanitation department, should be public, along with his home address. Now it’s not about “good government”, it’s the “personal privacy” issue. 

And what about 100 years from now?  Will it matter anyway?

For archivists, it’s usually a “no-win” situation.  Do it one way, and you’ll have the “open government” folks after you.  Do it the other and the “privacy” folks will want your head.

Even though I have my own opinion on all of this, I’m not actually advocating for one side or the other in this discussion; I just want you to understand that this is a very complex problem in the world of archives and records management and is not going away any time soon.  Plus, it’s part and parcel of the ongoing discussion about records access that we (as genealogists) have been having with public records keepers for some time now. 

Redaction of information in records – many of them housed in government archives – is here to stay, as is the “classification for national security” issue.  Documents will continue to be locked up, withheld, occasionally defaced and even sometimes destroyed in the name of personal privacy by records keepers who are convinced that they’re doing the right thing. 

In the not too distant future, archives and vital records departments will be run by professionals who were born too late to remember that there once was a time when people weren’t deathly afraid of other people learning their dead relatives’ expired MasterCard account numbers.  When personal home office shredders  - like cell phones and home computers – just didn’t exist. When newspapers published who in town was on vacation and where they went. Or when Social Security numbers were routinely used as employee ID numbers and nobody really cared.

It’s something we all need to think and learn about.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Working In the Garden of Genealogy: Farmers or Field Hands?

Over at Marian Pierre-Louis’s blog Roots and Rambles, there’s a discussion going on about the market for professional genealogists and other such things.  She started the discussion by linking to my earlier post (see here) and then posed these questions:  

Is the role of professional genealogists disappearing?  Are their services no longer needed?  Should they focus more on providing education services?  Do you feel genealogists haven't focused on education enough? Is it time to pack our bags and go?

I tend to be wordy, so rather than clutter up her “Comments” section, I thought I’d chime in over here.

There’s an old saying, sometimes attributed to Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father), that goes something like this: “When your shoeshine boy is offering you investment advice, it’s time to get out of the market.”  Of course, old Joe Kennedy didn’t mean that all the money had dried up, just that savvy investors needed to look elsewhere, in places where nobody else was looking.

In other words, when everybody and their brother thinks they’re all of a sudden market experts or Warren Buffett wannabes, the real experts, having already recognized that the boom is over and that the bubble has quietly burst,  are now quietly looking elsewhere. 

In a way, something similar has been happening in genealogy during the past decade (even though I don’t think the family history boom is over in any way. Not by a long shot!

There’s a whole lot more genealogy being done than when I started in 1961.  More and more people are paying more and more money for things genealogical, including hiring professionals. More and more people are finding the genealogy niche markets, like I did with reprint maps way back in 1977.  Tim Sullivan’s reaches a hugely larger market than John Sittner’s original Ancestry, publisher of “The Source.” 

All of this is a good thing.

More and more people have been taking courses and seminars – both online and in-the-flesh, joining study groups and tuning it to podcasts and webinars, better educating themselves in the field with the hope of turning “pro” someday.  

I know this because they tell me directly at conferences where I speak and sell books. This is, of course, a good thing and makes for better genealogy overall, as more folks know more stuff and do better work for themselves and others. 

However, we’ve yet to see the market analyses that show there’s a huge amount of (a.) pent-up customer demand with (b.) corresponding purchasing power; i.e., customers with cash just waiting for more professional genealogists to appear and solve their brick-wall problems.

In a lot of respects, it reminds me of my days as a retail antiquarian bookseller. 

It seemed like every other person coming into the shop wanted to own a bookstore when he or she retired, mostly because he or she “just loved” books and thought it would be neat to spend the rest of their lives surrounded by old books, reading, reading, reading all the live-long day.  (Clue: real bookstore owners don't have time to read on the job...)

I wish they’d call me now; I have a great inventory of rare stuff to sell them at a great price to get them started.

Once “Antiques Roadshow” got popular, the “public at large” was convinced that every book more than 50 years old was supremely valuable and folks could never quite understand why I wouldn’t offer them hundreds – no, thousands – of dollars for their beat up family bibles and A.L. Burt reprints that they brought into the shop to sell.  It was almost like what the saw on the “Roadshow”, they thought.

Even later, folks would drop in with a book they wanted to sell and tell me how much it was worth.  After all, they already looked it up on the internet.  They zeroed in on a price they liked, disregarded the hundreds of others priced much, much lower, ignored both “points” and condition, and glossed over the fact that it was an ex-library book, with all the stamps and other marks.  The “internet” said it was worth $300, and, of course, the internet is always right.

