The Wonder of Holding the Past in My Hands

While working on personal or corporate history book projects, I occasionally get to spend time in one of my favourite places in the world: an archive. I don’t know if it’s the smell, or the hushed surroundings, or being in the company of other people who enjoy sifting through remnants of the past, but sitting at an archives table with a box or file in front of me, just waiting to reveal its secrets . . . it’s intoxicating.

I get a special thrill at handling (carefully!) original items that were once sent, received, read, crumpled, cried over, stained, or tossed aside by people who lived decades ago, or longer. The paper, typography, logos, phrasing, and signatures on something even quite ordinary can completely captivate me. I start imagining who held this letter, that envelope, this album, that clipping. I suspect many would be astonished to know that a woman in 2014 would be aiming at their personal papers a hand-held device that somehow takes copies on a little screen that she can instantly share with the world at the click of a button. Science fiction come to life.

Take this postcard, for instance, found in a well-known lumberman’s personal papers held at the Centre for Pacific Northwest Studies in Bellingham, Washington.

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Beats me why I get such a charge out of this! I don’t have any reason to care that Stephen Gallier, sheriff and tax collector of Coos County, Oregon, was in 1902 sending these nice little personalized postcards to people whose taxes were past due. But I do care. This particular taxpayer owed $41.36, and a real person named Sheriff Gallier was on it.

I found several traces of Sheriff Gallier’s life within one minute of Googling, including a succinct biography of his family life, and that’s indeed a wonder of our modern age. But it’s the wonder of holding the past in my hands that makes me all day-dreamy.