Digital Norman

Go check out the fruits of what I was working on a couple years ago.

Here is the APS’s first fully digitized collection: The Anathan-Jacobs Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Collection. I worked on the processing and did a bit of the digitization, and the letters and photos have now all been added to the repository.

I never got around to putting up a link to the online exhibit, which is silly since Norman Jacobs ate a chunk of my life. He’s the object of my first archival crush. And three people working part time on processing, research, writing, and exhibit design meant things got a little bit drawn out. But it was a fantastic experience and I’m pleased with the result. From my perspective, it was the collaborative aspects of public history at their best, working primarily with Bayard and Tracey to process and write, but also getting the fun of things like conservators geeking out about the variety of paper Norman scrounged for his letters. So please do check out “”Quite a Little Way from Civilization”: The Anathan-Jacobs Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Collection.”

Sadly, I also didn’t think to take pictures of the physical exhibit we did for the the lobby, though the “Shaping North America: Politics & Exploration” page functions as an archive. (In the sense of this representation of Case IV being a consciously-selected sampling: in addition to our text, the lobby exhibit incorporated a map, two photobooks, five letters, and a dozen photographs, versus the three images and the letter excerpts we used online.)

But who is “L”?

I had a very productive afternoon poking around Ancestry.com at the library. (But, really, Ancestry? To use the Library edition I not only have to be physically located in the library, I have to take up one of their machines?) Just based on the freely available info (sorry, Ancestry, no credit card number for you. Not that I don’t trust free trials I can cancel at any time…but I don’t really trust free trials that I can cancel at any time; it’s not just you, it’s me, too.) I thought I’d identified the quilt’s donor. Today confirmed that, fleshed out some family information, provided the Philadelphia and Drexel connections, and gave me a lot of interesting biographical tidbits for the twentieth century.

It’s just as well I’m taking a break for the moment, otherwise I’d be going off on fun and ultimately nonproductive tangents. This is why I know about the suicide of a Singapore economics professor in the 1930s and the subsequent travel and literary achievements of his widow, even though they have nothing to do with the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

My fun tidbits have given me a few new angles to pursue. But what they have not clarified is the identity of “L.”* I have plenty of names in the donor’s family, but besides “Louise” (born after 1887) there’s only one male, a few years older, whose initial fits. And so the combination of initial and date remain a mystery.

My thinking had been that the quilt was an heirloom, a thing made by women and kept by women. Now I wonder if I should look at the husband’s side, and if I need to seriously consider the possibility of the quilt as a commodity, if not something purchased then something given by one outside the family. Argh, if Louise had been born two years earlier, it would’ve been much easier to shoehorn the quilt into a comfortable narrative of family production.

Stupid facts. This is why we hates them. Not because they’re a dangerous oversimplification of the process of creating historical knowledge, but because they gum up a perfectly straightforward narrative.


* Though not written with intent, I am kind of amused by the possibility of people finding this post when googling for information about Death Note or biometric solutions. Hello, misdirected folks who are still reading!

A Tenderfoot’s thoughts on insect repellent

During the summer, Grand Trunk Pacific surveyors rubbed bacon rind on their faces, necks, and hands to keep the bugs off. But that wasn’t their only culinary defense:

They [insects] also have a great aversion to acids thus giving the humble pickle a very high position in our scheme of things. A string of ordinary pickles hung across the bed makes sleep possible & as for the 57 varieties no self respecting skeeter will go within a mile of one…Not being quite satisfied however with the effect of an unbroken line of cucumber I hung my bed with a “sweetly pretty chain” having a small onion after every third cucumber. The result was charming. I heartily commend this scheme of decoration to society hostesses in search of some relief from the sameness of roses & ferns.

A Tenderfoot’s thoughts on coyotes

Writing 27 May 1906, Norman Jacobs chronicled his acclimation to Canadian wildlife:

The wolves are an awful nuisance at night & even in the daytime we see them though they keep their distance. Strange to say the coyote the coward & most harmless of the wolf family makes the most unearthly noise. The sensation of waking at 2 in the morning to hear a score or more howling round you must be felt to be appreciated. I think the first week I put my head under the blanket & promised to be good the second week I turned out with a rifle & the third week disdaining to waste ammunition I drove them off with a tin pail & a hair brush.

A Tenderfoot’s thoughts on darning

Norman Jacobs, in the field surveying for the Grand Trunk Pacific circa 1906:

Personally, I hate darning. First you loose the needle & then you sit on it & find it & by that time the dog has the sock. You sew the sock onto your finger & prick yourself & swear & wish you were a girl but even darning must come to an end…

A Tenderfoot’s thoughts on Winnipeg

The 1905 impressions of Norman Jacobs, most recently of Pittsburgh:

This city is a revelation to me!…Every thing seems to breathe of that largness & Breadth which is the spirit of the West. Everything takes up as much room as it can….Men on shaggy horses or behind half broken teams electric cars automobiles mounted men & vehicles of all kinds careen wildly up & down & some times they warn you & most often they don’t but everything is drunk with the joy of life.

A Tenderfoot’s thoughts on exploration

En route to Winnipeg—and the hope of a position with the railroad—in 1905, Norman Jacobs ruminated on the drive to explore:

Methinks the East India Company, The Hudsons Bay Co & the South African Co were some thing more than mere gigantic mercantile enterprises. A nation’s mission. Greater by far [the?] the mere preaching to the world of dreamy religious theories send out your sons Mother England. Send them out willingly & with rejoicings to death by sea & plains jungles & swamps! Go forth & colonize. Assuredly Allah is Allah & it is good to be an Englishman.

“Blessed with a special taste for blundering into unknown parts and coming out the other side with a more or less reliable map”

Norman Jacobs’s assessment of his skills and an explanation for his desire to specialize in exploration work, in a 14 November 1908 letter. At that point he had already been doing survey work for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway for a couple of years; his proposal to the letter’s recipient was still a couple years in the future.

Starting last fall, a few of us worked on processing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway collection. More will be available digitally in the near future, but in the meantime I wanted to share some quotes. Norman Jacobs is an entertaining writer; it’s fun to be on a first name basis with him.