The internet will also tell you you’re descended from Julius Caesar and the Queen of Sheba, too.

So, genealogists see that is now a public company with subscriber numbers in seven figures and that “Who Do You Think You Are” has been renewed for yet another season.  Ergo, genealogy is “hot.”  The public seems to be eating this stuff up and is spending money on genealogy hand over fist.

It’s only a matter of time when genealogy will spread, Amway-like, through every American sub-division and the market for professionals will go through the roof.

Maybe. Maybe not. 

The point of my original post was to point out that “the public at large” doesn’t quite understand what we do or why and how we do it and that the lack of understanding will have a negative effect on funding the public resources that we use (libraries and archives) and on keeping public records open and available. We talk to each other about what we do, but folks outside the group aren’t getting the message, as evidenced by the people talking about genealogy on financial websites.  Those guys are the “public at large”, not the folks reading this or Marian’s excellent blog.

How about this as a measure of the market:  first show me the section labeled “Genealogy” in your local Barnes and Noble.   

They have a labeled section for “Teen Paranormal Romance” but not for “Genealogy”, at least not where I live.  Apparently there’s a market for “TPR”, suggesting that there are more teens interested in having paranormal romances than folks interested in their genealogy.   

Here’s a market lesson to take away: when it’s ready for prime time, like Home Repair, Self-Help, Mysticism or Cooking, B&N will have a section for it.

Next – imagine what would happen if “Who Do You Think You Are” announced that they were done with “celebrity” genealogy;  next season, it was all about a grocery store cashier in Kansas, a bank teller named Horace, and a little old Italian lady from Syracuse, New York, all trying to  find their ancestors.  Where would the show’s ratings go then?   (Do you wanna flush those ratings, or should I…)   

Those currently high ratings come from folks who want to see their favorite stars in a reality TV setting, not folks who want to watch a reality show featuring their next door neighbor doing strange things.  They already have “Cops” for that…

You watch it because it’s about genealogy and if you must know, you’re way, way down the “long tail” of the TV ratings curve. You’d watch it if it were on C-SPAN at 2 AM (if only you could stay awake). 

Most folks wouldn’t. It’s called being in the minority.

Finally, here’s the real test: when there’s national conference JUST for professional genealogists held in a hotel conference room that seats at least 200 people and ONLY those folks who make a middle-class living doing professional genealogy (with no other income stream, no second job, no trust fund, no working spouse, no pension or other means of support) are allowed to attend, then there’s evidence of a viable market – but only if all those seats are filled.  

The first test of “admission” is if you’re filing a separate “Schedule C”, “Subchapter S” or corporate business return for your professional genealogy biz or receiving a W-2 or 1099 from a genealogy business as an employee.  The next is if you’re supporting a family of four, making mortgage and car payments and can still afford to send kids to college on your “professional genealogy” earnings alone.

I'm not saying that only folks who make a lot of money are professionals - far from it.  I'm not saying that the market for professional genealogists won't continue to expand.  I'm simply saying that the market is not huge.  And that there are many more tattoo artists than genealogists who earn a lot of money without any other visible means of support. 

Maybe you could already make the cut as a professional genealogist; if so,congratulations!  But remember - there aren't a lot of folks like you out there.

There will always be a market for professional genealogists, but we have a long way to go before the potential customer base is large enough to absorb everybody who wants to be a professional. 

Sure, you might have studied French for eight years in school and have a great accent, but there are only so many glamorous UN General Assembly translator jobs in New York City to be had. You might have to settle for being an elementary school substitute teacher instead. Or you may have to be satisfied with something else altogether.

Or better yet, you might decide to create your own niche business and grow your own market.

Voltaire’s Candide said it well hundreds of years ago: Il faut cultiver son jardin.  You have to cultivate your own garden.  Create your own market.  Become THE expert. Don’t follow; lead the pack.

Consider this: the young guy who sold me my new cell phone yesterday at the Verizon Wireless store told me he had both a bachelor’s degree and a shiny new master’s degree. Apparently the market demand for whatever his specific field was hasn’t grown as fast as the number of competing degreed graduates – which is why he’s now standing up for eight hours, chatting with the general public and selling phones.  

Nothing wrong with that, but probably not what he expected leaving high school.

