One of my favorite things about primary sources is their ability to connect you with a person or a moment in the past. A given item might have the power to transport you to a particular time and place, and it can help develop a sense of empathy for another person’s lived experiences. Diaries and photographs can be especially evocative because of the details and the visual or written descriptions they might contain. When it comes to the Grace Myers Elliott papers, then, we are very lucky to have both!
The Grace Myers Elliott papers (MsC-42), which are part of the Manuscripts Collection in SC&UA, contain dozens of family snapshots and multiple 5 year diaries, which provide a glimpse into the daily life of Grace, her friends, and her family over several decades. Grace grew up in rural Iowa at the turn of the 20th century, and she lived through many historically significant times, such as the Great Depression. In the 5 year diaries - which are formatted so that the diarist has space to write a few sentences about a given day each year, for 5 years in a row - Grace writes about her travels, how farm chores are coming along, visits with friends and family, and sometimes just the weather. It is so interesting to see her entries from a given date in one year compared side by side with the same date a year later, and so on. Some things stay the same, some things change, and it is so peculiar and comforting to see the daily events from the same date over several years written out and packaged together, all in a row, and to see how life goes on.
You might not think that the photos you take every day - of your friends, on a road trip, etc - are worthy of belonging to a cultural heritage institution, but that’s simply not true! Amateur, informal family snapshots contain so much valuable visual information and provide cultural and historical context, and they can convey a certain amount of warmth and emotion that staged portraits and textual records sometimes lack.
In Grace’s photographs, you can see Grace and her family - especially her son, Nathan - grow up and change over the years right before your eyes. One photograph, for example, depicts Grace and Nathan sitting in the grass in front of what is presumably their home on the farm. It’s a very sweet scene - it looks like a beautiful spring day, and Nathan appears to be a young boy, wearing a cowboy hat. In the next photo, Nathan is a young man, wearing a suit with a boutineer, hair slicked back and perhaps ready to attend a dance, wedding, or some other special occasion.
Some of the photographs have handwritten notes with contextual information, such as the date and the name of the person in the photograph. One of my favorites of these handwritten captions from Grace’s collection is on this image of two boys with cows. The photo itself is rather blurry and at first glance does not strike me as notable. But on the back, the caption reads “Nathan + Alice, George + Julia.” Knowing that these cows have been given lovely names - and were significant enough to be captured in this snapshot - brings new meaning to the image and suggests a bit of tenderness amidst the daily farm chores.
Coupled with the diary entries, the snapshots really bring Grace’s story to life as you can see the farmhouse, livestock, the clothing of the time, and so on. I never knew Grace, of course, but by looking through these photographs and reading diary entries, I am able to make sense of her world and find ways, big and small, that her lived experience relates to my own. There are many other collections in SC&UA containing diaries, family photographs, and other personal items, and I encourage you to consider these items for your next research project or simply for your own enjoyment! We are happy to digitize such items for you while the library is physically closed due to COVID-19, and we will be happy to provide access in person again when the library reopens.
Contributed by Jaycie Vos, May 2020.