One moment, Frances Skelton reaches into a wide-shelved black filing cabinet and pulls out a 19th-century Sanborn Insurance Map with an ornate New Haven seal and neighborhoods color-coded pink, yellow, and sky blue. The next, she scurries into a back room and returns with copies of The Connecticut Journal and New Haven Post-Boy on blue-tinted linen paper dating from the 1760s. Look up and she’s disappeared again, off to grab a manila folder filled with materials on the New Haven District Telephone Company, which became the first commercial telephone exchange in the country when George Coy founded it in 1877.
Skelton has volunteered in the New Haven Museum’s library for 25 years. These days, you can find her perusing maps, manuscripts, or microfilm every Tuesday through Friday from 2 p.m. to 5. She’ll be smiling as she peers out from under a wild nest of wispy white hair through thick glasses with round wire frames. She’ll probably be wearing a trim blazer over a black or purple button-down with a silver necklace and pearl earrings. And she’ll whip out something for you to read before you can squeeze a sentence in.
The New Haven Museum’s library is a sunny room painted a faint yellow with white neoclassical door frames. Around the edges, L-shaped bookshelves form alcoves for wooden desks and chairs. Black filing cabinets with wide drawers line the center, housing maps and drawings. In the back, past the microfilm viewer, wooden doors marked “Staff Only” lead to filing cabinets and towering stacks of books and boxes housing old newspapers and other archives. The collection primarily attracts locals hoping to trace their genealogy or conduct in-depth research on New Haven. According to librarian Ed Surato, the jewel of the library’s archives is its manuscript collections, donated by families, businesses, social clubs, and other organizations, which number over 330. There’s a digital finding aid to help sift through the collections, but Skelton doesn’t use it. In fact, she doesn’t use computers at all.
“If someone asks, ‘Gee, I need to find out something about this organization or this person,’ I go to the catalog. But Frances can run to the shelf and find it,” said Surato, who has worked at the New Haven Museum for two and a half years. “I could search through the catalog for a long time and not know that there’s something on a page in a book that Frances found, and she remembered it.”
Occasionally, if Skelton needs to jog her memory, she refers to a set of non-digital finding aids kept in binders on a rack in the front right corner of the room. Then she’s off. Her straight-backed walk is almost as fast as Google, and when it comes to New Haven history, her knowledge seems more comprehensive. When I first interviewed Skelton for this story, I told her that I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the Revolutionary War began. Within a minute, she’d brought out a Connecticut Journal newspaper clipping from January 21, 1778 reporting on British troop movements under General Burgoyne. The next day, when I returned, she had, at the ready, a list in calligraphy of the New Haven militia who traveled to the Battle of Lexington, including Nathan Hale, James Hillhouse, and Benedict Arnold.
“We have newspapers from the 1700s, or the 1800s, but they’re not indexed,” Surato said. “Frances will remember that this event took place, and if you go to the Daily Herald from 1842, she’ll go to the right page. Her memory is unbelievable. She’ll remember things she’s found, it seems like years ago, that she pulls these things out of thin air.”
Skelton is from Texas. She grew up “in the panhandle where it’s dry, near Pampa and Amarillo,” she said, her voice thin and gravelly. She remembers German prisoners of war sweeping the streets of her town during World War II. Her father, who was a metallurgical engineer with 12 years of higher education, gave her a love of history. He developed howitzers during the war, and then designed ceramic shields to protect American spacecraft when they reentered the atmosphere. She went to University of Texas and got degrees in teaching and library sciences, then worked in the local public school system. Her husband was from Connecticut, so they moved north after he finished military service. They raised six kids, who grew up and left. “All of a sudden I had nothing to do,” Skelton said. So she started volunteering at the New Haven Museum.
One afternoon in early November, Skelton took a manila folder, measuring about two feet by four feet, out of a filing cabinet and laid it on a shelf. She pulled out a series of New Haven maps. The first dated from 1641, when the city was little more than the original Nine Squares. She pointed out the names of property owners, written above their plots of land in ornate calligraphy, pausing at Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport, the co-founders of the colony of New Haven. She traced her index finger over a river running through present-day State Street. “Now, when people complain of wet basements, we know why,” she said.
The next map was drawn by Ezra Stiles in 1775, during his tenure as the seventh President of Yale College. She pointed out the delicate contour lines in New Haven harbor and the wooden raft where ships used to queue up to come into port. Her mind seemed to flit from one archival fragment to the next. Stiles climbed up the steeple of First Church on the New Haven Green to watch British troops coming to shore, she recalled. “In those days, people went to Sunday Mass twice,” she said. “They built Sabbath Houses on the Green for people who come from far away to stay in.”
Many of the researchers who ask Skelton for help are interested in studying the American Revolution and the Civil War, she said. Some, however, hope to study less-trodden topics. On another recent afternoon, Skelton and Ainissa Ramirez, a former mechanical engineering professor at Yale, leaned over an 1879 city map drawn, in black ink, from an aerial perspective. The map, which Skelton believed was drawn by someone in a hot air balloon, contained individual houses with their rooflines, shingles, and the friezes above their doorways all sketched in careful detail. Ramirez peered closely at a small house located off Goffe Street, northwest of downtown. This was what she had come to see: the home owned by Sarah Boone, an African American woman who invented the ironing board.
“Back then, you put a wood plank over two chairs,” explained Ramirez. Boone designed a cheap, collapsible board adapted to make it easier to iron the sleeves and bodies of women’s garments. A former slave, Boone couldn’t read when she was 48 years old, but was literate and held a patent 12 years later. “In another time, she could’ve been a NASA engineer,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez has been working to document Boone’s life for almost a year, but the archival information about her is scarce. “If there’s biographical info, you can [research] inside-out,” she said. “Here, I’m going outside-in. What was life like in New Haven for a former slave who couldn’t read?”
Skelton showed Ramirez where Boone lived and what her house looked like. Then, she pulled out another 19th-century city map, with houses color-coded pink (brick) and yellow (wood). The affluent neighborhoods around Yale’s campus were mostly dotted with pink. Farther northwest, they faded to yellow. Next to one house, at 30 Winter Street, sat a small signature: “S. Boone.” “Without a patent, and without a home, there would’ve been no evidence that she existed,” Ramirez said. “That almost teared me up.”
Skelton is reluctant to talk about herself, but she loves chatting with researchers. In a way, the archives are her medium. She pokes and prods and sifts through, seeing what stirs her memory. Sometimes, it’s little oddities that do it. Standing next to a series of shelves filled with tiny wooden drawers, she explained to me that this was the New Haven Index, holding alphabetized cards that catalogue books the Museum has published, probates, newspapers, and unusual deaths. “People running across railroad tracks was the primary cause of that, for some reason,” she said. “I don’t quite understand the rationale of that.”
The Index is an analogue for Skelton’s encyclopedic mind, each little drawer leading to stories and memories dating back centuries, many of which Skelton has helped compile herself. Over the course of each afternoon, she pinballs around the library, returning intermittently to the front corner to consult the Index and manuscript finding aid, which propel her back out again. Sometimes it seems, as she bounces around the room, that she can barely contain how much fun she’s having. After we finished looking at the Index, she paused for a moment. “Things you enjoy, you’ve got a good memory for,” she said, a grin on her face. Here, in the library, she remembers it all.