When it comes to historical evidence and materials, you should know that not all evidence survives intact. I guess that many of you have seen photos of ancient clay tablets that are all broken into pieces. (See, for example, the Gilgamesh tablet pictured in our online history courses.) These pieces and shards must later be put back together, reconstructed and then translated to recreate the content information of the original. Only at that point can real historical analysis begin to determine just what exactly does the information on that tablet mean? Well, it is not only ancient clay tablets that do not make it intact through the years. It is actually rather surprising the fragmentary nature of historical records from even the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Yes, the destruction wrought by two major world wars and other conflicts too numerous to count does account for the disappearance of a lot of historical materials. And there are also natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, tidal waves, etc, that have also destroyed historical records. Fires can be especially damaging. For example, a fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, DC, destroyed most of the records of the 1890 US census. Another fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed over fifteen million records relating to the military service of men and women from World War 1 onwards. (See The National Personnel Records Center Fire: A Study in Disaster.)

And then there is historical "stuff" that just gets tossed along the way--no wonder that historians and archaeologists love to explore old dumps. A few years ago, I was doing some family research, and I contacted a major newspaper in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania about doing some research in their photo archives. It was then explained to me by a knowledgeable source that at some point in the late 1970s someone at the newspaper just decided it was not worth keeping all those old photographs, and they were just thrown away.

A historian, as he works to reconstruct what has happened in the past and to understand the meaning of what occurred, should always keep in mind that the records available will always be incomplete to some extent. And it is the extent of that incompleteness that leads to argumentation over the interpretation and meaning of the past. (For example, do a quick web search about the decision by President Truman to use the atomic bomb in 1945, and you will find argumentation.) At best, many times historians are simply making an educated guess about what happened and why it happened as it did.

Project assignment

Well, I have some historical evidence that has survived by sheer luck, but the evidence is not intact. I have some pieces of a single issue of The Slatington News from 16 February 1907. On the newspaper fragments page, you will find a page of thumbnail images of the individual pieces of the newspaper that I have. You can click on any single thumbnail, and it will enlarge for your viewing. As you can see, the copy of the weekly paper that I possess, which I found lining an old desk drawer, is not the entire issue, which was about ten pages in 1907. The paper is very fragile and crumbling into pieces, some bigger, some smaller. Because of the condition, I decided to scan the pieces and label the front and back of each individual piece. I am not exactly sure to which pages any of the pieces belong, but some are to the front page. I do not think that any single entire page is preserved in these fragments.

You should read my short background notes about Slatington, a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania, that was a major slate manufacturing center in the late nineteenth century. You may consult any other sources that you wish for information about Slatington's history, if you can find any.

You might also wish to read something on doing research with primary sources and newspapers to give you some familiarity with the kinds of questions that you should seek to answer as you look through these newspaper pieces.

Paper assignment

Look at the newspaper fragments. Try and discover what you can find out about the people that lived in Slatington in 1907. For example, who exactly were they? Where did they come from? How did they get around? Where did they do their shopping? What did they buy? Did they have a lot of money? Where did they work? What kinds of entertainment were available to them? How wealthy, or poor, were they? What churches did they attend? What kinds of houses did they live in? Did they rent? Was there an economic class structure? Was there a social class structure? What were the political party affiliations in the town? (There are other sample questions to consider if you look at some of the websites on the research page.) These are just some questions that I brainstormed in a few seconds, but I expect you to come up with your own questions and answers from your study of the surviving newspaper pieces. This is what historians do, reconstruct the past and then attempt to interpret it and draw some meaning about it.

Format requirements

Write a two-page research paper. I might accept three pages if the paper is very well written. Your paper must follow the following format:

  • font size 10 or 12
  • one-inch margins
  • double-spaced
  • your quoted or cited material should reference (the specific newspaper fragment in parenthesis)
  • name and date at the top left
  • must have brief introduction and conclusion paragraphs (each not to exceed three lines); your introduction should identify the specific historical points that you are going to cover in the paper
  • You may consider submitting a draft of your paper for feedback before submitting the paper for a grade.

You might wish to take a moment to review the Short Tutorial on Writing the One-Page paper (and the other materials) in Charlie's History Writing Center.  Although the tutorial specifically refers to a one-page paper, the same principles of organization apply to a longer paper.

Professor Charles Evans, the creator of this project, has worked on numerous online history projects.