The Journals of John Adams

The title sounds like something from a PBS documentary. Perhaps something about the second president of the United States. But the John Adams in this article wasn’t born in Quincy, Massachusetts, but rather, right here in Easton in 1830. Beginning with his father Eli in 1805 and ending with his son John Sherwood Adams in 1896, the family owned and operated a tavern, blacksmith shop, and two separate stores on the corner of Adams and Sport Hill Road.

Since January of 1970, the Historical Society of Easton has been the guardian keeper of the business journals and daybooks of the family’s businesses. In all, there are over thirty of them. They’ve been kept secure in plastic archival sleeves and stored in one of the Society’s storage cabinets since the organization’s present  office in the rear of the Easton Public Library was constructed in 1995.

 Significance

People who read our weekly Courier sojourns into Easton’s past often ask how we have discovered so much about the people we write about. Some assume we have archives full of readily available information at our fingertips. The truth is that researching our articles is much like building one of those 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles that many of us put together on those cold winter nights in front of a roaring fire. With very few exceptions, our information is gathered in bits and pieces and then fit together in a narrative that slowly evolves into a complete story.

John Adams’ store and home sat on the northwest corner of the Sport Hill and Adams Road intersection. He, and then his son. operated this store from the mid-1830’s until 1896 when it was sold to Fred Haeublein. Eli Adams’ store and tavern were on the opposite corner just to the south.

When it comes to researching the lives and history of Easton’s past residents, we use several important sources. The United States decennial censuses provide a wide range of facts. Depending on the year – questions change on just about every census since the federal government began the practice in 1790 – we can learn the names and ages of family members, home ownership vs rental, number of children born as well as the number that survived, occupations, years of schooling, income, value of real estate, and marital status of those listed. Early 20th century censuses even go so far as to tell us which households owned a radio. Non-population censuses in the mid-19th century are extremely valuable in providing extensive information on farming activities. They detail the number and types of livestock, as well as the volumes of crops and the acreages planted.

Church records often provide marriage, baptism, and death dates. Wills and probate information offer incredible windows into a family’s wealth and real estate holdings. Land records detail sale prices, acreage, and presence of buildings before building records were ever kept. Newspaper articles and U.S. Military records are other great sources of information, with both WWI and WWII draft registration records providing exact birth dates as well as accurate residential and employment information. Annual town reports often contain information found nowhere else.

Page from June 11, 1830 of Levi Adams’ daybook that recorded that days transactions. Levi’s store sat at the southwest corner of the Sport Hill and Adams Road intersection. Levi was John Adams father.

And then there are these journals. Almost 100 years of recorded sales and barter transactions between the merchants and dozens of Easton residents. They detail each and every item purchased, as well as how those items were paid for – credit, cash, or bartered trades. Since farming communities such as Easton were essentially cashless societies for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, these journals can help us understand the local economy and commerce better than any other documents in our archives.

From these journals and daybooks, we can form an accurate picture of the local economy throughout most of the years of the 19th century. We can learn when the yield and harvest of crops were good, which farms produced the most eggs, churned the most butter, gathered the most honey from their beehives. We can determine who could afford to purchase spices, bolts of cloth for making clothes, pots and pans for food preparation, and who could only afford to purchase the basics such as sugar and molasses. To the historian, this information is priceless.

The Problem

When Society curator Elizabeth Boyce and I began a complete reorganization and examination of the society’s archives nearly two years ago, we were amazed at the number of volumes stored hidden within the cabinets of the society’s modestly sized office. In addition to the thirty or so journals and daybooks from the Adams’ ventures, we discovered another dozen or so volumes of similar documents sitting on the adjoining shelves.

It was immediately apparent that these documents were both an essential piece of Easton’s history and in need of some long overdue effort to better protect them from further deterioration. While they were somewhat protected by the archival sleeves surrounding them, and they had been kept out of the light for many years, they were still in an active state of slow decomposition. In their then present condition, it was no longer feasible to study their contents without the risk of destroying them. The spines of most of the books were cracked and brittle, and many of the pages were badly worn and the ink had faded.

