Writing From the Nitty Gritty

Reading The New York Times today, I came across a story about archivists in the city, what a rare breed they are and what their jobs are like, and I envied them. “Specialists who snatch objects from oblivion,” as  Alison Leigh Cowan, the author of the piece, describes them, these men and women get to immerse themselves in the nitty gritty of life in a different time and place, continually. It’s an activity that as a history-obsessed writer I only get to spend part of my time doing. The archivists profiled preserve everything from teacups, to Meyer Lansky’s marriage license, to the see-through panties of Gypsy Rose Lee.


I have favorites among archival collections.

The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum has on view those myriad fine art and decorative art objects that are not currently displayed in the more conventional Museum galleries. It’s a funny sort of place, an open secret, accessible to the public yet off the beaten track. Objects have been arranged in huge glass vitrines according to material (e.g. furniture and woodwork, glass, ceramics, and metalwork).


It’s a fine place to find a dozen nearly identical andirons, if you’re in the mood to see andirons, or a hundred sterling silver tumblers, or any number of porringers of yesteryear. Oh, and paintings. Any item the museum can’t find a place for at the moment gets tucked away here, in plain sight, and that includes some wonderful canvases. Even such crowd pleasers as John Singer Sargent’s Madame X sometimes cool their heels here. One day I turned a corner and came across one of my favorite paintings that I’d never seen in person, the portait of nine-year-old Daniel Verplanck by John Singleton Copley, painted in 1771.


It’s not the only boy/squirrel portrait Copley painted – there’s one in Boston, too, at the Museum of Fine Arts, a fine one, of  Henry Pelham, painted in 1765.


But here I had what amounted to a private viewing, just me and the boy and his pet. It seems funny now, but keeping squirrels as pets was commonplace through to the twentieth century. Before the family dog, the family squirrel. Here we have the Ridgely brothers in 1862, Howard and his younger brother Otho, the children of a wealthy landowning family in Maryland.

squirrel boys

I like to visit another kind of archive when I’m at the Met, as well. Next door to the imposing Temple of Dendur is a tiny warren of display cases that contain long rolls of linen 2000 years old, mummy linen. Here is a scrap.

mummy linen

I don’t know whether the fabric has been unrolled from the embalmed corpses or is waiting to enfold them, but it is incredible to be inches away from these archivally preserved Middle Kingdom textiles. Only slightly frayed and browned by time. Magic.

Another archival highlight. I once ventured up to the attic of the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, with the well-known rose window designed by Henri Matisse – his last work of art, dedicated on Mother’s Day 1956.

henri matisse rose window at union church

There under the eaves lay the physical archives of Historic Hudson Valley, the nonprofit organization that runs the church and other properties in Westchester County. I was there to view a painting of an elite young Mary Philipse by John Wollaston, for my book The Women of the House.


I was, luckily, sanctioned to browse around the other objects displayed on the shelves while the archivist inspected various historical maps. Some intricately decorated colonial pottery, some other paintings, including one, provenance unknown, of waves crashing against the shore at the southern tip of Manhattan around 300 years ago. And what really got me, a collection of pastel silk slippers in pristine condition, perfect for the fancy parties of the eighteenth century. All these things just breathing there, largely ignored by the world, protected in their secret little alcove atop a church.

The Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library, when I went there to do research on I.N. Phelps Stokes for Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance, always seemed like it existed underwater, dim and calm, holding tight to its treasures. It contains over 29,000 linear feet of archival material in over 3,000 collections, of which I was accessing 36 boxes of yellowed paper.

There is something gratifying about examining letters that have not been paid attention to in a hundred years. Being the first to take them out and handle them. The papers that interested me concerned the architect/philanthropist/collector’s epic Iconography of Manhattan Island. I had already done research at the library of the New-York Historical society, where I discovered a note from Stokes imploring an influential friend for contacts to help publicize his book.

stokes p.r. letter

Also something of a gas was his 1913 campaign, revealed in a fundraising letter, to get an educational farm installed in Central Park. His sister Ethel had the idea of equipping “a diminutive group of buildings, consisting of a tiny cottage of four rooms, a cow-shed and dairy for two cows, and a chicken house for twenty-five chickens.” Everything could be “inspected through glazed openings without entering the buildings,” wrote Stokes. A negative editorial in The New York Times helped shoot down the plan.

Petting squirrels was still popular in Central Park at that time, I have found.

Central Park squirrel

I recall the day at the NYPL Manuscripts room when I found a small envelope containing two thumb-sized black-and-white photographs depicting the very first street plan of New York, drawn in 1660.


They were snapped by Stokes’ researcher behind a guard’s back at the Florence villa where the map was housed, and sent back over the sea to his boss in New York City. Stokes must have leapt out of his chair (also in the New York Public Library, where he had a private second-floor office) when he saw those first pics in 1916.

A friend of mine, the curator Thomas Mellins,  produced Celebrating 100 Years, an exhibit for the New York Public Library that brought some of its best archival artifacts out of mothballs. Did you know that this book-and-paper institution in in the possession of the walking stick Virginia Woolf had with her when she waded into the water on her last day? It floated to the surface. The Library also has such objets as Jack Kerouac’s typewriter, yes, the one on which he wrote On the Road. And my personal favorite, perhaps because I had just been reading David Copperfield when I saw it — Dickens’ personal copy of David Copperfield, the one he used when touring for the book, pocket-sized, complete with his penciled-in notations for emphasis. There is also the genius’ letter opener, topped with the taxidermied paw belonging to Dickens’ cat, Bob.

letter opener

The pleasure of handling archival materials is an emotion that you can’t experience second-hand, unfortunately. You have to be there, deep amid the tarnished porringers and the satin slippers. But there is a website I like a lot that gives you snippets of historical artifacts. Slate features a department called The Vault: Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights.  You can see, if not touch, pieces of history like a hand-written dance instructional from 1817, an 1893 letter promising compensation to former slaveowners, or Bram Stoker’s literary plans for Dracula. You don’t get to sit underwater at the Manuscripts Collection, true, but you can turn the virtual pages in the comfort of your living room, in your stocking feet.


Filed under Art, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Photography, Publishing, Writers, Writing

4 responses to “Writing From the Nitty Gritty


    New York Library’s Suggested Reading (Adult Fiction):
    Fairstein, Linda. Lethal Legacy: A Novel. New York: Doubleday Books, 2009.
    Ozick, Cynthia. Heir to the Glimmering World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
    I just ordered both of them! (That will be the extent of my research at the NY Public Library… the look good to me!)

  2. Lori

    It would seem that we all enjoy the research almost as much as the writing. For myself, I get an especial thrill out of handling the things of my ancestors, of which I have a few. An old blanket my grandmother pieced and stitched by hand out of WWII woolen blankets. My grandmother’s journals that tell of life in the first decade of 1900 in Spokane, Washington. Pictures of my great-grandparents and their parents. Woven things that my grandmother’s great-grandfather made on his loom.
    These items are worth much more to me than to any antique dealer, and that is as it should be. If the things we save from the past should move us to want to know more about the people who lived, breathed, hoped, dreamed, and aspired to become what we who research their lives have found out about them, then they are worth worlds.

  3. Exactly. I always find that when I’m stuck in the writing of something, research always gets me out of the hole.

  4. I love doing research too. All those unexpected things you find that you didn’t know you had to find out about. The wonders of opening your eyes.

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