Across the Generations: Exploring U.S. History through Family Papers
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"…and soon our places will be filled by another generation."spacer
Samuel Bodman to his brother, Lewis (1 March 1875) spacer

Timed animation of 6 images
Click here for image captions

Family papers contain a wealth of information. Most obviously, the history of a particular family can be learned by examining the records a family leaves behind. At the same time, larger trends and events can be traced within the records of one family. Families do not go about their daily lives in a vacuum. They bear and raise children, marry and die, work and play as members of a larger community. As the family historian Tamara Hareven has observed, "An examination of the family's interaction with the process of social and economic change enables us to understand more precisely not only what occurred internally within the family but how such changes were accomplished on a societal level as well."1
In other words, family papers can be used as a window onto evolving social conditions, on-going economic change, new political trends, and cultural shifts over time.

Within the study of social history, there are multiple sub-fields. The themes presented here are just four of many possibilities. In order to provide as wide a selection of documents as possible, we have intentionally chosen broad themes: Family Life, Social Awareness and Reform, Arts and Leisure, and Work. Each can be further refined. For example, Family Life contains documents that reflect courtship patterns over the nineteenth century, childrearing practices, and nineteenth-century gender roles. Within Social Awareness and Reform are items related to the abolition of slavery and changing perceptions of race, women's suffrage, and philanthropy. Within Arts and Leisure are materials which reflect, in part, increased opportunities for professional women artists in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. We have also included a set of paper dolls to represent the growing availability of leisure for the middle and upper classes during the Victorian era, as well as an increased recognition of the importance of play for the children of prosperous parents. Finally, under the Work theme, are materials which provide evidence of how some families took advantage of opportunities offered by an expanding economy to grow prosperous throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. They also demonstrate how women continued to face barriers within the workplace even as the industrial revolution surged forward.

It is important to note that the families whose papers are represented here--the Bodmans, Dunhams, Garrisons, and Hales--are white, middle-class, traditional families, and their experiences represent only a portion of American society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For a number of reasons, including education and economic resources, these are the people whose papers were more typically preserved. Families of other races and ethnicities, and working-class and poor families, have usually been under-represented in archival collections. Today's archivists are striving to change that, however, by collecting more inclusively in order to preserve a complete picture of American history.

The 63 documents and images presented in this exhibit are but a tiny sampling of these large and rich collections. We cannot hope to tell the complete story of the multiple generations of these families, or to present all of the myriad potential research topics one could possibly find in these papers. We do, however, hope to enrich the viewer's understanding of history by offering glimpses of a handful of moments in American history through the eyes of individuals who experienced them. We have designed this exhibit so that the documents and images can be accessed either of two ways--by Theme or by Family.

Researchers interested in further information about these collections, or the many diverse holdings in the Sophia Smith Collection, can view collection descriptions on our Web site. You may also contact us at: or use our Reference request form. For additional sources on family history, see the Research section in this exhibit.


1 Tamara K. Hareven, Families, History, and Social Change: Life-Course and Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000): p. 18.

Copyright note


This Web exhibit was produced by the Sophia Smith Collection with generous support from the Bodman Foundation. The Foundation also funded the processing of several collections of family papers within the Sophia Smith Collection.
Web Design by Windvoice Web Works
Research and preparation by SSC staff: Margaret Jessup, Kathleen Banks Nutter, Maida Goodwin, Amy Hague, Susan Boone, Fraenkel intern Anya Woronzoff-Dashkoff, plus numerous student assistants.

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