DIY History Category


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.


Crowdsourcing sneak preview

DIY History

Shhh… we’re quietly rolling out a soft launch for DIY History, our expanded crowdsourcing site that’s replacing the Civil War Diaries & Letters Transcription Project. Please have a look around and try out the new functionality and content as we do some last-minute tweaking, then check back next week for what we hope will be a much louder official launch.


Civil War letters back in Iowa and ready for transcription

Wilkerson letters, 1863-1865 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

Wilkerson letters, 1863-1865 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

With almost 13,000 pages completed, our crowdsourcing volunteers are wrapping up their efforts to transcribe the UI’s collection of Civil War diaries and letters in order to make them easier to search and browse. But it turns out that that finish line is a moving target, since publicity from the project has attracted new Civil War donations to the Libraries. This week we added a handful of these recent acquisitions — totaling over 1,000 newly digitized pages ready for transcription — to the digital collection: Turner S. Bailey diaries, 1861-1863; Philip H. Conard diary, 1864-1865; and Wilkerson letters, 1863-1865.

In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article last fall, donor Pamela Lee attributed the choice to house her family papers at the UI to the crowdsourcing effort, describing it as “my Christmas list of everything that I thought should be done with the letters.” Read more, or just jump in and start transcribing, at the links below.

Hands-on experience with Civil War history: The University of Iowa is seeking public help with transcribing Civil War history

Letter after letter, week after week, Sarahett Wilkerson pleaded with her husband.

“I wish you could come home,” she wrote to Jesse Wilkerson, who was drafted in November 1864 to serve with the 13th Iowa Infantry in the Civil War.

After five months alone on the couple’s farm in Hamburg and three months caring for a new baby, Sarahett Wilkerson on April 2, 1865, penned another desperate behest of her husband.

“The baby is three months old day before yesturday,” she wrote, her spelling off on some words. “I want you to send her a name.”

In the letter, among 29 that Wilkerson’s descendants recently donated to the University of Iowa Libraries cataloging Jesse Skinner Wilkerson’s Civil War experience, his wife updates the 33-year-old soldier on their children and how much they miss him…

Pamela Lee, 60, of Pullman, Wash., is the great-great-great granddaughter of Jesse Wilkerson and said her family gave the documents to the UI as a way of preserving the material and making it relevant…

“We are so happy that the letters are back in Iowa,” Lee said. “It’s exactly where they should be.”

View the full article at

Help transcribe the UI’s Civil War diaries and letters


Crowdsourcing continued

Expanding our manuscript transcription crowdsourcing site to include materials outside of the Civil War collections is taking longer than expected — apparently digitizing thousands of pages of manuscript cookbooks dating from the 17th century is not quite as straightforward as one would wish. But the scanning is finally underway, and we’re using the extra time it’s taken to investigate Scripto, a specialized tool that could help us manage our crowdsourcing workflows more efficiently. Meanwhile transcription on the Civil War materials is still going strong — we expect to receive our 10,000th submission within a month and we’re picking up new users all the time, such as Pinterest member Alicia Lea, who wrote the lovely testimonial below.

Pinterest entry on Civil War crowdsourcing transcription




Civil War transcription tips

For the sake of consistency in the transcriptions of the Civil War diaries and letters, here are a few more guidelines and a short list of some common abbreviations and older spellings:

  • Enter line breaks to indicate sections of the letter – salutations, paragraphs, signatures, postscripts
  • Do not transcribe text that has been crossed out, and simply transcribe interpolations above or below the line as if they were part of the text without special symbols
  •  If you are unsure of a word or phrase, please use square brackets with a question mark between them, or your best guess followed by a question mark
  • Common abbreviations and their full spellings include: inst. = a date in this month (e.g. the 15th inst.); ult. = a date in the previous month (5th ult.); &c = et cetera; QM = Quarter Master; Capt. = Captain; Lieut. or Lt. = Lieutenant; Maj. = Major; Col. = Colonel; Prov.Gen. = Provost General; Adjt. = Adjutant; Regt. = Regiment; Brig. = Brigade; Cav. = Cavalry; Inf. = Infantry; Vols. = Volunteers; Col. Inf. = Colored Infantry; R.R. = railroad; HdQrs. = Head Quarters
  • Common “misspellings” and writing conventions: ware = were; thare = there; very = very; evry = every; evening = evening; perhapse = perhaps; attacted = attacked; fiew = few; greaddeal or great eal or gread eal = great deal; fs = ss (e.g. mifses = misses)


William T. Rigby letter, May 23, 1864 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

William T. Rigby letter, May 23, 1864 | Civil War Diaries and Letters


Love & war

Over on the Twitter account for the Libraries’ Civil War transcription crowdsourcing project, we’re taking a break from our Black History Month tweets to highlight some Valentine’s Day content, such as Albert Cross’s 1862 diary entry indicating a conflicted relationship with the holiday: “I wish the mail would come as this is Valentine’s Day. I am expecting some valentines though I can’t say I crave any.” By the next day, this ambivalence appears to have cleared up after the arrival of — spoiler alert! — the expected valentines from a not-so-secret admirer: “Yesterday I received two valentines whitch was very Interesting Indeed. I have a very good idea who they came from and I shall call on them in a few evenings and talk to them about the matter.”