Sales ledger from John Adams’ store. This mid-1800’s book is more deteriorated than some of the earlier journals as a result of the use of lower quality paper. The spine on this journal is so weak, that it can no longer to opened for study.

Among the additional bound journals we have discovered stored in our collection are two large volumes of the Secretary’s Book from the Samuel Staples Trust Fund. While these are both in fine physical condition, the inks used have bled through the paper and now partially obscure the writings on the reverse side of each page. Further delaying the digital recording of these works will make them increasingly difficult to read and study as time passes.

Staples Free School Secretary’s Book. Note the both the fading ink and the bleed-through from the opposite side of the page. If this is allowed to progress, at some point it will become almost illegible. This type of tight cursive writing is difficult enough to decipher without the additional problems mentioned above.

Some of the older journals and daybooks are actually in better condition than the ones from the middle 1800’s. Much of this has to do with the paper they were written on. The following explanation from the Library of Congress should help explain some of the issues we are currently facing with regards to preserving all of our valuable written documents, not just the journals and daybooks mentioned in this article:

The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper: Some Essential Facts

Paper deterioration is still a problem, but thanks to years of scientific research by the library community and beyond, it is no longer a mystery. The preservation strategy for paper materials at the Library of Congress continues to evolve as our scientific understanding of deterioration mechanisms has progressed.

Factors that Promote Paper Deterioration

Why is 500-year old paper often in better condition than paper from 50 years ago? In other words, what makes some papers deteriorate rapidly and other papers deteriorate slowly?

  • The rate and severity of deterioration result from internal and external factors: most importantly, the composition of the paper and the conditions under which the paper is stored.
  • Paper is made of cellulose — a repeating chain of glucose molecules — derived from plant cell walls. One measure of paper quality is how long the cellulose chains, and subsequently the paper fibers, are: long-fibered paper is stronger and more flexible and durable than short-fibered paper.
  • In the presence of moisture, acids from the environment (e.g., air pollution, poor-quality enclosures), or from within the paper (e.g., from the raw materials, manufacturing process, deterioration products), repeatedly cut the glucose chains into shorter lengths. This acid hydrolysis reaction produces more acids, feeding further, continued degradation.
  • Before the mid-19th century, western paper was made from cotton and linen clothing rags and by a process that largely preserved the long fibers of the raw material. While fibers may shorten with age, rag papers tend to remain strong and durable, especially if they have been stored properly in conditions not overly warm or humid.
  • Starting in the mid-19th century, wood replaced rags as the raw material for paper manufacture. Wood is processed into paper by mechanical or chemical pulping, which produces paper with shorter (compared with rag paper) fibers.
  • Mechanical pulping produces paper with the shortest fiber length and does not remove lignin from the wood, which promotes acid hydrolysis. Newspapers are printed on mechanically pulped paper. Chemical pulping removes lignin and does not cut up the cellulose chains as thoroughly as mechanical pulping, yielding a comparatively stronger paper, but which is still not as durable as rag paper.
  • Wood pulp paper from before the 1980s also tends to be acidic from alum-rosin sizing (added to the paper to reduce absorbency and minimize bleeding of inks), which, in the presence of moisture, generates sulfuric acid.
  • Acids also form in paper by the absorption of pollutants — mainly sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Book leaves that appear more brown and brittle along the edges than in the center clearly illustrate this absorption of pollutants from the air.
  • Research by the Library of Congress has demonstrated that cellulose itself generates acids as it ages, including formic, acetic, lactic, and oxalic acids. Measurable quantities of these acids were observed to form under ambient conditions within weeks of the paper’s manufacture. Moreover, paper does not readily release these acids due to strong intermolecular bonding. This explains why pH neutral papers become increasingly acidic as they age.
  • Acids form in alkaline paper as well but can be neutralized by the alkaline reserve.
  • Besides acid hydrolysis, paper is susceptible to photolytic (damage by light) and oxidative degradation.
  • Photodegradation appears to progress more severely and rapidly in poorer quality papers.
  • The role of oxidative degradation appears limited compared with acid hydrolysis, except in the presence of nitrogen oxide pollutants.

