What we seek often determines not only what we find but what we overlook in the process. My two-year-old niece and nephew have recently discovered the joy of the Where’s Waldo? books, screaming with delight when they manage to locate that telltale striped hat and scarf amidst globetrotting visual chaos. Sometimes they need help though, and the patient adult whose lap they occupy will point them closer with hints such as “Can you find the firetruck?” or “Look near the mountain!”
In the grown-up world, collections curators and archivists provide this kind of directional assistance to researchers seeking their own “Aha!” moments—discoveries of information and evidence that can fill in a genealogical gap or support a complex historical interpretation.
This work begins well before researchers even call us for help or get their hands on the materials. As we document the organizational structure of a collection and catalog the contents, we also describe them, explaining what we find within. This is difficult work because sometimes collections are both vast and dense. We can’t know what particular “Waldo” any one researcher will be looking for, but neither can we dwell carefully on every face in the crowd. In the end, we compromise by using our careful skimming and our best (educated) guessing to generate a list of subject headings that will tell potential researchers what they can expect to find.
Luckily, this process is hardly fixed in stone. If the will, time, and labor are available, collections can be reviewed again and again, approached from different angles and with different research questions in mind. This is important practice because what we long to know about history changes as history continues to unfold. Here at the Filson, our loyal longtime volunteer Joan Brennan provides invaluable help in this manner, revisiting collections to find topics and combing for discussions of women and minorities that might have evaded a cataloger’s list of priorities several generations ago. Happily, I get to follow in her footsteps.
As the recently hired Curator of Jewish Collections, my job is to build a robust and diverse archive of holdings here related to Louisville’s Jewish history. An exciting phase of this work begins this fall with our recent acquisition of Jewish Hospital’s institutional papers, which will serve as a cornerstone of the larger collection. However, they aren’t the first Jewish collection here at the Filson—especially if we are willing to ponder what makes a collection Jewish. Our holdings of letters by whiskey magnate and prominent figure in American Reform Judaism Isaac W. Bernheim (1848–1945) are obviously Jewish in nature, as are the papers of congregational leader turned civil-rights activist Rabbi Martin M. Perley (1910–2003). But what about those of Frances MacGregor Ingram (1874–1954)?
Ingram was a teacher, educational theorist, social worker, and child- and immigrant-welfare activist. For decades, she helped run Kentucky’s first settlement house. Ingram was not Jewish, nor was the nondenominational Neighborhood House, which opened at the corner of Preston and Jefferson Streets here in Louisville in 1896. To break down geographic and social boundaries separating rich and poor, places like Neighborhood House operated on a holistic model. Teachers and service workers lived amongst the populations they served, fostering familiarity with individuals, families, and communities. While rich with subject tags (such as “immigrants,” “social services,” “medical care,” and “women’s societies”), the term “Jewish” did not appear in the description of Ingram’s papers in the Filson catalog.
If we want to find a Jewish Waldo here, we would probably do well to ask in Yiddish: Vu iz valdo? Why? When Ingram assumed her role as head resident of Neighborhood House in 1905, the community she entered comprised Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, predominantly Russia. An overwhelming majority of the individuals with whom Ingram interacted for the next several decades were Jews. Locals may already know that in the early twentieth century, the corridor along Preston was considered the “Lower East Side” of Louisville. But Ingram’s papers offer a glimpse into that world through the perspective of an ecumenically minded educator and social worker who was professionally and personally invested in her clients and working to integrate them into American society.
Many questions that arose in the settlement house context remain relevant well into the present. For instance, what kinds of changes should immigrants be expected to make on their path to Americanization? Who is best qualified to help them manage their transition into a new culture? Some items in the Frances Ingram collection provide windows onto these and other dilemmas unique to the Jewish immigrant experience of that era. A folder labeled “Ethnic Food” (Mss. A 154a Folder 23) includes a pamphlet by Ingram about a community kitchen program at the Neighborhood House and another published in New York called “Jewish Dietary Problems.” Both sources discuss in detail the need to understand the dietary laws (“Kashruth”) guiding traditional Jewish eating, as well as the kinds of foods previously available in the immigrants’ home countries. Ingram praises the craft and ingenuity of Jewish cooks, even presenting them as models for Americans who have become lazy “can-opener cooks.” At the same time, the professionals sought to correct the Jewish immigrant diet’s emphasis on starch and fat and its distinct lack of minerals. We can imagine that fresh kale was hardly abundant in the harsh Russian hinterlands!
Ingram’s professional correspondence (Mss. A 154a Folder 10) also contains an interesting exchange with Neighborhood House board member (and local Jewish businessman) Henry Klauber, who also chaired the Committee on Juvenile Welfare with the local Federation of Jewish Charities (FJC). The subject of their 1911 discussion is who is most qualified to represent Jewish children in juvenile court on charges such as truancy and vice. It seems the FJC was concerned that Ingram, a non-Jew, had taken the liberty of representing Jewish children affiliated with the Neighborhood House, rather than referring them to members of the Jewish community. Ingram defended her position staunchly, arguing that because she knew the children and their families much better than a faith leader from another neighborhood, she was the most qualified one to negotiate on their behalf. We may infer that despite shared goals of Jewish immigrant aid, Neighborhood House and the local Jewish community were not always in agreement about how it should be enacted.
These are just a few examples of the kind of rich minority history we can find if we go looking for it—even (and especially) in places we hadn’t thought to check before. Does this make the Frances Ingram papers a Jewish collection? At the very least, they are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the great waves of immigration that swept through our country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forever changing and diversifying great American cities like Louisville. Insofar as this period was an integral part of national and local Jewish history, we are updating the Frances Ingram Papers index of subjects accordingly.
Abigail Glogower is Curator of Jewish Collections and the Jewish Community Archive at the Filson. In her spare time she can be found riding her bike, cooking vegan food, reading American realist fiction, and playing with her three dogs. She thanks her colleague Johna Ebling for introducing her to the Frances M. Ingram papers.