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Don't be a Dough-faced Wuss: on the Difficulty of Interpreting Primary Sources

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

For many people, history seems to come to us pre-packaged: in textbooks, or Ken Burns documentaries, or brick-like presidential biographies written by Ron Chernow. But this belies all the work that goes into the creation of history--the tracking down of sources, the sense-making and interpretation, the creation of a cohesive narrative, and the time spent assembling the necessary background knowledge that makes all of this possible. Diving into primary sources like the ones in our collection can be intimidating. It can be hard to know where to start and harder still to be sure you aren’t missing some necessary context.

Political cartoons in particular have a wealth of information and provide an entertaining window into common political and social discourse, but can be difficult to interpret without a lot of background information. Not dissimilar from modern internet memes that are constantly in conversation with one another and dependent on niche cultural references. If you missed the joke in the first round, trying to decipher it centuries later seems nigh impossible. They may have visual references that would be very meaningful to contemporary audiences but which are opaque today. For example, 18th century political cartoons often feature images of dogs urinating on things--sometimes the meaning is easily discerned, as when the dog is peeing on a tea caddy in a Revolutionary War-era cartoon, but it can also be a more general symbol of disorder. There are many cartoons where the conflicts are so specific or the references so obscure that they are nearly impenetrable for modern audiences. This type of allusive commentary can make for difficult analysis and require a depth of contextual knowledge to really make sense of them.

We have a good example of this in our collection in the cover illustration pictured above. Who is that man? Why is he in a baking pan? And what’s a dough-face anyway? By sheer luck, I got the joke. I was very fortunate to have an excellent High School history (Hello, Mr. Wagner!) whose lively lectures and passion for the subject matter still stick with me today. Once we got to the Civil War, we talked a lot about the “doughfaced wusses” and in particular, the biggest dough-faced wuss of them all, President James Buchanan. Originally, the term “Doughface” referred to someone, usually a politician who had no strong principles of their own, who was pliable and moldable like dough. Over time the term came to refer specifically to Northern politicians who capitulated to the demands of Southern slave-holding senators. In fact, the origin of this phrase may have actually been “doe-faced” referring to the cowardice displayed by these wishy-washy men which was misheard and written down incorrectly. Though the pamphlet itself would probably provide some context, understanding what the pamphlet was about at a glance would be very difficult. The contextual information needed to understand material like this can come from a variety of places and take years to build up--there are new discoveries to be made and nuances to be uncovered all the time, even for experienced researchers.

The Congregational Library welcomes researchers at all skill levels, and we have multiple tools available to provide scaffolding for people exploring primary resources for the first time. Staff are on hand to explain things like how to safely handle historical documents and provide physical assistance like book cradles or weights if necessary. We can also tell you what information you’re likely to find in what sorts of records. The collection at the library also has a wealth of secondary sources specifically intended to help support primary source research in the collection. Part of the process of describing items and collections is researching their historical context. Archivists add historical notes and other information to finding aids for thise reason. Staff are knowledgeable and keen to offer their expertise and if we don’t know the answer to your question, we’ll find someone who does.