Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tips for Preservation Week: Discovering 'Gold' Behind the Frames

Conservation and care of historical documents often reveal surprises. Recently our conservation lab staff members were working with photographs from the J. Percy Priest Collection when they made an interesting discovery. When they opened the frame on an image of Percy Priest, Harry Truman and others in a group setting, they were surprised to see that underneath was a signed portrait of President Harry S. Truman with kind remarks to Mr. Priest.

In conservation work, it is a standard practice to remove photographs from frames and store them in proper archival containers. This helps reduce fading from light sources. It also helps protect the images from dust and other harmful materials. Quality archival storage should include acid-free photo sleeves, archival boxes and the best constant environment possible. This works to keep historic photos, documents, and other items lasting well into the future. To read more about caring for historic photos see:

Finding Harry S. Truman in the back of a picture frame was a pleasant surprise. Finding a locket of hair behind a Civil War soldier’s tintype photograph was another pleasant surprirse. Not-so-pleasant surprises have included bugs and dead mice that have become squashed behind framed items. So far, we've found no money or undiscovered copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Framed items of places and events usually are faded after many years of display. Archivists make every effort to stop the deterioration by providing proper storage. That requires the items to be removed from their frames.

Acidic cardboard backing like this example from the late 1940s needs to be removed to stop harmful chemical migration to the photographs.

Then pleasant surprises sometimes turn up hidden behind picture frames. In this case, the signed portrait of President Harry Truman.

Proper archival storage for photos includes acid-free, lignin free, and sulfite free paper envelopes. If the items will be heavily used, then proper mylar clear sleeves can be used. Digital images or copies can also be used for display and to reduce the handling of the original items.

This year, librarians, archivists, and conservators throughout the nation will observe Preservation Week on April 24 - April 30. For more information, visit:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Worst Ship Accident in American History Occurred in Tennessee

It might seem logical to guess that the deadliest maritime disaster in United States history occurred somewhere off the Pacific or Atlantic coast, but it didn't. In fact, that sad distinction belongs to a spot about seven miles north of Memphis in the Mississippi River.

On this date in 1865, a boiler aboard the steamboat Sultana exploded, killing many people immediately and forcing others to take their chances swimming to safety in the river's cold waters.

Explosion of the Steamer Sultana, April 28, 1865
Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865
Library of Congress

The Sultana, a typical coal-burning steamer built in 1863, was used to moved people and goods along the Mississippi River during and immediately following the Civil War. On April 21, 1865, it departed from New Orleans on a northward run. By the time the boat reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, the ship's engineer discovered leaks in the boilers, which required some hasty repairs. The ship also took on 1,800 to 2,000 passengers who were former Union soldiers anxious to return home after being held captive at Confederate prison camps at Cahaba, Alabama and Andersonville, Georgia.

The dangerously-overloaded boat continued to Memphis, where more boiler repairs were made. The ship then headed north again around 1 a.m. on April 27, making it only a few miles before the accident. (The Mississippi River, of course, defines most of the border between Tennessee and Arkansas. However, because of shifts in the river's course, the wreckage from Sultana was actually found years later in a field in Arkansas.)

Many people were killed by the explosion and the fire that followed, while others either drowned or died of exposure while waiting to be rescued from the river. The official death toll is recorded as 1,547, although some historians believe about 1,800 may have actually perished. For comparison, about 1,500 people died when The Titanic sunk in the north Atlantic 47 years later.

Last & Only Known Extant Photograph of the Sultana & Doomed Passengers
Helena, Arkansas, April 26, 1865
Library of Congress

Within hours after the Sultana's explosion, General C.C. Washburn, commanding officer of the United States Army at Memphis, appointed a military commission to investigate the tragedy. Eventually, three separate inquiries were launched to determine what caused the explosion.

The theories included a bomb placed aboard by a Confederate sympathizer, inadequate water management within the boilers, faulty repairs to the boilers or overcrowding on the ship. Frederick Speed, the ship's captain, was found guilty of "neglect of duty" and court martialed, but that decision was later reversed.

Oddly enough, the disaster drew relatively little media attention at the time it occurred. That may be partially attributed to the public's numbness to the death toll numbers from the Civil War and partially to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which had happened only a few days before the incident. For those reasons, the explosion aboard the Sultana is a little-known chapter in Tennessee and American history.

