The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
As we enter into the holiday season, the Smithsonian Institution Archive’s blog will be exploring memories: what they mean, how to capture them, and how to save and preserve them. Today, I am thinking about diaries and how they provide researchers with a private look into people’s lives.
One of the Smithsonian’s most noted diarists was Mary Henry (1834-1903). Mary, daughter of first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry and his wife Harriet, lived in Washington, D.C., during a pivotal era of American history. Mary was an eye-witness to many transformations that occurred during and after the Civil War and she carefully documented the important events. She also wrote about daily life and activities inside the Smithsonian Castle. Her diary has served as a valuable resource in understanding the operations of the Smithsonian in its formative years and also gives those who read it new insights on life in Washington D.C. in the 1800s.
In Mary Henry’s day, the Smithsonian was a smaller and more intimate place. Mary and her family lived in the Castle, where they entertained scientists, generals, and even President Lincoln. Even though Mary commented on interesting visitors and events, she still dedicated space in her diary to an experience we all share: Thanksgiving dinner. On November 28, 1867, Mary reflected on spending Thanksgiving with her family and the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird and his wife.
"Thanksgiving day dined with Prof and Mrs. Baird. Speaking of [Charles] Dickens Mrs. B. told us she had passed a day with him and was very anxious to hear him lecture -- Father told us a somewhat amusing anecdote - about himself....I have had a good day. I like Thanksgiving day. I always feel like God’s pet child, as if I had more than anyone else."
In the little everyday moments that Mary wrote about, we not only see how people lived over a hundred years ago, but get a sense of how they felt about their lives. It is here where we share many commonalities with Mary, such as the good feelings surrounding a holiday meal. This is our connection to the past. So, while you are planning out your Thanksgiving meals, try to take the time to capture the stories of family members or your own reminisces about the day. In doing so, you are saving a piece of your personal history for your family and, perhaps, for future historians too. Happy Holidays!