Category Archives: Research Ramblings

Research Ramblings: Massachusetts’ Archives and History Museums Part 5

The last stop in my Massachusetts research tour was Springfield, MA. About half my WIP takes place in this town so I had to come to take a look and, of course, drop by the city archives.

Springfield History Library and Archives

Location: Basement of the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, 21 Edwards Street, Springfield, MA 01103

Resource Type: Archives


Personal Goals:

Finding and making photograph copies of the following:

  • maps and photographs (interior and exterior) of 1860s-1870s Springfield
  • information regarding everyday working class life, holidays, and traditions during the 1860s-1870s
  • information regarding the 19th century inventor featured in my manuscript

Unexpected Find: Springfield Directory and Business Advertiser for 1867-1868 and 1868-1869 (FYI,  this publication is a forerunner of the 19th century version of the 20th century white and yellow page directories

What to expect

Unlike Boston, which has a dizzying number of historical repositories scattered about, Springfield has just a handful. With the notable exception of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield’s Museums are clustered around a quad on 21 Edwards Street, and the archives is located in the basement of the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. You must pay a fee to access the archives (see their website for details), and if you are a Dr. Seuss fan, you may want to opt to buy the all-museums ticket and allot extra time to see the Seuss Museum. Parking in the museum lot is free, however.

The people of Springfield have been quite good at preserving their history. Their archives contains an impressive collection of documents, photos, maps, ephemera, and books, and this place seems to be a popular stop for Civil War era researchers. However, unlike the Boston museums, their collection is not searchable online. As such, you will need to submit requests to archivists Cliff McCarthy and Margaret Humberston. Basically, you give them the topic or era you are interested in, and they will retrieve the pertinent material for you. It is not necessary to email requests in advance (the day I visited, the archives received two drop-in researchers), but I’d recommend it to maximize your time there.

By the way, Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Humberston were fantastic. I’d exchanged emails with Mr. McCarthy prior to my visit, and they had a heap of materials ready when I arrived. It included a DVD documentary of the inventor I was researching, and Mr. McCarthy was kind enough to let me use his desktop computer to watch it.

As you might guess, the atmosphere at the Springfield Archives is much more relaxed than the MHS. There are no lockers, and my husband and I were free to look through materials together. As we worked, we chatted with Ms. Humberston, and based off our conversation, she came up for additional suggestions for me, which included this location’s unexpected find: their collection of Springfield Directory and Business Advertisers. For a writer of historical fiction, these books are a gold mine. They’ve got everything from the names of all the city officials to omnibus schedules.

All in all, it was a pleasant and productive day of research in Springfield. Many thanks to Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Humberston!

And that concludes the recap of my Massachusetts archives and museum tour. Hopefully you’ve found it informative!


Research Ramblings: Massachusetts’ Archives and History Museums Part 4

When I planned this research trip, the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation was not on my radar at all. Fortunately, as described in my previous post, my Beacon Hill tour guide enlightened me to its existence, and it just so happened that Waltham, where the museum is located, sat between Boston and my next destination Springfield. So by making a brief detour off the Massachusetts Turnpike, my husband and I were able to visit this gem of a museum.

The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation

Location: 154 Moody Street, Waltham, Massachusetts

Resource Type: Museum


Personal Goals:

Taking pictures and learning more about:

  • The equipment in early cotton mills
  • 19th century machine shops
  • The lives of 19th century factory workers

Unexpected Find: Museum staff turning on the belt and line shaft system in their machine shop exhibit so we could see it in motion.

What to expect:

If you visit this museum, make certain to follow the directions on their website. The museum is housed in what was once the Francis Cabot Lowell Mill, the first industrial cotton mill in the United States. However, in addition to the museum, other groups are also located in the large complex, so if you don’t want to get lost, check the website!

While the mill complex is pretty big, the museum itself isn’t that large. Hours are limited to four days a week, and on the Thursday we visited, Executive Administrator Elana Winkler gave a five-minute history of the mill/introduction to the museum to every visitor who entered. However, the museum apparently hosts events in addition to maintaining its exhibits.

