Guest Post: Caylin Carbonell, Does Size Really Matter? Searching for Early American Women in the Archives

Today’s guest post comes from Caylin Carbonell, PhD Candidate at the College of William and Mary. Her research interests include gender, family, and legal history in the colonial British Atlantic. Her dissertation looks at women’s everyday household authority in colonial New England. Prior to her doctoral work, Caylin graduated summa cum laude from Bates College in 2012. Caylin received her Master of Arts degree from the College of William and Mary in 2015. Her master’s thesis, titled “In noe wise cruelly whipped: Indentured Servitude, Household Violence, and the Law in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” explores how early Virginians narrated their experiences with violence and authority. In a close examination of court records from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Caylin argued that servant bodies and the sites where servants faced violence served as crucial evidence in determining the legitimacy of violence, as correction or abuse. Follow her on Twitter @caycarbs.

Most historians enter the archive with something they’re hoping to find. For me, that has always been women’s voices. Even as my dissertation project has evolved into a broader study of family, labor, and authority in early New England households, I remain firmly committed to bringing women’s stories front and center. Whenever I enter the archive, I am hopeful, if realistic, about what I might find in my efforts to bring women more squarely into the stories we tell about Vast Early America.

The difficulty for the early women’s historian almost always starts with finding aids. Both “women” and “early” seem to run counter to finding aids, a disappointing realization when I was first planning research trips and applying for grants. If a finding aid mentions material related to women, the odds are high that the material dates after 1750. This is partly a reflection of an unfortunate reality: there are frankly less extant early records related to or authored by women. But my unwillingness to accept this reality wholesale, paired with an appetite for browsing large swaths of seemingly irrelevant papers allowed me to find many more women than these early catalog searches turned up.

My project, like many others, relies a lot on skimming. My central source base is a set of county court file papers for New London County in Connecticut, which provides a rare opportunity to consider the daily activities and interactions within a New England home. The benefit of this collection is that, while voluminous, it is not nearly as capacious as the Suffolk or Essex County court records for Massachusetts, which have been the basis for many like projects. The size of these collections allowed me to eschew sampling for a “skim everything” method that offered many surprising insights that would have been otherwise lost if I had chosen to consider only sex cases or only those cases copied over into the Native American or African American collections. The learning curve for skimming these file papers was surprisingly not that steep, and I quickly learned how to evaluate the relevance of a document almost on first glance.

One of my major takeaways from learning to skim these file papers was that often, the size of the paper matters. For the most part, my project concerns the small stuff. I’m after the small scraps of paper, the little pieces that were originally folded up into the case documents but now sit neatly in folders thanks to the painstaking work of archivists at the Connecticut State Library. There isn’t an exact correlation between paper size and relevance, but the relationship is pretty close. I quickly learned that the folio-sized papers, while not altogether extraneous, were often less insightful than the small scraps of paper on which court commissioners solicited and collected testimonies from family and community members. When I am trying to move efficiently through a collection, these are usually the places to go to find the voices of women and other household dependents who were less likely to appear as plaintiffs or defendants. Easy to overlook, these small scraps often hold the richest material, a veritable gold mine for projects like mine. (Figure A)

During a short-term fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society in October 2017, I consulted several manuscript collections that helped me to better understand the family economies of several New England families. One of the sources I was most excited about was the Elizabeth (Richardson) Shrimpton Stoddard household account book, covering a period from 1721-1738. (Figure B) Like most early sources from or about women, the finding aid revealed that this source filled only one folder of one box in an otherwise massive collection of family papers from David Stoddard Greenough. When I requested this specific folder, what I found took up very little physical space – a small booklet, only a couple of inches in both length and width. As I expected, the source proved to be a useful one, even in its meagerness. Elizabeth Shrimpton Stoddard (one of two Elizabeth Shrimpton Stoddards, and three Elizabeth Shrimptons – imagine how painful that genealogy has been to reconstruct!) used the small booklet to record her purchases and payments for services over the years, offering a rich view of her household economy and the labor that sustained it.

What I didn’t expect was that this source would teach me an important archival lesson. I was interested in the David Stoddard Greenough papers for more than this household account book, and I began by chronologically surveying the loose papers. As the finding aid suggested, these were an excellent resource for thinking about the operation of Noddles Island in Boston Harbor and the relationships between various members of the interrelated Shrimpton, Yeamans, Stoddard, and Greenough families. Among these letters and accounts, however, were more scattered slips of paper, many with only brief records of one or more transactions. It took me a while to realize that small papers were not simply anonymous accounts, but in fact were written by the same Elizabeth (Richardson) Shrimpton Stoddard who authored the account book. (Figure C) Strewn throughout several folders, many unsigned and distinguishable only by handwriting, others signed with the characteristic “ES” or “Eliz Stoddard,” these small slips of papers together yield a fairly significant record of Stoddard’s household economy. In addition to these little receipts, I found three other small booklets comparable to the first. (Figure D) These were not all signed, not grouped together, and not given any mention in the finding aids for this collection.

