Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “19th Century”

Resource for 19th Century DC social life

It’s been ages since I’ve posted anything here, but the Library of Congress recently digitized a collection that I think writers of stories set in early to mid 19th Century Washington DC would find helpful.

The collection is Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton papers, 1793-1861 and it can be found at https://www.loc.gov/collections/anna-maria-brodeau-thornton-papers/about-this-collection/.

Here’s the description from the “About this collection” page:

The seven volumes of diaries and notebooks, 1793-1861, of Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (ca.1775-1865) document her position at the center of a Washington, D.C., social circle that included George and Martha Washington, James and Dolley Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Bayard Smith, and the cabinet members, congressmen, and diplomats who constituted the city’s entwined social and political worlds. Thornton was the daughter of Ann Brodeau, who emigrated from England in 1775 with the help of Benjamin Franklin and established a successful school in Philadelphia. The identity of Anna Maria Thornton’s father is unknown, but he may have been English clergyman William Dodd, who was hanged for forgery in 1777.

In 1790, at just fifteen, Anna Maria Brodeau married William Thornton (1759-1828), an architect who was born in Tortola and initially trained as a doctor. He is best known for his design of the United States Capitol. Thornton was one of the commissioners appointed to plan the capital city, and later in his career he became United States Superintendent of Patents. The Thorntons moved to Washington in 1792 and lived there for the rest of their lives.

Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton’s papers consist of diaries and commonplace books, 1793-1861, which she began when she was eighteen and ended at eighty-six, a period of sixty-eight years. These volumes document the operation of her household, including the management of slaves; travel, including visits to the Virginia homes of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison; the construction of Washington, D.C., and the United States Capitol; the city under attack during the War of 1812; visits of the Count de Volney, 1796, and Alexander von Humboldt, 1804; an attempt on her life by Arthur, a slave, in 1835; the 1844 shipboard explosion that killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Treasury Secretary Thomas Gilmer; the inauguration of president James K. Polk in 1845; and the start of the Civil War.

Thornton’s entries show the networks of visiting and social events, including presidential “levees,” at which she, along with other wives of Washington’s leaders, observed and influenced power in the capital city. Included are household accounts, receipts, a visitors log, 1794-1798, book lists and reading notes, essays in French and English, recipes, a collection of autographs of Washington figures, photographs, and silhouettes. Among the silhouettes are a few done by Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale of Humboldt and his party during their 1804 visit to Washington (volume 6).

I haven’t examined this material in detail, but it seems like it would have to have a lot of authentic details for antebellum Washington DC. If you do find this material useful, I’d love to hear about it in comments.

This post is not a prelude to either posting more regularly or doing a thorough overhaul of the site. Sometimes I just can’t help myself from sharing. We’ll see what happens here as I get through a few other commitments.

Images from the History of Medicine (National Library of Medicine)

Images from the History of Medicine – http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/ihm/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What did quarantine signs look like in the 20th Century?
  • Where can I find examples of AIDS posters?
  • How did the US Armed forces encourage soldiers to use their mosquito nets during World War II?
  • Where can I find health posters in Chinese?


From the website:

Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) provides access to over 70,000 images in the collections of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) of the U.S National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The collection includes portraits, photographs, caricatures, genre scenes, posters, and graphic art illustrating the social and historical aspects of medicine dated from the 15th to 21st century.

The records from the Images from the History of Medicine database are also searchable in LocatorPlus.

This database assists users in finding and viewing visual material for private study, scholarship, and research. This site contains some materials that may be protected by United States or foreign copyright laws. It is the users’ responsibility to determine compliance with the law when reproducing, transmitting, or distributing images found in IHM. Please note that some content in this database may contain material that some viewers may find to be challenging, disturbing or offensive. Viewer discretion is advised.

Strangely, it does not appear to be possible to do a straightforward date search in this resource. Using the faceted browsing on the left hand of the screen may help in your search. This database can be browsed as a single collection, by category, subject or geography. It may also be searched by the following fields:

  • Appears In
  • Call Number
  • Cited in
  • Contributor
  • Contributor (Conference)
  • Contributor (Organization)
  • Copyright Statement
  • Creator
  • Creator (Conference)
  • Creator (Organization)
  • Language
  • Manufacturer Information
  • Physical Description
  • Publication Country
  • Publication Information
  • Publisher Information
  • Series
  • Series Statement
  • Series Title
  • Subject (Conference)
  • Subject (Genre)
  • Subject (Geographic Name)
  • Subject (Keyword)
  • Subject (MeSH Term)
  • Subject (Organization)
  • Subject (Person)
  • Subject (Title)
  • Title
  • Title (Alternative)
  • URL

There is a very small subset of images from this library in Flickr Commons.

Teaching With Documents: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (National Archives)

Teaching With Documents: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (National Archives) – http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/guadalupe-hidalgo

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Who were the Mexican officials who negotiated the treaty?
  • Why did the US President attempt to recall his chief negotiator?
  • What part of the treaty did the Senate ditch upon ratification?


