Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Romance of the Archives: The Charlotte Cushman Papers

Greetings from Washington, D.C.! Rather than subject you to touristy pictures, here are some musing from the archive. Lest the exiting stories I tell suggest otherwise, allow me assure you that archiving is not all CSI-level excitement.  ~Dr. L

Today I found something I had never seen before. While wading through endless folders of newspaper clippings charting the career of 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman, I came across two rectangles of newspaper carefully stitched together. I had to look twice before I noticed the tiny stitching in a white thread, turned brownish with age.

(Stitching? you ask. They didn't have scotch tape in the 19th century!)
Someone, perhaps Cushman, more likely her partner, Emma Stebbins, or perhaps Cushman’s black maid, Sallie Mercer, who worked for Cushman from the age of 14 on, sat down one day and, after carefully cutting out the notice from the pages of a New York paper, threaded a needle and stitched the two rectangles together. Perhaps she put it in a folder or a box or slipped it into the pages of a scrapbook to be glued down later.

Over the next one hundred and fifty years the little column would wind up in a stack of other such clippings, carefully deposited between acid-free paper in an archival box in the chill and dusty corridors of the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. This bleary-eyed historian would take it out, read the notice, marvel at the delicate stitch work, make a note on her computer, take a digital image with her Canon, and put the little stitched clipping back into its dry, dark mausoleum for the next researcher to discover.

I can’t stop thinking about those little stitches in those sturdy old pages of some mid-19th century slip of newspaper. 

Pardon me for being sentimental.

Historians are not supposed to be sentimental about sources, about archives. We are not supposed to be here simply for the thrill of touching old paper. Historians are taught to be careful about these traps, the traps of loving old things for the sake of themselves. This is dangerous because, the warning goes, if you succumb to the romance of the archives then you stop being a careful and critical analyst of the past. Archives are dangerous places for the romantic. They seduce you with their stern guardians (archivists and librarians), their rules (no pen, no bags, is that gum, only one folder at a time, keep all documents flat on the desk, no flash) and of course, their boxes of famous dead people—excuse me, boxes of the papers of dead people. They seduce you into thinking that papers matter in and of themselves, that papers are some kind of window, some kind of link with some discoverable past.

If only it were that simple. Historians spend their lives trying to figure out precisely what it is archives and sources can tell us. 

Archives are problematic. They are constructed spaces and a product of their own particular histories. The volumes they house did not magically appear. Those things were saved, collected, passed on and passed around, donated and deposited, organized and cataloged and entombed – by particular people at particular moments for particular reasons.

The things that exist and the things that were saved are very very limited and very very biased. I'm not talking about the content; I'm talking about the objects themselves and their presence in an archive. Consider: illiterate people don’t tend to write reams and reams of letters. People who labor 14-hour days don’t tend to keep detailed personal diaries. And most “ordinary” people don’t think to write their lives as they are living them. 

But why save the nonexistent letters of a day laborer? You'd be surprised the things that almost weren't saved. At some point in the last century, a very distinguished archive wanted to throw out the shelf of volumes of a 19th-century Boston woman's lifetime in diaries because they were taking up too much space. Of what interest were her scribblings anyway? She wasn't important. I'll let you respond to that (quietly) on your own. (I am among the many scholars eternally grateful that someone did think her scribblings were important enough to allow them to take up space.)

Think of all that has been lost because of what different people at different moments did or didn’t value. Spend a few hours thumbing through what survives and it only makes you greedy for what might have been.

What might have been? Yesterday I sat reading Cushman’s euphoric letter home to her mother about her triumph before a London audience. Her mother would have received that letter in Philadelphia weeks after the event and after its long Atlantic crossing. The letter would have been accompanied by a sheaf of clippings, carefully clipped, maybe even sewn by Charlotte Cushman or Sallie Mercer.

