For Greenfield Twp. resident Sarah Piccini, history is more than just facts in a dusty book. Her love of the subject turned into a career. In addition to serving as the assistant director of the Lackawanna Historical Society since 2013, she is also a member of the Council of the Pennsylvania Historical Association, where she’s been business secretary since 2019. Read on to learn what sparked her interest and what keeps her busy these days.
Q: How long have you been interested in history?
A: I’ve always been a big reader, and was interested in history since I was little — true stories are the best ones! My friends and I were deeply into the “American Girl” series in elementary school, and hosted many Victorian tea parties and learned Colonial crafts. I was always willing to visit new museums on vacation, and preferred English and history classes to math and science in high school. I majored in history at the University of Scranton, and was fortunate to find primary sources next door at the Lackawanna Historical Society for my classes and thesis research. After working as an intern (and later full time) at the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority, I started to gain a deeper appreciation for local history and the stories that exist here.
Q: How did you get involved in the Lackawanna Historical Society?
A: I worked with Mary Ann at the historical society for collaborative projects while at LHVA, and led groups to the Catlin House during local Ambassador’s tours. It’s a fun opportunity to work in a historic house — tourists always say how much they would have loved to live in a house like this, and we usually respond that we most likely be the maids, and I guess we still are the “staff!” Every day is different and unpredictable, based on who else in the house or calling with a question. We host programs, events and lectures, so some days I’m moderating a Zoom program with a costumed reenactor or slideshow of trolley images; other days I’m looking through thousands of historic photos or scanning city directories to find a particular location for a researcher. I also do research on items already in our collection to learn more about an individual or place an object or garment in context. One of my favorite projects is to create new exhibits, matching a variety of objects to a theme and looking for more pieces of the story. Sometimes what I think is going to be an easy answer or quick research project turns into an enormous, sprawling rabbit hole with many tangents and side quests.
Q: What are some of your specialties as a historian?
A: This area has such a great industrial history, so I started out when I was still in college researching labor history, particularly a strike in 1877 that shut down the railroads, coal mines and iron industry. The primary source research is what hooked me — holding the actual letter sent by strikers to a coal company or the report of the Pinkerton detectives hired by W.W. Scranton makes a bit of the past seem much more immediate and real. I have done research on other early coal strikes as well, but lately I’ve done projects to mark centennial anniversaries and moved into women’s history. In 2018, I read through months of newspaper reports about the 1918 Spanish flu in Scranton, which came in handy in April 2020 as context for the COVID-19 pandemic. I created a program and an exhibit about women’s suffrage in Lackawanna County, exploring the lives of some early suffragists like Kate Chapman, Dr. Anna Clarke and Margery Scranton. Most recently, I followed 1920s sewing directions to create millinery pieces for an exhibit about the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences. Newspapers are some of the best tools for research, and there’s a wealth of local papers available through newspapers.com, which makes it very easy (even if it does feel a bit like cheating). Letters, manuscripts, or even a piece of original advertising can help answer questions too.
Q: Why is local history important?
A: Local history is important to provide a sense of place. It helps explain the character of a region and provides tangible examples of larger stories. The Lackawanna Valley historically played a huge role in the wider world, and I wish people had a better sense of how important and vital Scranton was at the turn of the century. Not just coal and iron production, but lace and silk, buttons and records, as well as the pioneers in wireless telegraphy, distance learning and the roots of unions and the labor movement. The tremendous building stock downtown is a result of the wealth in the area, and the diverse ethnic patchwork laid out by immigrant communities still influences everything from summer church picnic favorites to the layouts of small towns. I’ve learned some silly facts, like Scranton’s Anthony Street was named because the first four people who purchased lots were named Anthony, and I’ve learned about some incredible people, like Col. Frank Duffy, Mary Brooks Picken, Louise Brown and the men who carried out a dramatic robbery on the Laurel Line trolley!
Q: When you’re not working, what are some of your hobbies?
A: I still love to read, and I enjoy sewing and make a lot of my own clothing. Lately, like everyone else in these times of plague and pandemic, I’ve been baking a lot too! I am also on the verge of acquiring another old-timey maker skill and learning to spin and weave natural fibers.