Perhaps the Charles River Museum isn’t as vast as the Smithsonian, but it was packed with objects and information pertinent to my project. The Charles River flows just outside the building, and the museum contains a large model that shows how the river once powered the cotton factory. As Ms. Winkler was quick to inform me, most people associate America’s early cotton factories with Lowell, Massachusetts, but the Francis Cabot Lowell Mill in Waltham was the prototype for those mills. In addition to replicas of an early power loom and a hand loom that was rendered obsolete by the Industrial Revolution, there was also a wealth of information about factory workers and the business corporations that arose alongside manufacturing.

Textile production isn’t all that is on display at this museum. It contains a number of other exhibits showcasing various facets of American industry. Aside from the cotton mill exhibit, I was most interested in the museum’s late 19th century machine shop. In addition to a number of machining tools, it contained a 1920’s paper bag machine, which unfortunately was out of order at the time we visited. But even though that was a disappointment, we got to see something else that was just as cool. The machining tools are powered by a belt and line shaft system, which is usually off. However, when the staff heard that I was doing research for a 19th century inventor, they turned the power system on so I could see it in action. Thank you, Charles River Museum!

By the way, if you’re interested in their exhibits but can’t make it to Waltham, visit their YouTube channel. They’ve got lots of interesting stuff there.

Next up: The Archives at The Springfield Museums

Research Ramblings: Massachusetts’ Archives and History Museums Part 3

My previous post described my visit to Historic New England’s archives. However, Historic New England does more than maintain documents. It also offers tours of historic buildings and holds a variety of events throughout New England. Our visit to Boston just happened to coincide with its walking tour of Beacon Hill so I naturally jumped at the chance.

Historic New England’s Otis House Museum and Beacon Hill Tour

Location: 141 Cambridge Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

Resource Type: Museum and guided tour


Personal Goals:

Taking pictures and learning more about:

  • furniture and architecture
  • Boston’s historic neighborhoods

Unexpected Find: Learning about the Charles River Museum of Industry.

What to expect:

The tour began at the Otis House, whose original owner Harrison Gray Otis was instrumental in developing Beacon Hill. The Beacon Hill neighborhood tour fee included a separate tour of the Otis House, so of course we took the opportunity to see the Otis House interior.

The Otis House like many other mansions of its time, began as a home for a wealthy family but,  as the neighborhood changed, was converted for other uses, including a medical clinic and boarding house. However, in 1916, the predecessor to Historic New England purchased the property. The basement currently houses the Historic New England library and archives, but the remainder of the home has been restored to its glory when the Otises occupied it.

By the way, restoration also means keeping the house’s character as close as possible to the original. That means no air conditioning. And in July, it was sweltering in there. Yet despite the heat, the guide for the house tour kept up a lively narrative about the house’s first occupants and readily answered our questions about the various objects and furnishings from the turn of the 19th century.

The Beacon Hill tour was also hot and, on top of that, a bit of a hike. Beacon Hill is an actual hill, albeit an artificially raised one, and we went up and all around it, going from the Otis House to the Massachusetts State House to the Athenaeum and Congregational House to Boston Commons. However, it was definitely worth it as our guide, who’d studied art and historical architecture, was a trove of information. In addition to showing us how building styles changed as the Beacon Hill neighborhood developed, he pointed out the houses where historical figures such as Louisa May Alcott and John F. Kennedy once lived. He also answered our questions about objects like boot scrapers and cobblestone roads and took us down a bunch of tiny alleys that most passersby don’t even notice.

Apparently, Beacon Hill has gone full circle from the ritzy neighborhood to the slums and back to pricey again with the added charm of being a historical neighborhood. I guess people will pay top dollar for old fashioned houses on brick streets with gas lamps (which burn 24/7) even if those houses only come with street parking. By the way, according to our guide, those iconic red brick houses with black shutters were originally red brick houses with green shutters. Apparently, when Queen Victoria died, people were moved to paint their shutters black as a form of collective mourning. And then it stuck. However, folks have determined to revert to the true original scheme so you’ll see some green shutters among the black at Beacon Hill.

