Permanent Record: The Report Cards as Physical Items

A trove of 1920s report cards and the stories they tell.
Sept. 18 2011 1:54 PM

Permanent Record

Object lessons.

Knowing about the information on the report cards is one thing. But what are the cards like as physical objects?

The cards all measure 5 inches by 8 inches and are sturdy cardstock—a middle ground between the rigidity of cardboard and the flexibility of paper. When I found them in 1996, each packet was stapled together. I eventually removed all the staples (this made the cards much easier to work with without damaging them) and transferred the cards to a series of file boxes.

Given how old the cards are, they're in surprisingly good condition. Some of them have gotten brittle around the corners, where small pieces have broken off, and a few have some minor water damage, but for the most part they feel solid, not fragile. A few of the cards have yellowed a bit, but the handwritten commentary—almost all of it executed in ink, not pencil—is vibrant and crisp. The photographs haven't faded much either, and most of them remain firmly affixed to the cards, with no peeling.

The cards smell a bit like old books, and some of them have rust stains where staples or paper clips have been removed. People have occasionally asked me if I wear white gloves while handling them. Maybe I should, but I don't. I've done my best to treat them as gently as possible, but sometimes I'll be working with a few of them and will find a small scattering of cardstock debris on my desk when I'm done—fragments that have flaked off from the brittle corners. I always feel a bit guilty as I sweep this detritus away.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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