Historians as Detectives
During a cross-country trip a few years ago, the curator of Haverford College's Special Collections purchased what, to the untrained eye, appeared to be nothing more than pieces of twisted metal. But as Rachel Moston, a history major, would later discover, the small strands of barbed wire were potentially valuable, and their story“one of the most compelling tales in American history.”
This fall, as part of their requirement for graduation, Haverford history majors embarked on what the department faculty call, an exercise in“historical detective work.” Established over 30 years ago, History 361, a“Seminar in Historical Evidence,” continues to be one of the few undergraduate courses of its kind.
For part of the semester, students are asked to select an object from boxes of items collected and purchased over the years by the history faculty. They then have to determine the object's identity and provenance, who might have used it, why and how. The source of these artifacts, which have ranged from photographs to antiques to farming implements, can be traced to almost anywhere in the world. In the second portion of the class, the students are asked to prepare an in-depth analysis of a document from the College's Special Collections, which includes an internationally significant repository for printed and manuscript material on the Society of Friends.
Clues as to the identity of the objects emerge from a variety of sources, including original historical documents, visits to historical sites, consultations with local antiquarians, and, in Rachel's case, from a barbed wire identification encyclopedia, listing nearly two thousand kinds of barbed wire and close to 600 patents. Ultimately, she tracked down the source of the curator's purchase – the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas – which claims to be the largest barbed wire museum in the country.
In the process of researching her object, Rachel also discovered a“whole other world” of contemporary collectors, museum curators and aficionados, all dedicated to preserving the history of barbed wire.
“Barbed wire really became tangible evidence of the taming of the West,” says Moston.“The history and development of the American west is so inextricably tied to the use of barbed wire in fencing, it's become a highly popular collectable in Western states today. Apparently people will pay substantial sums for rare strands.”
As for Emma Lapsansky, the Haverford curator and historian who purchased the barbed wire samples, she too continues to collect what“the local folk feel is â€˜memory-worthy.' I always stop at local museums when I'm traveling. I stop in farm and farm machinery museums; I've been to the Bill Cody Museum in Wyoming, two auto museums in California, and to the museum of the Indianapolis speedway,” says Lapsansky.“How else to do history?”