On January 1, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, launched its full-text, on-line Craftsman Database, a powerful resource for historians, collectors, and those researching their family histories.
MESDA’s database contains information about artisans gathered through primary research in public and private records. The purpose of the database is to collect and make accessible data on the lives and working habits of artisans working in the South before 1861. Focusing on Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, the museum’s research associates scoured newspapers, city directories, court records, probate inventories, wills, and private papers in search of information pertaining to southern craftsmen working in 127 trades. The records for the craftsmen vary from simple directory listings to complex descriptions of work produced, land transactions, vital statistics, and how products were produced and sold, to name just a few examples.
Ronald L. Hurst, vice president for collections, conservation, and museums, and chief curator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said, “This is an essential tool for anyone doing research on the material culture of the early South.”
Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection will be able to search and browse this invaluable resource—for free. Visit MESDA’s Web site (www.mesda.org) and click on the “Research” navigation button. There you will find the on-line Craftsman Database, which is not only keyword searchable but also has advanced search features that allow for researching in ways not possible with the original “analog” index cards. New information continues to be added to the database as MESDA’s research associates continue reading primary documents from the antebellum South.
Digitizing the approximately 250,000 index cards in the database was not a simple process. To accomplish the task, MESDA partnered with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Digital Library and Archives to assess the project and follow through with its completion. The on-line database allows for advanced searches to filter by artisan name, geographic location, trade, and dates.
MESDA has several other resources it has digitized or is in the process of making available on line. MESDA’s scholarly journal, Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, became an on-line publication in 2012 and is available on line (www.mesdajournal.org). The catalog for the museum’s Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library is now searchable through MESDA’s Web site. The museum’s collection will be available in the coming months. And the museum is currently working to make the approximately 20,000 records of southern-made decorative arts that constitute the MESDA Object Database available on line. Scanning and processing the nearly 200,000 images in the object database will take a couple of years, but MESDA’s goal is to have that resource ready in 2016.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest