Sealed in Wax and Wrapped in Vellum

Posted on May 20, 2011

One of the intriguing features of working at the Special Collections Research Center is the variety of material that I have had the opportunity to work with over the course of my time here. Between August 2010 when I began working at the SCRC until now in April 2011 I have been able to work with, process, organize, and write finding aids for several collections with diverse subjects that have fallen into a wide range of chronological periods. Some of the collections I've worked with have included American Civil War letters from a Union soldier in the 1860s, love letter correspondence between a young couple in 1910s and 1920s Virginia, papers of an African American civil rights activist in 1960s Virginia, early twentieth century broadsides and announcements for traveling vaudeville shows from a small Virginia printing company, late eighteenth century sale receipts and legal documents from Rockingham County, Virginia (some of which referenced the Revolution or British rule under George III), and the papers of a photographic historian of the 1970s living in New York City. The collection that I most recently finished organizing and writing a finding aid for, however, contained by far the most interesting group of documents I had the opportunity to work with over the course of the past year – the Chester McNerney Collection.

When I was given the Chester McNerney Collection to organize it consisted of two boxes of unorganized material, a relatively small collection compared to some of the others I had gotten used to working with earlier in the year. Upon opening the boxes the contents soon proved to be a rich assortment of English, French, and American documents that ranged from medieval Europe to early twentieth century North America. After conducting a preliminary assessment of the collection I found that the documents encompassed three languages, English, French, and Latin, and a large scope of time. The earliest document dates to about 1290, while six date to the fourteenth century, one from the late sixteenth century, twelve from the seventeenth century, three from the early eighteenth century, and several from the nineteenth century. The large number of medieval documents and the piece from the late thirteenth century places these materials amongst the oldest, if not the oldest, manuscript documents in the entire collection of the SCRC.

I arranged the McNerney Collection primarily in chronological order. Series 1 contain the thirteenth and fourteenth century French and English documents. All of the pieces in the collection from the medieval period until the mid nineteenth century are written on pieces of vellum and are sometimes sealed with unique wax seals. Most of series 1 is written in Latin and in order to decipher the meaning of the documents I was presented with the rare opportunity to use my limited knowledge of Latin I picked up in Arizona as an undergraduate taking Latin courses for my classics minor. Most of these medieval documents are records of land sales or grants between individuals in France and England. Series 2 contains the sixteenth and seventeenth century English documents. The first dates from May 1577 from Yorkshire during the reign of Elizabeth I in which a meadow is purchased and  transferred between two parties.  The seventeenth century vellum records include last wills and testaments, indentures, and land sales. Some of these date to the reign of William III and Mary II of England, the namesakes of the College of William and Mary. One especially interesting document from this series is an inventory of goods of Mary Freland of Surrey County, England taken in 1690 after Freland's death. The physical shape of the document is different from the others in that it is a long, narrow list of items, all on pieces of vellum that were hand stitched together. Along one row of stitching a metal needle from the period is still stuck within the vellum.  The inventory itself is clearly and boldly written in English, each item being distinctly specified and listed with a valuation in Roman numerals, though the certification of this as a testamentary document for probate is in Latin. The widow Freland was evidently in relatively humble circumstances, as the estimate of the value of her wearing apparel and of the money in her purse together at 4/- indicates. The valuation of her whole estate is 18 pounds, 12 shillings, and 8 pence, but this total is made up of such items as "seaven old blanketts," "five course towells," and "three ould Beds and three boulsters and two pillowes." Among items of some consequence, the widow had a gold ring, 16 pewter dishes, a pewter flagon and a pewter tankard, brass kettles, and a basin and two porringers of pewter. Series 3 contains three early eighteenth century English documents all in Latin and on vellum. All three pertain to manorial affairs.

The fourth series of the Chester McNerney collection includes two English documents on vellum from the nineteenth century. The first is an indenture involving a banker from Liverpool selling a piece of land to a merchant in 1828. The second is a patent for Evan Leigh of Lancashire County for the invention of "certain improvements in steam engines" and others for "serving machinery." This second document dates to the mid-nineteenth century and includes a very large royal wax seal attached to the bottom for official endorsement of the patent. The seal is just as interesting as the document itself, featuring intricate details of Queen Victoria upon her throne and other British symbolism of the United Kingdom attached to the vellum by a piece of green and yellow rope. The patent was originally contained in a blue wooden stationary box with latch. On the top of the lid of the box in gold was a seal of the United Kingdom with lion and unicorn below which the engraving "John Davies, C.E. Office for Patents Manchester" appeared. The box was removed from the collection upon processing. John Lacey Davies was a civil engineer who worked for the Manchester Office of Patents between at least 1840-1866, possibly longer, and some of his letters appear in British archives.

The remaining series of the McNerney Collection contain American documents. Series 5 pertains more closely to the type of documents I am usually working with for my own graduate research on the American Revolutionary War period. This series is made up of eleven copies of American Land Patents from 1798-1800 during the Presidency of John Adams in which Revolutionary War veterans were granted land or their land was transferred to investors. The copies all date to June 1832 and were most likely all requested for legal records or a court dispute that took place thirty years after the originals were made out in Washington, D.C. Series 6 of the collection also contains assorted nineteenth century printed pamphlets and a New York Tribune newspaper from 1873. The last two series of the collection include certificates for loans and bonds. Series 7 contains certificates of loans issued by the City of Philadelphia between 1854-1889 and Series 8 contains over a hundred different American railroad company stock certificates dating anywhere from 1820-1950 with detailed engravings adorning the edges and in between the blocks of text. This large collection of railroad company imagery will undoubtedly be very valuable to any historian who attempts to track the symbolism and ideology associated with American railroads during the nineteenth century.

Organizing and creating a finding aid for the Chester McNerney Collection was a very interesting project and will most likely remain with me as the most memorable experience I had while fulfilling my graduate assistantship this year at the Swem SCRC. Prior to working with the McNerney Collection, I had only worked with original documents outside of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries a handful of times in archives. Reading through the medieval and early modern documents (those from the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries) gave me more experience dealing with the writing and rhetoric from these periods. While determining the text and meaning of these documents I feel like I have gained a better understanding of the way in which to approach the writing of similar documents in any future archival work or historical research I might do related to those centuries. I'm certain that the material contained in the McNerney Collection will soon become useful to researchers now that the contents are searchable through the finding aid on the SCRC database and it's satisfying to know that I have helped in connecting researchers to these rich and fascinating documents.

Austin Smith is a graduate student in the Department of History and the 2010-2011 Humanities Computing Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.