Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Secret Lives of Interns: Solving a Mystery!

A blog by Sara Paternaude-Schuster

One of my favorite parts of being the Collections Intern is having a wide variety of tasks to do at any given time. The past week has seen me calling donors for paperwork, processing new donations, photographing objects, and watching old videotapes. The biggest challenge, though, had to do with a tea set.

Dramatic re-enactment of Sara's daily life as a registration intern

Last week, my supervisor Jobi and I went to visit a woman who has a tea set that the JMM may be acquiring. The potential donor told us as much as she knew about the family history regarding the tea set, but some important details were missing. The key piece was the inscribed initials “M&S” on the tea pot. The set, she said, belonged to a prominent Jewish Baltimore family. The initials of the members of this family, though, weren’t M and S. She told us that she believed the tea set to have belonged to the wife of the prominent Baltimorean’s parents.

The tea set, and inscription, in question.

As with any potential donation, we here at the JMM needed to make sure all our details are correct so that the Collections Committee can make the best decision about whether or not to accept the item into our collection. When I started to research the family, though, I discovered our potential donor had many of the names and family connections mixed up. She had mistaken the wife’s name for her mother-in-law’s, and misidentified a nephew as a son. This meant that when I went to research the former owners of the tea set, I was in for a bit of work.

To begin, I had to sort out the family connections. Once I knew who was married to whom on the prominent family’s side, I was ready to start researching the wife’s mother. For some subjects, this would be fairly easy. I started with our biographical records, which we keep for donors and subjects of items in our collection. Unfortunately, there was no information for her.

My next step was to do a simple internet search. As a member of a prominent family, chances were fair that there would be some information available online. While I was able to find a lot of information about the husband and his family, I could find almost nothing on the wife’s, and there was a complete lack of information about her parents.

Next I went to the JMM’s vertical files. Vertical files are made up of ephemera- those items that may be useful to research, but are not appropriate for the permanent collection. This includes a lot of newspaper clippings, especially obituaries, pamphlets and fliers. In this case, I started by looking up the wife’s obituary. In it was mentioned that before she was married, she worked for her family’s company.

Checking out the Vertical Files!

This was my first major breakthrough, but it wasn’t enough. Even with the name of her family’s company, an internet search turned up fruitless. It was back to the vertical files- I started looking files for everyone with the same last name as the wife.

About three files in, I hit paydirt! I found a man who turned out to be the wife’s cousin. In a newspaper article about him, the family company was mentioned. This time, though, it was accompanied by a history of the family. There in front of me was M and his wife S.


There is something immensely satisfying about solving a mystery, even one as seemingly unimportant as identifying the initials on a teapot. When I found the names, I practically ran around the office to find someone to brag to and share my excitement with. (To the person that had to hear me ramble on about it, I apologize.) Of course, that was just one item on my list- there are plenty more items to be cataloged, recordings to be transcribed, and mysteries to be solved before the summer is through.

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