DIY History Category


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


The poetry of pudding

From the Szathmary cookbook collection, a rhyming recipe from an 1860 English cookbook:

A Paradise pudding

English cookbook, 1860 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

English cookbook, 1860 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

If you’d have a good pudding pray mind what you’re taught

Take two pen ‘sworth of eggs when they’re twelve for a groat

Take of the same fruit which Eve once did cozen

When pared & well chopp’d at least half a dozen

Six ounces of bread (let your maid eat the crust)

The crumb must be grated as fine as fine dust

Six ounces of sugar won’t make it too sweet

Some salt & some nutmeg to make it complete

To these you may add if you are willing and handy

Some good lemon peel & a large glass of brandy


“It means a lot to me to see this picture”: connecting with historic photographs at DIY History

Slezak-Hubbard house, Iowa City, ca. 1920 | Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes on Flickr

Slezak-Hubbard house, Iowa City, ca. 1920 | Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes on Flickr

Along with transcribing handwritten diaries and letters, users at our DIY History crowdsourcing site can comment, tag and favorite historic photos at the University of Iowa Libraries’ Flickr site. Most frequently, we receive feedback on factual errors in our metadata, e.g. Flickr user Metaltype noticed an incorrectly identified typesetting machine in this image from the 1950s, while KandyK2013 used hairstyle clues to provide a more accurate date estimate for this 1940s photo of student life at the UI.

But occasionally commenters let us know about a personal connection to one of the photographs. The residence pictured above, with its gables and stained glass windows, is more than just a stately example of 19th-century architecture for user bay.miller, who’s related to the people who built the house. And djgeorge2012, of whom we suspect a family connection to UI baseball player Jim George (pictured below), left a comment with a biographical sketch of the athlete that greatly enhances the research value of the image.

We’d like to increase this type of public engagement through our application for membership in Flickr Commons, where we hope to join the Library of Congress and other institutions in their mission to widen access to and enrich the content of the world’s historic photograph collections.

Jim George playing baseball, University of Iowa, late 1930s | Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes at Flickr

Jim George playing baseball, University of Iowa, late 1930s | Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes at Flickr


DIY History: 30,000th submission, new collections for UI Libraries’ crowdsourcing project

30,000th transcribed page: “Remedy for a woman with child taken harm by fall or fright or any mischance,” Francis Smith medical recipe book, 1704

30,000th transcribed page: “Remedy for a woman with child taken harm by fall or fright or any mischance,” Francis Smith medical recipe book, 1704

Thanks to the public’s voracious appetite for historic cookbooks, the University of Iowa Libraries has recently reached a new milestone for its DIY History crowdsourcing site: 30,000 pages transcribed. An English medical recipe book from 1704 contains the project’s 30,000th page, detailing a “remedy for a woman with child taken harm by fall or fright or any mischance.” This document, along with hundreds of other historic manuscripts, is now fully searchable due to the efforts of volunteer transcribers from around the world.

In addition to cookbooks, DIY History users have also completed an earlier initiative to transcribe more than 15,000 pages of Civil War diaries and correspondence. To complement those materials, the following collections have been added to the site to help provide researchers with a fuller picture of American life in the mid- to late 19th century:

DIY History: Building the Transcontinental Railroad
Business correspondence and financial papers belonging to railroad baron Thomas Durant, documenting the construction of the transcontinental line that transformed the nation. A colorful and unscrupulous figure best known for the Crédit Mobilier financial scandal of 1872, Durant holds a place in current pop culture as a character in the AMC television series “Hell on Wheels.” Typical of his high-pressure style is this note to chief engineer Peter Dey (former owner of University of Iowa’s Dey House), who eventually quit the railroad when asked to pad his estimates for work:

“Want preliminary survey at once to make location of starting point. Delay is ruinous. Everything waits for you.” — Thomas Durant letter, 1863

DIY History: Iowa Women’s Lives
Diaries, letters, and other documents of Iowa women. Currently featured are the papers of Ellen Mowrer Miller (1848-1922), wife of a Civil War veteran and farmer, who recorded her thoughts on a variety of topics including women’s suffrage:

“[A neighbor] is very hard against woman voting, ‘because, because’ was the only argument he could put forth. Was a little tickled at him in the evening, when it was a raining he said, ‘Well, Miss Mowrer, now how would you like to be out in the rain at a woman’s rights convention.’ ‘O,’ I said, ‘the rain is pure, it comes down from heaven you know, refreshes and serves all things.’” — Ellen Mowrer diary entry, 1869

DIY History is the latest public engagement initiative from the University of Iowa Libraries, a staunch supporter of new forms of scholarly publishing, digital humanities, data curation, and open/linked data.

