From Copy Machines to Tobacco Farmers

How often have you stopped to think about the wonder that is the copy machine? If you were like me, not often at all—as students, interns, and young professionals most of us probably spent more time being warmed by the light of the copy machine than we would like to think about. Not until I began processing papers regarding Chester Carlson, the inventor of the copy machine, did I think about the enduring significance of this decidedly unglamorous invention. Carlson invented xerography in 1938, which combined electrostatic printing with photography. Although most copy machines have incorporated digital technology, most still employ Carlson’s original xerographic process, and laser printers are based on the same technology. Compared to other pieces of office equipment, the copy machine after decades remains a centerpiece of office life. So why does William and Mary have Chester Carlson’s papers? Carlson was a major donor to the Sarah Bonwell Hudgins Center in Hampton, Virginia, which serves developmentally disabled children and adults. About half of the papers in the Sarah Bonwell Hudgins Foundation Records relate to Carlson, demonstrating the Center’s pride of their association with the inventor.

The Hudgins Center Records was only the first collection of three I processed this semester. The two collections I subsequently worked on were from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The Yeaman and Walker Family Collection consists of mainly correspondence and receipts from tobacco farmers in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee during Reconstruction.  Letters discuss crop yield and prices, weather, health, and the deaths of children and neighbors. Many letters indicate post-bellum economic stress. In an 1867 letter to his cousin Thomas Yeaman, Robert Yeaman refers to Bagdad Smith County, Tennessee as “Difficult Smith County.” He discusses bad weather and low tobacco prices. In an 1872 letter, Robert Yeaman again discusses low crop and livestock prices and the scarcity of greenbacks.

The collection I just finished processing are the papers of the descendants of Adam Empie, president of the College from 1827-1836. One of his notable descendants is Warren Seymour Lurty, who served as a captain in the Confederate army over the Virginia Horse Artillery Battery, which was involved in the Shenandoah Valley campaign. The battery was nearly annihilated and Lurty was captured at Ninevah, Virginia in 1864 and was a prisoner of war at Fort Delaware. Lurty served as a lawyer before and after the Civil War and was US District Attorney of Western Virginia from 1877-1882.

I’ve really enjoyed the variety of history involved in the collections I’ve processed. As a graduate student and apprentice scholar, I’m expected to specialize my research, so it is refreshing to be able to jump across history from the inventor of the copy machine to nineteenth-century tobacco farmers. It might not seem like a logical jump, but while interning at the SCRC, indeed, it is.

Lisa Sparks Carpenter is a graduate student in the American Studies program and the 2010-2011 Archives Intern in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.

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