An article outlining how the treaty ending the Mexican War was negotiated and its major provisions. Links to photographs of the treaty and some boundary markers. In addition to being useful in stories referencing the treaty, this article may be of help in dreaming up similar situations or treaties in stories about the future.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 – http://www.loc.gov/collection/federal-writers-project/about-this-collection/

Updated 3/15/2014 to reflect new interface.

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What was it like to live through the Great Chicago Fire?
  • What are some names associated with mining in Montana in the 1930s?
  • Where can I find an account of the Cult of Father Divine?


In the 1930s, writers making $20 a week working for Uncle Sam interviewed over 10,000 people for their life’s history. According to the website:

People who told stories of life and work during the 1930s include an Irish maid from Massachusetts, a woman who worked in a North Carolina textile mill, a Scandinavian iron worker, a Vermont farm wife, an African-American worker in Chicago meat packing house, and a clerk in Macy’s department store.

Many Americans in the thirties remembered the nineteenth century as vividly as some people now recall the Depression years. The life history narratives tell of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the Chicago fire of 1871, making the pioneer journey to the Western Territories, and fleeing to America to avoid conscription into the Russian Czar’s army.

In a number of cases, pseudonyms were used to protect privacy. The collection can be searched by keyword. Results can be filtered by the following criteria on the left hand side of the page:

  • Original Formats
  • Online Formats
  • Dates
  • Sites and Collections
  • Contributors
  • Subjects
  • Locations
  • Languages

On the results page, be sure to note the “look inside” on each item. Clicking on this will take you to a different results page for that one document that will note exactly where your search term appears.

Items may be read online or downloaded in a number of formats, including gif and XML. Neither plain text nor PDF is provided for you.

Story Ideas:

Aside from being a great source of daily living lore from 1850s-1930s, this collection could help you with back story. For example if you were writing a story about Roswell New Mexico, you might connect your characters to people who lived in Roswell before the UFO era. People like Sidney L. Prager, pioneer merchant of Roswell in the 1880s/1890s who happened to work with the Jaffa brothers. Spelled the same way as the Jaffa of Stargate SG-1.

This is another open collection free of copyright restrictions, so material from it can be directly incorporated into your story.

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party [NWP] (1875-1938)

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party [NWP] (1875-1938) – http://www.loc.gov/collection/women-of-protest/about-this-collection/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What did 19th and early 20th Century prison uniforms look like?
  • What were suffragettes arrested for?
  • What did early protest rallies look like?


Aside from documenting a significant part of the struggle of American women to get the right to vote, this collection may also be of some value in documenting women’s prison uniforms. The collection has a large gallery called Suffrage Prisoners, of women put in jail for their role in the suffrage movement. Some of the pictures feature women in prison garb, although many seem to be portraits taken far from prison walls.

Most of the photos represented here are either portraits of NWP members or photos that highlight the Nation Woman’s Party’s tactics which included parades, picketing and street demonstrations. There are over 2600 photographs in the whole collection of which 448 photos are available in this digital collection. If you live within driving distance of Washington DC, you may be able to examine the photos in person. Check with the Library of Congress before hopping in the car.

There are three essays associated with this collection and all three might be helpful to people writing about protest movements or strong female characters:

Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories

Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories – http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/voices/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What songs would US slaves have sung in the fields?
  • How did the life of a female slave differ between Texas and Virginia?
  • What was picking cotton as a slave like?


From the website, “Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. It is important to note that all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings. The individuals documented in this presentation have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond.”

The website notes that a number of the recordings have poor sound quality, but there are a number of transcripts available. The collection may be browsed by audio interviews, song titles, names, subjects and places. The recordings themselves are available in Realplayer, MP3 and Wav formats. Aside from the recordings and transcripts, there are photos of the people interviewed along with an essay about the interviewers.

The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress (1841 – 1964)

The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress (1841 – 1964)  –  http://www.loc.gov/collection/frederick-douglass-papers/about-this-collection/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What did 19th Century social invitations look like?
  • What was life like for an educated freedman?
  • What was the “Convention of Colored Citizens of Kentucky?”


Papers from freed African-American Frederick Douglass. The papers show a broad interest in subjects of his day and included correspondence with a number of famous 19th century figures including Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Horace Greeley, and Russell Lant, and political leaders such as Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.
The papers may be searched by keyword or personal name. It may also be browsed by personal name or by series. Four of the series of potential interest to writers are:

  • Diary, 1886-94 – A single diary kept by Douglass during his 1886-87 tour of Europe and Africa, with notes added in later years.
  • Financial Papers, 1847-1928 and Undated – Bankbooks, bills, receipts, canceled checks, contracts, insurance policies, ledger books, promissory notes, lists, stocks and bonds, and tax bills.
  • Legal File, 1843-1900 and Undated – Abstracts of titles, agreements, copyrights, deeds, depositions, mortgages, lawsuits, articles of incorporation, wills, and miscellaneous legal documents.
  • Miscellany, 1870-1924 – Invitations to private and public functions, maps, memorabilia, and miscellaneous printed matter.

