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A New England Correspondence Archive: Descriptive Notes and Approach to Valuation

Recently a Massachusetts antiques dealer sought me out to evaluate an archive of approximately 100 autograph letters received by one Edward B. Dearborn (1807-1886), including many related to teaching, mostly in rural New England schools in the late 1820s and early 1830s. What at first appeared to be a boring batch of correspondence written by a group of nobodies turned out to be a fascinating window into the culture and practice of teaching in early 19th Century New England, and also provided a case study of how an appraiser assesses a unique collection of material that doesn’t include traditionally collectible famous personalities.

Most people are familiar with Teach for America, the organization that recruits “high-achieving” recent college graduates and professionals for two years of teaching service. Yet the idea of reaching into colleges to employ students or fresh graduates to teach in communities that lack educational opportunity is hardly new. The arrangement goes back at least to early 19th Century America, when students at colleges such as Dartmouth, Bowdoin, and Wesleyan often taught for a few months each year to gain income needed to continue their studies.

Dearborn, the recipient of the letters, taught school for decades before being appointed as Librarian of the New England Genealogical Society. A graduate of Hampton (NH) Academy, he prepared for college, but never attended. At Hampton, he was a member of the “Olive Branch” society – one of only two such social societies sponsored by the school. The majority of letters dated from 1828-1835 and most were from former schoolmates, also members of the Olive Branch society. Dearborn was a dedicated teacher, deeply interested in the classroom experiences of his old friends. Significant portions of the correspondence detail the routines, responsibilities and personal narratives of the writers.

One correspondent of Dearborn's who also made teaching a career was Joseph Dow. While at Dartmouth College, Dow taught at a number of communities, including Essex, MA, Orford, NH, and Weathersfield, VT. He already had considerable experience when he took charge of the academy at Pembroke, NH soon after graduation. “The number of scholars {there} at first was rather small,” he writes. But “it has increased so much that I have thought it expedient to have an occasional teacher.”

Dow's letter alludes to the fact that a teacher's pay was based on the number of “scholars” under his charge. More students meant greater pay. But the lure of more income could be a good teacher's undoing. In an 1834 letter from Newburyport, David Page writes that he has “commenced my own school this term with a good opening. Thirty-three is my number. Could have 40 if I would take them. The reason why I do not is this: last year, a Mr. Wheelwright was quite popular as a teacher here and he filled up his school to 45. Could not attend to them satisfactorily, and now his school is not far from 20. Parents do not wish to pay the tuition they do here, and have the school too much crowded.”

Teaching situations varied in terms of responsibilities and remuneration, and the job itself often was exasperating. A problem for many instructors in achieving effectiveness was uneven attendance by their students. Boys especially had to pitch in with work at home or earn extra money. In a November 1836 letter, Daniel Weed Jr. laments his missing pupils in Ipswich, MA: 

Some scholars come one day and stay away three; others come once a week and some every other day … Every successive month has had its peculiar employment for the lads, which has detained them from school. First, the small ones staid {sic} away to pick blackberries that they might sell them to the ladies who attend Miss {Zilpha} Grant's school {i.e., the Ipswich Female Seminary}. Next the larger ones absented themselves to gather whortleberries and blueberries. Then came the haying season…to this succeeded the collection of barberries...Then cranberries demanded their attention, and now all hands are gathering nuts against winter, like so many young squirrels.

Another issue was discipline. Daniel Clark writes that he sometimes resorted to corporal punishment to keep his young scholars in line, preferring an “apple tree switch” to either “cow skin or birch.” Besides unruly farm boys, there were also complaints about illness and stress. Again from David Page, who writes that he is suffering from a bad cold: “I could barely hold my head up…Do you ever have the headache in school? If you do not, you are different from most teachers and when you do, are you not as cross as poison? I am I will tell you and my boys find it out, to their sorrow sometimes.”

Nevertheless, teaching did represent an opportunity for personal growth outside the college classroom. While it could be an ordeal, most correspondents seem to have benefited from their season as pedagogues. A typical assessment is provided by Thomas Smith in a letter from Durham, NH in 1830: “I commenced about a week ago in a little school in this town composed of about thirty smutty-faced, snotty-nosed, piss-a-bed urchins, but upon the whole rather pleasant...”

One of Dearborn's most frequent and long-term correspondents was S. P. Dole. He was a career teacher and a supporter of the abolitionist movement and female education. A member of the Olive Branch society, Dole graduated from Hampton Academy in 1829, then alternately taught and studied for several years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The correspondence from Dole begins in autumn 1829, while he was teaching at Salisbury Academy. He describes the general situation and shows an inclination for the job: “I commenced here four weeks ago next Monday with about 30 scholars; since that time their number has increased to forty-three. I was informed, before school commenced, that I should find a backward school & so it was…Most of my scholars are compounds of ignorance and illness, which you know is very queer.” In a later letter, Dole adds optimistically that learning opportunities for women will increase: “The long night of ignorance is now passed which held women in a state of degradation, and soon man will discover, if he has not already, that woman is in no manner inferior to him.”