James B. Weaver’s 1861 love letter to his wife is no less passionate for having been written on September 3rd rather than February 14th — romantic excerpt below, lovingly transcribed by our crowdsourcing volunteers:

James B. Weaver letter to wife, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

James B. Weaver letter to wife, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

…I am now writing by Candlelight, & I would be the happiest man living could I get one sweet kiss from you this night. Darling you will pardon me won’t you for writing you so much about my love for you, for I really do not feel like writing about anything else. I think of you all the time. You are constantly in my mind. O darling how much good it does my very soul to prove true to such a true woman as you are. I pledge you my word before God that I am all yours and that I would rather die at once than prove unfaithful to you. I always thought that you had more attractions for me than any woman I ever saw long yes years before I married you, but now I know you, and indeed you are tenfold more woman than I ever imagined you in my love dreams. God love you my own true, honorable, highminded wife. Darling you know that I am a man of very, very strong passions, but I pledge you my honor & my very soul before God that I am all yours, every whit. You are mine thank God. O what a [pinnacle?] love is. I am happy in loving you…
[he goes on for two more pages]

Skipping ahead a few wars, our Valentine’s slideshow linked below features a cherubic Stalin and Hitler among more familiar symbols of love:

XOXO, The Libraries: romantic artifacts from our research collections

Happy Valentine’s Day!


A Civil War Christmas letter

In contrast to today’s holiday letters summarizing the year’s major events, Lieut. Andrew F. Davis’ Christmas note to daughters Orrilla, age 8, and Nan, age 5, catalogs the day-to-day minutiae of life in a Civil War camp. Mixed in with holiday greetings (“I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the stockings of my two little girls”) are observations on camp fare (“country people sell [meals] cheap enough if they were only cooked good but they are poor people who bring them and they have to cook them by the fire in skillets as they have no cook stoves”), scenery (“there is several hundred tents in camp and all with lights in them which makes them look like big lanterns scattered all over the country”), and reactions to news from home (“Tell your ma I am glad she has got her hogs killed but I am afraid she will work so hard that she will be sick again”).

See the full text below, courtesy of the tireless volunteers from our Civil War Transcription project; view more of Davis’ correspondence here; read other holiday letters at our Civil War transcripts Twitter account.

Andrew F. Davis letter to daughters, Dec. 25, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

Andrew F. Davis letter to daughters, Dec. 25, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

Camp Wycliff Ky.
December 25th 1861

Miss Orrilla Davis and Nan Davis

My dear little daughters,

This is Christmas night and no doubt while I am setting in my tent in a war camp, you are enjoying yourselves at the Christmas Supper which I understand you are having at the Court House. No doubt you are enjoying yourselves over your Christmas presents and I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the Stockings of my two little girls but put something nice in them to make them happy. I got a Christmas present this evening which was nothing more than a letter from my dear little girl, and I now hasten to answer it. I was very sorry to hear that our sweet little babe was so sick but I hope it is getting well before this time and no doubt but what I will next hear that you and Nan will both have the measels and if you do you must be patient and you will soon get well again. I was surprised that you could write so good a letter & I read it to some of the boys and they said it contained more news than one half of the letters that they got from Liberty.

We did not have to drill today consequently I do not feel as tired as I do some nights. I will tell you what we had to eat today as you no doubt would like to know. Well we had roast chicken, oysters, peach pie, dried beef, molasses, brisket, butter, crackers, milk, sweet potatoes, rice, eggs &c. So you see we did not starve. It was not cooked as nice as your mother could cook it but it was very good. We bought most of it from country people and they sell them cheap enough if they were only cooked good but they are poor people who bring them and they have to cook them by the fire in skillets as they have no cook stoves. Stuffed chickens ready cooked are worth 20 & 25 cts, pies 10 cts, cabbage 5 cts apples 6 for 5 cts. milk 10 cts pr qt. roast turkies 75 and 80 cts. Sweet potatoes 75 cts per bushel, and many other things about the same. Jo Miller is in my tent while I am writing and almost cried when he read your letter. George [Rinehart?] come back from the Hospital today and is nearly well again. All of the Liberty boys are well now and none of them are at Louisville now.

I send with this letter 2 papers which I want you to take to Mr Thomas for him to publish in the Herald. I want to know if you are going to go to School this winter I gave $2.50 for the picture I sent home to your mother and the one I sent to your Grandpa, Tell mother if she can get the two big pictures framed for $5.00 to get it done but not to give any more than that. It is the prettyest sight I ever saw to go out of out tents after night before the lights are put out as our camp is on hilly ground and there is several hundred tents in camp and all with lights in them which makes them look like big lanterns scattered all over the country. Tell your ma I am glad she has got her hogs killed but I am afraid she will work so hard that she will be sick again. I got weighed today and weighed 167 lbs without my coat on so you see I am well and getting fat. Tell Nan I mean this letter for you and her both and I want her to get in some sly corner and write me one some of these days. Tell ma and uncle Newton that I have not got a newspaper from them since I have been Kentucky. Wm Appleton got last weeks Herald tonight and I got to read it. The darkie I had to cook for me went home today and one of the soldiers is cooking for me now. Ab. Bennett was to see me this evening and is going home in the morning. I am glad to hear that Wally Smith has been promoted to Sergeant as it proves that he has been a good soldier. Mans Crist is Sergeant in our company now.

The drums are now beating for us to put out the lights so I must stop for this time but will write to some of you again this week. You must write to me often as that is the way to learn, and you don’t know how glad it makes me to get a letter from my dear little girls.

No more this time from your affectionate father,
A.F. Davis