The Humans Behind the History

by Katelyn Rohlf, MCHS Summer Intern
August 22, 2023

L to R: Hester, Augustus, Maria, and John Hone, c.1900

“Man, these things are heavy,” was my first thought after lugging the 10”x18”, Hone family scrapbooks (1869-1903) under the scanner. After performing some “museum magic” to make sure the huge pages would be fully captured by the small scanner, I finally took a peek at the pages I had heard so much about. Then my next thought was “Wow, this is incredible!” Between Astor cotillions, dinners at Delmonico’s, casual correspondence with the Vanderbilts, and invitations to the White House and Westminster Abbey, before I knew it, I was immersed in their Gilded Age world of high society, politics, theater, and travel. A photograph of patriarch John Hone IV with his impressive mustache, his second wife Maria, their Gibson Girl daughter Hester, and his youngest son Augustus Crane Hone, put faces to names through a quintessential human experience: posing uncomfortably for a family photo.

Betsy Hone Evan’s mother and aunts (grandaughters of John Hone IV and Mary Crane), 1912

As a student of history I am usually instructed to take an unbiased approach to the subject, often leading to separation from the material. But with access to two huge scrapbooks bursting with personal memories and family treasures, I couldn’t help but connect. Like you or I might today, the Hones held onto theater programs and letters from friends. Turning page after page, seeing what the Hones’ valued enough to save, I got to know the Hones as a family, not just historical figures to study. The opportunity to speak with Betsy Hone Evans, a descendant and donor of her family scrapbooks, was another reminder of how personal and intimate the artifacts are. Betsy spoke of the family stories her mother passed down, bringing even more life to the names and faces on the pages; like when they helped the grandkids create costumes for their little plays for the family, and worried about being outshone by the well-to-do in-laws.

 What started as a menial task of scanning pages of documents and photographs, became a journey of getting to know real people. While they lived a way of life we can barely grasp today, their story is still somehow relatable, and I realized that getting to know the people on the pages as fellow human beings is perhaps one of the best ways to connect to and appreciate history. It was a privilege to help Betsy and MCHS bring the Hones’ captured memories back into the light.