The Importance of Holding Stuff in Your Hands

If a picture tells a thousand words, then an actual, real-life, last time somebody used this for really-real was two hundred years ago┬áthing, has got to be worth at least a million, wouldn’t you say?! I’ve been reading about ship’s logs, for example, since I was a kid. But what were they really like? Until you hold one in your hands, you just don’t know. So here’s what I now know about ship’s logs after working with archival materials at the Winterthur Library and Peabody Essex Museum, among others:

There were printers that specialized in creating basic “log” books with fill-in-the-blank spots. Guess that should be no surprise — you can still buy pre-printed forms today. It just never occurred to me that this would be one of them! I’ve seen variations on this theme, like a hard cover journal with a leather binding and pre-printed ruled columns.

Each captain wrote things their own way, but there are some phrases that were widely used. For example, “from which I take my departure” following the lat/long coordinates that would be used for all of the deduced positions until the next landfall.

A Ship’s Log from a 19th century voyage from Boston to Manila

In general, the captain’s log is not the ship’s log. That was kept by the first mate, with the input of the captain, but it belonged to the owners, not the captain. The logs that ended up in family papers, and got donated to maritime museums, are the logs the captain kept for his own purposes such as recording the weather, position, notes of the journey. But these don’t have information on the cargo etc. in general. There are some that seem to be a bit of a mashup, where the captain might include a crew list or notes about his onboard library. So they are somewhat idiosyncratic, and no two are alike.

Overall, as I read these journals/logs, I am struck by how random they are! We live in such a regulated world today that we would not expect to see this kind of variation in such important documents. I think a lot of that has to do with our digital age as well, where information systems are database-driven. It’s all about “type your answers in these fields” and not so much “write a bunch of stuff here any way you want to”.

When I hold these documents (carefully!) in my hands, it is such a wonderful glimpse back in time.


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