Written by Aja Bain, Graduate Assistant
Here at the Albert Gore Research Center, our regional collections of documents and objects can reveal compelling glimpses into everyday life in Middle Tennessee and the issues facing ordinary citizens in the past century. These materials, ranging from business or place-specific collections to personal family papers, are useful for anyone wondering what Rutherford County and nearby areas were like in the past, and how local communities were involved in and responded to the major events and crises of the twentieth century.
As a history student born at the height of the Information Age, I’m fascinated by the things I find in these collections that concretely illustrate just how different things were even as little as fifty years ago, and am just as often surprised at how many services and institutions we take for granted are fairly recent developments. For example, one collection contains an impressive number of telephone directories from as early as 1917. At first, I dismissed this box as a nuisance, full of technical (and heavy) materials that didn’t seem very interesting to me. Looking inside, though, I found evidence of a world as alien to most of us as anything described by Jules Verne. Can you imagine having a telephone number that was only two digits? Or not having a street address at all, just a Rural Free Delivery number to direct your mail?
The more I thought about this foreign world of rural mid-century America, the more items I discovered that gave me insight into this curious and almost-forgotten place. My favorites might be the educational pamphlets. These small booklets, published by the Department of Agriculture, 4-H, or other groups, educated readers on almost any topic you could think of: farming methods, animal care, health and safety, crafts, construction, child development, and many others. This really made me stop and consider the nature of knowledge and education in the past. It’s almost unimaginable to us today (and students will be particularly horrified) that a time existed when finding information was much more difficult, and could actually be impossible. Before Wikipedia, before Google, before the internet existed at all, if no one you knew had the information you needed, how did you learn something? One solution was these pamphlets, which were distributed with the goal of instructing the American people in modern home sciences and maintaining a safe and healthy population.
Pamphlets could also serve as public service announcements and thus witnesses to the pressing issues of their times. There are a number of pamphlets that speak to the constant Cold War concern with nuclear weapons, and what would happen if America experienced a nuclear attack. Titles like “Defense Against Radioactive Fallout on the Farm” and “Family Food Stockpile for Survival” may seem odd to us now, but when they were published in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, it was critical to disseminate this kind of information, even to children.
The materials found in the regional collections can tell us a lot about the way our world used to be, and about the things that interested, worried, and occupied people like us in the past. For this reason, they might be my favorite part of the archives. I think anyone interested in American social history and the effects of major events on ordinary citizens would agree that these collections are a valuable and unique resource.