Once again, the people – the public at large - who don’t do family history or understand the genealogical research process or know how to separate evidentiary wheat from chaff think what we do is simple.  It’s not.  They can’t see what value it has.  We can. 

For all of us who do this, we need keep on explaining, advising, encouraging and telling them our story. 

Some of us can tell them HOW to do it; that’s a different, more specialized educational activity.  We can all, however, keep telling them WHY we do it and WHY they should want to.

It’s what might be called “growing the market.”  Best to do it now in the days of plenty than in a time of drought.

Our Storied Lives And Our Big Box Of Hats

Stories are like hats. 

Look around and you’ll notice that most people don’t wear hats anymore.  Except, perhaps, when it’s too cold to go outside without one.  

Stories are like that.  Most people don’t write them down or tell them anymore, except when they have to.  And for most people, those “when they have to” moments are few and far between.

Years ago, people wore hats almost all the time.  There was a hat for going to work and a hat for going to church and a hat for walking the dog.  Big hats and little hats. Fancy hats with beads and feathers and beat-up furry warm hats.  Home-made hats and store-bought hats. Hats in the closet and hats in the attic and hats on the little table beside the front door.

As I said, stories are like hats. 

Years ago, people told stories to one another. Some got written down, others didn’t.  There were long stories and short stories.  Scary stories and funny stories. Stories for going to bed and stories to make you feel better. Stories that explained why things were the way they were. Stories that got passed down from age to youth, and were told over and over again. Stories where nothing ever changed.

Even though you knew the fate of Goldilocks, it was always thrilling when the three bears came home, no matter how many times you heard the story.  Hearing the Goldilocks story over and over again always made you feel good, and was a lot like that beat-up furry warm hat that always felt good when you put it on.

In some parts of the world, people don’t have much, but they have stories.  In other parts, there are things aplenty, but all the stories seem to have been stuffed in a box in the attic, like so many old, out-of-fashion hats.

Years ago, stories were a family thing. Grandmothers told their grandchildren about what they did as children, told them about the stories and songs they learned and about the awful scratchy hats their parents made them wear in the snow. Grandfathers wrote small snippets of stories down on paper, folded them and sent them off to their children who lived far away on what seemed like the other side the earth, but was only eight states to the west.

These stories were actually letters, with the little family stories wrapped up neatly inside, like those candy crèmes with stiff glossy brown paper on the outside – the kind of candies that you couldn’t ever identify until you took a bite. 

Letters can be stories, too, with little bits of story all tied together on a page. Grandfathers always knew that.  “I wanted to tell you that your Aunt Margaret has been unwell with palsy for most of the month and Uncle Freddie’s farm was sold to some city people from Syracuse who think they will try to raise some bees.  No rain here for weeks now. Esther got a new hat from Monkey Ward’s in the mail last week.  She thinks she looks like one of them movie people. Ha!

People come and go.  Most of all the letters with the stories in them that have ever been written have already been thrown away, and only a few remain.  Fashion comes and goes, too.  Most times, hats end up in a box and get taken to the thrift store or the charity shop, where total strangers find them, admire them, try them on and take them home.

In many ways, stories are like those hats, as well. 

Think about it.  You have stories – after all, we all do. Maybe you think they’re old and out of fashion, like those hats.  Maybe you don’t know what to do with them.  Maybe you need to try those stories on, on more time.

How can you try a story on?  

Simple.  Write it down.  Then put it somewhere so that people – family members or even total strangers – can find it.

Maybe when those stories are found again, even total strangers will admire them, try them on and take them home.

After all, stories are a lot like hats.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fever And The Miasma: The Tale of Levi Chapin Comes To An End

(This is last part of the story.  Follow the hyperlinks to Part One and Part Two)

Yellow Fever Microbe (CDC slide)
Under a high-powered microscope, the organism that causes yellow fever looks pretty harmless; you can see it on the left.  In fact, it looks a lot like an exemplar of museum-quality abstract art.

Looks, of course, can be greatly deceiving.

If Levi Chapin died of yellow fever in eastern Virginia in September of 1833, we can know one thing with absolute certainty– it was not an easy way to die.

The disease gets its name from the yellow color that the victim’s fevered skin and eyes often turn.  In the Spanish-speaking tropics, it’s called by another symptom-descriptive name: “vomito negro” or “black vomit”. High spiking fever, icy chills, vomiting and bone-wracking pain are a few of the tell-tale symptoms of the disease once called “yellow jack”.