Chronicling America (1836-1922)

Chronicling America (1836-1922) – http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What were some headlines from a 100 years ago?
  • Where can I read contemporary accounts of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii?
  • When did Houdini make a movie of some of his magic tricks?


This site has digitized newspapers for 25 states and the District of Columbia covering the period from 1836 to 1922. The end year is the last year that newspapers were part of the Public Domain. Anything past 1922 is still under copyright and much harder to legally make available. As of this writing, works including newspapers dated 1923 should come into the Public Domain on 1/1/2019.

The site may be searched by keyword, browsed by state, ethnicity, language or recommended topic. Results are shown as images which can be enlarged and moved around. Pages may be downloaded as PDF or text. In the few samples I checked, the text was not formatted well. You are better off with the PDF if you download material.

The recommended topics include a brief introduction, a timeline and links to selected articles. They could also serve as story starters.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 – http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What was it like to live as a slave?
  • What’s an example of slave dialect?
  • Why did some slaves view their former masters in a positive light?


During the Great Depression, the federal government created a lot of jobs under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In addition to many bridges, building and other infrastructure, the WPA hired writers. This site represents one of the writing projects, which produced about a third of the US slave narratives known to exist.

Before using this collection of over 2000 ex-slave accounts, it would be good to read over the collection’s introductory essay and the “Note on the Language of the Narratives.” The short version is that memory of the ex-slaves may have faded somewhat after 60 plus years and the writers were used to thinking in stereotypes. But it is is still an unprecedented collection that is deemed by many to be at least somewhat useful in understanding what life was like under slavery.

The collection may be searched by keyword or browsed by narrator or volume. When browsing by volume, one notices the slave narratives organized into states. The states refer to the residence of the former slave at the time of his interview.

There are no known copyright restrictions on this material, so parts of it could potentially be used for dialog or dramatization.

Social Security Popular Baby Names

Social Security Popular Baby Names  – http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What was the most popular baby name in 1910?
  • How has the popularity of the name Gertrude waxed and waned over the years?
  • My character is 45 years old in 1950. What is a very common female name for her?
  • How can I find a name so rare, that was only given to five or so babies in 1980? 


One of the early working titles for this project was “Big Brother is Here to Help!” That did not play well with my adhoc focus groups, including my sister-in-law. But I think the spirit is applicable here. Since the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the Federal government has been collecting pretty much every name given to people born in this country. It’s a huge data pool that includes information on people born as early as 1879. That’s the big brother side. If you have a baby, you have to provide his or her name to the folks in Washington.

Now for the help side (aside from the retirement, survivor and disability programs). Staff from the Social Security Administration put together a database of baby names. They harvested the first name, birth state and year of birth and put the power of the sheer number of names they’ve collection to provide charts and graphs of popular names. This is a cool tool.

Most of the fun stuff is in the lower half of the screen where there are three sections:

Baby Name Data – Here you can see the change in popularity in a name over a number of years. I did 46 years for my name and the database handled it well. It shows which names have risen in popularity and which ones have dropped.

You can view popular names by decade (back to 1880s), by state (top 100 if you choose a state and birth year), for twins and in US territories (select year of birth. Territories are Puerto Rico and all other territories)

The final option in the “Baby Name Data” box is the “Top 5 names in each of the last 100 years. As of this writting that was from 1911 to 2010. My name has been in the top 5 four times in the past century 2008, 2007, 1990 and 1985, all four times at #5. How about you?

Popular Names by Birth Year – In the middle of the screen, we have “Popular Names by Birth Year” where you enter a year of birth between 1879 and 2010 and how many names you want to see (20, 50, 100, 500, 100) and whether you want names ranked by percent of total births or by number of births.

Popularity of a Name – This is different from “change in popularity” over in Baby Name Data because it is dealing with one name and it allows you to specify whether this should be treated as a male name or female name and asks for how many years to run the table. It will provide the name rank if that name is in the top 1000. For a name like “Louise”, no year will be reported until the latest year that it broke the top 1000. In Louise’s case that would be 1991, when my wife’s name was the 998th most popular girl’s name.

For writers, using the “by state” can provide a plausible common name for a location and the “by year or by decade” can provide a realistic sounding name for a past era. Or, you can keep running character names through the database until you find one uncommon enough NOT to be in the top 1,000.

If you’d like to explore beyond the top thousand names. Or maybe a character who wants a REALLY uncommon name would like to, go check out http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/limits.html. You can download their entire dataset, either nationally or by state. Each year since 1880 is a separate text file. For reasons of privacy, at least five babies must have been given that name in a single year to be included.

In case you’re wondering how the SSA created their baby data, here’s an excerpt from their background information at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/background.html:

All names are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States after 1879. Note that many people born before 1937 never applied for a Social Security card, so their names are not included in our data. For others who did apply, our records may not show the place of birth, and again their names are not included in our data.

All data are from a 100% sample of our records on Social Security card applications as of the end of February 2011.

The background data document also has an important number of caveats that limit some of the certainty with which statements can be made. But I think it’s still worth using.



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