In the course of my research for 19th Century Modern, I am constantly startled by a single sentence in my readings. The sentence, buried in a long-winded paragraph and mentioned so nonchalantly and blatantly there is no room for interpretation.There are a multitude of examples, the latest; pointing out bathing costume, akin to modern swimsuits, were made of heavy shapeless flannel to turn perverse thoughts toward modesty and to prevent the wearer from getting wet.——–Come again? Upon further research and numerous sources latter, the truth comes to light: The Victorians were fearful of water. They deemed it unhealthy and unsanitary both to consume (which was a legitimate phobia of the era) or to interact with (such as bathing or swimming).
The populous, myself included in the muddle, have such preconceived notions of History; how our ancestors were ludicrous and stuffy. This mentality unfortunately creates a barrier of unreliability. The concept is the furthest thing from veracity. Our 19th century forbearers were complexly human as you and I. They laughed, they cried, they loved, they died. More importantly, they rebelled and evolved.
When I was a collegian, I volunteered in the university’s Special Collections and Archives. It was a treasure trove! In the beginning I was reprimanded for not staying on task because I would find myself wandering into the 19th century collections. Of course, I managed to exert self-discipline to meet my projects accordingly and arrived early or departed later so I could indulge. I shall have you know, there are photographs of Victorians in full dress riding down the Grand Canyon on mules, looking none to poised. There is another of a gentleman sticking his tongue out playfully at the photographer. My favorite image of the collection is a shot of four ladies in all their accoutrements and rather large hats log-rolling down the side of a hill, having a gay ol’ time. Victorians! Log rolling! Clearly this is the predecessor to planking, yes? The image was so deliciously out of the ordinary, I giggled in spite of myself! The rambunctious group appeared to be in the on set of 20 years of age and by no means impoverished.
This incident caused me to dash away my pretenses and see Victorians as ourselves. It is important to discard this glamour in research; not be so myopic. It was a refreshing perspective.
As all people go, some findings will disappoint you, cause you to lose respect, or leave you aghast. Others will come as a pleasant surprise, they will delight you, and feel you with admiration. I must admit I am tempted to photoshop a few heirloom portraits to further prove my point. Great-grandmother with a modern hairstyle, current dress, and now in color! Would she seem more relatable? Alternately, if I took a modern photograph to mimic the historical, from subject to the sepia tones, would that person become less relatable? Hmmm? Curious to ponder.
Alas I have veered off topic, as I am prone to do. What was I discuss? Research. Ah, yes. Many a researcher will expostulate researching from original sources. There is much merit in this advice. “‘Tis better to discover for yourself than to read someone else’s interpretation.” However, there is much effort required to gain access to primary source documents, images, or artifacts. They are supremely fragile, one cannot simply request them as one would request a novel from the local library. For legal reason, they are not able to digitize the requested material either. The researcher must strike out to find the resources. If it makes it more palatable consider it an excuse to travel. “Oh, the papers are in London? The tin-type in Paris? The phonograph in Moscow? The dress in Japan?” Oh, gee. Darn. I shall have to make arrangements. I will pack my bags with a heavy sigh and a wickedly gleeful smile upon my countenance. In many cases, the research need not travel so extensively if cost is a concern. The local historical society, some libraries, and nearby universities have a wealth to offer, if one would all but swing wide their doors.
I could continue with legal and monetary concerns, but I shall leave that to another post.
Rule #1 of Research: Cast off the expectations. Just absorb your sources. Expect the unexpected!
Aside: Should you routinely cross information you already know, they you, my dear, have leveled up and are on your way to claiming Expert status.