To read more about the Sultana and other Tennessee disasters, visit:

Learn more about the Sultana disaster here:

And you can also read our previous post about the Sultana in this blog entry from 2015:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Monday, April 25, 2016

Notable Scholar Lisa M. Budreau Lectures on World War I's Aftermath

Although the United States was a relatively late entry into World War I, the conflict took an enormous toll on American lives. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 100,000 American deaths were attributed to the war, plus twice as many injuries. In a free lecture at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, historian Lisa M. Budreau will discuss the war's impact and how Americans sought to commemorate those who had died.

Dr. Budreau's talk, titled "Coffins and Gold Stars: The Story of American Remembrance in the Aftermath of the Great War," will be in the Library & Archives auditorium May 21 from 10:30 a.m. until noon.

"This is the saga of the war dead and the efforts of the living to honor their heroes," Dr. Budreau said. "It's a staggering, often-macabre tale steeped in the pathos and human drama of a democratic nation struggling to find meaning in war."

Dr. Budreau will touch on the political and social dynamics at work in America from the war's end through the early 1930s.

Dr. Budreau is the senior curator of military history for the Tennessee State Museum. She has also served as a freelance historical consultant for the American Battle Monuments Commission in Paris, France, vice president of education and collections for the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and a research historian for the U.S. Army Surgeon General's medical history office in Washington, D.C. Her published works include "Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933" and "Answering the Call: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1917-1919."

Although the lecture is free and open to the public, registration is required due to limited seating in the auditorium. To register, please visit:

The Library & Archives is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol in downtown Nashville. Free parking is available around the building.

The Library & Archives is in the process of digitizing its records from the Gold Star program, which was established to honor fallen veterans. The records of Tennesseans honored by Gold Star will soon be made available online. To learn more about the program, please visit:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Friday, April 22, 2016

Camden Woman Was a Pioneer in Women's Voting Rights Movement

Women's Suffrage Ratification in the Tennessee Senate Chamber, 1920. Library Collection.

One of the prouder moments in Tennessee history came during 1920, when the state's legislators voted for the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Tennessee was the 36th state to approve universal voting rights for women, giving the measure the three-fourths majority needed to officially make the amendment part of federal law.

However, the first woman to cast a ballot in Tennessee actually did so the year before the federal amendment had been approved.

This May 7, 1975 edition of the Camden Chronicle featured this article about Mary Cordelia Beasley Hudson. Library & Archives Collection.

Women across the country had been fighting for their right to vote for decades, dating back to the 19th Century. In Tennessee, they achieved a breakthrough when legislators passed a "limited suffrage" bill on April 5, 1919. This amendment gave women the right to vote in local and state elections, but not federal elections.

Governor Albert H. Roberts signed the bill into law on April 17, 1919, just three days before a city election was scheduled in Camden.

On April 22, 1919, a 68-year-old Benton County native named Mary Cordelia Beasley Hudson cast her ballot in that election for A.V. Bowls, who ultimately won the mayor's race.

An article in The Camden Chronicle described Hudson as "one who is unafraid to stand up and to speak out for that which she conceives to be the best, should not fear, as in this case, but rather choose to come out bravely for suffrage. The election is not alone a victory for suffrage and for women everywhere. Recognition is due this 'first voter' in the great cause."

Another image from the April 30, 1975 edition of the Camden Chronicle featuring a story about Mary Cordelia Beasley Hudson. Library & Archives Collection.

Bowls also seemed to be mindful of his place in history. He was quoted in The Nashville Banner as being "puffed up" about being the first man in Tennessee to have been elected when women were allowed to participate.

Sadly, Hudson was never able to vote in a federal election. She died Oct. 1, 1920, before the first presidential election held after the 19th Amendment was ratified. She was buried in the Camden City Cemetery.

To learn more about the effort to give women the right to vote in Tennessee, please visit:

You may also find helpful historical references in our collection of women's papers:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lost Counties of Tennessee: Powell County

Tennessee is an ever-changing entity, which is evidenced by the creation and dissolution of counties throughout the state’s history. Some counties were renamed, many were proposed but never formed, and some were created and later abolished. These are sometimes known as Tennessee’s “lost counties.”

This map of Kentucky and Tennessee from 1839 shows Powell County in northeast Tennessee.

