Working as a research assistant at the Jane Addams Papers is enjoyable for many reasons. That being said, something particularly rewarding about my job is when the people I research unfold in ways I did not initially suspect they would.
Because I write biographies, I am required to find the birth and death dates of correspondents and other people mentioned in Jane Addams’s letters and documents. After I scour census records, I use old newspapers that have been digitized, in addition to other research databases, to find out more information about the person I am writing about. Several times my research has led to my digging through the lives of completely fascinating people who have been (seemingly) forgotten.
A particularly memorable instance of this happening was when I did research on Anson Phelps Stokes. The Phelps Stokeses were a wealthy, well-known New York City family during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The same week I was assigned to write Anson Phelps Stokes’s biography at JAPP, my art history class happened to be studying a portrait done on his son, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, and his daughter-in-law, Edith Phelps Stokes, by the painter John Singer Sargent.
Imagine that! My art history major finally coming full circle!
I knew a little about the Phelps Stokes family prior to diving into their lives at the Jane Addams Papers. What I did know was that John Singer Sargent did a fantastic job of depicting the flush in their faces and the hint of New York City money and culture in their clothing.
What I didn’t know was that Anson Phelps Stokes was an incredible archivist of his own life; this man described even the mundane things he experienced in a personal journal that I was able to access on the internet. The careful cataloging of his travels reveals so much about the world as it was. My favorite excerpt being from a summer trip through Europe, in which he describes his decision against visiting Prague, as there was a terrible outbreak of cholera in the city at the time.
Admittedly I spent a little too long perusing Anson Phelps Stokes’s journal, but I could barely help it. It was fascinating and gave me an insight into events that I knew very little about- something that is an important facet of historical research.
So while some of the people I write biographies about are impossible to track down, others are a goldmine of information that I could never really imagine.
That is my favorite part about working at the Jane Addams Papers Project.