Understanding the past can be hard. Sometimes, we accidentally make it even harder with mistakes that send us sailing off the charts.
Last week, I came across an interesting postcard in the Museum's collections. It dates from the early years of the twentieth century and features a baby posing innocently without a stitch of clothing. Here's the way we describe it in our catalog:
"A photographic postcard of a baby sent to [name of recipient]."
"Really?" I muttered to myself. "Did the people at that time really send naked babies through the mail?"
In my mind, I could see an animated conversation between a mother and her daughter.
"Mommy," the little girl says excitedly, "we have a package at the door!"
"Wonderful," replies the mother. "Why don't you bring it into the house and open it?"
So the daughter drags the box inside and tears into it. She opens the lid, claps her hands, and squeals with delight.
"Mommy," she exclaims, jumping up and down, "it's a baby, and it's naked!"
Never underestimate the importance of sentence structure, proper grammar, and punctuation. I'm reminded of a little book published several years ago titled Eats Shoots and Leaves.
Read one way, the title invites us to visualize a gentle Koala munching dinner high up in a Eucyluptus tree. Add commas, however, and we have a hungry serial killer on the run.
Personally, I think the description of our photograph should read "Photograph of naked baby printed on postcard, which was sent to [name of recipient]." Or something like that. I doubt very much that our ancestors entrusted babies—clothed or unclothed—to the postal system.
But they did send photos of naked babies through the mail, which certainly would be daring in today's legal environment.
I'm not that brave, so I won't post the picture on this blog. But I do intend to change the wording in the catalog. It's the least I can do as a professional to promote accuracy and understanding. Besides, I can't stand the thought of how cold it might have been in a little cardboard box.