Monday, August 21, 2017

Thomas Jefferson's 1811 Eclipse Observations

LWS 1197, Thomas Jefferson to John Payne Todd, October 10, 1811
(referring to September 17, 1811 solar eclipse)
Today North Americans celebrate The Great American Eclispe! At around 1:22 pm EST, Morristown will begin to experience coverage, achieving maximum coverage at around 2:44 pm EST. These astronomical events have intrigued humans for thousands of years. ☀ In fact, in January 1777, shortly after arriving in Morristown, General George Washington penned a letter to Thomas Wharton with concerns about quelling any superstitious reactions by his troops. This event took place during the first Morristown encampment, while the General was lodging at Arnold's Tavern. ☀ Washington was not the only 'founding observer' of eclipses. Thomas Jefferson was known to have attempted to observe at least four solar eclipses in his lifetime. Morristown NHP houses Jefferson's September 17, 1811 observations in a letter to John Payne Todd (son of Dolley Payne Todd Madison). His notes focus on the phases of contact and the exact times he witnessed its path.

To John Payne Todd

Monticello Oct. 10. 11.
Dear Sir
According to promise I send you our observations of the solar eclipse of Sep. 17. we had, you know, a perfect observation of the passage of the sun over the meridian, and the eclipse began so soon after as to leave little room for error from the time piece. her rate of going however was ascertained by 10. days subsequent observation and comparison with the sun, and the times, as I now give them to you are corrected by these. I have no confidence in the times of the 1st & ultimate contacts, because you know we were not early enough on the watch, decieved by our time piece which was too slow. the impression on the sun was too sensible when we first observed it, to be considered as the moment of commencement, and the largeness of our conjectural correction (18″) shews that that part of the observation should be considered as nothing. the last contact was well enough observed, but it is on the forming and breaking of the annulus that I rely with entire confidence. I am certain there was not an error of an instant of time in either. I would be governed therefore solely by them, and not suffer their result to be affected by the others. I have not yet entered on the calculation of our longitude from them. they will enable you to do it as a college exercise. affectionately yours
Th: Jefferson
1st contact0–13–54}
annulus formed1–53–0}central time H      central timeH      
annulus broken1–59–25of annulus.1–56–12½of the two contacts 1–51–28
ultimate contact3–29–2
Latitude of Monticello 38°–8′

☀ Transcription via

Learn more about these historical astronomical activities:

☀ January 8, 1777

☀ September 17, 1811

Thursday, August 17, 2017

“2 Minutes to Run”: The Other Things Interns Do

An internship is an ideal way to gain practical experience while still a student. It is something that allows us to learn outside of the classroom and put their existing skills to use while expanding their horizons. This summer, we were able to create exhibits that went on display and practice essential archival skills. However, our projects were not the only things that kept us occupied on Tuesday and Thursdays. As the end of our summer in Morristown creeps closer, we have complied a list of our most memorable experiences while learning about museum maintenance, exhibit creation, and day to day activities. It’s the most Indiana Jones the majority of us will ever be, but humor and adventure can be found even in the most mundane sounding tasks.

1. Paper Rangers

In looking for ways to engage children across the country, the National Park Service created a “Flat Ranger” activity and lesson plan. Through this program, students design their own park ranger and send it to different National Parks across the country and each ranger has their own passport to collect the stamp of each park they visit. In addition to the stamp, some include pictures of the “Flat Ranger” at various locations throughout their park. This allows students to learn about different parks and see new places outside of the immediate area that they live. So, when a new ranger arrived at Morristown this summer, the three of us went on a mini photoshoot and brought the pictures (and a stamp in their book!) back to Dr. Sarah Minegar, who sent our paper friends out on their next adventures.

