March 15, 2018 § 22 Comments
Family history. Why would anyone waste their time with it?
In the summer of 1993, I agreed to do just a bit of ancestral research, at the request of my great-uncle. I was quickly lured into the mysteries of century-old handwriting, sepia-toned photographs, and the personal details in local newspapers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I began to write essays about my ancestors, who were much more interesting than I’d thought. My publication record for these pieces is scant, but I persist. At first, I had to go to libraries or historical societies and do battle with microfilm machines. Now I can do most of my research online, from my home office.
So when the newspaper database I use added two decades of issues from Muncie, Indiana, I set aside some time to search. I already knew a line of my family had lived there from 1888-1912, where my third-great uncle, A. A. Arnold, owned a small manufacturing business. His own education ended when he was twelve, and began to learn a trade, but he sent all three of his children, two boys and a girl, to college before 1910. His older son became a priest and eventually, a bishop.
Skimming my search results, I stopped dead at this, from September 3, 1905:
followed by my uncle’s business and home address, across the street from the Catholic church, where he and his wife were godparents for a good portion of the families in the congregation.
This can’t be right, I thought. Surely, if he had some kind of illicit side business, he wouldn’t have advertised so blatantly…would he?
My negative stereotypes about power and institutions have been reinforced daily of late, and I know things were even more skewed toward powerful men 113 years ago. It’s not that I expected my ancestors to be perfect, but this didn’t fit with anything else I’d learned about them. I did a bit of research: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the age of consent in Indiana had been raised from 12 to 16, but the laws were not applied consistently. This did not make me feel any better.
As I put away my papers and poured a pre-dinner glass of wine, the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” morphed into “Stripper Girl” and settled in as my personal earworm.
The next morning, after some strong coffee, I sat down with my folders of notes on my Muncie ancestors. I am only an amateur historian, as evidenced by the stacks of photocopies I constantly—and unsuccessfully—try to organize. I began to search through them, not sure what I was hoping to find. My persistence was rewarded when I removed the binder clip from a stack marked “Background/Misc.”
One of the first steps in cigar-making is to remove the thick vein from the middle of the dried tobacco leaf. Now it’s mostly done by machines, but pulling out the stem by hand doesn’t require a great deal of strength, so before automation it was often a job performed by women. My uncle was a cigar manufacturer.
Occupations were included in the early city directories and by searching for “A. A. Arnold,” I could identify some of his employees. In the 1893 directory I found a Katie Gallivan, “tobacco stripper.” A quick search of the census showed she would have been twenty in 1893.
Health hazards from tobacco hadn’t yet been established. But my uncle advertised “union made” cigars, so I like to think his workers were treated well, at least by late 1800s-early 1900s standards.
The Beach Boys quietly surfed out of my head.
If I had the sort of neat and legible journal that could serve as a reference for future essay writing, I would turn to a fresh page and start a list. Instead, I’ll blog it here:
- Remember: words matter, but they can have multiple meanings.
- Consider context.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Write your own stories, and the stories of other people, with care. If something doesn’t fit, it’s worth trying to figure out why.
When I found the “stripper” want ad, I could just see my dad shaking his head and saying, “Always let sleeping dogs lie.” I prefer to poke them with a stick, gently, and see what I can learn. It’s risky, but far more interesting.
Melissa Ballard’s work has appeared in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel, and other publications.