What’s Your Coolest Archival Find?

I can’t speak for everyone, but one of my favorite things about studying history was the investigation. I enjoyed being a sleuth and uncovering things I’d never heard before, piecing together the story as I went. That’s why archival research was always something I looked forward to. Sure, I like the writing process and I like reading other books. But for me, these just didn’t compare to the experience of prying open old boxes and poring over dusty papers, hoping that they’d contain the smoking gun I needed to complete the story (spoiler: there’s almost never a smoking gun, but you still keep coming back for more).

I’m sure I’m not unique when I say that through the process of working in archives, I’ve amassed hundreds of small, micro-stories that will never make it into my dissertation or published work. They’re just little tidbits I can share with poor listeners when a conversation inevitably reminds me of something historical. This would be true if I still intended to be a historian professionally, but it’s especially true now that I most likely won’t be working in the field. But still, why lose all those stories? That’s why I started enjoying history to begin with, so I still think I should make the most of the stories I’ve found and share some of the ones that have stuck with me.

So thinking about archives lately, I wondered to myself: what exactly is the coolest thing I’ve found in an archive? Thinking about that takes me way back to my MA thesis. It must’ve been spring of 2014, when I was working on my study of the Standard Oil Company’s public relations response to Ida Tarbell’s muckraking classic The History of the Standard Oil Company (eventually published here, for anyone interested). Part of my research took me to the Allan Nevins Papers at Columbia University. Nevins, an extremely prolific historian during the 1940s and 1950s, wrote two major biographies of John D. Rockefeller and his papers had a ton of his original material that I thought might help my research. It did, as my constant citation of his papers in my thesis shows. What always sticks with me from that collection though is the box containing several hundred pages of Standard Oil’s cipher codes for their internal communications. You read that right – cipher codes. I’d read that it was normal practice for Gilded Age businesses to communicate with codes, but now I had a whole box of such codes right in my hands. And as Nevins’ notes said, Standard Oil’s internal messages were mostly illegible without the cipher. This might’ve been common knowledge to specialists, but holding the physical evidence in my hand that businesses encoded their communications blew my amateur mind at the time. It’s no wonder Gilded-Age businesses were suspected of surreptitiously taking over the republic. With little regulations or oversight, mystery surrounded business practices of the time. Clearly this mystery carried over into business communications as well.

More so than the item itself, these ciphers were so cool because of what they made me think about. This was the first time I planned a “second project” – you know, the second project we all plan after our first books are done. I think I had five second projects in my head at one point. Anyway, the appeal here was the unknown. It was just a nugget of information that enticed me into wanting more, like a perfect song that’s just too short. It made my imagination construct stories of who was using these codes and for what purpose. Discovering the ciphers got me thinking about the reason Standard Oil used these codes. I’m assuming they must have felt a need to encode their messages for fear of spies. But who were those spies? That’s what I wanted to discover. I wanted to try and discover if there was some network of industrial spies infiltrating Gilded-Age corporations looking for trade secrets. Now that would’ve been the kind of sleuthing I loved. How would I even do that? I hadn’t the slightest idea. Did these people leave any records? I don’t think they would’ve been very good spies if they did, so I’d have to get creative to find sources. It was all so exciting! At the very least I really wanted to use those cipher codes for something besides a quick citation.

Well, I’m not pursuing that anymore and it’s a book I certainly won’t be writing. But I’d sure like to read that book! So anyone out there thinking of a second project, there’s an idea for you. Still it’s a story I enjoy telling, and hence why I decided to write about it. I probably have tons more stories like it and will definitely make future posts on other cool archival finds.

How about all of you? What was the coolest thing you ever found in an archive? Let me know!

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