Friday, September 26, 2014

Receipts, Letters, and the News: How Archival Documents Crafted the Restored Old Senate Chamber

When most people think of an archives, the first thing to come to mind is often how the documents can be used as genealogical and legal resources. People rarely consider how these centuries of valuable documents can all be applied to restorations. While research within the Maryland State Archives, such as the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland, Maryland 400, and Brookeville projects, all use resources in the institution’s holdings to attempt to piece together the histories of people, the Old Senate Chamber restoration has similarly been using the same documents for years to piece together the history of a single room.

1825 header depicting the State House on the Maryland Gazette, one of the first published American newspapers. Many original editions of the paper are in the collection of the Maryland State Archives. Maryland Gazette, 21 April 1825, MSA SC 378-42.

With a room as old and historic as the Old Senate Chamber, shadows of architectural remains and photographs of the room in later periods do not suffice to explain all aspects of the room's original appearance. Instead, more unusual resources need to be used to flesh out the narrative. In the past, we have used probate and watermark analysis on documents to verify information and craft the lives of the key players in the Old Senate Chamber’s history.

Articles found in one of America’s first newspapers, the Maryland Gazette, have provided a fascinating contemporary perspective on the room. First published in 1727, the Gazette covered a significant portion of the Maryland State House’s early history, including Washington’s resignation, the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, and Lafayette’s visits to Annapolis in 1784 and 1824. However, a study on the Old Senate Chamber and Maryland State House does not end with a recap of the major historic events that happened there. To understand the original appearance of the eighteenth-century building, it is necessary to understand when alterations to the room were made and why. Several other local newspapers in our collection have also been thoroughly searched for information on the 1870s remodeling and the addition of Edwin White’s Washington Resigning to the Old Senate Chamber in 1859, among other events.

John Shaw's bill for preparing items for Washington's resignation. Maryland State Archives, Scharf Papers, MSA S 1005-11773.

All known receipts for the Old Senate Chamber and Maryland State House have been collected and thoroughly searched for clues about the room. While receipts for candles and wood may seem vague and not worth saving, we are able to use details from these receipts to understand some of the most important information in the construction of the room. The amount the state was paying often indicates how valuable the work was and how extensive, while descriptions of the product being purchased help to explain what it was used for. The type and amount of wood being brought in, for instance, suggests if it is being used for firewood or if something is being built. Finally, we can gain a considerable amount of information by looking at whom the receipt was addressed to. Biographical research on many of the artisans and laborers involved with the room over the years has been conducted to learn who was working on what aspects of the State House, helping us to attribute receipts to certain construction projects or events in the State House’s history.

Our biographical research has also assisted us some of the most interesting archival documents available at the Maryland State Archives used in the restoration. Letters from artisans, statesmen, congressmen, contractors, artists, and even restoration architects have been preserved over the centuries and remain valuable resources to us now. From these letters, we learn not only about the people, but frequently about the projects they worked on, and even sometimes contemporary period descriptions of the room and Annapolis.

Letter from cabinetmaker Archibald Chisholm to the Governor of Maryland that refers to the craftsman going abroad. This mention was used as a resource when determining the furniture that came out of Chisholm's partner, John Shaw's shop. Maryland State Archives, Maryland State Papers (Red Books), 1777, vol. 14 p.104, MSA S989-20.

Beyond documents, the Archives has a wealth of other resources, including photographs, art, lecture notes, maps, frames, and furniture, all of which have been used at some point to contribute to research in the Old Senate Chamber. Similar institutions in and outside of Maryland, including the Maryland Historical Society, Historic Annapolis, and several other local museums and archives have all been thoroughly searched for the smallest piece of information that may help in the Old Senate Chamber restoration.

Want to learn more? On Saturday, October 4, the Maryland State Archives will be hosting the Family History Festival from 10:00am to 4:00pm. We highly suggest you check it out to see where a considerable amount of what we know about the Old Senate Chamber came from. The festival will be offering free tours of the archives, several special guest lectures, and even a means to get a jump start on some genealogy research of your own!

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