Historians usually have no trouble finding information about famous people. After all, if someone was prominent and well known then there is often a record of him or her. A book may have been written, photographs taken, official documents deliberately saved, all because of that person’s fame, or notoriety. If someone was famous then finding enough information to put together the puzzle that was his or her life is relatively easy.
But what about finding resources about someone who wasn’t famous? Someone who was decidedly UNfamous, just a regular person, a “common” man or woman? How do we find historical evidence that a certain obscure person existed? How do we create a narrative of that person’s life to the point that we know where he or she lived, worked, married, and parented on his or her journey through life?
[Let me now pause to write that when I use the words “obscure,” “ordinary,” or “common,” I am not making a value judgment on a person’s worth. We all know that people who lived their lives without becoming famous can be virtuous and extraordinary. I am referring only to people whose lives were lived but there is now scant evidence in the way of physical documents that were saved and available in a place like Archives & Special Collections.]
Archivists routinely help researchers find information about people who led lives that didn’t lead to fame. Often the questions come from genealogists, when people research their ancestors. This type of researcher often only has family lore, or stories passed from generation to generation, about their ancestors who may have lived perfectly normal lives but whose moments passed without much documentation to support these moments. Having worked with countless genealogists I can assure you that these searches are often the most frustrating, and heartbreaking, that we have to deal with. Frustrating because the information is so elusive; heartbreaking because of the researcher’s hopes for information.
So what resources can we refer to in Archives & Special Collections that may provide something – anything – for the researcher of an obscure person? The good news is that there are many potential sources; the bad news is that all of them would require extensive research time and it is very likely to provide nothing verifiable for a researcher. But we’ve worked with enough genealogists to recognize that they are the hardiest of researchers, willing to slog through countless handwritten labor journals, hoping for that one nugget of information.
[Let me pause again to note here that if you’re looking for information about someone who was affiliated with the University of Connecticut, as a student or faculty or staff member, that’s a whole different story. While we can’t guarantee that we can find information about every person who spent time at the university it is at least a possibility. Please contact our reference desk at firstname.lastname@example.org and you will be directed to our University Archivist.]
The collections that are most likely to have something about obscure people are from our Connecticut Business Collections. While many of these collections have no worker files, there are many that do have labor records that may have an individuals’ name. These records include:
- Worker cards from the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company of Manchester, Connecticut. These worker cards were created from the 1900s to the 1930s and give a plethora details about the company workers that allow an almost complete record of a worker’s life, listing the jobs he or she worked while employed by the company with dates, noting the address where he or she lived, place of birth, nativity of the worker’s parents, if he or she could understand English, and other vital details. These worker cards, thousands of them, were scanned and are available in our digital repository, at https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/20002%3AMS19840026
- The Wauregan and Quinebaug Company, a textile mill in Wauregan, Connecticut, has an extensive set of labor records with a file for each worker who stopped working for the company from 1938 to 1957. The listing of the workers can be found here: https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/20002%3A860134117. Please note that there are some restrictions on the use of these records.
- For some of our collections the only information that provides names of workers can be found in company newsletters. The collections where you can find these types of sources include the New Britain Machine Company Records (https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/20002%3A860115781), the Southern New England Telephone Company Records (https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/20002%3A860138740) and the Thermos Company, Taftville Plant, Records (https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/20002%3A860132926).
- One of our largest business company records are those of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (better known as the New Haven Railroad), and we get countless inquiries for information about those who worked for the railroad system, which encompassed all of southern New England from 1872 to 1969. At the peak of its business in the 1920s the New Haven Railroad employed over 30,000 people in the four states of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. When the New Haven Railroad’s successor made the donation of the railroad’s records in the 1980s no personnel files came to UConn. But, there is one source to refer to, which are issues of “Along the Line,” the company’s employee newsletter, which began publication in the 1920s. Although the newsletter stopped publication during the Great Depression it resumed in the early 1940s and continued, sporatically, into the early 1960s. While by no means a thorough source for information about every worker it is the only item we can provide that has the potential for information about those employed by the railroad.
Many of the business collections have extensive sets of photographs, but a researcher will invariably find that an extremely small number of them will have any identification of the persons in the image. I would ballpark that of the tens of thousands of photographs of non-noteworthy persons that we have in the archives perhaps 1% of them will include the name of the person.
There are a small number of other resources in the archives where there is the possibility of information about an ordinary person, many of them sets of oral history interviews usually done for ethnic history studies. Among them include:
- The Italians of New London Oral History Collection, which was conducted in the late 1990s of elderly Italian American members of the New London, Connecticut, community. You can find the finding aid at https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A860120112
- UConn’s Center for Oral History interviewed hundreds of people in Connecticut on various themes, often related to work or ethnicity. Of particular interest are those interviewed for the COH’s Peoples of Connecticut project. Transcripts of many of these interviews can be found in our digital repository, at https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A19840025
- Diaries are very exciting sources if found by a genealogist. We have a small number of them, some of which can be found here: https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A19840029. We also have a set of writings by persons from Connecticut who served in our country’s wars, which can be found here https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A19970101
This list is by no means complete simply because almost any archival resource from any of our collections has the potential to provide information about an obscure person. Check the digital repository (http://archives.lib.uconn.edu/) and inquire at our reference desk for sources about your personal favorite ordinary person and we’ll see what we can find.