As for this resource’s “unexpected find,” that popped up after the tour ended. As our guide led us back to the Otis House, he asked why we were visiting the area. I explained I was researching a certain historical figure for a novel, and he knew who I was talking about! As such, he recommended I go to the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation because it has exhibits that are very pertinent to this person’s life.

It all just goes to show how help can show up in unexpected ways.

Next up: The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation

Research Ramblings: Massachusetts’ Archives and History Museums Part 2

As mentioned in my previous post, I spent my summer vacation gathering information about 19th century Massachusetts from various places, and this post highlights my visit to the archives at Historic New England.

Historic New England Library and Archives

Location: 141 Cambridge Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

Resource Type: Archives


Personal Goals:

Finding and making photograph copies of the following:

  • maps and photographs (interior and exterior) of 1860s-1870s Boston
  • 19th century Boston patent lawyer pamphlet
  • Boston almanac and guide for 1868, 1869, and 1870 (FYI, these “almanacs” are the 19th century version of the 20th century yellow page directories or the modern day Yelp.)

Unexpected Find: Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston by Nancy Seasholes, which details the development of Boston’s various neighborhoods and includes numerous historical maps and drawings.

What to expect:

This archives is housed in a historic building known as the Otis House located at the foot of Beacon Hill. However, unlike the home of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), the Otis House is a museum that offers tours to the public (more about this in my next post).

Historic New England, like the MHS, is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the region’s history, but its focus differs slightly. While the MHS concentrates more on documents, Historic New England’s collection contains a broader range of objects, including furniture, clothing, and a number of properties. They don’t have as many photographs and documents in their archives as MHS, but the thing that sets their archives apart is their collection of ephemera, expendable paper items such as tickets, menus, advertisements, and programs.

The archives is located in the Otis House basement and is staffed by Archives Manager Cristina Prochilo and Senior Curator Lorna Condon. No fee is required to visit the archives, but you must make an appointment by calling 617-994-5909 or emailing You must also submit a request of the materials you wish to view in advance of your visit. Their collection can be searched online at

Like the MHS database, Historic New England’s online catalog took some effort to learn to navigate. However, unlike MHS’s ABIGAIL, much of the collection can be viewed online (which can possibly save you the effort of a visit). Also, there is no limit to the number of items you request.

Compared to MHS, the atmosphere at Historic New England’s archives is much more relaxed. You simply sign in at the entrance, and then go to the archives room, which also serves as office space for the archives staff. There are no lockers; we just hung our coats at the same coat rack used by the staff. All of my requested materials was waiting for me in a big stack, and my husband and I were allowed to work together to photograph the material. By the way, laptops and cameras are allowed, but there are no handy camera stands like National Archives does so be prepared to hold your smart phone or tablet

The staff is quite helpful and friendly. We were told during check in that a special event was taking place that day so they unfortunately would not be able to spend much time with us. However, we still ended up interacting a good twenty minutes with them over the course of our half-day visit. When I explained the purpose of my visit, they brought out additional maps and reference books they thought might be of interest, including the unexpected find noted above. So if you visit their archives on a non-event day, I imagine you’d get the royal treatment from these folks.

Next up: Otis House Museum and Beacon Hill Tour

Research Ramblings: Massachusetts’ Archives and History Museums Part 1

2018 has been busy. Not only are we busy with our normal workload, we’ve joined the ranks of people managing the affairs of elderly parents. However, we did take a break from sorting my mother-in-law’s tangled financials so that we could enjoy a summer vacation. My husband expressed no preference for a destination so I used the opportunity to turn our vacation into a research tour for the setting of my current work in progress: 19th century Massachusetts!

I’m a West Coast native so I don’t know much about the East Coast. However, New Englanders are big into preserving history, which means plenty of resources for interested researchers. This short series of posts will describe my experiences at the places I visited, starting with the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS).