The Tennessee State Constitution of 1835 changed the restrictions on new county formation by requiring:
  • Counties had to be at least 350 square miles
  • They had to have populations of at least 450
  • No parts of the counties may be less than 12 miles from adjacent county seat
  • Formation of new counties requires consent of the majority of qualified voters
  • Existing counties may not be reduced to less than 650 square miles, with some exceptions

Residents of an area in northeast Tennessee petitioned the Tennessee General Assembly to form "Powell County" because citizens “reside from fifteen to thirty miles from the places of holding courts.” Powell - also spelled Powel - County was first established by an act of the state legislature in 1835. It was to be named for Samuel Powell, a United States representative and judge on the first circuit court in Tennessee. The proposed county would have included Kingsport and its county seat would have been Fall Branch.

A petition to the Tennessee General Assembly requested the creation of Powell County from 1835.

An act of the Tennessee legislature establishing Powell County.

It is unclear exactly why the county didn’t formally organize, but an 1836 petition altering the borders of the county points to a size or distance concern.  This turned out to be only a minor setback as the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act establishing Powell County in 1837. However, this effort did not come to fruition. An 1839 petition to the General Assembly called for the organization of the county to be completed, which resulted in a third legislative act attempting to create Powell County.

An act of the Tennessee legislature establishing Powell County.

After the 1837 legislation, a case was filed in Hawkins County Chancery Court to dissolve Powell County. In Orville Bradley et al v. Commissioners of Powell County, the plaintiff, a former Tennessee senator and representative, claimed that the county should not be established for the following reasons: First, a majority of the voting populace did not vote in favor of the new county, only a majority of those who voted did. Second, the county would have been only 260 square miles, not the required 350. The plaintiff also argued that the boundaries of the proposed county “approach within less than eleven miles of the court house” of Greene and Hawkins counties, and “within less than ten miles of the court house” of Sullivan and Washington counties. Third, the proposed county “may reduce Greene County to less than six hundred and twenty five square miles.” Fourth, since the boundaries of the county had “never been actually run and marked” the commissioners couldn’t have known who within the proposed county was eligible to vote.

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decree in the case: Orville Bradley et al v. The Commissioners of Powell County.

After appointing Addison Armstrong, the son of famous Tennessee surveyor Robert Armstrong, to survey the proposed county, Supreme Court Justice William B. Turley ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating, “there are not contained three hundred and fifty square miles…” The Supreme Court therefore upheld the decree of Chancellor Thomas L. Williams, “and doth declare said act of the general assembly utterly null and void…”

Addison Armstrong’s survey and plat of Powell County as ordered by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Armstrong was the deputy surveyor of Knox County at the time.

This ruling didn’t discourage the petitioners who wanted to form the new county. They continued to petition the General Assembly until 1857.

A petition to the Tennessee General Assembly requested the creation of Powell County from 1857.

Powell County, like Bell and many others after it, failed to meet the constitutional thresholds for creation. Understanding the various county laws and constitutional provisions of Tennessee is fundamental to understanding its history. There is no better place to do so than at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

A second plat of Powell County within the Supreme Court case drawn by the deputy surveyor of Hawkins County, Robert W. Kinkead.

Visit "Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives" online at to learn more.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Monday, April 18, 2016

Braille Readers Benefit from Technology Advances

Although some of us may occasionally find it challenging to use, digital technology has been a gift to many people - especially those with disabilities. The Tennessee Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped (TLBPH), the National Library Service and Library of Congress have utilized technology for many years to provide access to the printed word for people with disabilities.

In fact, braille readers have been able to download books and magazines since the late 1990s, long before most of us even considered perusing books in audio or e-book format. (At the time, many of us were just happy to be able to download music.)

Library patron Judy Dixon with a refreshable braille device. LBPH photo.

But braille is very bulky. Even if someone had a braille embosser to use in producing a copy of a downloaded braille book, it might require massive amounts of braille paper to produce a hard copy.

Enter technology! Refreshable braille devices can make reading braille much more convenient. These devices enable the braille reader to download the braille file (.brf) of a book or magazine from the TLBPH’s BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) website. The file can be saved to an SD card so all the patron needs to carry is the device, which is about the size of a hardback book.

The refreshable braille device in use. LBPH photo.

Refreshable braille devices come in many sizes and prices. Most of them use the new Unified English Braille code. Unfortunately, none are currently affordable for the TLBPH to provide to braille readers. However, we are hoping it is only a matter of time before we will be able to do this so braille publications are as portable as print.

