Traveling to Europe in 1862: Doing Digital History

In April 1862, Wheaton College founder Eliza Baylies Wheaton was preparing for a transatlantic voyage. She was accompanying her husband Laban Morey Wheaton and his cousin David Emory Holman as they travelled to London to register a patent for an improvement on a device that shaped the crowns of straw hats. During the journey, Eliza Baylies Wheaton kept receipts for her housekeeping transactions in London, and she compiled a travel journal and herbaria, thus leaving for the historian multiple genres of accounts of her interests and experiences—financial, descriptive, and botanical. The resulting narratives convey the texture of daily life for a nineteenth-century traveler and reflect the wide-ranging interests of a woman who cherished her husband and friends, loved art and gardens, practiced devout Christianity, painstakingly recorded the engineering details of the new tunnel under the Thames that connected London to Greenwich, and pursued every opportunity to visit sites associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.

The sources from Wheaton’s 1862 journey have been digitized as part of the Wheaton College Digital History Project.  Over the next few months, I will be working on an interactive digital presentation of the sources.

Digital presentation allows interactive viewing of the document images that might approximate the series of experiences that led to collection of the ephemera and specimens for the herbaria alongside the recording of the travel journal.  Further, including links to images of the primary sources introduces a kind of transparency that is missing from traditional print methods for presenting results of historical research.  Digital presentation enhances the historian’s ability to recreate a past that all too often remains obscure—a set of events from daily life that includes not only the experiences of well-to-do tourists who created and collected the items in archival collections but also the boardinghouse keepers, laundresses, and shopkeepers with whom they interacted.  Digitally presented history can be social history at its best.

Future posts will reflect on the documents on the anniversaries of their writing.

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