Massachusetts Historical Society

Location: 1154 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02215

Resource Type: Archives


Personal Goals:

Finding and making photograph copies of the following:

  • maps and photographs (interior and exterior) of  1860s-1870s Boston
  • information regarding 19th century industry, machines, mechanics, and patents
  • references related to middle- and working-class social customs in 19th century Boston

Unexpected Find: pamphlet of the Mechanic Apprentices’ Library Association from February 22, 1870

What to expect:

The MHS is housed in a historic building and has a number of impressive antiques on display, but it is definitely an archives, not a museum. Their check-in process is not as intense as the National Archives, but you do need to register, stow your belongings in a locker, and adhere to their rules.

The archives is accessible to the public and does not charge a fee, but researchers must open an account on MHS’s (free) online request system Portal1791 to access materials. Researchers must first search for materials through MHS’s online catalog ABIGAIL, and then place requests (for up to 25 items at a time) through Portal1791. It took me a while to figure out how to navigate and narrow my searches on the ABIGAIL database. If you only have a limited time to visit MHS, definitely do your catalog search and place requests well in advance of your visit.

Materials are viewed in MHS’s research room. Wifi is available, but the signal varies in strength throughout the building. Laptops and cameras are allowed, but MHS doesn’t have handy camera stands like National Archives does so be prepared to hold your smart phone or tablet over all the documents you want to  photograph. The research room is monitored by archives staff who check in and check out materials (researchers are only allowed to handle one thing at a time) and who make sure everyone is following the rules.

And they DO watch. At one point, I took off my jacket because the room got too warm, and the research room staff told me to put in my locker (hanging an extra garment on the back of your chair is a no-no.)

Because of its vast collection, the MHS is a bastion for academic research. As such, it exudes a professional atmosphere. So if you go here, don’t expect a lot of personalized service or casual chitchat with the research room overseers.

Next up: the archives at Historic New England.

Research Ramblings: Character Names in Historical Fiction: Joseon Era Korea

In the last twelve months, I’ve written stories in three settings: 19th Century New England, Cultural Revolution China, and Joseon-era Korea. Something that each project required was suitable character names, but each of those searches sent me to very different places.

Thanks to the movie selection during an Asian flight, my husband learned about Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, a Korean hero celebrated for repelling the Japanese during Korea’s Joseon era. His story was so inspiring that after my husband told me about it, I decided to write a story based on one of Admiral Yi’s most famous battles.

Researching Yi was a little difficult because there’s not much English language material about the Joseon era and I can’t read Korean. Fortunately, I was able to access a number of books at Stanford University (although I could not check them out), which provided the names of the key characters. For side characters, however, I turned to a different source.

TV and Movies

If you’ve had any exposure to Korean dramas, you’ll know that they are highly addictive and that historical dramas comprise a huge part of that market. Pretty much every royal person of note has at least made an appearance in a K-drama. Admiral Yi isn’t a royal, but his exploits have been the subject of one movie and at least one drama.

So I asked a Korean-American friend of mine to pluck names out of Joseon-era dramas (including The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the film my husband saw on his flight). While picking names out of a TV and film might not be the most scholarly method, these entertainment media were released in South Korea, and I figure if the names are good enough for a native Korean audience, they’ll be good enough for my story.

Table 1: Character Names from Various Historical Korean dramas

Male Female
돌쇠 Dol Swe 언연 Uhn Yuhn
준사 Joon Sa 숙 Sook
수봉 Soo Bong 순이 Soonee
오죽이 Oh Jookee 숙자 Sook Ja
동이 Dongee
달래 Dal Rae
소사 So Sa
육순이 Yook Soonee
Surprise Resources

My friend graciously gleaned the names listed on Table 1 above. In addition to that, she sent the following screenshot.

For those (like me!) who can’t read Korean, it shows a naming scheme. Apparently, way back during the Joseon era, Koreans would make up names by matching the month and day of their birth. For instance, if your birthday was on the fifth day of the fifth month, then your name would be Yong Nom. Pretty interesting!

I’ve included a translation of the table below. So if you’re writing a Joseon-era story and need some names, perhaps this will be handy for you.