For more information about TLBPH, please visit:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

Friday, April 15, 2016

When Powder Kegs Were Literal Rather Than Figurative

In a previous post, we called attention to the now-forgotten menace of soda fountain explosions in late 19th and early 20th Century Tennessee. Soda fountains, of course, were not the only sources of fatal explosions during this period. Indeed, the damages created by the bursting soda fountain pressure tanks we reported were strictly minor league compared to the destruction created by explosions of local blasting powder mills and storage magazines reported over the years.

While searching our ProQuest Historical Newspaper database for articles on the construction of the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville, one of our staff members encountered a startling headline:

“Explosion of a Powder Magazine by Lightning: AWFUL CALAMITY.”

Full page and zoom-in of headline from the October 15, 1847 edition of the Nashville Republican-Banner.

This headline captioned an article in the October 15, 1847 edition of the Nashville Republican-Banner. The exploded powder magazine was located “at the back of Capitol Hill, scarcely more than a quarter of a mile from the Public Square.” The magazine, which probably stored blasting powder used in the capitol construction project, “contained, as we understand, upwards of five hundred kegs of powder.” The story pointed out that the building housing the powder had completely disappeared, and “the bricks composing it had been scattered like cannon balls through the neighborhood.” Casualties included three people dead and three badly wounded, and “scores of others, more or less hurt by the flying missiles …,” which also killed a cow and a horse.

A follow-up search of the ProQuest database yielded numerous reports of subsequent magazine explosions, including eight that occurred in the Nashville area between 1870 and 1906.

On March 30, 1898, the Nashville American reported “A Heavy Explosion,” giving details of an early morning explosion at the Sycamore Powder Plant north of Ashland City. The explosion, which injured four employees, was reportedly felt as far away as Lebanon, Springfield, Bellevue, and Murfreesboro.

That wasn't an isolated incident at the Sycamore Powder Mills. The Republican Banner, Daily American, and Nashville American reported five other explosions at the Sycamore Mills between 1871 and 1903. Given the frequency of these eruptions, we can perhaps admire the courage of the 18 Vanderbilt chemistry students who visited the plant with their instructor on a field trip reported in the Daily American.

Sycamore Mills was closed in 1904, but that didn't end to the danger for Tennesseans.

The April 15, 1905 the American reported an explosion so powerful it was first thought to be an earthquake. The explosion of some “500 pounds of dynamite and 600 kegs of powder” at the Mason, Hogue & Co. magazine at Baker’s Station, about 17 miles north of Nashville, created a crater twenty-five feet deep and covering “a half-acre of land.” Two Nashville policemen witnessed a shaft of flame they estimated to be a half-mile high, which they erroneously thought came from another plant on White's Creek Pike.

Full page and zoom-in of headline from the April 15, 1905 edition of the Nashville American.

Their assumption might have been clairvoyant. On September 15, 1906, the American published a report on the explosion of the Southern Mill & Mining Co.’s powder magazine on White’s Creek Pike, not far from Bordeaux. Awakened by the explosion, guards at the state prison initially suspected a plot to blow up the prison’s walls.

A follow-up article the next day identified the owner of the obliterated magazine as the Keystone Powder Co., which was offering a $500 reward for the apprehension of the “incendiary” believed to have set off the explosion with a portable electrical battery.

We saw no evidence that the culprit was ever found. But fallout from the explosion included a law case reported in the July 7, 1908 American. Residents of the White’s Creek neighborhood sued to keep Keystone Powder from rebuilding the magazine. Keystone argued that “it had the right to rebuild and use the magazine without posting guards or entering into bond to protect complainants.” In a blow to the laissez-faire philosophy espoused by Keystone, the state chancellor disagreed. The court enjoined Keystone from rebuilding the magazine until it posted a $25,000 bond “to keep a suitable guard at the magazine and to satisfy any damage that may result to complainants by an explosion.”

The ruling that owners of operations like powder magazines were obliged to protect neighboring citizens, a novel concept that gained popularity throughout the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century, must have helped to suppress the explosions of local powder mill and magazines. Our ProQuest database does not yield accounts of any such explosions in the Nashville area after 1906.

Twelve years later, the United States government built the largest powder plant in the world in nearby Old Hickory. But there are no reports of explosions occurring during the short time this plant was actually producing gunpowder. Citizens in the Middle Tennessee area would no longer be rattled out of their beds, at least by magazine explosions. And state prisons guards were free to focus on more subtle and silent strategies of escape.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.