Tuesday, 6 March 2012

New Windows Onto Old Traditions

In the early hours of this morning I stumbled across the notion of the "trousseau tea". In this Victorian wedding tradition (they had so many!) the bride basically holds something of an open house to display the contents of her trousseau, as well as to show off her shower gifts. Tea, coffee, champagne, and dainties are served, and everyone oohs and aahhs their little hearts out. This tradition carried on in some areas right up to the second world war, and indeed, is still common among some of the older or more moneyed families in the south.

Quaint, yes? Not something I'd want for myself a) because its showing off b) because I don't really have anything worth showing off c) because I generally view cramming a house full of women who are potentially jealous of your acquisitions to be similar to this bullshit. SNAKES ON A PLANE!

Anyway. . .

After looking up some images associated with "trousseau tea", I have to admit, I was drooling a little. Its probably my inner history nerd popping out to say hi, but the richness, the lushness, the refined elegance, and the absolute unnecessary extravagance of these images really appeal to me:

from: here
from: here

from: here

But it wasn't until I came across a 1939 clipping from the Pickering-Ajax Digital Archive (PADA), that I really understood or grasped the feel of the trousseau tea. But before I show you the clipping, I would like to describe the PADA, and, through that give those of you still wondering some insight into some of what I will (hopefully) be doing as an archivist.

The Pickering-Ajax Digital Archive, in their own words :
". . .is designed to create an Internet accessible digital archive and research database containing detailed information about the unique history and issues of the Pickering and Ajax communities.
The Pickering and Ajax areas have a long history of settlement beginning in the early nineteenth century. The geographic boundaries between Pickering and Ajax have shifted over the years, resulting in an overlap of interests. Much of the area currently identified as Ajax, was originally part of Pickering Township and Pickering Village. Collections relating to the history of both communities have become divided over time, which has resulted in much frustration among researchers. The PADA project amalgamates these collections in one convenient digital archive."

The movement towards online accessibility is one that is increasingly significant for archives. Users come more and more to expect that any information they could find at a public institution such as a library or archives will also be available to them free online. Digital collections such as that made available by PADA serve a double-edged purpose of meeting user needs, while at the same time raising awareness of the types of resources the archive has available to researchers. 

For a project such as this, a number of things must be taken into consideration: quality of scan must be ensured, but balanced with the amount of space needed to store all of the scans; strong metadata (or information about the document itself) must be provided both for search purposes, and for technical reasons; any potential copyright or privacy issues pertaining to the document must be assessed and accounted for. PADA's resources are all beyond copyright at this point, and so may be copied with appropriate acknowledgement to their institution.

So, without further ado, from PADA's collection, the trousseau tea

Seeing the trousseau described in the language of the time gives you a feel for the event in a way that modern descriptions or representations cannot. Note the attention given to the floral arrangements, the decorations, the gowns. Things which we may, in our current time, ignore as mere trappings to the capital "E" Event, in 1939, following the Great Depression, carried an entirely different meaning. This is the value of the archival record: that those of us, living in a different time and place, can intellectually or emotionally grasp the thoughts and feelings of those who came before us by viewing firsthand the records they've left behind. Or sometimes, even more significantly, realize that we cannot grasp their thoughts and feelings at all, and come to know through that gap what we have lost. This is also the value of the digital collection, as it acknowledges the technology-shackled nature of the modern user, while at the same time providing a window into a world before the notion of the "digital" even existed. 

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