Freelance Historian
The World of Historical Manuscripts and Ephemera

Old Words: All “Shook” Up

Posted in Old Words  by Steven on May 21st, 2012

While working on some whaling account ledgers, I came across entries for “shooks.” Thinking at first that I’d misread the handwriting, I skipped over it, but found the same item in the next ledger, in a clearer hand. Googling “shooks,” the Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a shook is “a set of staves and headings for one hogshead, cask, or barrel”  and that the earliest written record of the word is from 1796. To find an illustration of a shook for a whaling barrel, I turned to Photo Curator Micheal Lapides of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, who kindly supplied this 1859 illustration of men on the New Bedford wharf tallying barrels of whale oil landed from an arriving ship. The man with the calipers is measuring the barrels to make sure that they’re the correct size:

courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

Barrels of Whale Oil - New Bedford, Ma., 1859


The shooks are in the foreground. Barrels were carried disassembled like this to save space that could be used for bringing more food and supplies. The hoops for the barrels were carried in bundles as well.  Every whaler had a carpenter, cooper (barrelmaker) and blacksmith on board, so it was a simple matter to assemble the barrels as needed while the whale blubber was cooked down on the huge furnaces on the deck. Here is a close-up of the shooks from the illustration:

courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

Close-up of the barrel "shooks" from the illustration

Another interesting note- Whale oil barrels were standardized at 31.5 gallons. The modern “barrel” unit of measurement for petroleum oil is 44 barrels.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and John Wilkes Booth

Posted in Shop Talk  by Steven on January 4th, 2012

Most people have heard of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” where it is proposed that any actor can be linked to the prolific entertainer in six steps or less. Readers of popular online link site Reddit decided to put this to the test, and were even able to connect Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth to Bacon!

  1. Booth appeared in an 1863 production of MacBeth with Louisa Lane Drew.
  2. Louisa Lane Drew appeared in an 1896 production of The Rivals with her grandson Lionel Barrymore.
  3. Lionel Barrymore appeared in It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stuart in 1948.
  4. Jimmy Stuart was in 1977′s Airport ’77 with Jack Lemmon.
  5. Jack Lemmon was in JFK in 1991 with Kevin Bacon.

Another reader shaves Booths’ Bacon Number to 4 by tracing Lionel Barrymore to Kenneth Tobey in Right Cross (1950) then Tobey to Kevin Bacon in Hero At Large (1980.)

In an interesting aside, Kevin Bacon had been mentioned as producing a Showtime series on the Booth brothers in 2008, but the show seems to have dropped into limbo.


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Antebellum Silver Stolen from Historic NC Plantation

Posted in STOLEN!  by Steven on October 4th, 2011

Authorities report that thieves have broken into historic Cooleemee Plantation in Mocksville, NC,  stealing antebellum silver sets, antique jewelry from several generations of the Hairston family (owners of the plantation) and other valuables. Antique dealers are asked to be on the lookout for these items, many bearing the monogram of “LPH” or “D” in calligraphic script.

Legend has it that the slaves spirited away the family silver and buried it as Union forces marched into the area, and returned it to the family once the danger was past.

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Civil War Chaplain Photo Archive

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on September 16th, 2011


My most recent job for a client was scanning and researching what is possibly the largest collection of Civil War chaplain carte de viste photos ever assembled by one person, and perhaps the largest in existence. Notable inclusions are several veterans of Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor;  Henry Trumbull of the 10th Connecticut, who was taken prisoner at Ft Wagner when attempted to rescue wounded soldiers after a battle;  Hiram Eddy of the 2nd Connecticut, captured at First Bull Run with a rifle in his hand and became the first POW of the Libby Prison in Richmond; and John Van Petten of the 34th New York, who ended the war as a brevet Brigadier General!

These are just a few of the captivating stories of the men of the cloth featured in this collection. Click the “Civil War Chaplains” link at the top of the page for the tales of many more! Please note that this archive may have already been sold, but I will forward any messages to the client upon request. I am available for research on historical documents, manuscripts and photos ranging from colonial times to the 20th Century. If you are looking to sell, I have many contacts in the field, and can help you maximize your proceeds.

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Historic LOLs

Posted in Shop Talk  by Steven on August 15th, 2011

One of the humor sites I read is “Historic LOLs,” which add humorous captions to old photos or vintage illustrations. I love the expression on this man’s face. You wonder what the original circumstances were of this photo. :)


Former U of Hawaii Student Steals 200 Rare Books

Posted in STOLEN!  by Steven on July 1st, 2011

An unnamed dropout from the University of Hawaii has been arrested on charges of stealing nearly 200 rare books from the Hamilton Library on the school’s Manoa campus. Police seized 30 boxes of books that had been packaged to be shipped away.

Authorities were alerted when a rare book dealer in California contacted the University when approached by someone wanting to sell him six books stamped with the UH logo, valued at over $3000. School officials estimate the replacement value of the missing books at between $40,000 and $100,000. All but one book have been recovered.

KITV Channel 4 Report

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Civil War Union Army Payroll Checks

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on February 9th, 2011

An interesting item I’ve received is this sheet of uncut Civil War Union Army payroll checks. Printed in dark green on buff paper, there are no folds or tears- this item is in pristine condition. (Click image for full size.)

This would look marvelous matted and framed, suitable for numismatists as well as Civil War collectors.

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1834: Maryland Doctor Heads to the Wild West of… Illinois!

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on January 22nd, 2011

I’ve been transcribing a wonderful letter from 1834 that I wanted to share.  Dr. William Grimes of Maryland is writing his childhood friend Adam Glossbrenner, a newspaper editor in York, Pa. who is writing a history of the area at the time of the letter. Grimes wants Glossbrenner to move with him to the “frontier West” – Illinois!

