Friday, February 20, 2015

Paper Fragments of Time and Place

Old booklets and paper ephemera

One of my hobbies is antique collecting, but I often gravitate toward collecting pretty specific things. One of those collections, which continues to grow and grow, is that of paper ephemera from times past. Specifically of interest to me are pieces that hold handwriting; human evidence of the daily, the banal, and the easily forgotten. When a lot of people talk about really being into antiques, they often talk about the really rare things, items that are historically important, or fetch a high price or are very sought after. Those are almost at the exact opposite side of the spectrum from what I collect. I very often am drawn toward household items; things of little monetary value, but objects that were touched, written in, read, and engaged in day-to-day life.

Recently I acquired a "Pocket Diary", which was a promotional booklet from a Washington D.C. Patent Attorney's office, that once belonged to a Fred Coleman, who at the time of writing (1907), lived on South Freedom Street in Alliance, Ohio.  I have no idea how old Fred was when he started this daily journal. He was obviously a boy, and as the first page of writing states, he was 3'6" tall and weighed 70 lbs.

He kept up with daily entries pretty well until about April, when he stopped writing. At the beginning, we get some facts and figures about him, and for four months we can read an extremely abbreviated collection of moments from his life.

Fred Coleman's Pocket Diary.

January 1: Oats horse dropped dead. Looks like rain.
January 2: Homer came over in the forenoon. A horse got stuck in the mud.
January 3: I got a calendar with a sailor boy on it.
January 4: It snowed a little. We went down to grandmas.
January 5: It is a fine day.
January 6: A cat came to our house this morning.
January 7: I average 88 on my report card. I started to school after a two weeks vacation.
January 8: I went over to Homer's.
January 9: I went down town after a calendar.

...and so on.  In the four months that are documented, we see that someone in Fred's circle/family died and had a funeral, he played with his sled, his household got another telephone with a party line, he saw a picture show, hopped bobs, ice skated, the groundhog saw its shadow that year, his dad caught a wild rabbit and they ate it, flew a kite, and earned $0.82 in the month of January.

I did some cursory Googling but couldn't find much information about Fred. The address he lived at doesn't seem to exist anymore in Alliance, and I have no way of knowing how long he lived there. The thing is, Fred - who was maybe 7 or 8 years old here - is no longer living. He'd be about 115 years old now.  To me, to have this little glimpse into his life, is just so interesting. Even if he were still living - would he remember all of this? Maybe, maybe not. Artifacts like this are just little scraps of a whole life. How many of your scraps would you ever remember? These things were never archival, never protected, never destined for an art museum or the Library of Congress. They're just dingy, water-damaged, bits and pieces of life.

Dr. Pierce's Memorandum Book (with pharmaceutical advice) from 1933, Mrs. Winslow's Domestic Receipt Book from 1874.
I also enjoy almanacs and health-related promotional items, because they almost always have cringe-inducing remedies and suggestions in them. I often pine for simpler times, but I am all-in when it comes to advancements in medicine, technology, and knowledge. Simpler is not always better, especially when it comes to white pills of unknown origin, promising to be a  "Golden Liver-Curing Miracle".

In Mrs. Winslow's Domestic Receipt book, among the recipes for Liquid Glue, Apple Cheesecake, Wash Balls, and directions for how to make hens lay more eggs, are advertisements for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, an "Old nurse for children, which regulates the bowels, soothes teething pain, and promotes sleep".  It was probably really effective, since it contained 65mg of Morphine Sulfate per fluid ounce.  I imagine quite a few adults found it "effective" as well.

Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery will keep young ladies looking exquisite!
I love coming across old recipes. Some day I am definitely going to try making Aunt Jenny's fried pies, because they sound so good! This recipe, along with recipes for cracker pie and oatmeal cookies, were found in a badly decomposed composition book that once belonged to a Mrs. Adolph Pasternak from Brecksville Ohio. There are also recipes for coconut layer cake, orange nut bread, and caramel fudge. I should make it a goal to try making all of them!

I suppose this little obsession of mine is pretty voyeuristic at its core, but truly, I think I just like to see bits and pieces of people's lives. Not famous people or important historical figures, but everyday people, writing about everyday things. And knowing that in a small way, though they may have moved on from this mortal world, something of theirs is living on. I often wonder if any of my work will be found in some dusty antique store someday, dirty and falling apart, waiting for someone like me to scoop it up and wonder about its origins.  I like to think so.


  1. Very well put. I, too, cherish the little fragments and moments of lives past. Photographs are one of my weaknesses; but I find them so intimate that sometimes looking into a stranger's eyes is overwhelming. Anything handwritten is cherish-worthy. I actually had a conversation the other day on my sadness about the decline of the art of the written word. Not just the ability of eloquence in words, but the beauty and skill of penmanship.
    Thanks for a lovely post ❤

    1. It's definitely true...I'm actually trying to improve my own penmanship. When you look at older writing, it's so skillfully done, even by "everyday" people. I definitely come across a fair amount of chicken scratch too, but for the most part there is a lot of care taken in the writing. I know that kids get penmanship these days, but I think they only get one or two years of it. Typing on computers and iPhones is definitely taking over, but I think there are people who are always going to keep penmanship alive, just because we like it. I type a lot more than I write, for sure, but I will always like the feeling of putting pen on paper!

  2. So.... genealogy is kinda one of my hobbies. So I spent an hour digging around for you, and here is what I found.

    Frederick Ernest Coleman was born in Alliance, Ohio on August 7, 1896. His father was George A. Coleman, a railroad engineer, and his mother was Murney Black. He had an older brother named Howard, who was eleven years old than him. His two other siblings, died at a young age.

    He enlisted in the army on August 28, 1918 during WWI. After his honorable discharge on Nov 30, 1919, returned to his college studies at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. He became an attorney.
    Here is a picture of him from a yearbook:

    September 6, 1926 he married Anita Mueller in Cleveland Ohio. But they were divorced in 1929. He moved to Avon Lake, Lorain Ohio and on July 28, 1932, he married a second time to a woman named Virginia Thomas. Looks like he lived in Avon and worked in Cleveland, until his death on July 31, 1984, at the age of 87. It doesn't look like he had any children, though his brother Howard did, and there are descendants of him around.

    I hope maybe that gives you a little more insight into the boy/man and his diary.

    1. WOW!!!! Megan, that is amazing, thank you!! Holy cow! It's always amazing to me what information is actually available out there if you know where and how to look for it (also having your genealogy skills helps a lot, ha ha). That was really awesome of you to do! It's really interesting - I wonder if he would have remembered any of the stuff in the diary, as an adult, you know? I've been to Alliance Ohio a few times, and it is a really small town now, pretty rural. I can only imagine how rural it was back in the early 1900's. I can definitely see how people get sucked into genealogy as a hobby, it is really interesting! Thank you again, that was really great of you to do!

    2. It's this kind of thing that keeps drawing me back into family history. I looove finding the "story." Dates don't interest me as much as getting a picture of people's lives, and what makes them unique (the good AND the bad). The diary is such a fun glimpse into the boy, gives you a small picture of his personality much more than census records ever can. If you want I can send you a pdf with all the records I dug up.


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