DIY History Category


Spring musings

Today is the vernal equinox – the first day of spring.  72 years ago, Nile Kinnick reflected on its meaning from the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.  His words about the trajectory of the ongoing war are startlingly prescient, before turning his thoughts to springtime at home.  Thanks to DRP’s Wendy Robertson for finding this letter today, and to the DIYHistory participant/s who transcribed it.

Nile Kinnick letter to his brother, Ben, March 21, 1942

Nile Kinnick letter to his brother, Ben, March 21, 1942

“…today is supposed to be the date of the vernal equinox, when the sun’s center crosses the equator and day and night are everywhere equal. As surely as the world is round the sun will begin to rise earlier and set later, we shall have more light than darkness. Time and season wait on no man. And so it will go with this war. As the stars in their courses indicate the shifting seasons so do they proclaim that goodness shall triumph over evil, hope over despair. There has been so very little sunlight to cheer either America or Britain since the war started, and even now the prospect is dark and foreboding. However, the “spring equinox” is approaching. It will be born of blood and thunder in the year 1942. Fierce will be the fighting against superior odds, and disadvantageous will be the circumstances, but when the smoke and blood have been cleared away, the Allied Nations shall be more nearly on an equal footing than at any time since the adversary set upon them. And then in 1943 the drive will begin. Slowly but surely, gaining momentum with every assault, the foe will be beaten back until once again sunshine & light have gained dominion. The year 1944 will see the termination of this fearful struggle, and once again we shall make an attempt to prevent the recurrence of such an holocaust.”

“But enough of figurative speculation, and on to lighter things. Spring in the midwest, oh, that is a glorious season! Soon the countryside will be green and fresh, the heavy hand of winter will be shaken off – and, yes, the grass will be a grab and a half high, and picnics will displace the afternoon schedule.”


This year, spring looks about as colorful as this photo, A spring day at Bellevue IA, 1910s, from the Mary Noble Photograph collection.  Click the photo and zoom in, and you’ll still see some smiling faces.  Both the Noble and Kinnick collections are part of the Iowa Digital Library.

"A spring day at Bellevue IA," 1910s

“A spring day at Bellevue IA,” 1910s




New milestone for DIY History: 40,000 pages transcribed!

Iowa Byington Reed diaries

We’re thrilled to announce the latest milestone for DIY History, the Libraries’ transcription crowdsourcing project: 40,000 pages transcribed!

To mark the occasion, we’re featuring our most prolific diarist — Iowa Byington Reed, an Iowa City native who wrote in her diary nearly every day from 1872 to 1936 — along with one of our most industrious volunteers, David Davenport of Fresno, California. In most crowdsourcing initiatives, a small minority of “power users” does a large majority of the work, and DIY History is no exception. David, a retired history professor, explains how he first started working with the Byington diaries:

I “joined” your project with the expectation that I would do only Civil War related materials, but those had been done, and since my family has lived in Iowa since territorial days (my g-g-grandfather James Blake Gray is responsible for naming Burlington — it was called Flint Hills when he and his brother in law Thomas Stephens operated a trading post there in the very early 1830s) I decided to try the Reed material because my mother grew up on a farm near Centerville. I figured I would learn a bit about what life was like for her mother and her mother’s mother. I have not been disappointed. Iowa Reed engaged in the same rather “mundane” activities for well over 50 years, and faithfully recorded her life for almost every day during the span of her diaries…

I really don’t think we appreciate in 2014 how very different “the work” was 125 years ago — washing that took 4-5 hours every Monday morning, followed by ironing, sometimes drying the clothes in the garret (which my mother tells me was the term for the unfinished portions of the attic) accessible with a folding ladder in the ceiling of the upstairs hallway, etc. But in some ways their lives were so similar to ours — Iowa’s record of her brother Robbie’s death, or the death in 1886 of the two day old son of Ott and Fanny (or was it Charlie and Ida? — I can’t recall right now), or the sudden and completely unexpected death of Charlie in mid-October 1895 that I just saw a few minutes ago. I was transcribing her entry for November 14 1895 and she wrote “it was three weeks ago today that Charlie died” so I had to look back to find out what happened. I’m not a medical doctor but it seemed that he had a mild heart attack that was undiagnosed a couple of days earlier and then a massive heart attack while changing clothes – he was gone in an instant.

I really wish I was still teaching history because I can see assigning student the “task” of reading her diaries, cover to cover. Most students today could learn far more from what Iowa wrote about herself and those around her than I could ever hope to “teach” in a more conventional lecture. She has given voice to hundreds of thousands of women who lived as she did, from day to day, doing “the work” and often “so tired” she “went to bed early.”

