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One interesting component of our Confederate muster roll collection is a record of the wages of Confederate soldiers.  A range of wages seems to have been available within each regiment: $11 per month for a private, $20 per month for a first sergeant, and a few intermediate salaries for lesser sergeants and corporals.

Right now, I happen to be reading Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s fond remembrance of his years piloting steamboats just before the Civil War.  That conflict was a death knell for the steamboating era, which was already in decline due to the technological advances of railways and tugboats.  Twain records vastly different salaries in the pre-war years: steamboat pilots made a minimum of $100 per month.  After labor organized, a few made up to $700 per month.

As an exercise, let’s equate the professional level of a Confederate Army first sergeant and a steamboat pilot.  (Respect for authority aside, perhaps these men were not completely different – both were trained specialists and mid-level professionals responsible for many people during defined tours.)  We can note that the sergeant in 1863 made anywhere from five to 35 times less than the steamboat pilot in 1860.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a Gilded Age.

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An ongoing project here at TSLAC is the treatment of our large collection of Confederate muster rolls.  These documents provide a fascinating snapshot of men enlisting in the Confederate army, often stating their age, hometown, and personal supplies brought into service.  The muster rolls come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with myriad paper, media, and condition issues.  Specifically, I’ve noticed one unusual type of paper that composes perhaps 10% of the collection.  An example of this dark brown paper is below:

Muster roll, silked, before treatment.

Muster roll, silked, before treatment.

In my mind, I’ve come to refer to this as “barn floor paper,” because it would appear to be made from sweepings off the barn floor.  Given the stresses and disruptions in manufacturing in the Confederacy, this isn’t so difficult to imagine.  A close-up may reveal more detail:

Muster roll, detail, during treatment.

Muster roll, detail, during treatment.

The paper is very coarse, with a variety of fibers visible throughout.  It is poorly sized, if at all, which creates challenges in removing existing mends without disturbing the fibers.  After treatment, wash water is a deep, molasses color, though the color of the paper itself remains quite dark.

Muster roll, close-up on heading "Pay Roll," during treatment
Muster roll, close-up on heading “Pay Roll,” during treatment.

Do any readers have knowledge of or experience with this paper?  Do you know what it was made with, or have your observed it in other collections?  I’m curious to know whether its homely composition reflects difficulties in economics and supply chains in the Confederacy, as I imagine.  Or, perhaps this paper was made this way quite intentionally, for a particular purpose.  As with so many record-keeping supplies, I’d argue that purpose definitely wasn’t preservation.

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The Art of the Title

Materials in our state library and archives collections typically bear matter-of-fact titles like Senate Journal of the 28th Legislature or Executive
Documents of the House of Representatives.  But occasionally, one title stands out from its expository neighbors.  I take special note of the following cantankerous title, especially during this season’s contentious state legislative session:

"Unconstitutional Laws Exposed" by Chas. B. Pearre, 1872
“Unconstitutional Laws Exposed” by Chas. B. Pearre, 1872
For more information, we visit a prime example of a typeface-rich, 19th century title page:
"A Review of the Unconstitutional Laws of the Twelfth Legislature of Texas, and the Oppressions of the Present Administrations Exposed," by Chas. B. Pearre, Attorney at Law, Waco, Texas

"A Review of the Unconstitutional Laws of the Twelfth Legislature of Texas, and the Oppressions of the Present Administrations Exposed," by Chas. B. Pearre, Attorney at Law, Waco, Texas

 I wonder what Mr. Pearre’s website would look like today.

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A Question of Value

Preservation and archives personnel are periodically called upon to answer the general public’s questions about personal or family belongings.  Along with patrons’ regular concerns, I have lately noticed a new and perplexing question: 

“What is the historical value of my item?” 

This is a significant and complicated inquiry that deserves a good answer.  Two main issues puzzle me, and I’d like to consider them separately:

  1. What does this question actually mean?
  2. What useful answer can I provide?

1.      What does this question actually mean?

My hunch is that seeking “historical value” is to seek a connection between personal and canonical history.  Individuals usually have a strong sense of the sentimental and family value of their photos and newspaper clippings.  But does that emotional connection have meaning for other people, or within a broader historical context? 

The historical value question often has a companion, either explicit or implied: “Don’t you want my materials for your archives?”  I wonder if we might reinterpret that question as, “Doesn’t my specific experience somehow represent our collective experience?” or more generally, “How do individual stories compose the larger historical narrative?”

Further complicating things are differing definitions of “value.”  A conservator looks at a newspaper clipping and sees brittle newsprint and printer’s ink: not very valuable.  A patron instead sees a family experience: extremely valuable.  Where do we draw the line between the physical thing and the story it represents?

2.      What useful answer can I provide?

The critical thinking beneath the “historical value” question is deserving of encouragement.  But with patron inquiries, encouragement generally implies a specific, actionable answer.  Open-ended answers, like, “You’ll have to research that for yourself,” usually de-motivate busy people.  Herein lays the challenge of answering this question.

To my knowledge, there’s no such thing as a contract historian-for-hire who accepts referrals the way an appraiser would.  For family items, my best institutional referrals are our local city history center and the state archives where I work.  But these options may require substantial follow-through from the patron, and archives staff realistically have minimal time for questions about personal collections.

Perhaps a better strategy would be to assemble a reference list of books on regional history that might offer useful contexts in which to place personal belongings.  Handouts and brochures always seem to be well-received, and a reading list might make an encouraging take-away.

I welcome comments about this issue.  Questions about historical value, however that’s defined, seem to offer a golden opportunity to engage inquisitive members of the public in historical and archival research.

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