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The Background Details: Renewal Notice, 1935

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 18, 2011

This item is posted not because it is in any way significant, but precisely because it is so completely insignificant. This renewal notice, printed on thin, cheap pink paper — paper so acidic that it has burned a deep stain into the pages between which it has lain for the past 75 years — was tucked into hundreds, maybe thousands of copies of the Improvement Era in 1935. Tens of thousands of similar notices must have accompanied issues in other years. It would have been a common, familiar piece of litter in the lives of our grandparents.

But for all the thousands of such renewal notices that were printed, how many exist today? Does the survival of this copy add anything to our knowledge of or feel for life in the Mormon past? If all copies had utterly vanished, would history be any the poorer? I think so, although I can’t exactly say why. I only know that in common with all people, we Mormons tend to save the things we know are valuable — the leather Bibles, the silver Sacrament services, the paintings, the carved furniture — while letting vanish many of the small details that make up our world.

We can’t save everything, and probably shouldn’t even try to do so. But when something survives against the odds, somehow the picture of our past comes into sharper focus, if only infinitesimally so.



9 Comments »

  1. Ardis, I’ve had similar thoughts while sifting through my grandmother’s slides. When we take pictures we frequently focus on iconic places if we’re traveling or on formal group photos. But 50 years later the slides I found most valuable were the offhand photo of grandma’s house and the unstaged photos of the family doing things, in other words the photos we are least likely to value when they were taken.

    Comment by KLC — February 18, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  2. Oh, isn’t that true! You see the picture at a family picnic “spoiled” because your dad as a little boy is crying or pulling a funny face, and you treasure it above all the careful photos that could easily be replaced by a stack of postcards. I hadn’t thought of family pictures in this context before, but you’re absolutely right.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 18, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  3. Ardis, this is a really cool post. I’ve been thinking and reading about related ideas recently. I hope it’s alright if I post an extended response here in the comments.

    You’ve struck on what might be called the antiquarian’s dilemma here: the perishability of the record, which can be seen as a tragedy and/or a mercy.

    John Durham Peters (a fav comm theorist of mine) claims that we live in the age of “TMI,” too much info. When doing research we usually see the gaps in the sources, but we might also confront the avalanche of sources as well, while they might not all give us the sort of info we are looking for. Ever since we’ve been animals who write we’ve been confronted by the “spectre of a cultural heritage unmasterable by a single person,” Peters says. So our work ought to be shot through with a humility which recognizes the incompleteness of our sources, as well as our imperfect ability to interpret them and virtual inability to master what we actually do have!

    I love finding little gems like this receipt. I have a tendency to hang onto weird things like fliers and bookmarks, especially pertaining to Mormonism, as though they are potential artifacts. I kept a copy of each type of pamphlet, pass-along card, and video that we distributed as missionaries because I realized, by seeing old out-of-date pamphlets that what I was distributing was temporal, I made my own little missionary source archive.

    At the same time, it’s probably fine that we’ve lost some things. Memory itself is possible only because we can forget some things, or because so much of what we could perceive escapes us anyway. Peters argues that our reflection on little items of record like this, or on the nature of our record and our ability to encompass it, should give us a

    refreshed sense of scholarly mercy. If all archives are necessarily limited–by lifespan, the biases of recording media, money, time, institutional sensitivities, silverfish, fire, humidity, acidic paper, and the whims of heirs–then there is ultimately no ground for feeling superior in pointing out the limits of someone else’s archive. Limits are definitional and thus not worthy of surprise, scandal, or consternation. How the limits are handled and pushed is the interesting thing. …Incompleteness is a blessing.

    (Peters, “Why we Use Pencils and Other Thoughts on the Archive (An Afterword),” Media History and the Archive, pp. 108-120)

    Apologies for the length!

    Comment by BHodges — February 18, 2011 @ 10:48 am

  4. Wonderful reflections, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 18, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  5. Thanks, J., and thank you, BHodges. Besides the thoughtful ideas from you and Peters, you comfort me with the reassurance that my untrained instinct isn’t odd or wrong or out of line with current scholarly thinking. I hadn’t considered the difficulty of dealing with an “avalanche of sources,” either, just the impossibility of deliberately trying to preserve the documents that would make up that avalanche. And I especially like the phrase “sense of scholarly mercy”!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 18, 2011 @ 11:39 am

  6. Word, Ardis. Loved the post.

    Comment by BHodges — February 18, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  7. Ardis, you are correct as always. I think we can solve the problem of too much information, but it is too late when there is not enough.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — February 19, 2011 @ 12:11 am

  8. I wonder how many of these notices are found elsewhere? When I acquired a box of recipes that my grandmother had collected, the vast majority were written on the backs of fliers, paid bills/receipts and the like. My grandmother, like most women of her time and station, was extremely frugal and would never think of using “bought” paper for something other than a letter or something equally important. I can easily imagine her setting aside a scrap of paper like this one for future uses.

    Comment by Fiona — February 20, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  9. Hadn’t thought of that, Fiona, and you’re right. Maybe we should put out a call for everybody to see what’s on the backs of their family papers!

    You remind me of the fact that rough drafts of letters preserved in the Brigham Young office files are sometimes written on the backs of elders’ certificates or Indian trader’s licenses that evidently were thrown in the scrap box because they had been blotted, or even on the backs of incoming correspondence. These are one-of-a-kind documents that have become lost in the sense that nobody would know to look for them there, anymore than someone would necessarily think to look on the back of your grandmother’s recipe for anything significant. Fun discoveries.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 20, 2011 @ 11:09 am

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