Today, when we speak of yellow fever – a disease that only a few U.S. physicians specializing in tropical medicine will likely ever see first-hand, we use cold, clinical terms like “flavivirus”, “arbovirus”, and “arthropod”.  We speak of etiology, vectors and vaccines. None of those terms were in common use in the early 19th century. 

What was first called “bilious remitting yellow fever” was a terror-inducing medical mystery, seemingly arising out of nowhere.

Of course, back then, people thought that cholera could be “caught” by eating under-ripe fruit and that malaria was the result of bad air.

Back then, nobody knew exactly why yellow fever happened, or exactly how to cure it. People spoke of “the miasma” and burned tar in roadways to ward off the disease. They quarantined ships in harbors so that sailors wouldn’t spread the disease by breathing on or touching the uninfected. Some thought the disease was caused by rotting vegetable matter; others saw it as God’s punishment for one thing or another.

Collecting the Near-Dead in 1793 Philadelphia
Yellow fever epidemics periodically carried off sizable portions of the urban population, especially in southern cities like Savannah and New Orleans. Still, prior to 1822, some northern urban areas suffered as well.  Estimates of deaths during the Philadelphia epidemic of 1793 were in the 4,000 – 5,000 range.  Carriages roamed the cobbled streets to collect the dead and the nearly-dead.  Note the pedestrian in the picture at right above covering his mouth so that he doesn't "catch" the disease.

In some communities, officials did not permit the burial of yellow fever victims in local cemeteries.  The disease was thought to be contagious long after death and some feared that whatever caused it lived on in the ground. Graves were dug in remote parts of potters’ fields and if an epidemic caused large numbers of deaths in a community, yellow fever mounds – mass graves of hasty burials – became a common sight.  

 Even as late as 1905, some municipalities such as Minneapolis had public health ordinances that classed yellow fever as a highly contagious disease along with cholera, smallpox, typhus and measles.  Bodies of persons who fell victim to these diseases had to be disinfected, placed in metallic caskets and buried as quickly as possible, with no viewing and only a private family funeral permitted.

If Levi Chapin had fallen victim to yellow fever in 1833 Virginia, it is highly unlikely that his body would have been returned to New Hampshire for burial. Fear of the disease would have dictated otherwise.

By the 1830s, the disease seemed largely confined to southern coastal and river cities.  The fever severely struck Norfolk and Portsmouth in southern Virginia in 1855. Even later, in the summer of 1878, about 20,000 people died in the Mississippi Valley, with the cities of Memphis and New Orleans being hit the hardest.

When New Orleans physician John James Hayes wrote his short handbook titled Yellow Fever: Its Nature, Cause, Prevention & Cure in 1858, he thought he had all the answers.  He wrote:

The disease called Yellow Fever results from a deficiency of atmospheric air in the lungs; from a want of the adequate quantity of it in the lungs; and consequently from a want of the due changes imposed by it on the circulating fluids; from a want of one fluid being converted into blood, and a want of the other being duly eliminated.

Dr. Hayes thought it was all about “air and fluids.”  Observing that the New Orleans poor suffered the most during the summer yellow fever season, he recommended a temporary lifestyle change.  He suggested that “the poor should quit their confined, badly ventilated houses, which, during an epidemic season—a hot season —I would call ovens, and live in the open air, in a free exposure.

Aedes aegypti
The true cause of yellow fever – a microscopic flavivirus spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – would not even be suspected, let alone proven, for many decades after Hayes’s spectacularly bad advice to the New Orleans poor to sleep outside… with the mosquitoes.

Not surprisingly, yellow fever was always news, whenever it occurred.  Even reports of a few isolated cases in places far from home made the local newspapers all over the country during the 19th century since local editors speculated that those few cases might be harbingers of a much larger epidemic. Then as now, newspaper folks liked to be on top of epidemic disease stories, even though nobody knew that mosquitoes were the real culprits.

So, if Levi Chapin had actually contracted yellow fever in Virginia in September of 1833, there is a very good chance that the newspapers would also have reported some evidence of the disease in some part of Virginia around that same time.  In fact, there were numerous yellow fever stories in US newspapers during the month of September 1833, but they were all about the outbreak and progress of the New Orleans epidemic.  Virginia, Washington and Maryland were not mentioned.  Moreover, I have not yet located any newspaper that reported Levi’s death.