When you sit reading these old letters, it can feel for a moment as if time has not happened yet. What has been has yet to come. We are suspended between two moments. Under the brutal fluorescent lights, hearing the hum of microfilm readers and the artificial beeps of digital cameras, the ticking keyboards and archive sniffles, and breathing the stale smell of old carpet, sweat, and dust I am reading a the letter that an elated Charlotte Cushman wrote to her mother one morning in 1845, the morning of the week she became a star. It starts with a performance we can never recreate and it ends with paper. That letter. That is all we have.

Now think about the problem of the archive.

There is a reason why that letter and other letters from celebrated actress Charlotte Cushman are found in repositories throughout the country, but not those of her lifelong servant, Sallie Mercer, who probably warmed the ink in which Charlotte dipped the pen. What little we know about Sallie's life we know because of Charlotte, but while we can catch a glimpse of Charlotte's interiority, Sallie Mercer is a cipher. You can fulfill your desires in one respect:
A carte de visite of Sallie Mercer ca 1858, taken about thirteen years after she began working for Cushman. From a Cushman family album in the Library of Congress.
An engraving of Cushman playing Romeo opposite her sister Susan in England, published in the People's Journal July 1846.

Cushman and her lover Matilda Hays, ca 1851.

We think we can know something about Cushman because of the all the paper we have. While Sallie Mercer is always there, behind every line that Cushman wrote, she remains almost invisible and entirely silent. And so much of Cushman does as well, reams of paper notwithstanding.

* * *

Last week, I worked with the papers of Noah Ludlow, a Southern theater manager out of Alabama. In his increasingly dismal chronicle of events that we now call the Panic of 1837, this line appears in a letter to his partner Sol Smith: “Your girl Lear sold for $660 – Having no power of allowing for you, & the purchaser requiring some responsible person to Sign the bill of Sale, I signed it in my own name. – I have seen Smith @ he says at once he does not want the girl – that she is too small. – Hale, after some little trouble, paid the note.” Throughout the slaveholding states, when times were tough or they needed the money, men and women turned other men and women into liquid cash. Noah Ludlow and Sol Smith were no exceptions. This line is all I will ever know about this girl—not even her name has made it into the reams of paper carefully boxed up in the vaults of the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. How old was this “girl”? Was she born in Alabama or some place else? Did she have family nearby? Would she ever see them again? The girl Lear sold is a person without a story. Or rather, that is her story. Lear sold her for Smith and Ludlow signed the note. Hale paid it. Smith now has $660.

I am sentimental about archives. I am sentimental about little newspaper clippings carefully sewn together with needle and thread and the letters aspiring actresses wrote home to their mothers. I am sentimental about the hours I spend among the detritus of dead people, accounts of their joys, their sorrows, their boring everyday existence. From their papers we piece together stories, and from stories we make historical arguments, we write books, we build careers. But no matter how many hours I spend reading the papers of people like Cushman or Ludlow, I’ll never really know them, let alone know Sallie Mercer or a girl sold in Mobile, Alabama for $660. And that, my friend, that desire to know and the dream of what we can find--that is the historian’s romance of the archives.

P.S. Make sure you pick up Lisa Merrill's exceptional biography When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. If you're looking for a great read on the problems of finding the stories of the domestic servants through the lives of famous women (a theme I touch on here, inspired by Merrill's own treatment of Mercer) you must read Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the  Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsburg.


  1. I see Mercer is examined as a servant here. However, isn't Mercer's issue her Blackness AND her class status as a servant? I guess it must be since her race was mentioned in her description and her invisibility was compared to that of an enslaved girl.

  2. For sure. And yet her world is worlds apart from the enslaved girl. The archive is far more vocal where Mercer is concerned. We have a few of her letters, we have some letters Cushman and Cushman's friends wrote to her, and there is the wonderful surprise of the carte de visite in the family album. Likewise, Mercer appears as much more of an agent in Cushman's life and yet look at that phrase, right? Everything we know about her is through that relationship. But it also reminds us that must of the domestic service performed in the North was by free black women whose lives are rendered invisible twice over. The implicit comparison I'm making with the enslaved girl is a tad misleading, but for me it was about degrees of invisibility within the archive. Mercer seems invisible until you see what invisible truly means.

    Thanks for commenting!