Sunday, March 3, 2013

Census Sunday: Where I came to my senses

Census, senses. I wrote a quick post after a quick look at a census a little while ago (see 
Workday Wednesday: Doll house work in the 1880s?).  But I jumped to the wrong conclusions. As reader Wendy pointed out in her comment, it doesn’t say “doll house work”, it says “does house work”.  I went back to do a little more research after the post and noted that there were about five women between the ages of 17 and 73 on that page and the next that appeared to have the same occupation but I still misunderstood what it said. There were other entries where women were noted to be “keeping house” so I assumed that these five women were doing something else. In these instances, though, the women that “did housework” as opposed to “keeping house” were not the primary women of the household nor were any of them the wife of the head of household.  I made a chart in OneNote showing this:

House #257
Fanny Maxson, age 22, married but living with her father William Langworthy
House #260
Louisa Champlin, age 32, living with her mother Mrs. Sarah Champlin
House #266
Charlotte Jackson, age 22, living with father-in-law Thomas Jackson
House #267
Emma Mills, age 17, living with uncle Edward Percival
House #274
Luraney Trowbridge, age 73, living with brother-in-law Harlow Hopkins

It wasn’t until I used OneNote to clip a screenshot of the actual census entry for each of the households that I noticed that the word I mistook for “doll” was “does”. It was an easy mistake and I meant no harm by it, but it certainly could perpetuate an inaccuracy.

1880 U.S. Census, Portville, Cattaraugus Co, NY, p. 69
(A big thank-you to fellow blogger Heather Kuhn Roelker for sharing the snipping tool tip with me so I could share this image on my blog!)

This example of misinterpretation can also serve as a caution to history researchers, though. Be careful how you interpret things! Because I have an interest in dollhouses, that’s the first conclusion I came to. As historical researchers, even those just “dabbling” in family history, we have to make sure that we are interpreting history correctly. We may think we are just pointing out the facts, but historical research is more than that.

I quote Mark Flowers on his blog post The Uses of History regarding Davidson and Lytle’s book, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (which I highly recommend)

“the purpose of their book is to show that history is not simply ‘what happened in the past.’ Instead, in Davidson and Lytle’s view, history is an active process of selecting evidence, analyzing documents, using a variety of political theories, and more. The purpose of a good historical work, then, is not to simply convey the exact facts of everything that happened in the past, but to provide a framework and theory for understanding how and why those things happened.”
South Colonnade, arches and statues by Henry Hering. Statue representing Research, with magnifying glass, and a statue representing Record, woman holding a book. Overview of south arch on the second floor area. Field Museum of Natural History interior. 1922.

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