If Levi actually died of yellow fever, no newspaper of consequence took notice. Here’s what they were writing about (from The Newburyport [MA] Herald, 13 September 1833)

There are lots of newspaper stories on New Orleans, but none about yellow fever in eastern Virginia around mid September of 1833.
So, perhaps that part of the story is wrong as well.  Unconfirmed and uncorroborated family stories are interesting to read and speculate upon, but they carry no real weight as evidence. Think of them as clues that goad us on to investigate things just a little bit more.

So, the results of this inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Levi Chapin are mixed, but not completely unproductive. Evaluating the quality of the evidence we find is part of what we do as researchers. Facts get weighed and sifted; new discoveries can sometimes prove old evidence to be faulty.

We now know that the 1862 Chapin genealogy conflated Levi’s brother and nephew who were both named Stephen, and got Levi’s year of birth wrong.  We now know that while the 1963 History of Walpole, New Hampshire was right about Levi being an inventor and having patents (plural), the description of those patents was incorrect.  We now know, thanks to an early 19th century journal, exactly what Levi invented and how it was supposed to work. We now know that Google Patents has lots of interesting information, but not for those early patents issued prior to the 1836 fire at the Patent Office. We now know that researchers can use the Journal of the Franklin Institute to re-capture some of the information that was lost in that fire. And that the Google Patents “Search/ Optical Character Recognition (OCR)” software still needs a bit of work. Plus, we know lots more about moulding planes and 19th century tool-making than we know when we started.

Still, we do not know if Levi Chapin actually died of yellow fever in eastern Virginia in 1833. We do not know if he ever actually visited his son Philip in Baltimore or his nephew Stephen in Washington.  Why he chose to travel to Virginia in the first place is currently lost to history, as is the final disposition of his patents – the “Improved Chapin Hanging Saw” seems not to have made much of a mark in the sawmill business.

In fact, the inquiry process itself raises a few questions not previously considered. For example, let’s suppose that Levi Chapin actually did die of yellow fever, as they stories say. The early symptoms of the disease often take nearly a week after exposure to appear. Could Levi have visited New Orleans, been bitten there by a virus-carrying mosquito, and then returned to Virginia by boat, shaking and feverish, thinking he had a bad case of some flu-like illness? Moreover, are there other records in archives in Baltimore or Washington – when his close kin lived – that could shed more light on his demise and his travels?

There are now many more lines of inquiry to consider in the quest for facts about the life and death of Levi Chapin and I’ll continue to explore them as opportunities present themselves. Not all family history problems have easy solutions, but since much of the thrill is in the hunt itself, finding a few new doors to open and more clues to explore is its own reward.

Finally – there’s one other minor thing of genealogical interest that came to light while searching through Google Patents.  Plug in a bunch of related family names, and all kinds of curious things come out . . .

On 5 April 1870, a man living in Alton, Belknap County, New Hampshire named Smilie Tilton received patent number 101,545 for an “improved extension table.”  Smilie Tilton – who also invented and patented an “improved” wooden cheese wrapper and an “improved” calf-muzzle -  was married to a woman named Mary Elizabeth Bancroft (1840 – 1886) who was born in New Hartford, Connecticut.

Turns out that Mary E. Bancroft was the granddaughter of Westfield, Massachusetts plane maker Nathaniel Chapin and thus, the great-granddaughter of Levi Chapin – the man whose death sparked the search and this series in the first place.

There’s no doubt in my mind that inventor-entrepreneur Levi Chapin would have likely approved of his great-granddaughter’s choice of an inventor-husband.  He may even have liked the feel of the wood that Smilie used to make the model of his “improved” extension table, pictured in the patent file below.

Maybe it was even Chapin wood, from a Chapin family tree in Walpole, New Hampshire about a hundred miles away.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wood, Tools, Factories and Patents – Part Two of the Continuing Tale of Levi Chapin

(Note: this is Part 2: Part 1 is here)

Trees.   Logs.   Boards.   Wood.  

For most of the early 19th century, the family of Levi Chapin of Walpole, New Hampshire and wood, in all its various manifestations, were largely inseparable.

In the earliest days, it began with the trees themselves on Levi’s 800-acre farm.  The trees were harvested, hauled and trimmed by the Chapins, sawn in the Chapin's sawmill, turned into lumber and then sent down the river to Springfield, Massachusetts to be re-formed into the rapidly growing community’s houses, stores, offices, and furniture.