2. HVAC System Maintenance 

Much like any other building, the air conditioning goes out at the most inopportune times (in this case as balmy July day.) When this happened we three interns followed our fearless leader Dr. Jude Pfister to see how industrial air conditioners in historical setting are restarted. The process consisted on turning a lever, unlocking a door similar to a fuse box, pressing a button to reset, turning the handle again and waiting for a series of beeps. After demonstrating this, Dr. Pfister turned the handle, and remarked, “You now have two minutes.” “Two minutes to what? Two minutes to run?” Not nearly so dramatic. The machine turns on each cooling unit in sections, staggered in two minute intervals. 

3. General Contracting

Even museum exhibits and cases show wear and tear of daily use and over-enthusiastic visitors. One example of this was an exhibit case who had a piece of decorative molding pulled off the leg of the case. Gallery maintenance and repair was required in a way that would not detract from visitor experience and also was budget conscious.  Joni Rowe can always be relied upon to have the necessary tools. One tube of Gorilla Glue and three spring clamps later, the wood molding was reattached.

4. Pest Control Special Detail

A year round duty of museum staff is to make sure their work environment, and the museum space, is clean and ready for visitors. One thing goes to the top of the list: keeping our spaces as bug free as possible. Now, of course, we aren’t exterminators or any kind of insect specialists, but we can do what we can! One morning was “trap control”- we went around the building and collected the existing bug traps and replaced them with new ones, dating and initialing each one. This way, anyone would know when the traps had last been switched and who exactly changed it (a temporary mark we have left on Morristown).

5. Exhibit and Gallery Maintenance

While bug traps are important, something even more so is making sure the galleries and museum displays stay as clean as possible, especially during the popular summer months. During our time in Morristown, we had a crash course in museum cleaning. With so many documents and artifacts that are hundreds of years old, what cloths and cleaners used are critical to their well-being.

6. Construction Oversight

Museums are constantly trying to expand and grow their exhibits, and Morristown is no exception. Over this summer, we have watched (from a distance) construction teams come in and lay the ground work for the new Discover History Center- an interactive, immersive exhibit to help visitors learn more about the American Revolution. Though it sometimes felt like the walls of our neighboring library were going to cave in, we have seen a formerly empty space become the blank walls and pathways that will soon be filled with artifacts, information panels, and visitors.  The Discover History Center is scheduled for a soft opening in December, and we cannot wait to come back and see the finished product.

7. Amateur Scientists

This topic is closely tied with #10 on the list because the science we do is important to the day to day functions of the Cultural Resources staff. Our most recent experiment was comparing similar Airheads candy (same flavor, different shapes) to see which was preferred, in case anyone needs a little pick me up in the beginning middle or end of the day. We remain still divided on this issue, not coming to a unanimous decision.

But seriously, one thing we have learned along the way is that the study of history does come with an element of science. Everything, from the folders used to house documents to the methods used to conserve them requires a specific makeup and steps in order to leave everything as close to its original state as possible. Most conservators often have backgrounds in history and chemistry in order to under the scientific makeup and cultural relevance of everything they come in contact with.

8. Visitor Outreach

Sometimes, our internship days would begin in unexpected ways. One morning, when we were walking up from the parking lot to the museum, we met a woman who was traveling from Alaska from various national parks. Unfortunately, she had come on a Tuesday in May, when the museum was only open Wednesday through Sunday. Instead of just forgetting about the interaction, we went inside and shared the story with Sarah and Dr. Jude Pfister. When we told them what happened, they brought us the park stamp and we raced down to the parking lot to see if we could still find this visitor before she left. Luckily, we caught her just in time and were able to give her the stamp she needed for her book. Overall, it was a win-win situation for all, the woman receiving her stamp and us learning a little lesson in visitor interaction and park service.

9. Beginner Anthropologists

From the very beginning of our internships, we have been involved in helping MNHP’s Instagram account (@morristownnps). Our first task was helping tackle #musuemweek, where each day required a new photo series that fit a different theme, from travel to books to food! One day, while conversing and exploring different photos and portraits of the museums and the Ford Mansion, we came up with our idea that would soon be named the “Then and Now” series. We took copies of the pictures we found and went on another photoshoot, this time lining up our pictures in the current park. We had to make sure that the angles and views lined up (which included standing on a couple benches or barriers that were not there when the pictures were take). In addition, making sure we picked recognizable locations, like the Ford Mansion and museum exteriors, was also essential. Some of these photos have made their way to Instagram already, with more rolling out throughout the year. Stay tuned!

