EDITED BY John C. Parish
Associate Editor of the State Historical Society of Iowa
Copyright 1920 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Gayle Harper)
Comment by the Editor
the man who writes history unconsciously – who has other
occupations and other purposes in life, yet leaves without
realizing it a record often more illuminating, because more
direct, than that of the formal historian.
To a large extent the newspaper man
falls in this class. His mind is preoccupied with the present.
Day before yesterday is out of his realm – so is the day after
tomorrow. It is for his evening subscribers that he writes his
editorials, recounts his news, and sets forth his
advertisements; but the historian a half century later
rejoices as he reads in the old sheets the political spirit of
the time, the fresh account of current events, and the
intimate presentation of the food and clothing and accessories
of life of his grandfather.
pamphleteers and many propagandists and some diarists are
unconscious historians. In letters preserved in attics, in old
photographs and views of buildings and towns, in railroad
time-tables and in maps and advertising literature we find
history unconsciously and invaluably recorded.
The other day we came across an old
atlas of Iowa, published in 1875. "We remember the book from
our boyhood days when we used to pore over it by the hour.
Dog-eared was the leaf where spread the map of the old home
county, with every creek and patch of wood and swamp, and
every jog in the road clearly shown. All the farm houses were
indicated by tiny rectangles with the name of the farmer
alongside. Here and there were microscopic drawings of
schoolhouses and churches; and mills and blacksmith shops and
cemeteries each had their symbols until the whole page was
luminous with landmarks. These maps were meant for
contemporary use, not for the historian of years to come. Yet
how graphic is this record of the countryside in 1875.
And how we fed our eyes upon the
pictures with which these pages of maps were interlarded. Here
the artist and lithographer had nobly portrayed Iowa. We found
the residences of the leading citizens of our town – and of
other towns. There were pictures without end of farm
residences in every county in the State. Everywhere trim
wooden fences enclosed those gabled houses of half a century
ago, and almost everywhere the lightning-rod salesman had made
were the pages that showed forth the State institutions. The
three modest buildings of the State University of Iowa were
far outshone by the magnificent facades of the insane asylums.
Happily in the intervening years the State has come to realize
that it pays to put better stuff in the making of a citizen
and so save on repair work.
The book was
listed as an historical atlas because of the pages of formal
history in the back. But this material is easily found in
other places. The historical data of prime importance was that
which the atlas makers presented with no idea of recording
history – the detailed maps of the counties in 1875, and the
pictures of the homes and business houses and public
institutions of a day that is gone.
To be sure, one must make allowance
for certain distortions due to State and community pride. For
example, in the pictures of Iowa farms there were pigs, large
and round, who did not wallow or lie asleep in the mud, but
stalked about in stately and dignified fashion or gazed
reflectively at the gigantic cows, who, disdaining the grass,
stood at attention in the foreground. The horses were of the
prancing variety with upraised hoof and everflowing mane and
tail. They drew brand new wagons up the road, or buggies in
which rode be-parasolled and curiously dressed ladies.
I used to wonder why cattle and
horses and hogs were always drawn with their fat profiles
toward the front of the picture – as if a strong wind had
blown straight across the page lining them up like weather
vanes. Now I know that the glorified live stock was an
expression of Iowa ideals in 1875 – and that fact in itself is
of historic importance.
J. C. P.