Researching the Historical Novel – Part Three



Here are two websites with collections of interest to historical researchers, one of which is strong on anthropology and ancient history, and the other rather eclectic and surprisingly diverse.

Picture1The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology provides a website that highlights items from its collection. Historical novelists looking for detail to include in their books set in ancient times may want to know, say, how someone groomed themselves or applied makeup. Here they will find images of combs and makeup containers. Other highlighted collections include representations of animals and human faces in ancient art. The search feature allows the user to search on “scarab,” “earring,” “sword”, etc., and view those objects, with the option to narrow the search by geography, ethnic group, or period.


Image courtesy of the Penn Museum, Image #151785, Object NA4265


Cornell University in New York State has a remarkably diverse collection of digital documents on their website. Here are several that might be of use to historical novelists.

Picture2Is your novel set in pre-Civil War America, with characters involved in the anti-slavery movement? The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection will be a valuable source. Cornell University’s first President Andrew Dickson White acquired “an extensive collection of slavery and abolitionist materials gathered by his close friend, Reverend Samuel Joseph May,” which he gave to the Cornell Library. The full text of the more than 10,000 documents is searchable, and may also be browsed by author, title or date.

If a character in your novel lives on a farm and keeps bees, you will be interested in Cornell’s The Hive and the Honeybee site. In the 1920s, Cornell professor Everett Franklin Phillips started collecting a worldwide library of materials on bees and bee culture. Cornell eventually hopes to make available on this site every major pre-1925 publication in English on beekeeping, which will enhance an already excellent resource on early beekeeping techniques.

Picture4Does your novel have an urban setting in the late 1970s or early ’80s? Cornell’s collection of fliers advertising hip-hop parties and events from 1977-1984 provides social context for the early hip-hop scene. As of this writing, Cornell has digitized “a collection of 127 flyers formerly owned by Breakbeat Lenny (Lenny Roberts),” with more to come. The fliers were created in the days before computer design software and were handmade.

Besides these three collections, Cornell’s digital collections site also offers material on such diverse topics as pamphlets on Bolivia, 19th-century agriculture, photographs of Iceland, and steel making. To view the index of the university’s collections, click here.



Old Times: Relics, Talismans, Forgotten Customs & Beliefs of the Past, by Walter Clifford Meller. New York: Brentano’s, [no date, possibly early 1920’s]Picture5

This book covers curious British historical social life and customs. The author gives no prefatory material stating why he chose these particular topics, so they seem rather random:  old Bede-houses and hospitals, old stone crosses, sanctuary customs, talismans, bells, carols, holy wells, heraldry, misericords, Glastonbury, the King’s touch to heal diseases, sacred legends, and the Holy Grail.

Historical novelists will find many of these chapters useful. Are you setting a novel in the Middle Ages where a character is fleeing an enemy and requesting sanctuary? Learn how sanctuary worked from this book. Does your character need to find a talisman or charm of some kind?  Read the chapter that gives historical examples. Is your novel set in an English parish church?  Here is information on the lore of English bells, and another on carols. Do you need to know what “touch-piece” a king gave out to a subject coming to him to be touched for a disease? This book tells you what kinds different kings dispensed. A drawback to this work as a source is a lack of a bibliography.


The Old Country Store, by Gerald Carson.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Picture6Are you setting a novel in a small town in 19th-century America? Odds are good that your characters will have to visit the local country store to purchase goods they don’t produce themselves.  This book chronicles the social history of the old country store between 1791 and 1921. Learn how the barter system worked in the early days, when most Americans were cash-poor. Carson describes the social function of a country store, and recounts a typical conversation men would have while sitting around the stove on a winter’s day. He devotes a chapter to patent medicines that stores would carry.  He also includes a chapter on the competition: traveling peddlers. I was surprised to learn that there were women peddlers, at least in Vermont. Carson includes information about his sources in a section called “chapter references,” which would be useful for further research.


The History of the Carriage, by László Tarr, tr. By Elisabeth Hoch.  New York: Arco Publishing, 1969.

Picture7Tarr covers the history of wheeled transport from ancient times to the advent of the automobile. He includes reproductions of historical illustrations portraying carts and carriages. Any historical novelist wanting to get his or her facts right about their characters’ means of transport in any period of history would do well to consult this volume. A bibliography provides paths for further research.


About the contributor: B.J. SEDLOCK is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.






Posted by Claire Morris


  1. Janet Oakley
    July 7, 2014

    Great resources. I’m always looking for things to tell newbies as well as myself. I have used and enjoyed Cornell’s document site.