10. Increasing Staff Morale

While our projects were our main focus during the summer, some of the best moments have been talking and especially laughing with the museum staff. The work we are doing is always important, but it is just as important to have an open environment in which to do it. Some days were full of research and planning, others included taking pictures, making flat rangers of museum staff, or field trips to see more history that Morristown has to offer. 

This is just a brief overview of a couple of the projects we have been able to tackle during our time at Morristown NHP. As September creeps closer, each of us will return to our universities after a summer of practical experience. We will trade our MNHP nametags and museum practices for textbooks and lecture attendance. However, we enter this coming school year with more information and knowledge of history and its place in the “real world”.

Thank you, Morristown, we cannot wait to come back soon.

Meghan, Phoebe, and Claire

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Cobbs of Morristown

Box 6, unprocessed and nearly 
intact to its original storage condition
Although their name may not be as familiar as the Fords’, the Cobbs of Morristown were a prominent local family and had an equally influential role in the development and history of Morris County. As contemporaries of the Fords (for whom the Ford Mansion is named), the Cobbs had a hand in regional economic and business matters.

This summer, I have had the pleasure of going through the Cobb Collection. I have spent most of my time taking notes on the documents’ contents and rehousing them in archive-friendly, acid-free folders. The collection is one of the park’s lesser-known holdings and contains personal, legal and business documents created by or related to the Cobb family dating back to the pre-Revolutionary period. The collection was originally given to the park by Andrew Lemuel Cobb Jr. (c. 1895-1967), a descendant of the Cobbs who continued to live locally until his death, and includes over forty boxes of approximately one hundred documents each. Although the park has had the collection for over forty years, its sheer size has made cataloging its full contents difficult.

My original goal was to create a finding aid for the collection, but doing so will have to be a collaborative effort; I have been able to go through only eleven of forty-plus boxes so far! Hopefully, the work that I have done will make the collection more accessible to other researchers and will also serve as a start for what I hope will someday be a complete catalog of the collection.

Most of the documents in the collection were originated by Lemuel Cobb (1762-1831) and his son, Andrew Bell Cobb (1804-1873). Both Cobbs worked as lawyers and surveyors and eventually served as justices of the peace for the Morris County Court of Common Pleas. The younger Cobb also acted as Parsippany’s postmaster and was elected to the New Jersey State Senate.

The nature of the Cobbs’ vocation means that many of the documents I have gone through are less than thrilling. There are many land deeds, mortgages, bonds, accounts, surveys, receipts and IOUs, or “notes.” Most of these are unexciting but some do include mentions of or correspondence with notable historical figures including Supreme Court Justice James Wilson and Governors William Livingston and Isaac Williamson. Aaron Ogden, the third governor of New Jersey did a lot of business with Lemuel Cobb and I also found a quit claim signed by Philip Schuyler, senator and father-in-law of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

One of the boxes includes letters to Andrew B. Cobb’s first wife, Elizabeth Farrand Kirkpatrick Cobb, which I found comparatively more entertaining than business documents. As a postal enthusiast, I enjoyed looking at all of the stamps and different postmarks that appear on the letters. Elizabeth Cobb’s correspondence also provides insight into contemporary daily life and social activities, which she and her relatives recount in their letters. Along with the letters, she also saved an invitation to a ball celebrating “Washington’s Birthnight” (very exciting, I’m sure) and there is also mention of an illegitimate child (gasp!) in one of the letters. Elizabeth Cobb’s letters also helped illustrate the contrast between early nineteenth-century life and life today, and not only through personal accounts of quotidian happenings. One of the letters to Elizabeth from Andrew was sent from the Dunning Hotel at the corner of Washington and Cortlandt Streets in New York; that site would eventually become the location of the World Trade Center.

