Precious Papers

A museum curator’s job includes studying, preserving, and interpreting historical objects. When I worked at Old World Wisconsin I thought a lot about objects immigrants used in their New World homes. As I was writing  A Settler’s Year, I thought a lot about the things immigrants chose to carry on their journey.

A few years ago I enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the artifacts in storage at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Chief Curator Laurann Gilbertson showed a collection I’d never considered—immigrant wallets.

A drawer full of wallets.

Wallets carefully preserved.

As she talked about them, I realized how important these wallets were for those traveling from Europe. Immigrants painstakingly calculated expenses, and money had to be meted out with care.

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In addition to money, these wallets often held precious papers. According to a museum exhibit, these papers might include a “passport” giving a traveler permission to leave, a statement from the local church attesting to his or her good standing, and certificates of vaccination for “cow pox” or other diseases.

Document on display at Vesterheim.

Travel document on display at Vesterheim.

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Travel document on display at Vesterheim.

Given the importance of what was to be carried in these wallets, it’s not surprising that some show real craftsmanship.

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They conjure images of immigrants carefully tucking away their precious documents and money. I imagine men patting their pockets from time to time, reassuring themselves their wallets were still there. I imagine women slipping wallets under their pillows at night for safekeeping.

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Immigrant literature includes many tales of theft, or swindlers waiting in every port to take advantage of newcomers. But with good planning and some luck, the wallets and their contents would see the immigrants safely to their new homes.

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