Recently I inventoried a collection of objects and papers that belonged to a Tenakee old-timer named Gladys Seeds. For me the process of cataloging her collection raised all kinds of questions about the possibilities and limitations of archives.
Gladys was born in 1906 (or 1904, the records don’t all agree) and raised in the Seattle area. After high school she led an adventurous life, working in drug stores to finance summer prospecting trips in Alaska. She wrote poetry, painted landscapes, married a bush pilot, and moved between Alaskan towns before settling in Tenakee. She passed away in 2004.
When I first opened the boxes of Gladys’ things, the contents were more or less a heap of undifferentiated clutter. I cataloged, cleaned, and rehoused most of these objects, transforming the stuff of her life into artifacts that will be preserved. As I did so, I was hyper-aware of the fact that I was shaping the evidence available to other historians and researchers: filtering the material itself, organizing it according to themes I perceived, and writing biographical information. All of these actions may influence how Gladys’ life is understood in the future, and I felt a heavy responsibility as I went about the work.
Due to the limits of the Tenakee Historical Collection’s scope and storage space, we couldn’t keep everything. So some objects and papers were put in the Questionable Pile, destined to be sold, given away, or thrown out. These things tended to be objects not particularly unique to Tenakee. For example, we have Gladys’ snakeskin change purse. If there’s a story connected to this change purse, it’s been lost or forgotten, and thus the object is not particularly useful for a local history museum.
Regardless, recommending things for disposal is the most difficult aspect of cataloging for me. I can never shake the feeling that an item might come in handy someday, or that anything could tell us something, if only we knew how to ask the right questions. (And now I’m rethinking the snakeskin change purse: perhaps it sheds light on Gladys’ style, her identity? Should I dig it out of the give-away bin?)
Of course, the filtering process didn’t begin with me. Gladys collected letters, notes, photographs, and newspaper clippings. She herself chose to keep or toss certain items, shaping the way her life can be understood through the archive.
Gladys’ collection begins with early 20th century baby photos and family portraits dating from her early years in Washington State. It then segues into her 1922 Aquinas Academy all-girls high school scrapbook, including pictures of her and her classmates with their hair in curls, looking prim yet sporty in that early 20′s way. Personal correspondence and photos chronicle her friendships through the Great Depression and beyond.
Newspaper clippings chart her days as a pharmacist and would-be miner. At least two newspapers featured colorful profiles of her, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer dubbing her a “female sourdough” in 1941. Other news clippings feature her bush pilot husband whose airplane once took off without him and was last seen headed toward Russia. Ultimately Gladys and her husband moved to Tenakee, which she made the subject of drawings and poems.
I formed a mental portrait of Gladys as a plucky Alaskan adventuress, roaming the mountains with a pick-axe by day and composing verses about the landscape by night. Then various residents who knew her in life began stopping by my work space to share stories. These details didn’t contradict the archives, but they filled out the picture, making her seem more real. I learned that Gladys had youthful skin, which she attributed to her soaks in the hot springs of Tenakee. She spoke with a raspy voice. She was proud, cantankerous, “crusty,” and a “real character.” Her father may or may not have been mixed up in the moonshine trade.
The archive is silent on these matters, failing to capture all perspectives, but in other ways it does offer a personal view. For example, from sorting through Gladys’ possessions, I know that she collected four-leaf clovers and pieces of birch bark. She made notes on how to listen in on cordless phone conversations using an AM/FM radio. She kept a long list of guns as well as pancake recipes. And as the collection reaches its chronological end, the photos, art, and letters give way to medical paperwork and poems like this one:
From the obituaries Gladys collected, it appears that most of the people she loved passed away before she did — her parents, her brother, her sister-in-law, her husband and numerous friends. Despite this, Gladys seems to have anticipated that someone would be around to gather the ephemera of her life and try to make sense of it. She labeled and dated many of her notes and photos, sometimes scrawling on the front “KEEP THIS.”
In a way, the experience of inventorying the material of Gladys’ life was quite troubling. A rich and full life is now represented by inert papers in a box. I don’t believe that I or anyone can fully “know” Gladys through such a collection, regardless of how many scraps and objects we preserve. (Even remembrances of her have a Rashomon quality to them, everyone with their own perspectives.) In the end, I have created an illusion — that the jumbled chaos of a life can be contained in numbered file folders.
Archives preserve fragments, and there’s great potential to miss the whole. But on the other hand, the fact that I “know” Gladys at all is a testament to the value of archives. ”Gladys Seeds” isn’t just a name on a census roll. We have a vivid collage of information about her which one may at least try to interpret and understand.