One of three checks found in the Cobb Collection
In addition to the mundane, the Cobb collection also includes some novel material. There are several sets of military discharge papers, an arrest warrant and three checks written in 1831. I also found some hand-copied verses from the Book of Genesis, a number of court summonses, a scrapbook, and a partial diagram of the planets.

A bill of sale for the purchase of a mother and two children

The collection also occasionally veers into the humorous. Among the more light-hearted documents are three short letters from William Robb addressed to Mr. Cobb, Mrs. Cobb and then Mr. Cobb again in April, May and June of 1797 requesting “one qt of sidar [sic] spirits.” Poor Mr. Robb apparently waited a long time to get a drink. Another that I found entertaining was an affidavit of a deposition in a case that came before Lemuel Cobb as a justice of the peace, in which the complainant accused her neighbors of repeatedly sneaking through her fence to steal her chickens.

In addition to documenting land transactions, the Cobb Collection also documents the transaction of humans, an unfortunate aspect of nineteenth-century life in Morris County that should not be overlooked. As an affluent businessman with extensive land holdings, Lemuel Cobb bought and sold slaves, including children. Bills of sale document his purchase of nine slaves, including children as young as nine months and two years old. And although Cobb treated enslaved people as commodities, it is important to remember that they were not passive objects but real people subjected to horrific treatment by other humans who sometimes bravely resisted their circumstances. A 1798 bill of sale records Lemuel Cobb paying £22 for a three-year-old female child from Elisabeth Righter; some twenty-odd years later, an affidavit recounts how that very same girl, Hagar, ran away in 1821.

Although tedious at times, my time with the Cobb Collection has also been at turns amusing, enlightening and affecting. I can only imagine what other diamonds in the rough are waiting to be found in the rest of the forty boxes. 

This blog post by Phoebe Duke, Hamilton College.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

At the Front, Behind the Scenes: Prototypes and Reality

Designing an exhibit is a lot of fun, but requires attention to detail. Being organized kept the exhibit visually clean and cohesive as well as ensuring that all the documents I pulled were protected and didn’t get lost. I used two techniques for the actual organization and aesthetic of the display: one was using guidelines from two different exhibit books and the other was prototyping the exhibit with a 2-D model.

These two books, Exhibits in Archives and Special Collections Libraries by Jessica Lacher-Feldman and Great Exhibits! An Exhibit Planning and Construction Handbook for Small Museums by Beth Hansen provided organizational guidelines and aspects of a good exhibit display that I have never consider. Lacher-Feldman provided a comprehensive list of questions that forced me to consider things like the space for my display, building accessibility and clarity of signage, as well as how to navigate the strengths and weakness of the collection.[2] Hansen’s books discussed aspects of executing the exhibit, for example the importance of labels at eye level and the angles used to prop up objects. [3]

The second tool I used was creating a paper layout of the documents. This allowed me to manipulate the “documents” for layout without over handling them. Powerpoint proved to be a useful tool for display case layout. 

Even after measuring the case, it became clear I had too many documents to fit comfortably and neatly, when I eventually tried place the documents in the case.

I had put less than a third of the manuscripts I wanted in the case and already there was no room for labels or descriptive text. I went back to the paper layout and had to decide what to keep and what to remove from the exhibit. That was one of the most challenging parts of this project because every object that I had picked was there for a reason and I wanted to tell both the author’s and recipient’s stories. In Matters of Conflict, editor Nicholas J. Saunders wrote that the academic focus “on material culture…offers to revitalize investigations into the physical and symbolic worlds that war has created, and that defines us as subjects through memory, imagination, and technology.” [5] This emphasis on “inquiry through objects” forces you to make decisions as to what order and importance each item carries for study, and this eventually dictates how we understand and “remember” history. I had to weigh what was important to the exhibit, but also what would attract the attention of the visitor best: a letter from an unknown soldier writing to Manning or a letter also to Manning about collecting from future President FDR?