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Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Day in the Life of Secretary Joseph Henry

Letter from Henry to Bache, page one, July 11, 1853
Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-2670
Have you ever wondered what life was like in 1853? By looking through the letters of the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, you will soon find out that politics, business, and the stifling heat are not just headlines that fill today’s news.

This letter, like much of Henry’s correspondence, sheds light on life in the early days of the Smithsonian and the nation’s capital. Written by Henry on July 11, 1853, to his close friend Alexander Bache, a leading American scientist of the time, the letter describes the events of his life and seeks advice from Bache. Across Smithsonian collections, letters like this not only give us factual information, but also aid us in painting a more detailed picture of the people who wrote them. As researchers, this detail allows us to understand why people make certain decisions and highlights the complexities of people’s personalities.

For example, Henry could be viewed as both gruff and amiable in just a few pages. On the one hand, he writes that the then Assistant Secretary, Spencer Baird, needed “a few hard knocks . . . [to] keep him in the proper course.” Yet, throughout the letter Henry gives others compliments and asks about Bache’s family. Personal nuances such as these, found in the documents give us a window to see beyond these individuals as a mere series of facts, but as true people whose personal make-up we can begin to understand.

Joseph Henry, c. 1865,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, 

Though sometimes the handwriting is difficult to read, these letters are worth the eye strain. The stories and commonalities with our lives today that are pulled out of these documents really do make the past come alive. Whether you agree or disagree with everything written in the letters is part of the fun in trying to understand the past...however, I think we can all agree that DC is a hot place to live in the summer.

Courtney Bellizzi
Smithsonian Institution Archives


  1. Why does the link Letter from Henry to Bache, page one, July 11, 1853
    Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-2670 go to Google Blogger. It doesn't let me see the letter.

  2. Thank you for your comment. The link should be fixed now. There is also a link to the slide show of the letter if you click on the in text link "The letter."