While the insights from these small account books may not be of immediate interest or noteworthiness to scholars of more traditional topics, they yield quite a bit of information for the scholar interested in women’s history, the history of informal economies, and the history of unfree labor in early New England. Having trained my eye to look out for the small scraps of paper, it makes sense that I was able to make use of these, just as it makes sense why many scholars and archivists have skipped over them.

Those of us interested in historical subjects that are not easily materialized in the archives have to pay close attention to the materiality of our archives. We can’t rely on finding aids or searchable catalogs to tell us where we ought to look. As Michelle Marchetti Coughlin has written about over at Common-Place, Yale mislabeled Elizabeth Douglas Chandler’s sixty-four-page autobiographical meditation as having been written by her grandson Joseph Coit.[1] When I attempted to view this source in summer 2016, no correction had been made and the source was still not attributed to Elizabeth Douglas Chandler.

Even as paper size has proved to be one indicator of sources concerning or written by women, it is clearly not the end all be all. I have consulted several collections on folio paper, some oversized, with valuable insights about women. My point about paper size, however, does leave me with potential concerns about the ongoing digitization of sources and what this might mean for women’s history. Records that allow access to women and other marginalized individuals are overall less likely to be digitized in the first place, but if and when they are, will we preserve the scraps? Would we be more likely to digitize the bound trial records from New London County rather than the large collection of file papers, many of which are notes for debt and other seeming minutiae. If we were to digitize these records, would scholars still be able to employ a material approach like mine? Would the size of records be obvious when rendered digitally?

As the digital future is bright, we ought to tread carefully so as not to re-entrench many of the archival imbalances that have, for centuries, shaped the constructions of archives. Catalog search functions are already unhelpful when it comes to searching for topics that fall outside of more traditional historical inquiry. When creating digital resources, we might try to think more critically about the ways we categorize and tag such data so as to open up new pathways rather than reinforcing old biases. Additionally, since archives aren’t going anywhere soon, institutions that fund research need to recognize the different methodologies required of projects that seek to find those people or those papers that run against the archival grain. Scholars hoping to uncover the lives of those who hide in the margins often need more time and funding to undergo relatively “blind” searches. As we think about the future of the field, it is imperative that we consider how our methodologies, our structures of support, and our research questions might counter the weight of archival power.


Figure A: Testimony of Bathshua Harris and Grace Rogers, New London County Court Files, Box 38, Folder 7, Connecticut State Library.

Figure B: Elizabeth (Richardson) (Shrimpton) Stoddard Account Book, David Stoddard Greenough Family Papers, Box 34, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Figure C: Accounts, David Stoddard Greenough Family Papers, Box 3, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Figure D: Account book, David Stoddard Greenough Family Papers, Box 5, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[1] Michelle Marchetti Coughlin, “Mehetabel Chandler Coit Finding ‘Her Book'” Common-Place 13 no. 3 (Spring 2013).

5 responses

  1. Excellent post! Thank you for making transparent what is often obscure, especially to grad students: the way that historians, as researchers, learn to mine vast numbers of sources for critical information relevant to their topic. Thanks, too, for your reminder that digitization may replicate–or even intensify–gender biases in the sources.

  2. Fantastic Post! I am an archivist in a small county archive in Tennessee. When I first started my career in 2010 I started finding small scraps of paper in collections and also in boxes of records where they didn’t belong. I called them “scrap paper and orphan documents”. One of these was an envelope for a Myrtle Bateman who had just done some figuring on it. To anyone who sees this envelope would never know what the figuring was for. When her Grandson came into the archives and I showed him the envelope, he knew immediately what it was for. It was where she had figured out how much she could pay for the adjoining farm that was being auctioned off during the Depression. She was a widow raising a family during a very difficult time. He says this envelope is priceless to him and to anyone else it would be a scrap envelope that should just be thrown away.

    • Thank you so much for reading! I am indebted to the tireless work of archivists who make this sort of research possible. And thank you for sharing this great story about Myrtle Bateman. I enjoy researching in local and state archives for exactly this reason – most of the people who come in each day are searching for their own family histories. It is so rewarding to see the payoff of archives saving these “little scraps of paper.”

  3. Thank you for this important post. You make excellent points about the untapped potential of the archives. (Disappointing that Yale has not updated their records regarding Elizabeth Douglas Chandler’s meditation!) Keep up the great work!

  4. Pingback: Accessing the Past: Why Paleography Skills Still Matter - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture


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