A heartfelt thank you goes out to David and everyone else who has contributed their time and efforts in support of our mission to make historic documents more accessible. There’s still plenty more work to be done — please visit the Iowa Women’s Lives collection to transcribe Iowa Byington Reed’s diaries, or stop by the DIY History home page to select other materials, including historic cookbooks and pioneer-era documents.

Iowa Byington Reed diary, 1875

…In the evening I wrote a little and looked over my old diary and indulged in a retrospective view of the past year. I most sincerely hope that I will not know some of the sorrow this year I did last… | Iowa Byington Reed diary, January 1, 1875


Upstairs and downstairs in historic cookbooks

Anne Bayne cookbook, circa 1700 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

Anne Bayne cookbook, circa 1700 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

While “Downton Abbey” fans tune in to season 4 in record numbers and our Special Collections department celebrates with an exhibition of period cookbooks, volunteers at the Libraries’ DIY History crowdsourcing site continue to transcribe historic recipes handwritten by real-life Mrs. Patmores.

Notes on how to “send up” a dish – a final step in some of the recipes from our Szathmary collection of manuscript cookbooks – might seem a little mysterious to the uninitiated. But “Downton Abbey” viewers have become familiar with the geography of meal preparation in historic upper-class households, with servants cooking elaborate dishes in kitchens located below stairs, then presenting them with fanfare in the dining room above.

For food historians, tracking down specific information like this in the Szathmary collection used to involve countless hours skimming thousands of hard-to-read manuscript pages. Now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of our volunteer transcribers who provide data for full text searches, it can be found in seconds.

Below we present a few of our favorite “send it up” examples, in case anyone wants to get fancy and “stik a light flower in the centre” of dinner tonight.

To frigasy rabbits (Anne Bayne cookbook, circa 1700)
…when you send it up put in 2 or 3 spoonfulls of white wine so serve it up. if you would have it a browne frigasy. You must take it out of your pan after it is boiled & fry it browne & strain in some broth. After you have powdered it put in your butter you fryed it in & grate in a little nutmeg & work up a little butter in a little flower & shake all well together. So dish it up with what pickles you please.

Gravi sase for torkie chickins pollits Ducks wild & tame & all sorts of wild fowle & hare & venson (Penelope Pemberton cookbook, 1716)
send it up in poringers: ye venson & hare must have gravis sase in ye dish: ye tong & uder nothing I had forgot to tel yu: yu must sweeten ye venson sase with powder suger to yr tast: not to sweet.

Savoury Sauce for a Rosted Goose (English cookbook, 1799)
… pour this into the body of the goose by a slit in the apron just before you send it up.

Raspberry Cream (Susan Gilbert cookbook, 1848-1887)
…put the remainder of your cream into a deep china dish and your frothed cream upon it as high as it will lie on. Stik a light flower in the centre & send it up. It is proper for a middle at supper, or corner at dinner.

View more results

Transcribe handwritten cookbooks at DIY History


Wishing you an animated holiday

Featuring images from Helen Grundman 4-H scrapbook, 1928-1932

Animated gif featuring Helen Grundman 4-H scrapbook, 1928-1932 | Iowa Women’s Archives

LULAC Christmas party, Davenport, Iowa, early 1960s

Animated gif featuring LULAC Christmas party photo, Davenport, Iowa, early 1960s | Iowa Women’s Archives

LULAC Christmas party, Davenport, Iowa, early 1960s

Animated gif featuring LULAC Christmas party photo, Davenport, Iowa, early 1960s | Iowa Women’s Archives

The big story at the Libraries this year has been our Special Collections department’s ascendancy to social media superstardom. Here in Digital Research & Publishing, we’re happy to hook our wagon to that stardom for promoting the Libraries’ digital initiatives to the 18,000 (and counting!) followers at the UISpecColl Tumblr, and to loan our multimedia expertise to film and edit their YouTube video series. Here’s to even more public engagement success in 2014!

Digital projects featured on Tumblr:


Exploring pioneer lives: UI Libraries and Rhetoric students partner on new digital collection and crowdsourcing project

DIY History: Pioneer Lives

This November, as Thanksgiving brings thoughts of pilgrims, the University of Iowa Libraries is exploring a later period of American history with a new digital collection, crowdsourcing initiative, and curriculum project based on pioneer-era documents.