In 1833 Dole opened his own school in Middletown, Massachusetts; the next year he moved to Providence, RI and enrolled at Brown. In a letter from Providence, Dole writes that he had just completed his freshmen year studies and that his object was to “labor for our Common Schools {i.e., public schools} either in the capacity of a teacher, or any other way…It seems to me, in making reform in our system of Education, we ought to begin at the foundation & when our primary institutions are established on a right basis, it may be well to apply the hand of reform to schools of a higher order.”

High standards and aspirations for American education expressed by teachers such as Dole remain a minority voice in the overall context of school instruction during this era. The teaching experiences of college men and recent graduates were more often indicative of financial necessity than motivated by social ideals. Indeed, Silas Hill writes that he declined a teaching post due to his “pecuniary interest. Money, you know, is our object, during our Winter excursions.”


Money was also the object of the antiques dealer who owned the archive. He had a buyer for it, but an appraisal was needed to reach an acceptable market price. Correspondence archives can be challenging for the appraiser, due in part to the fact a good deal of time is required to read and assess the contents of the letters, a task that sometimes is pleasurable and sometimes onerous.

Digging into the material, the appraiser or seller searches not only for threads upon a theme, but also for substantial or even spectacular nuggets of information that can be scored as points of value. For instance, one letter in the Dearborn archive of particular interest contained a hand-drawn diagram or plat of the Dartmouth campus and immediate environs in 1829. There were a number of buildings indicated on the map, and described in detail in the letter, that later either burned or were destroyed and that never were photographed or appeared (to my knowledge) in any graphic presentation.

Once the research is complete, there's the issue of valuing the material. Autograph letters from well-known historical figures tend to fall within a given range of values, depending on the content and condition of the letter, as well as the importance of the figure. But correspondence archives are of quite a different character. The letter writers themselves often are historical ciphers owning no celebrity status. The value truly is all about content. A single letter may be interesting and possess some research and monetary value, but a whole lot of letters, presuming they develop a certain topic, represent a much better resource.

Value determination typically assumes some comparable property. Sometimes a comparable is relatively easy to locate as, for instance, in the case of a copy of a desirable modern first edition. But what about an archive of letters having to do with early American education, and not just from one writer, but many? An appraiser will not find much help in auction records.

In fact, archives of correspondence rarely appear at major auctions. Instead, they tend to appear on the market in the holdings of dealers of ephemera or manuscripts who have often purchased the material directly from the family, or they might come up at smaller estate auctions. For that reason I've found the trade to be the best source of information for these kinds of unusual properties. In the case of this archive, I asked dealers from two ABAA firms and one non-ABAA dealer, all in New England and all known to handle books and papers that reflect American social history, whether they had encountered an archive or other materials that might be construed as in some way similar. Aside from the occasional letter and a personal diary from a teacher, all of a much later date, none of these specialists could recall selling or even encountering a correspondence archive comparable within the context of the subject.

Lacking a close comparable, what recourse remains? One might argue for making a value judgment by citing an analogical case. That is, use sales records of other correspondence archives, even if their subject is not American education. But that approach alone has a major pitfall, because the subject itself is a primary consideration. Another possibility might be to use sales records from materials from the same general topic, even if there are qualitative and quantitative differences. Consider the teacher's diary referenced above. What kind of case can one make about the value of the two properties by comparing the content, the scope of the narrative, the quantity of material, the writer, the date, and the condition? The general approach is inductive: use and compare specific, known facts to reach a conclusion about value. It's easy to see that valuing in this context has a degree of science and logic but also involves imagination.

Fortunately, an appraisal to establish a sale price allows for more leeway in this respect than an appraisal done for tax purposes in the case of a charitable donation. Still, while the IRS may require more science than art, the process in either case is similar and demands some defensible basis.

I would argue the three things that count most in determining the value of a correspondence archive – presuming that historic and collectible autographs are an inconsequential part of the mix: the level of collecting interest in the subject matter, the sheer quantity of material involved, and the rarity of similar material. All three factors impact on the research value of the archive to scholars. There may be limited appetite among private collectors for one hundred letters on early American education, but there is sustained institutional interest. In the case of this particular archive, perhaps the most significant value factor was the Dartmouth connection. Keep in mind that the collecting interest does not necessarily have to be wide, but it helps immeasurably if it is intense.
Photos courtesy of Dartmouth College Archives.