Ruminations from Nicole, 2015 Wade Project Intern
Has anyone ever wondered what historical figures of the past were like as children? Did Abraham Lincoln wet the bed, do you think, and did Cicero suck his thumb?
I ask because I think so often when approaching history, the layman tends to read it as something dead, boring, bound irretrievably in the past. For example, when I mention the Gilded Age (or its British counterpart, the Victorian Era), what sort of images does it conjure up? Is it something staid, boring, pictures of people bound up tight in rigid corsets and stuffy waistcoats?
Throughout the course of my internship here at the Western Reserve Historical Society, I have been given the task of researching the Wade family, and one of the things that jumped out at me was J.H. Wade Jr.’s childhood correspondence—in other words, what the historical figure was like before the stuffy waistcoat. Check out an excerpt from an undated letter written to his father, Randall Wade:
“What a nice time we had at our school last Friday. We had a Christmas tree and we all had nice presents on it. I had a book called the Magic Ring and Other Fairy Tales. I like it very much. I got a lace Bowl full of candie and pop corn. Allie got a book called Annie and Pierre and a cornucopia full of candie. […] Charlie and I had lots of fun yesterday making a snow man but the snow is all melting away to day. Papa I know one present Mama is going to give me but I will not tell you what it is untill you come home.”
Homer’s letter is, no doubt, part of the detritus of everyday Gilded Age life, but perhaps what is most striking here is how utterly contemporary it sounds. I could easily imagine a child or a teen typing this up and sending it to his father via text message, or email, or Facebook, typos and misspellings and all. I am not alone in noticing this sort of thing. Author Rainbow Rowell says, “[W]e’ve gained a lot with the internet. I feel like the internet has turned us all into letter writers… now we all write: we all text, we all post. I feel like we’ve lost phones but we’ve gained this whole different type of correspondence that hasn’t existed since the age of letter writing.”
I started out by musing on what people of the past were like in childhood, and, a bit unexpectedly, ended with some thoughts on text messages. I suppose my ultimate point is that connecting with history on a personal—and possibly empathetic—level is easier than I would have imagined before beginning my internship here.
In a way, this post is, as Rowell contends, my own form of letter writing. And who knows? Maybe in a hundred years some other intern will stumble upon this blog and connect with it on a personal level too.