Featuring more than 2,500 pages of letters, diaries, and photographs dating from the mid-to-late 19th century, the Pioneer Lives collection is available for browsing at the Iowa Digital Library:

The documents have also been added to DIY History —– the Libraries’ crowdsourcing site, where the public can help with historical research by providing transcriptions for handwritten texts. Earlier this fall, the collection got a test run from rhetoric students participating in a curriculum pilot project developed by IDEAL (Iowa Digital Engagement & Learning) to incorporate digital humanities in the undergraduate classroom.

Documenting Iowa’s early settlers, the Pioneer Lives collection lends immediacy to this historic period through the first-hand accounts of ordinary citizens. This is particularly true of the correspondence, with its descriptions of new lives written for loved ones left behind:

“Dear Father, I am in a place which at my coming here was very strange, but I have got acquainted and very contented, much more than I expected. I will give you a short sketch of what life I live here…” – Henry Eno letter, 1813

“My Dear Cousin, I thought I would write to you as it is my birthday. I am 11 years old… I go to school now… We have three boarders. I am going to learn to scate [sic] this winter…” – Emma Ward letter, 1866

“Dear Brother McCormick, Yours received, some time since, asking a sketch of my career as an M.D. during the past year, which… I must admit has far exceeded my hopes…” – Dr. Mila Sharp letter, 1885

Students in honors Rhetoric taught by Tom Keegan, faculty member and co-director of IDEAL, explored the collection during a four-week assignment that involved transcribing historic correspondence, conducting background research with primary source materials, performing rhetorical analyses of the documents, and presenting findings via screencast videos uploaded to YouTube.

In addition to learning new skills and information, many of the students enjoyed themselves along the way.

“I had a fun time analyzing my document which is rare because homework is almost never fun for me,” wrote one student in a class blog post. “I thought this was one of the first projects that I actually felt like I was making a legitimate discovery and that was a really unique experience.”


Crowdsourcing continues!

Pioneer Lives transcription collection-in-progress

Pioneer Lives transcription collection-in-progress

Special Collections staff survey World War II letters and diaries

Special Collections staff survey World War II letters and diaries

A letter for transcription about transcription!

A letter for transcription about transcription!

Things might seem a little quiet at DIY History, the Libraries’ transcription crowdsourcing site, but behind the scenes we’ve been working on several new initiatives that should be launching over the next few months.

First up is a long-overdue redesign of the DIYH home pages that we hope will make for a less cluttered and easier to navigate user experience. That will be rolling out next month along with the debut of a new collection up for transcription: Pioneer Lives, featuring hundreds of letters and diaries from Midwest settlers during the mid- to late 1800s. While conservation and preservation staff continue the pioneers treatment and digitization work that’s taken up much of their summer, our curators have already begun compiling lists of handwritten materials for the next initiative, which will focus on the Libraries’ small but growing collection of World War II diaries and letters. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of transcribing left to be done on cookbooks, women’s lives, and railroads at DIY History, so please stop by and help improve access to these historic documents.

Along with a new look and new content, we’re also working on a new collaboration; this fall, the Libraries is teaming up with the IDEAL (Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning) initiative on a pilot project to teach DIY History in Rhetoric classes for incoming freshman. Currently wrapping up the four-week assignment module, students have transcribed a document, conducted research on its writer’s life and times, performed a rhetorical analysis of its contents, and created brief video screencasts to present their findings on YouTube. We hope to showcase some of these videos here, so check back soon.

Alas not all of our new developments are good ones. The past few weeks have been challenging as we figure our way around the project without the support of superstar library assistant Christine Tade, who recently retired after 27 years with the Libraries. From overseeing workflows, to training student assistants, to fielding user comments and questions, she was instrumental in keeping the project running smoothly. We’re very grateful to Christine for all her dedication and hard work that helped make DIY History a success.

Christine Tade, circa 1970

Christine Tade, circa 1970


35,000 transcriptions

DIY History milestone

DIY History milestone

The diligent and talented contributors to DIY History have now transcribed more than 35,000 pages of manuscript diaries, letters, recipes and telegrams! And this number does not reflect the thousands of pages of proofreading our crowdsourcers have also accomplished, bringing these documents to life and to the eyes of researchers. The transcribed pages tell the stories of Civil War soldiers and their families, of Iowa women making lives for themselves and their communities, of the glories of the kitchen from the 1600s to the twentieth century, of the machinations of railroad  barons, and the high ideals of a football hero. Thanks to all of you for the gift of your time and talents.


