On the Other Side: Hidden Treasure, Abound on the Backsides of Historic Documents

By Potter, Lee Ann | Social Education, October 2004 | Go to article overview

On the Other Side: Hidden Treasure, Abound on the Backsides of Historic Documents


Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education


IN THE SOON-TO-BE-RELEASED Walt Disney pictures feature film, National Treasure, an adventurer embarks hunt to find a treasure, whose hiding place is indicated by a map in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration Independence. In case you were wondering, while the movies plot is purely fiction, there is indeed writing on the back of the original, signed Declaration of Independence. But it is not invisible, nor does it include a map. The writing on the back the Declaration of Independence reads,

   "Original Declaration
   of Independence
   dated 4th July 1776"

and it appears on the bottom of the document, upside down. While no one knows for certain who wrote these words, it is known that early in its life, the large parchment document (it measures 29 3/4 inches by 24 1/2 inches) was rolled up for storage. So, it is likely that the notation was added simply as a label.

As this little-known information about the Declaration suggests, the backside of an historical document can reveal interesting details about the document's history as an artifact. The details might relate directly to the document's travels, its owners, or handlers; or they might offer clues to the economic, social, and political conditions at the time of the document's creation.

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century letters, for example, were folded and sealed shut with sealing wax because envelopes had not yet been invented. The address was typically written in the center of the last page of a folded folio it could be seen when sealed shut. Additionally, the address can often provide insight into information not necessarily contained in the text of the letter. For example, the backsides of many of the letters submitted to Congress by the various states transmitting their Electoral College vote counts for the 1840 presidential election read simply, "To the President of the Senate of the United States/Washington City." This small amount of information serves as a reminder of the requirements of Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution--that electoral vote counts be submitted to the president of the Senate. Another interesting example is the letter sent by Thomas Jefferson in February of 1803 to George Washington accepting the appointment to become the first secretary of state. The backside of the letter is simply addressed to "George Washington/President of the/United States." It was stamped in black ink "Richmond Feb 13/ Free."

In addition, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century government documents were tri-folded and often their backsides contained endorsements that revealed who received the document, when it was received, and often a brief synopsis or comment--much like a routing and transmittal slip used today. The after action report on the Battle of Gettysburg that Robert E. Lee submitted to the Confederate secretary of war, James A. Seddon, is one example. Its backside includes, among other notations, a message from Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, indicating that he had read the document "with satisfaction" on August 5, 1863. Other nineteenth century examples include thousands of petitions and memorials submitted to Congress that were tri-folded and annotated with the date received and committee of referral.

Also, at times when paper was in short supply, information was frequently recorded on both sides of a page or written on the back of a page used for an earlier, unrelated purpose. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, for example, was originally written on two folios that were folded into four sheets. …

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