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Lydia Maria Child and Archival Research

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By all accounts, Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) should be famous. An author, abolitionist, and advocate for human rights a full generation before that stance became widespread, Child remains an unsung hero—even though we continue to sing her lyrics to “Over the River and Through the Wood.” Child’s numerous novels, biographies, essays, and short stories lack the current cultural status of a Scarlet Letter or an Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even as she employed more scandalous conceits, and expressed more controversial politics. The secret marriage between a Puritan woman and a Native American man at the center of her 1824 novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times, earned her critical acclaim and healthy book sales—sales that dropped sharply less than a decade later, in 1833, with the publication of her Appeal on Behalf of That Class of Americans Called Africans, the first scholarly study of slavery in the United States. 

In between those projects, in 1829, Child found time to write a cookbook. The Frugal Housewife (renamed the American Frugal Housewife in anticipation of its first printing abroad) was an immediate commercial success, and remained the most popular domestic manual in the United States for nearly fifteen years. In her 1964 biography of Child, Helene Baer reports that the book “was read in fashionable boudoirs, in farm kitchens, and in the tradesman’s cottage; and any country girl who came to town to buy a length of silk for her wedding gown was likely to bring back the Housewife as well.” My own copy of the Housewife traveled with me from my office at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, to the Manuscripts and Archives Division at NYPL, where I spent a month conducting research for my book about food and eating in the early United States. I was eager to find connections between Child’s cookbook and her social and political views—evidence of her belief that good taste made good citizens—and I thought the library’s Lydia Maria Child papers might pave the way.

The papers primarily document Child’s years as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the official newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Letters to a small group of confidants confirm her commitment to that “beloved cause,” as well as to her belief, as expressed publicly in the Housewife, of the importance of “industry, economy, and integrity” in every aspect of life. But the letters also alert us to aspects of Child’s work that would otherwise go unnoticed—for instance, when she confesses to a friend, Ellis Loring, “Entre nous, almost every communication I put [in the newspaper] in is re-written entirely by me.” Like the work of the housewife, most often unacknowledged outside of the home, this editorial carework,” as it’s recently been termed, remains invisible on the printed page. Only through another kind of carework—the slow work of archival research—does the full extent of Child’s labor come into view.

In this way, archives like those at the NYPL perform a double function, allowing us—through glimpses into private lives—to fill in the gaps of previous scholarship based on published records. Through the very act of conducting original archival research, they also alert us to the many forms of invisible labor involved with archives and preservation today. Think of the work of digitizing the millions of volumes in "Google Books," each which must be scanned page by page; or the work of describing archival collections including 19th century correspondence, all compiled with expert skill. 

When we see a website like “The Art of Google Books,” we can thus better understand the significance of the image of the occasional hand; or when we explore the Library's archival holdings with the visual interface available on archives.nypl.org, we might more fully comprehend the source of those collections and how they interconnect around names and subjects. There is perhaps no better figure to illustrate these points than Lydia Maria Child, who viewed herself, as a writer, as a part of the class of “farmers and mechanics, who proudly work with their hands.” Child’s life work, taken with her archival record, together remind us that the archive—its creation, its preservation, and its use—is indeed the work of many hands. 

Lauren Klein is a 2014 Food Studies Fellow at NYPL and Assistant Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Her research interests include early American literature and culture, food studies, media studies, and the digital humanities. The Food Studies Fellowships are funded by the Pine Tree Foundation.

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