Evolution of a History Nerd

Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.
Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.

A coworker recently suggested I incorporate more “steampunk librarian” content into Nostos Algos. I don’t know if I’m onboard with the usage of “steampunk”, since that’s a very distinct cultural subset, or “librarian”, since I don’t work in a library, but the man has a point. My Instagram is riddled with archives gold, but Nostos Algos is strangely devoid of the same and I mean to fix that now.  In tossing around ideas, I found it difficult to pick a starting point. I encounter awesome stories every day as a consequence of the job, so how can I pick just one and run with it? Eventually, I decided to lead with a post that seeks to explain my evolution as a self-proclaimed History Nerd.

If I’m honest, I am an archivist because I landed an internship class in my final year of undergrad, and that internship turned into contract work that turned into full-time work. No master career plan, just an American History major giddy to find a field that directly utilized my undergrad degree. My major, however, chose me–the teenager that preferred an antique store to a shopping mall that grew into the young lady more at ease with geriatrics than those her own age. I am an archivist by chance, by choice, and also for the same reason I read so many biographies–an acute interest in people.

That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn't into it, and it was awkward for everyone. (Launching of Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)
That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn’t into it, and it was awkward for everyone, but totally entertaining for the table in the back. (Launching of the Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)

This interest has fermented with age. The longer I live, the more defined mortality becomes–fostering a fascination with the limitlessness of individual people who work against the physical limitations of their bodies, as well as the governing bodies that build their civilizations. No matter the epoch they hail from–the 1880s, the 1920s, the 1970s, or now–men and women dream big, accomplish much, fail often, and always die. This has become abundantly clear in my eight years as an archives technician, during which time I’ve processed materials ranging from Civil War discharge papers to records from the Sixth U.S. Army Environmental Office. Often I’m given a box filled with mementos that visually and textually form the arch of an entire life. Sometimes it’s just a box of discarded records from an abandoned office. In either scenario, however, the human element always shines through: in obvious ways, like an informal photograph showing a grieving graveside widower, but also in less obvious ways, like a defiantly lewd doodle on the title page of an official report.

It’s easy to think of the past as past, and as people who lived in those times as static, unrelatable figures. I believe this is a problem of presentation and perception rather than reality. This problem begins in the monotone way history is taught in lower levels of school, which, by necessity, moves quickly through centuries of stories and rarely delves deeply into individuals save for key figures who accomplished monumental things, be them good or bad. Perception is also affected by the technological constraints of the times that captured moments in black and white, moments that seem so stiff and remote in stark contrast to our digital age of colored animation; when you add differences in dress and custom it seems almost impossible to cross the historical divide. The most crucial component of misperception is an institutional bias that prioritizes the exceptional over the every day.

Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.
Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.

In their quest to acquire the best of mankind–the quintessential Warhol, that first edition Hemingway, MacArthur’s West Point cadet uniform, or Lincoln’s last handwritten speech–many museums have become palaces that honor little else besides perfection, achievement, the heights of humanity. Preserving and showcasing elite objects is a vital component to museum work, but for me and many others in the trenches, the items that excite us most are the ones that should never have survived. Items like movie tickets, catalogs, receipts, pressed flowers in a Nobody’s diary, or the likeness of President Nixon made of binary numbers and printed out by a bored computer technician in the 1970s. One military historian I know was beside himself with glee to see a pair of standard issue Women’s Army Corps socks and nylon stockings from World War II. The things that are used and discarded without a second thought by regular Joes and Janes become the most rare simply because they were the most unwanted–unwanted by those who used them, as well as the institutions pledged to protect our history.

In my time as an archivist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I’ve cataloged the personal effects of some of the most historically significant men of the 20th-century. Men like Brigadier General Frederick Funston–the local lady killer who killed it in the Spanish-American War, “saved” San Francisco from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire (no big deal), and is the namesake of what was once known as 13th Avenue in the Inner Sunset. I’ve unfolded his pants, and preserved his wife’s family photograph album. Men like General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II who lost his battle with cancer while in command of the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. I’ve cataloged his favorite rocking chair, which is covered in plush pink fabric. Men like Medal of Honor winner Colonel John C. Gresham, the officer who chose protect native women and children in a ravine while Custer slaughtered their husbands and fathers at Wounded Knee during the Indian Wars. I’ve hung his coat with care.

These were great men, but not the men whose effects I’m most honored to preserve. Call it an affection for the underdog, call it curiosity in the lesser known, call it what you want: I gravitate to voices with less volume. If you look at the etymology of the word history, you’ll see it originated as the Greek “histor”, and referred to a learned or wise man; it then evolved to “historia” and embodied narrative history, meaning “finding out”. That encapsulates my approach to history: each day I find out about a different person, place or thing, and my love of that daily discovery comes from the commonalities I always discover. People are funny, situations are awkward, and the history that those people and situations write is equally as entertaining. When I find something particularly weird and wonderful–like a late 19th-century Cavalry officer who wrote science fiction as a hobby–that captures the quirkiness of history, I jump for joy and instantly want to share it.

What's there to do if you're a teenager (and John Muir's niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain't no 1927.
What’s there to do if you’re a teenager (and John Muir’s niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain’t no 1927.

In conceiving this post, I inevitably listened to Bob Dylan–especially his album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan also loved history, and sourced many of the story lines in his early songs directly from old newspaper articles. A line from the last song on the album, “Restless Farewell”, struck me as particularly relevant to the way I mine history for moments that have slipped between the dusty cracks of the sanctioned historical narrative: “If the arrow is straight, and the point is slick it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.”

Somewhere a story is waiting, sticking out from under the dust, and I feel compelled to free it. So tune in to Nostos Algos for future gems, and be sure to follow me (@nostosnic) on Instagram and Twitter or search #historynerd for my latest nerdy posts.


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