The entire article can be can found here: https://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/deterioratebrochure.html

The Solution

The possible solutions vary.

The ideal situation would involve digitalization of each journal and daybook and then a thorough restoration of each that would assure survival for another hundred or more years. But we’re not talking about the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence. Our documents contain valuable historical data, but they are neither priceless heirlooms nor are they written by well-known historical figures. The cost of doing this type of restoration and preservation project would be astronomically expensive and far beyond our means.

A more practical approach would involve having our staff of volunteers digitize the better preserved journals right in our office. In order to accomplish this particular task, the Society would need to purchase a high-quality, full-book scanner. These scanners photograph the pages of open books and are capable of compensating for the curve of the opened page, in essence, flattening it out so that it can be easily read with no distortions. Unlike a flatbed scanner, these machines do not require the tedious task of placing the object in a face-down position and they will not put pressure on weak spines that would cause further damage. They are also considerably faster in that they can photograph a full page about every three seconds. When you are talking about 150 to 200 double sided pages per journal, that saves an incredible amount of time. It also allows the technician to handle each book with extreme care without inflicting additional wear and tear to the item.

The most deteriorated journals and daybooks would still require professional handling to digitally transfer the image of each page into an electronic format that can be shared, viewed, and studied for years to come. Professional grade machines are also capable of easily enhancing the quality of pages with badly faded ink to the point that they are easier to read. This process doesn’t restore the original documents, but it does preserve what is in them. It is still expensive, usually running into low five-figure prices for each book that is digitally recorded.

The Dilemma

The Historical Society of Easton is hoping to raise a minimum of $5,000 this year to get the process started. The expenses roughly break down to $2,000 for a quality full-book scanner and software capable of accomplishing our needs, and an additional $3,000 towards professionally digitizing the first of our documents that cannot be done in-house.

We were in the process of prioritizing the work when COVID-19 forced us to abandon in-person office work — an absolute necessity for examining and then determining our course of action. The expense of professionally digitizing as many as fifteen to twenty journals and daybooks will need to be spread out over several years. We hope to do the most deteriorated and at-risk ones first.

As we complete the electronical recording of each item, we will then secure the original as best we can. Our present repository is part of the library complex, so we are limited to the amount of control we have in adjusting temperature and humidity to the ideal levels for long-term storage and preservation.

The Easton Historical Society is an independent, all volunteer, non-profit with no town or state funding. We rely on donations from individuals, businesses, and charitable foundations.

With Easton having so few businesses, and charitable foundations continually cutting back on gifts and grants, fundraising has become very difficult over the past few years. We currently raise money for our mission by offering high-quality, professionally painted historic house plaques and through the generosity of members of our community who can become ‘Patrons of the Society,’ with a minimum donation of $99.

Since 2018, the society has successfully digitized over 600 of its vintage photographs and, just this past winter, we professionally digitized our entire collection of audio and video tapes. Through some mutual cooperation and a little “horse trading” of some our electronic files, we have recently been able to obtain all the land records that were lost to Weston when the town of Easton was split-off in 1845. We now have a digitized collection of the land record books – a total of twenty-three volumes – from the original Town of Weston between 1787 and 1845, meaning that any land transactions during those years involving property located in today’s Easton are now available on our computers.

The Adams’ journal and daybooks preservation project is next. This will likely be the most challenging process in preserving Easton’s past we have yet to take on. It will be both time consuming and expensive. We need the financial assistance of the Easton Community to make this happen.

Any and all donations towards accomplishing this preservation will be most appreciated. Donations can be made directly through our website: Donations and Patrons – Historical Society of Easton Connecticut (historicalsocietyofeastonct.org)