The Irretrievable Past?
Tracks and Residues, Imagined Sources, and the Writing of History
I have fond memories of childhood summers spent with my maternal grandparents in their home in the rural South. Among the most vivid of those memories is my introduction to the Montgomery Ward and Co. Catalogue and Buyers’ Guide, the first mail-order catalog in the United States. I first encountered the catalog in the home of a family who lived nearby. The children my age were summertime playmates, and their teenage sisters were enthusiastic consumers of the catalog’s offerings. They delighted in slowly perusing its pages, “trying on” dresses, and getting a long-awaited purchase in the mail. It was easy to appreciate its treasures, from the everyday to the mysterious.
From a catalog that had begun as a single sheet of paper in 1872 and grown within 10 years to 240 pages and 10,000 items, one could order clothing, dressmaking patterns and trimming notions, sewing machines, Lincoln Logs, farming equipment, and even a house or the drawings for one. By the 1960s, most mail-order catalog customers no longer lived in rural America, and both Montgomery Ward and its primary competitor, Sears and Roebuck, had opened retail outlet stores decades before. But the mail-order business remained an important feature of Black rural life in the segregated South. How much of one I do not yet know.
We do know from the work of scholars and autobiographies and biographies that mail-order catalogs like Montgomery Ward’s played a transformative role in the lives of rural people. In the South, the catalogs gave Black people greater freedom to choose their purchases and access to goods otherwise unavailable—or only at exorbitant prices at plantation stores or stores in the nearest country town, where buying on credit came with usurious interest rates. Rural dwellers seldom had cash. Montgomery Ward offered more favorable credit terms, and buying on credit did not lead to a lien placed on your crop. Catalog shopping offered freedom from the performance of humiliating rituals of deference to white supremacy that often accompanied in-person shopping in white-owned stores. In the privacy of their homes, Black people were freed from the surveillance of white storekeepers and their white customers and from interference with a decision to buy a pretty dress or a ribbon to adorn a child’s hair. This did not prevent white people from contesting the right of Black people to make such private decisions when they encountered Black people on the streets attired, to their minds, inappropriately. The catalogs also had more practical uses. In An Hour before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood (2001), Jimmy Carter recalled that like many poor rural dwellers, his family repurposed old newspapers and “pages torn from Sears, Roebuck catalogues” as toilet paper.
Catalogs played a transformative role in the lives of rural people.
My childhood memories of the mail-order catalog are an entry point for thinking about the larger economic and social lives of rural Black Southerners and what they learned from catalogs about the wider world and themselves. Did Black women, for example, imagine that in dressing in the latest fashions—modeled by white women and girls in the catalog—they were engaged in freedom-making? Ready-made clothing, even for urban dwellers, Ruth J. Simmons notes in Up Home: One Girl’s Journey (2023), symbolized a “freedom and power” that white people claimed exclusively for themselves.
I wonder where Black women documented their desires and sense of freedom and power. Did they take pictures of themselves in a new dress from the catalog, write about their purchases in letters to family or friends, or compare notes in meetings of Black women’s clubs? Did they, like the formerly enslaved woman who spoke of her joy in purchasing a blue guinea dress when she became a free woman, speak of their purchases in oral histories? I wonder if evidence might show up in a letter from a wife, sister, or partner to a Black soldier in training camp at Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) or in the trenches in Europe during World War II, enclosing a picture of her wearing a new dress from the catalog. Or perhaps in a photograph mailed to a relative who had joined the migration from the South to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, for a job at J&L Steel, or enclosed in a letter from a relative in Chicago during the Great Migration touting the city’s attractions. I study photographs of rural women in church and at revival meetings as well as urban Black women, like that of a woman on the dance floor of the Big Apple Night Club in Columbia, South Carolina, taken by Richard Samuel Roberts. Did she buy that pretty dress from the catalog?
These questions and musings become fodder for thinking about possible archives that might provide the documentation I seek. My longing for sources is, at base, a longing for documents that can act as moorings for memories seemingly unanchored by the kind of archival evidence I am trained to look for and that it sometimes seems I can only wish for. They help me to imagine archives yet to be uncovered or yet to be seen whether through the fault of the creators or the custodians. A colleague reminds me of Marc Bloch’s notion, following François Simiand, of “tracks” and “residues” that can act as guides to sources. Paraphrasing Bloch in The Historian’s Craft (1954), she notes that while “we cannot reproduce the person or animal or event that left the tracks,” the tracks often remain. I consider that my memories and musings—imaginings—may lead to “tracks” and “residues” of the ideal sources I would like to find. That is not promised, but my remembered joy in the Montgomery Ward catalog, the colleague also reminds me, is itself one such track.
Historians recognize that there are limits to what we can know about the past that are attributable in part to how archives and collections of papers were established and maintained for decades. We know that the lives of some are lovingly preserved, while that of others survive despite deliberate or unthinking efforts aimed at their records’ destruction, if at all. This matter has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, but I am more interested here in thinking about processes by which we can get to stories that we can imagine exist but seemingly cannot document. How as a historian can I know and not know what happened in the past? How can I move beyond the anecdote—my experience encountering the Montgomery Ward catalog—to writing a history of people for whom my experience was not extraordinary in the sense of rare, but a daily lived one, but now seemingly suffused by silence?
How did one explain to a child the everyday indignities of the Jim Crow South?
Put differently, how did one explain to a child the everyday indignities of the Jim Crow South? It was that daily lived experience that sent rural people to the refuge of mail-order catalogs. When I was a toddler, my mother would sometimes trace an outline of my feet on a brown paper bag or a sheet of stationery and take the tracing to the department store downtown to buy my shoes. She did not explain why she did this, nor do I know what thoughts ran through her mind as she performed this task or when the time came to pull out that piece of paper at the store whose white owners saw only the prospect of racial contamination in the actual foot of a Black person. As Traci Parker notes in her book, while department stores signaled equitable access and fair treatment, holding “out tremendous possibilities,” they remained “enforcers and symbols of white supremacy.” I imagine garbage cans filled with the discarded tracings of the feet of Black people.
The residue and tracks that remain as guideposts in my search for a path forward may be, in the words of Natalie Zemon Davis, “in part my invention,” but for me, they must be “held tightly in check by the voices of the past.” I will doubtless always feel what James Baldwin termed “something implacable,” obstinate, unrelenting, unpacifiable, blocking my efforts to recover the history of the region in which I was born. But it is not an “unspeakable South” to which I turn. Much of what I wish to know is utterable and retrievable, in its ugliness and its beauty. W. E. B. Du Bois taught me that much.
Thavolia Glymph is president of the AHA.
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