DIY History


A good beginning

Perhaps your New Year’s resolutions include a self-documentation project, like more frequent updates on Facebook, Twitter, or even a good old-fashioned diary? For inspiration, we present Iowa Byington Reed (1851-1936), an Iowa City native, teacher, seamstress, and housewife who wrote daily diary entries covering her life from age twenty to just a few weeks before her death at age eighty-four. Now part of the holdings of the Iowa Women’s Archives, all of Byington Reed’s diaries were recently digitized and added to Iowa Digital Library.

Excerpted below are just a few of her January 1sts, with transcriptions courtesy of our volunteers at DIY History.

Diary entry, Jan. 1, 1872 | Iowa Byington Reed Diaries

Diary entry, Jan. 1, 1872 | Iowa Byington Reed Diaries

Jan. 1, 1872: Did not teach today nor did we have company as we usually do. It was the busiest day I have put in for some time if I only work so well all the year I will accomplish wonders. But according to rule a good beginning makes a bad ending hope I will prove an exception… Mr Huebner called a few minutes this afternoon enjoyed his call very much. In the evening sewed on the waist of my black dress, retired early as I was suffering with a severe cold Recieved from Mr McSparen the sum of $26.00 my wages for the first month I taught Thus ends the first day of the week and the first day of the new year.

1874: What a lovely day for the first of the new year. As soon as Hattie and I got the morning work done We got into the buggy and took a drive over to the depot to see if Winnie had come… We got Emma Middleton in the buggy with us and went down to Jim McCallister’s. We found Grandma and Grandpa there. Aunt Mary had an excellent dinner and we enjoyed our visit very much indeed. Came home in good season. I sewed all the evening. Altogether I was well pleased with the manner in which I spent the day. We heard from Father today. I never saw so pleasant a January 1st it was a remarkable winter day. Emma came home with us to stay all night.

1875: …I helped Aunty a little and spent the day very pleasantly. The weather was not very pleasant, I thought a great many times today of what a beautiful day last New Years was and how Hattie and I enjoyed ourselves driving around town and spending the day at Uncle Jim McCallisters. 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.  I find it very lonesome without Jennie. I wrote a note to Clarence tonight and wrapped up his scarf ready to take to Lewis tomorrow.

1876: Rain. Who ever saw the like on New Years day. How fashionable we were today. Breakfast at nine, dinner at three, and supper at nine. Hattie and I worked all of the day and part of the night making a pair of lamp mats for the parlor. We played a few games of cards in the evening. Mr. Bently and I playing partners against Rob and Hattie. This surely has not been a pleasant new year But with me a happy and comfortable one.

1899: It was late when we got up this morning and after doing up the work went up to the cemetery  It was a very cold forenoon  We all but Lee ate dinner down at Otts. Will and I started home early in the afternoon. We had things all put away and supper ready by six oclock. I read in the evening. What I wonder is in store for us this year.

1912: The first day of the week and the year and it is 40 years today since I began keeping diary.  This was a good sharp winter day.  The folks with [Elvis?] Anderson came out for dinner.  [Lorie Folty?] was with them of course.  I got along nicely with my dinner and they seemed to enjoy it.  The girls did not go home till 5:15.  After that i washed the dinner dishes and got us some supper.  May we be spared the sorrow in this year to come we passed through in the last.


Food for body and spirit

James Doak's The Art of Cookery

James Doak’s The Art of Cookery

On the last page of James Doak’s 1760s Art of cookery, following recipes for ketchup and pickled mushrooms, we find what appears to be a catalog of his library, an impressive collection for the time. He lists the classics: Shakespeare, Pope, Cato, Milton, the Bible, as well as some intriguing titles: Whytt on Lyme water, and A Conversation on the Plurality of Worlds, a French Enlightenment discourse on the Copernican world view. Doak’s book is one of the manuscript cookbooks waiting to be transcribed on our DIY History website:

Please delve in and discover what other gems lie between the interestingly stained pages!


A soldier’s last Thanksgiving

Nile Kinnick, 1942

Nile Kinnick, 1942

An avid letter writer who was very close to his family, Nile Kinnick left a detailed record of the eventful period in his life when he left home to attend the University of Iowa, became a football star and Heisman trophy winner, and enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. In a 1942 letter to his parents,  featured in the Nile Kinnick digital collection and transcribed by our volunteers at DIY History, he runs through the specifics of his day, beginning with a new method of shaving “explained in a recent issue of Newsweek,” breakfast, pilot training, athletics (“Whether we play touch football or struggle through the obstacle race depends upon who is in charge. The former is a lot of fun for most of us, and the latter is a pain in the neck to all”), and so on.