If you had an ancestor living in 19th century Springfield, her kitchen table or cellar door may have been made with wood from Levi Chapin’s farm. The planks that floored her bedroom may have been smoothed by one of Levi’s sons. Her parlor fireplace mantel may have started as a thousand pound piece of a hundred-year-old tree hauled off a hill by a Chapin horse.

Levi’s five sons grew up surrounded by the work wood makes, in all its manifestations.  There were trees to be cut.  Bark to be removed. Sawdust to be swept up.  Firewood to be sawn and split.  Logs to be transformed into boards by those unforgiving mill saw blades.

Their lives were circumscribed by the sound and smell of wood:  trees falling, axes and saws pounding and ripping, fires of waste wood crackling, and the dull thud of a never-ending supply of boards being stacked in higher and higher piles for shipment elsewhere.

With sawdust in their lungs and tree sap in their blood, the Chapin boys were almost made of wood, and wood was made for these Chapins.

It’s no surprise that three of Levi’s sons chose careers that were dependent upon wood.  Eldest son Nathaniel (1792 – 1876) joined his brothers Hermon (1799 – 1866) and Philip (1805 -1887) in a place called Pine Meadow (part of the town of New Hartford), Connecticut in a moulding-plane making venture for a few years.  In time, both Nathaniel (the grandkids’ ancestor) and Philip moved away to run their own factories, leaving Hermon to become the Connecticut “King of Moulding Planes and Ruler of Rules.”

Moulding planes tend not to be on most genealogists’ radar.  Say “wood planes”, and the average genealogist thinks of something that you buy at a hardware store to take the rough parts or high parts off a piece of wood.

But moulding planes are something entirely different; in fact, in order to understand moulding planes, you need to learn a new vocabulary, with words like “astragal”, “ogee”, and “cavetta”.  These are words that describe the shapes – the moulding profiles - that are made by hand tools known as moulding planes. 

So, what exactly are “moulding profiles”, you might ask?  After all, in all your years of doing family history, nobody has ever asked you to know what an “ogee moulding” is.

The best way to explain this is to suggest you tour a 19th century house with all its original mouldings.  Crown mouldings where walls and ceilings meet, chair rails set partway up the walls, and fireplaces where stylized mouldings abound. If you can, actually run your fingers across the moulding and feel the smooth curves, sharp angles and the grain of the wood.

All those fine mouldings that you see in 19th century historic houses in Connecticut and Massachusetts were likely made on the spot when the house was built.  There were no lumber stores or Home Depots where those fancy mouldings were sold by the linear foot; housewrights and carpenters used moulding planes – often from one of the Chapin plane factories – to make their own interior mouldings by hand.

The patterns of the moulding – the curves and thrusts and angles – are called the moulding profiles. And an “ovolo moulding” looks like this:

This shape is made by craftsmen using a wood plane that looks something like this one:

For years, New England craftsmen sought out the Chapin brothers’ planes for their quality and cutting edge. Some Chapin planes bear the mark of Nathaniel, the brother who set up shop in Westfield, Massachusetts: they’re stamped “N. Chapin & Co. Eagle Factory Westfield”.  Others bear Hermon’s mark: “H. Chapin Union Factory   Warranted”. 

Hermon’s plane and rule making enterprise in New Hartford was very successful. When his son Philip (named after his father’s youngest brother) inherited it in 1866, he took himself a wife and built himself a house to reflect the Chapins’ success story.  The house, I’ve learned, is currently for sale.  If you have $785,000, you too can live like young Philip Chapin. 

Here’s the link that underscores the fact that in the age before power tools and mass marketing, the manufacture of high-quality planes and carpenters’ rules could make you wealthy. 

Nathaniel and Hermon’s youngest brother Philip’s planes were not much used in New England; after he learned plane-making in New Hartford with his brother Hermon, he set off south to Baltimore, Maryland where, in time, he became a prosperous and prolific plane maker. Planes stamped “P. Chapin. Balto.” are heavier and bulkier than the New England planes.

Chapin planes are now museum pieces and collector’s items.  The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has both a large collection of Chapin planes and lots of archival material from the Chapin factory in Pine Meadow.You can search for it in the CHS online catalog.

Interestingly, Philip, Levi’s youngest son, was living in Baltimore at the time that it is said that Levi made his trip south to eastern Virginia, ostensibly to “…dispose of his patents.”  And Baltimore is close to Washington D.C.  And eastern Virginia.