Table 2: Joseon Era Naming Scheme

Month Day
1: Oong 1: Shik
2: Swe 2: Gu
3: Dol 3: Sam
4: Mahn 4: Suk
5: Yong 5: Nom
6: Yook 6: Nyun
7: Chil 7: Ggot
8: Ssang 8: Dol
9: Sam 9: Min
10: Uhn 10: Guht
11: Gae 11: Dol
12: Soon 12: Bok
13: Dan
14: Nyang
15: Ddong
16: Gap
17: Sook
18: Dan
19: Chang
20: Park
21: Sohn
22: Ryong
23: Bang
24: Deuk
25: Guk
26: Poh
27: Rae
28: Guhl
29: Yang
30: Jung
31: Seum





Research Ramblings: Character Names in Historical Fiction: 1960’s China

In the last twelve months, I’ve written stories in three settings: 19th Century New England, Cultural Revolution China, and Joseon-era Korea. Something that each project required was suitable character names, but each of those searches sent me to very different places.

Living Contemporaries

I’ve heard that stories set in early 2000 are now considered to be “historical.” That being the case, depending on how recent your setting is, you might find someone who lived through the time you’re writing about. When I wrote my Culture Revolution short story, I reached out to my friend Shu for help. As it turns out, her parents grew up in Communist China during that time, and the three of them graciously helped fact-check my story as well as named my cast.

Please note, English-speakers aren’t the only one with naming trends. For instance, my Chinese given name is comprised of two characters. However, my friend Shu, who is about ten years younger than me, was born in mainland China at a time when the trend was to give single character names.

In addition, Chinese names can indicate a person’s social status. One of my characters was a girl from a scholarly family that had fallen on hard times so Shu’s parents suggested that she have “Lan” (orchid) in her name. Apparently, female names with “Lan” are associated with daughters of learned families. Although most readers won’t notice this nuance, it is my I hope that those who do will appreciate it.

Next: Naming Characters in Historical Fiction: Joseon Era Korea


Research Ramblings: Character Names in Historical Fiction: 19th Century Springfield, Massachusetts

In the last twelve months, I’ve written stories in three settings: 19th Century New England, Cultural Revolution China, and Joseon-era Korea. Something that each project required was suitable character names, but each of those searches sent me to very different places.

Interestingly, my 19th Century New England cast took the longest to name. This is partly because it had the most characters and partly because I wanted to make absolutely certain the names fit the era. Trends in names are more subtle than in clothing or hairstyle, but they do exist and for various reasons. For instance, although Mildreds are rare in America today, they were common a century ago, and when Twilight became popular, boys named Edward spiked. In addition, regional differences exist.

I’ve heard some writers visit graveyards to glean names off appropriately dated headstones. Sounds like a good trick if you’re within driving distance of a cemetery near your setting. However, I’m on the West Coast, and my story takes place in Springfield, MA. So I had to resort to other resources.

Legal Documents

As part of this project I went to the National Archives in College Park, MD to dig up 150-year old depositions for a lawsuit involving my main character. This provided actual names of people involved, which I used for the majority of my cast. Unfortunately, the downside was a quarter of the men were named Charles (which apparently was a REALLY popular home then). As such, I made the decision to rename two Charleses to avoid character confusion.

Local Publications

For the replacement names, I referred to Springfield: History of Town and City 1636-1886. In addition to handy descriptions of the town’s landmarks and businesses, it includes anecdotes about prominent citizens and lists of participants of various events. I count myself fortunate that this book was scanned as a free resource on the internet. Other local publications, such as newspapers, are usually only available through historical societies and would’ve required more effort to access.


If I didn’t have Springfield: History of Town and City 1636-1886, I likely would have resorted to Louisa May Alcott’s books. They’re classics today but were contemporary at the time they were written, and they coincide with my time frame. Better yet, they’re set in New England. Although I didn’t use Little Women to search for names, I’ll probably be using it to check my vocabulary and speech patterns.

Next: Naming Characters in Historical Fiction: 1960’s China

Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 3

As mentioned in my previous post, Jenny Benjamin of the Museum of Vision responded to my question about the eyewear options for a post-Civil War working class girl by sending pages from an eyewear catalog.