Move over, fried twinkies: Iowa State Fair historic recipe contest

To make almond cheese cakes, Ann Kenwrick cookbook, 1770 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts

To make almond cheese cakes, Ann Kenwrick cookbook, 1770 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts

This August, traditional Fair fare such as deep-fried Twinkies, Snickers, and sticks of butter will be making room for even more old-school treats featured in the UI-sponsored Szathmary Historic Recipes cooking contest. Up for recreating 18th- and 19th-century desserts like Almond Cheese Cakes, Summer Mince Pies, and Mrs. Matson’s Marlborough Pies? Unintimidated by units of measurements such as “about the bigness of an Egg” and ingredients like “Orange Flower water”? Then see contest details on page 53 of the Iowa State Fair food booklet.

And to get in a historic mood, please visit our Iowa Digital Library Pinterest site to view a selection of digitized State Fair cartoons and clippings, ca. 1894-2004.

Iowa State Fair @ IDL Pinterest

Iowa State Fair @ IDL Pinterest


Transcription addiction

We’ve been in touch with one of our most faithful DIY History transcribers, Roger. He didn’t intend to get so drawn into the project when he first visited our site, but now he admits that “things like eating and mowing get in the way but I’ve managed to blow off most other things cause I’m addicted to this.” Besides transcribing the manuscript pages, at which he has become expert, he likes to monitor the “Recent changes” log, which records all the work done by various contributors, and is accessible to anyone who creates a DIY History account. Like other frequent transcribers, he has an eerie sense of entering the private thoughts of writers long ago: “I keep thinking we’re almost invading something private these people from 200 years ago never expected anyone, but maybe a daughter or grand daughter would ever see their writings. It’s a great look into the “olden” times.” Roger has spent a lot of time transcribing recipes in the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbook collection, and has come across some really harrowing dishes, which make full use of body parts. He knows someone who worked at a meat locker for years, and even she “has no interest at all in the tongue, feet, head or any other questionable parts of meat, like udder. She hated to handle a tongue, no way is she going to eat it.” Ah, how times and palates change. Roger has found a way to multi-task his hobbies: “I use my 46 ” flat screen as my monitor so I can kick back in the lazy boy and start typing and deciphering. I finally decided Sunday I wasn’t able to watch TV and type at the same time and a Nascar race was on. So I did a bit of rearranging so I could watch on the older 27 ” TV while online and if something interesting came up I could jump back on the flat screen to see wrecks or whatever.”

Another of our best transcribers is British; his hobbies include deciphering Minoan Linear A and Mycenaean Linear B, gardening, and fine cooking. He has dedicated himself to transcribing and proofreading the Civil War Diaries and Letters, and sometimes reports to us his discoveries about old American slang and expressions, such as “wooden nutmegs and flannel sausages.”

We love to hear the transcribers’ stories, as they help us share the stories of these old manuscripts.

English Cookbook, 1700 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

English cookbook, 1700 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks


Transcribing Iowa women’s lives: the diary of a teenage girl in 1876

"Boys are not allowed" - Belle Robinson diary, 1875-1877 | Iowa Women's Archives selections

“Boys are not allowed” – Belle Robinson diary, 1875-1877 | Iowa Women’s Archives selections

Now awaiting transcription at our DIY History crowdsourcing site is the late-19th century diary of Belle Robinson, a charming document of a girlhood in Iowa spent playing croquet, attending picnics, making taffy, and going nutting. And like another girl who lived in a little town on the prairie, Belle had literary aspirations. Included in her diary are verses written to amuse school friends, reviews of library books (usually described as “very interesting”), and references to story writing, as in this series of entries from 1876:

Tuesday 15th
Club tonight at Meg’s. I am elected secretary. We are going to have a paper next time like they had in Little Women. I am editor and promised to try and write a kind of dime novel story.

Wednesday 16th
Began story.

Am going to a party at Flora McCreery’s, we have slighted them so much lately, that I shall have to go – although I hate to dreadfully.

Have finished my story. It’s perfectly horrid, “The Gipsy’s Secret” is the name. Went to the party last night & did not get home till twelve oclock. Perfect martyrdom for 4 hours it was. May’s club held here, they are in the other room making an awful noise.

February 15-18, Belle Robinson diary, 1875-1877

Sadly, Belle died in 1887 at age 25. Had she lived, she would likely have joined her older sister May — fittingly “making an awful noise” with her girlfriends in the above excerpt — who became active in the women’s suffrage movement in Iowa.

Robinson-Lacy three-generation portrait, 1880s | Women's Suffrage in Iowa

Robinson-Lacy three-generation portrait, 1880s | Women’s Suffrage in Iowa