Since mid-January 2008 I’ve been working with Vanessa Seel, a College of Charleston senior history major, on an internship project here in CCPL’s Special Collections. At the beginning of the semester, we began investigating a somewhat mysterious item: an old business ledger, its leather cover crumbling with age and its spine and boards split away from the text block many years ago. Its original purpose and identity had been obscured by later use, so its real historical value was unknown. With my encouragement and assistance, Vanessa undertook the laborious task of literally peeling back the layers of history to discover the original use and identity of this dusty old volume.
Opening the volume’s pages, we discovered that in the years around 1890 Charleston native William Godber Hinson (1838-1919) had pasted scores of newspaper clippings, all relating to the rise of controversial politician Ben Tillman (1877-1918), onto nearly half of the pages. Hinson had also sliced out nearly every other page in order to make room for the added bulk of the clippings. Behind the edges of some of the clippings, however, hand-written notations of business transactions and figures were partially visible. Only fragments of sentences and names could be read, but we noticed that the dates 1861 and 1863 could be read on a few pages. Since the old leather-bound volume was already in a partially-mutilated state, we decided to perform a sort of archival surgery to expose the cryptic writings.
After removing the text block from the boards, Vanessa used a scalpel to carefully cut the threads binding the signatures (gatherings of pages) and then to detach the individual folios. Next she made full-sized photocopies of every page on which newspaper clippings had been pasted. Assuming that wheat-starch paste had been used to attach the clippings to the pages, Vanessa brushed the clippings with warm water to release the old adhesive. This process proved inefficient, however, because Hinson had used a stronger, animal-based glue rather than vegetable paste. Over a number of days, therefore, Vanessa had to soak and carefully scrub each page to release the clippings. At the end of that process we had 77 pages of hand-written financial records, the identity of which was still unknown.
Over the next several weeks, Vanessa poured over these glue-stained records to perform a sort of forensic analysis—deciphering the antique handwriting, collecting the names, and studying the financial balances. After transcribing much of this information into a database, she was able to determine the identity and nature of the records. Years before W. J. Hinson recycled the volume as a political scrapbook, it had begun as the business ledger for the Charleston firm of Chafee, St. Amand, and Croft (CS&C), wholesale merchants of Wine, Liquor, and Cigars, between January 1860 and December 1869. Armed with that information, Vanessa spent several more weeks researching the partners in this firm and the customers, suppliers, and agents whose names are recorded in these records.
Over the course of the semester I reminded Vanessa many times that part of her mission in working with these records was to explain their historical significance—to answer the hypothetical question “so what, who cares”? During her work Vanessa discovered a number of entries that summarize their significance and really lend an element of humanity to the story. While not overtly political in any way, the mercantile records provide a unique window into the economic trials of the Civil War. Due to the Union blockade of Charleston harbor between late 1861 and 1865, the firm of CS&C lost contact with many of its suppliers and had to search for alternative streams of revenue. On a few occasions in 1863, the phrase “Adventure in Cotton” was recorded in the ledger, showing that the CS&C had purchased “upland cotton” from an agent in the South Carolina midlands and invested in the risky venture of sending it through the Union blockade. The records fizzle out to silence in 1864, but then resume in 1866. From that time until the end of 1869, the records demonstrate that the firm was attempting to recoup wartime expenses and settle old transactions. Most telling, however, are the numerous entries of investments that were simply “written off” as losses. What a great snapshot of business life in wartime Charleston!
In short, Vanessa’s intership was a mutually-beneficial experience. The library and its patrons benefitted from her physical and intellectual labors, and Vanessa enjoyed the opportunity to make an original historical “discovery” by literally peeling back the layers of time. In fact, Vanessa blogged about her experiences at http://vmseel.wordpress.com/. It was hard work, but I hope she enjoyed this “adventure in cotton” as much as I did!