A page from the 1895 eyewear catalog

A page from the 1895 eyewear catalog

Not surprisingly, the selection isn’t very broad. After all, spectacles were not considered a fashion accessory back then. They are, however, considered a fashion accessory now, and Jenny mentioned she owns a pair of replica glasses. Apparently, If you want old fashioned glasses, you can go to Tom Valenza at His most recent claim to fame is outfitting the cast for the musical Hamilton. He also works with Civil War reenactors, and Jenny says his replicas are so good “they can fool the best of us.”

That piqued my interest. I’m old enough to remember opticians offering both glass and plastic lenses. As heavy as my hiqh prescription lenses are now, the glass ones were worse. So I posed this follow up to Jenny:

Quick question since you own a pair of Tom’s historic styled glasses. How comfortable are they? Any particular quirks associated with wearing them? (Even though my lenses are the lightest material, my ears and temples get fatigued from the weight after half a day of wear.)

Her response:

Ah, yes, comfort was not a high priority in the mid-1800s! Lenses were made of glass so they would be heavier than what the average person is used to. Because of that, I believe Tom doesn’t use authentic lenses, but the colors his lenses come in are true to the time period.

There are two key areas for comfort with eyeglasses: the bridge and the temples (ear pieces).

Bridges for eyeglasses in this time period did not have nose-pads. (This is different than pince-nez type specs). The metal of bridges for eyeglasses was thin so they could be bent to keep them tight. Otherwise, they were liable to slip down the nose. They were known to leave red marks on the face and cause headaches if worn too long.

Temple pieces were generally also made of thin metal and bent to keep them tight to the head. For those doing work that required them to hunch over, the riding bow or curved temples were best because they clung to the ears. However, most spectacles had the cheaper straight temples. All of these temples had a tendency to get caught in long hair – not pleasant. It probably wasn’t practical for a girl to take her glasses on and off if her hair was up.

Her reply makes me grateful for all the advances in material science since the 1800s. I am also grateful for all the details Jenny mentioned, like the red face marks and temples getting stuck in hair.

And so this researching effort has successfully concluded. Though if I have more eyewear history questions, I know where to go. Thanks, Jenny!

Research Ramblings: 19th Century Eyeglasses and the Museum of Vision, Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1, the search for the specifics of mid-19th century eyewear brought me to the Museum of Vision. As to my questions, I first wanted to know where my working class heroine could purchase her first glasses and how much of a dent they would they make in her post-Civil War budget.

This was Jenny’s response:

Regarding who sold eyeglasses, this is a question that has many answers. According to Joseph Bruneni, author of “Looking Back: An Illustrated History of the American Ophthalmic Industry,” everyone in America who was concerned with eyesight was an “oculist” until the 1800s. This is when American medicine became organized (the AMA was founded in 1847) and people grew concerned about the lack of adequate medical training and licensure in the U.S.  Over the next 50 years oculists then moved into two camps- ophthalmologists (trained physicians) and opticians. Amongst opticians, there were two more subcategories: “refracting opticians” and “dispensing opticians.” Refracting opticians were the newer group – they applied the newest methods to test eyesight and prescribe eyeglasses. Dispensing opticians simply had a stock of eyeglasses that the customer tried on until they found a pair that more or less worked.

Ophthalmologists, as physicians, usually opened a practice or clinic from which they could prescribe glasses but also perform surgery. Ethics barred them from advertising and it was generally considered to be a poor reflection if a practice was on the ground floor of a building. Refracting opticians did not have these constraints. They advertised freely and generally set up retail stores off the street. Dispensing opticians could have been anyone, the jewelry store and pharmacy being two popular places to shop for glasses.

The jewelry store and pharmacy! That was a surprise. I’d thought prescription glasses at the drug store was a relatively new development, and glasses are definitely not part of the modern jewelry store’s lineup.

As for the cost, Jenny emailed me this:

Cover of an eyewear catalog from 1895

Cover of an eyewear catalog from 1895

Pretty cool! This catalog was printed 25 years after the period I’m interested in, but Jenny informed me that the styles wouldn’t have changed much.

More in my next post!