“There was so much stuff in that barn,” said Libbie Merrow, still sounding slightly overwhelmed. “It was really horrible. Just so much just dirt and pigeon droppings and mouse droppings and spiderwebs.” And yet, under all the grime, she and her husband George managed to uncover a treasure trove of letters from prominent suffragists of the 19th century.
All I ever find when doing a big purge are back issues of Vanity Fair from when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were still together.
The University of Rochester recently announced with much fanfare the acquisition of a cache of “letters, speeches, petitions, photographs, and pamphlets” once belonging to Isabella Beecher Hooker, half sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe and a prominent figure in the suffragist movement. All are from the period between 1869 and 1880, and the find includes numerous letters from both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
“She was that rare character who really saved her correspondence,” explained historian Ann Gordon, a retired Rutgers professor who edited the letters of Stanton and Anthony and was invited by the University of Rochester to evaluate the find. Hooker is no unknown, and many of her papers were already available; in fact, Gordon has relied upon her correspondence before. So the find most likely won’t totally rewrite our understanding of the movement, but letters will provide additional insight into the behind-the-scenes strategizing and arguments and discussions that ultimately produced these activists’ public positions.
What’s more, because the collection ranges from 1869 to 1880, it overlaps with the heated debates over the Fifteenth Amendment. “It’s an incredibly critical period in this movement,” said Lori Birrell, special collections librarian for historical manuscripts at the RBSCP, in the university’s announcement.
“Something that I’ve been really struck by is just how exhausting it must have been to try to keep going for this long,” says Birrell. “You get to this period in the 1870s and they’ve tried everything—state, national, they tried voting and then got arrested for it in 1872. They’ve tried all of these things and they just kept at it. To read that year after year after year in these letters is simply amazing.”
The find is also exciting because it’s comparatively unusual, Gordon explained. “This is very rare that such a large collection of material still together, still in its original mass, can be found this long afterward.” She cited the autograph market for historical manuscripts, where prices for Stanton and Anthony letters have been rising for two or three decades. “The fact that it wasn’t broken up for autograph purposes, the fact that it wasn’t rained on, the fact that it wasn’t thrown away when somebody was trying to clean out an old house—this is quite unusual, at least in American women’s history, that you would find such a group.”
The box had been shuffled through several different storage places over the years. Isabella Beecher Hooker and her husband apparently owned more house than they could maintain, so they sold it to George Merrow’s grandfather in 1895, apparently abandoning some of their stuff. He left it to George’s uncle, who finally left it to George, complete with decades’ worth of accumulated detritus that the Merrows had been sorting through, off and on, for years. “This is the last of about three barns, so everything sort of got condensed into it,” explained Libbie.
They sold the last piece of property to a man who gave them five years to finish clearing everything out; when their time was up, they decided to make one final pass. They found old radios; they found bed frames nobody can use anymore because they were from before the advent of standard mattress sizing; they found what Libbie is pretty sure is some sort of contraption from that period in American history where people tried to get into silk cultivation.
They had particular trouble with a barely-accessible side room: “We couldn’t get in it because the door was jammed and there was no step up to the door,” said Libbie. “The door was about three feet off the ground.” Their son finally managed to climb in—she couldn’t remember whether through a window or the wall—and discovered it was jam-packed with “all these papers and old Yale magazines and magazines about antiques and a complete run of The New York Times from World War I.”
Oh, and a wooden box with some invitations on the top labeled with Isabella Beecher Hooker’s name. They kept it sitting out on their porch under a tarp—“because it was so dirty and we didn’t want it in the house”—until they reached out to a rare book seller who helped them figure out what they had.
Gordon said she’s a bit mystified by how this box of Beecher Hooker’s letters ended up separated from the rest of her papers, because they overlap chronologically and thematically. “It’s almost like you threw them up in the air and divided it in half or something. It’s that arbitrary,” she said, puzzled. (For what it’s worth, I ask myself the same question about my own files every time I try to find something.)
Libbie Merrow has a message for the readers of Jezebel: “Don’t be so fussy about dirt! You save those things anyway.” But maybe go ahead and clean out your barn.