He wraps up the letter with a mention of his lackluster Thanksgiving at the Navy base and a wish to celebrate the holiday with his family again. Sadly that wish went unfulfilled; Kinnick died on a training mission the following spring.

“…Thanksgiving was just like any other day around here except for a little better meal in the evening. A year ago we were all at grandma’s eating turkey with all the trimmings. Speed the day when we can all gather there again. Everything considered, this year’s Thanksgiving had a real significance. The U.S. had its most bountiful crop in history, and we and our allies were on the offensive on all fronts. The victory lies at the end of a road still rocky and rough, but things look better, much better!” 
– Nile Kinnick correspondence to his parents, Nov. 28, 1942


Of brain bags and turtle toenails

Terrapins, American cookbook, 1930s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

Terrapins, American cookbook, 1930s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

Our voracious DIY History volunteers continue to transcribe their way through the Szathmary culinary manuscripts collection, turning up recipes like the ones for calves’ head soup and terrapins featured here. Local readers interested in recreating such historic dishes are invited to a kick-off meeting for our cooking club tomorrow; remote users, stay tuned for a blog where you can submit evidence of your Szathmary-inspired experiments online.


Welcome, MetaFiltarians!

Visits to our web pages typically drop over the weekend, so we were very pleasantly surprised this morning to see traffic for our crowdsourcing site, DIY History, up almost 2000% thanks to an entry on the link-sharing site MetaFilter. Even better than the statistics are the hundreds of newly transcribed pages, including the one below featuring a grisly recipe for stewed calf’s head (“let the calfshead be split open and cleaned…”), now available for full-text searching.

We’re on the waiting list for a MetaFilter account so we can provide belated responses to some of the comments, but in the meantime let us state here that: (1) we are definitely interested in adding more manuscript cookbooks to the project, please get in touch with our Special Collections department if you have one you’d like to donate; and (2) the cookbook collection does indeed date back to 1600, we’re still in the process of digitizing everything, but we just bumped this item with its “records of pasley, and preserbes, wax work and Limning & fruits Artificial” to the head of the queue — all of you Elizabethan handwriting fans, check back soon!


UI Libraries launches new crowdsourcing site with manuscript cookbooks and more

Calves head hash, dandelion wine, election cake, and West Indies-dressed turtle are just a few of the recipes from the University of Iowa Libraries’ new Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks digital collection: Containing thousands of pages and spanning the 1600s through the 1960s, the handwritten cookbooks document culinary history in America and Europe, and how tastes have changed over the years. The do-it-yourself spirit of the housewives, cooks, winemakers, and Girl Scouts who wrote out and compiled the recipes makes the Szathmary collection an appropriate choice to help launch DIY History – – the Libraries’ new initiative that lets users contribute to the historical record by transcribing and tagging primary source documents online.

DIY History is an expansion of the Libraries’ earlier experiment with crowdsourcing, or outsourcing large tasks to the public via the Web: the Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project. Operating for just over a year, the site was a resounding success, with thousands of volunteers all over the world transcribing more than 16,000 handwritten pages. With the original Civil War materials nearly completed, the Libraries created a new crowdsourcing site with additional handwritten content needing transcription: cookbooks, correspondence and diaries belonging to legendary Iowa football star Nile Kinnick, a 40 year-run of diaries from the Iowa Women’s Archives, and newly acquired Civil War documents from donors drawn by the crowdsourcing initiative. DIY History also features tagging and commenting functionality through Flickr for thousands of historic photographs and yearbook pages. The goal of the site is both to enhance digitized artifacts with added text to make them easier to find and use, and to engage the public to interact with historic materials in new ways.

“We’re opening up these collections to anyone who is interested in them,” says Greg Prickman, Head of Special Collections. “We are asking people to take an active part in improving the usefulness of the material we offer, and to participate in the process of describing what we hold.”

The Szathmary digital collection is part of the Iowa Digital Library – – which features more than a million digital objects created from the holdings of the UI Libraries and its campus partners; included are illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, fine art, political cartoons, scholarly works, audio and video recordings, and more. DIY History is the latest public engagement initiative from the UI Libraries, a staunch supporter of new forms of scholarly publishing, digital humanities, data curation, and open/linked data.