Love in the Archives

You see, it started like this:

Ethel Leona Evans and Pvt. Thomas Newton Bryson, both of Macon County, N.C., ca. 1917

A candidate for most romantic item in our collections? Ethel Leona Evans and Pvt. Thomas Newton Bryson, ca. 1917

Last year I participated in an online effort called “Ask Archivists Day,” in which archivists all over the world answered questions about their work and their collections via Twitter and other social media. It was a lot of fun, the questions from the public were varied and interesting, and the event became a wonderful community building exercise among members of the archival profession who normally would not have the opportunity to interact with each other. In short, the whole thing was a success and will hopefully be repeated this year.

In January, the same group behind Ask Archivists Day announced an effort to spotlight love related materials in archival collections on Valentine’s Day. Archives from all over the world signed up to share their examples of “Love in the Archives” online using the Twitter hashtag #loveheritage. I volunteered on behalf of the State Archives because, although not everyone is a fan of Valentine’s Day, who doesn’t love Love?

And we have plenty of materials in our collections that we could focus on. We have Civil War letters between husbands and wives separated by the conflict. In our Bible Record materials we have a few examples of very elaborate marriage announcements, like the one from the Turner-Fearrington Family Bible Records. Our Non-Textual Materials Archivist, Kim Cumber, has created a Flickr set of some of the images of couples (romantic and otherwise) from her collections.

But when I started thinking about selecting the most romantic item in our collections for #loveheritage, I immediately thought of our Military Collection’s World War I materials, which we are in the process of adding to the North Carolina Digital Collections. Among the smaller collections within the World War I Collection are the photographs of Thomas N. Bryson from Macon County, N.C., who served in the U.S. Army’s 30th Division. One of his photos shows him in uniform as a young private, embracing Ethel Leona Evans. While we have quite a few photographs of couples during this war, this photo captures a feeling of relaxed intimacy that makes it extremely memorable to most people who see it. And, while in many cases we only know about the portion of a person’s life that is documented through our archival materials, this time we know that Ethel Evans and Thomas Bryson were married after the war ended, which I think adds to the romance of the photograph.

While I was scanning the Bryson photographs, I noticed a photo album in the same box of archival materials. Curious, I decided to take a peek at them and discovered a wealth of images related to the U.S. Navy during the war and, more importantly for the purposes of this post, a series of wonderful, candid photos of couples. The album is part of the Warren C. McNeill Papers (which is also part of the World War I Collection); McNeill was from Lumberton, N.C. and he  served on the U.S.S. Louisiana.

"Some Party" from the Warren C. McNeill Papers

Warren C. McNeill and Joe kissing two women, one of whom may be named Vii or Via.

He also had a vibrant sense of humor which we know about thanks to the short captions he assigned to his photographs. A photo of McNeill with two women and a dog in his lap sports the caption: “Arm Full.” On another image showing two women wearing sailor uniforms, McNeill asks: “Who’s Navy[?]” But the photo that has gotten the most attention around our offices over the last two weeks and, in my opinion the best candidate for the most romantic and amusing item from this album, is a photograph of McNeill and another sailor kissing two women. McNeill is looking at the camera, a fact that is remarked upon on the back of the photo in a comment evidently written by the woman he is kissing. She writes: “Every body says we don’t look experienced because you are looking at the camera…” McNeill, as usual, provides his own commentary with the caption “Some Party” on the front of the photograph.

The McNeill papers also feature a few commercially produced postcards, including one showing a group of sailors and women, arm-in-arm, looking out to sea. The caption on the postcard asks, “When shall we meet again[?]”

Postcard with caption "When shall we meet again"

“When shall we meet again” postcard from the Warren C. McNeill Papers, part of the World War I Collection

I’ve been very excited to share these wonderful images; in fact, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of showing them to almost every person I know or have met in the past two weeks. Luckily everyone else seems to find them as interesting as I do – either that or they’re all being very polite when confronted by my archival enthusiasm. These materials have inspired several of us in the Information Management Branch to begin working on a few love themed posters. It’s still early days for that process, but hopefully I’ll be able to show you a few draft versions on Valentine’s Day. I also plan to post a few other examples of “Love in the Archives” that we’ve found over the last few weeks. I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as we enjoyed finding them.