October is Tennessee Archives Month. The theme for 2014 is “Accidentally on Purpose: Acquisition, Care, & Promotion of Unusual or Specialized Collections.” The Society of Tennessee Archivists sponsors this event at http://www.tennesseearchivists.org/. Most archives collect, preserve, and maintain materials specific to their mission or focus and appropriate for their storage abilities and patron use. However, on occasion, an archives keeps a collection or item that doesn’t quite fit with the mission but would be lost otherwise. These historical treasures make up the “accidental on purpose” items found in archives.
These interesting or unusual items provide challenges for archivists and sometimes fill in an undocumented piece of history. These odd collections are the sprinkles on the archives cupcake.
Within the Chattanooga Public Library’s archives are the usual papers of local families, companies, organizations, and prominent persons. Most of the collections contain letters, photographs, drawings, diaries, and scrapbooks. The archives is set up to handle primarily paper and photographic documents. However, in order to receive a collection, we often have to take the entire collection. This might mean receiving Grandpa Joe’s false teeth because they were part of the family archives. While we have not yet received skeletons or wooden teeth, we have received some interesting things that are often not part of a traditional archives.
The Local History and Genealogy Department in its early years received some noteworthy artifacts of Chattanooga’s beginnings. Within the collection is the broad axe of William Vandergriff. William’s son, “Big Jake”, used it to hew logs for cabin walls on Walden’s Ridge. Big Jake stood 6 feet 4 inches and was known for his huge hands and ability to kill animals barehanded. We also have the silver spoons of the John P. Long, the first postmaster of Chattanooga. The tablespoon was made from a Confederate silver dollar. A more recent addition is the set of 8 oz. Coca-Cola bottles given to the library when the bottling plant here celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Politicians often have unusual items in their collections. David Y. Copeland, III, Tennessee Representative from 1968 to 1992, donated his papers to the library in 1996. In addition to the usual campaign ephemera, political papers, letters, news articles, speeches, etc. are two items that presented some challenge in preservation. One is a bottle of Tennessee water, blended from springs, wells, and streams in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties. It was given by the Tennessee Association of Conservation, and the water has bits and pieces that swirl. The other item, given to Copeland by the Tennessee Nashville Farmers Club, is a box of seeds to celebrate AG Appreciation Day in 1985.
Collectors who are truly passionate about their collectibles save everything and that is definitely true of transportation expert David Steinberg. In 1994, we received over 60 boxes of his collection. This included not only brochures, timetables, ledges, magazines, photographs, and letters but also signs, train bells, soap from a train, doilies from the train seats, caps, menus, and whistles. One rare item is the fare register from a Chattanooga bus line in the 1930s. All the artifacts had to be cleaned and preserved with unusual size boxes or with unbleached muslin covers.
The library has received dresses, boys’ clothing, a boudoir cap, keepsake boxes, and onyx donkeys as part of family and personal collections. Each item has been cataloged and added to the library’s archives. Areas of Chattanooga history that we would love to receive are African-American histories, building histories, and neighborhoods that have yet to be documented. If you have any collections that illuminate Chattanooga’s past, bring them on down. We would love to add to our photographs and documents. If they also contain wooden teeth or a lady’s corset, we’ll look into keeping those , too.