Researching at ATHM

Guest blogger Dr. Amy L. Montz, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana, writes about her experience conducting research at ATHM:

Archival research is a tricky thing.

There is a lot of planning, of course: the phone calls to make, the emails to send. It is important to establish communication with people you’ve never met before, all with the same purpose: can I, may I, please invade your space, disrupt your work day, ask dozens of questions, and be supervised handling fragile materials in your collection?

When the approval is given, when you have proven that you are, in fact, a legitimate researcher, you need to tell the curator which items or collections you would like to see. This naturally involves more research beyond your initial forays into their collections online. More emails are flung across the wires, more documents are sent—your book summary, their collections list—and by the time you leave for your trip, you have a general idea of the materials you will have the opportunity to see, but oftentimes no guarantee as to whether all materials will be available.

As a new historicist literary critic, I use history and culture to understand literature, and literature to understand history and culture. As a literary scholar working on women and fashion in nineteenth-century novels, my particular brand of history happens to be textiles, ephemera, and other items of domestic everyday. I have conducted archival research for my then-dissertation and now-current book project Dressing for England: Fashion and Nationalism in Victorian Novels now three times in England and once in New England. By this point in my career, I would like to say that I am quite a pro at these introductions: I know how to send the emails, how to search the databases. I know what materials curators will request, and I have a firm grasp on the type of materials I would most want to work with. So when I contact archives, I often ask for specific items of clothing—shawls, crinolines, corsets—and specific items of ephemera—photographs, diaries, letters. Often, there is not enough time in the day to complete the amount of research I want to conduct, even when limited to the materials requested. This is, of course, complicated when I meet a curator who knows her archive inside and out.

Shawl, c. 1925, Brightwood Manufacturing Company, North Andover, MA

I have been fortunate in my research travels, and this past May, I was fortunate indeed to come across the American Textile History Museum. My work is primarily British, and the novels I discuss in my book project are written by British authors. But I have begun to think about American textiles as well, and proposed a research trip to Boston and the surrounding areas to think about how American texts and textiles can be used as a concluding chapter in my manuscript. I spoke with curator Karen Herbaugh, scheduled a day in the archives, requested some shawls, and took the train from Boston to Lowell on the appointed day.

Patriotic Parade dress, c. 1900, Adironac, NY

There is a great difference between working with an actual curator and working with a person who assists you in a supervisory capacity, namely in that a curator knows her collection inside and out. Karen had already read my project summary before I arrived and pulled several shawls that I had requested. But even before I arrived, she had thought about other items that would be useful to me, and by the end of my first day—the only day I had scheduled in the archives—she had also pulled sewing diaries, items of clothing from the collection, and suggested so many other items that it was necessary to schedule a second day to go through everything.

Did I say necessary to schedule a second day? What I mean is that I only had time for a second day, but I could have spent weeks in the collections at ATHM. I read sewing diaries in which nineteenth-century women kept records of the dresses they owned with details as to where, and when, they wore them. I examined hundreds of cartes de visite of fashionable American women, as well as tintypes of female mill workers posed with the tools of their trade. I handled dresses and blouses emblazoned with the American flag, and shawls produced in America, in Scotland, in England, and in India. This was only after sixteen hours of research; this did not include all of the materials Karen and I discussed but, sadly, could not examine because of time constraints.

Fabric Diary, 1894-1904, compiled by Estelle Potter Harrison

By the end of my second research day, I had met the majority of the curatorial and professional staff at the Museum. I had spoken with several people who made it a point to stop by my workspace and offer further ideas, book suggestions, archival direction, and, perhaps most appreciated, lunch invitations. By the end of my second research day, I was excited and invigorated by my research, but saddened by the fact that I couldn’t stay longer. There were so many more conversations to be had! So much more material to be seen! But research must be put to good use, so I had to return home and determine how best to use the materials I had examined.

I returned to Indiana reminded of why I do what I do: I love my work. I also was reminded of why I appreciate people who are enthusiastic about their jobs: they love their work. The staff at the American Textile History Museum gave me an extraordinary chance to conduct non-directed research that allowed me to develop new ideas as I was in the archives. The chance to explore their materials and develop further ideas there has helped to spark, quite seriously, a new direction in my manuscript, all because of further discussions and conversations, and a shared enthusiasm for textiles, history, literature, and fashion.

By Dr. Amy L. Montz, Assistant Professor of English, University of Southern Indiana

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