Keep that thought in mind for a bit while we talk about patents.

In 1793, the U.S. Congress passed the Patent Act, placing the issuance of patents under the Secretary of State’s office.  There was little in the way of stringent review like there is today:  if you were a citizen, your payment of $30.00 and the submission of a drawing, a description, and a working miniature model of your invention, usually got you a United States patent.

In 1810, the federal government purchased a building in Washington known locally as “Blodgett’s Hotel” and began renovations to use it as the headquarters for both the Post Office and the Patent Office. 

Things were simpler then.

Fast forward to the present. 

Several years ago, the folks at Google announced a new free tool:  Google Patents, direct from the USPTO (the official United States Patent and Trademark Office).  It’s described on the Google website as follows: Google Patents covers the entire collection of issued patents and millions of patent applications made available by the USPTO, from patents issued in the 1790s through the present.

If you have an inventor-ancestor, you can play with Google Patents here. One thing to bear in mind, though: the character recognition technology that Google Patents uses leaves a lot to be desired.  For example the name “Robert Amory” – pretty clear on his printed 1924 patent for manufacturing blankets – is rendered by the search function as “BOBEPT AMOBY

 Quirky search function notwithstanding, Google Patents sounds great, right? If there’s a “Levi Chapin” patent for some kind of an improvement to water wheels, it should appear on Google Patents.

Problem is, when you use Google Patents, no “Levi Chapin” patents appear.

That’s because there’s one little event that the Google Patents FAQ blurb completely glosses over: the “Great Patent Office Fire” of 15 December 1836. The fire totally destroyed Blodgett’s Hotel and virtually all of the early patents burned up.  Estimates are that nearly 10,000 patents were destroyed in the fire, with only a very small number escaping destruction.  Congress later permitted the “restoration” of 2,845 patents, using the information from private files. So, while it’s correct to say that the Google Patents records go back to the 1790s, it would be more correct to point out that most of the earliest records no longer exist.

What now?

Fortunately, the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia began publishing a periodical journal in 1826, making it the second oldest continuously published scientific journal in the country.  In the early days, one of their regular features in each issue was a large section called “American Patents” in which they reported on and described the latest patents issued by the Patent Office.  

Currently the journal concentrates on engineering and applied mathematics, and should you feel compelled to subscribe, all 10 issues a year can be yours for one low yearly subscription payment of $2,633.00.

It was much less expensive in Levi Chapin’s day.

On page 30 of Volume 5, issued in 1830, the Journal of the Franklin Institute reported that a patent (number 5676) for “an improvement in the mode of Hanging and Straining Saws” had been issued to Levi Chapin of Walpole, New Hampshire on 13 October 1829. A few years later (January 1833), a notice appeared describing another patent (number 7099) for “an improvement in the Saw Mill” issued to Levi Chapin, Walpole, Chester County [sic], New Hampshire on 1 June 1832.  Each issue described Levi Chapin’s invention in detail, so that by referencing the Journal, interested descendants can read what the inventions were actually supposed to do.

So, Levi Chapin actually had patents, even though you can’t find them using Google Patents, since they’re from the “burned” period. 

Note, however, neither patent described in the Journal of the Franklin Institute “improves water wheels” in any way, as the Walpole New Hampshire history suggests.  They’re all about saws and cutting wood. Remember, these Connecticut River Valley Chapins were all about wood, in all its manifestations.

Also remember Levi’s youngest son Philip.  Philip, still unmarried, lived in Baltimore and made planes at the time his father Levi is reported to have died in eastern Virginia of yellow fever. Eastern Virginia is close to Baltimore.

Philip appears in Matchett’s Baltimore Directory in the edition of 1835 – 1836 at 36 Light Street:

So, overall, the information that appears in printed sources is close to accurate, but not truly on the mark.   It wasn’t his brother in Washington; it was his nephew.  His patents were not to improve water wheels; they were all about sawing wood. In my former career, we used to describe this kind of thing as “good enough for government work”, however, it’s not quite good enough for family history.

Therefore, the question arises: did he intend to “sell” his patents, as the Walpole history relates, or did he plan to license them to mill operators?  And since his son Philip lived in Baltimore and his nephew Stephen in Washington, was his visit south actually a family visit/ business trip or something else altogether?

And, of equal interest, what about his contracting yellow fever and dying in September of 1833?  What can we learn about that, if anything?

Stay tuned! There's more to come!