Note that only two years prior, the Black Hawk War had been fought in Illinois, and Chicago had only been founded the year before this letter!

“Clear Spring, 22 October 1834

Dear Sir,

As the return of my friend Mr Oswald to little York offers an opportunity of sending a letter, I have taken the liberty of writing one & addressing it to you. If the hebdomidal and gelling, which a man’s brain must of necessity receive in conducting a public journal , have not obliterated every vestige of former days, you must still recollect a “Waife upon the worlds wide common” who, in the by-gone days of childhood, answered to the familiar cognosence of “Bill Givens”. Now sir, stop for one moment & take a step thro’ the “dark postern of time long elapsed” &, unless your memory is very treacherous, you will find some your own acts associated with that, which, if unattoned for at the last day, will send you in company with all those who have spent their Sabbaths in early life on the banks of the Antietam, fishing for chubs. For my own part, I have long since eschewed my piscatory habits, as I doubt not, has been the case with yourself & not choosing to come within Franklin’s or Swift’s (I forget which) deffinition of a fishing rod: viz, “a long pole with a string on one end & a fool on the other.”

Ah! Adam, those were the days of sunshine & gingerbread – they have past, & bread & beef must now be had, for our wives & little ones! “Wut in Got’s name” are you about? I am told you have abandoned the “Editor’s table” & turned antiquary, going about in an old green buzecoat, & a little bag, picking up “Indian darts” & six like things – it is further rumored that you intend before long to prove to a mathematical demonstration that York County did certainly emerge from the great ocean of waters, with the other parts of the state of Pennsylvania, & at the same time. – I suspect it will be a difficult matter to make all the people of your county believe that – You might as well tell them that the world we inhabit is round & that it revolves on its axis every twenty-four hours. they would just as soon believe it.

But my object in writing this letter was to ascertain one thing, or perhaps two. Are you permanently located in York? or have you ever turned your thoughts to the great West? Do you not think that, as you are a practical printer, & a tolerable fair specimen of Editor, that you could do well by establishing a paper in some of the towns in Illinois? Now I have allways had a fondness for the art of printing, & I flatter myself that I can write a paragraph for a newspaper – I have disposed of my property here & am anxious to remove to some part of the west, & I would like to engage in conducting a newspaper with some practical printer, & pursue my profession. I will purchase the half, or the whole of the printing materials – I need not point out to you the power & influence a well conducted paper will weild any where – nor need I tell you of the inducements held out in the west to enterprising young men – Indeed, I not time now – but, if this proposition shall meet with your views, you can write me, & let me know your mind fully upon the subject.

We will then come to an understanding about it.

I do not know how soon I can get off as I am here now only because I have been disappointed in getting the money for my property – perhaps next spring & perhaps not before a year.

yours &c in haste
W.H. Grimes
I shall be pleased to hear from you soon.”

1834 Letter of Dr. William Grimes

I will be listing this letter Saturday on eBay for a client, and will update with the listing number for those interested.

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My Sunday Afternoon- Transcribing an 1845 Letter

Posted in Shop Talk  by Steven on January 2nd, 2011

Here’s an example of how I have spent my New Year’s weekend: transcribing documents such as this 1845 letter discussing outgoing President Tyler and incoming President Polk,  written to Adam J Glossbrenner, who’d just been hired by the office of the Clerk of the US House of Representatives. This is the first of four pages:

I take items such as this on commission for clients, finding the “hidden value” that others miss. For example, the recent letter to the Buchanan White House that was written by the US Treasury agent who was given the famous orders to “shoot on the spot” any man that tore down the US colors in New Orleans. (Those orders referred to the US Revenue cutter McClelland, which had been taken over for the South by its captain, not the US Treasury building in New Orleans, as some sources claim.)

For those interested in stampless covers as I am, I’ll post the address sheet of this letter later.

George Washington Letter Sold for $3.2 Million

Posted in Old Stuff in the News  by Steven on December 14th, 2009

An emotional letter from George Washington to his nephew Bushrod, written soon after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 has sold at Christie’s for a record $3.2 million dollars (including buyer’s premium.) This smashes the previous record of $834,500 set in 2002 for a Revolutionary War military report in his hand.

In the letter, Washington praises the positive qualities of the Constitution to preserve and strengthen the young United States, until then struggling for survival under the Articles of Confederation.  He says in part “If . . . the Union of the whole is a desirable object, the parts which compose it must yield a little”. Washington had presided over the Constitutional Convention, and was an ardent supporter of the document. Answering critics and foes of a stronger central government, he writes

“The power under the Constitution will always be with the people… It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a certain limited period to representatives of their own chusing; and whenever it is exercised contrary to their interests . . . their servants can, and undoubtedly will be, recalled.”

The letter, sold by an unidentified British descendant of the first President, was given an estimate of $1.5 million to $2.5 million, not only because of the author, but also because of the historically important content.  Some observers expressed skepticism at the estimate, citing the depressed economy, but the results showed that items as historically significant as this one will sell well in any market. The bidding rapidly rose from the opening of $950,000 and concluded in a duel between two phone bidders, with the hammer coming down at $2.8 million. The buyer’s premium (auction fee) brought the final price to $3.2 million.

This sale continues a trend that started gaining momentum in the late 1990s, where content can play as significant, or in many cases, a larger role in the price of a manuscript than the author’s signature. This is readily evident in the US Civil War market, where letters with good content from an enlisted man can fetch more than a signature of the average general.  Even “camp letters” that are not written about a large battle can fetch good prices with the right research presented to the buyer to put the letter into context.

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