7 surprises of history you'll find at the McMaster University archives

McMaster University archives mostly collects Canadian music and literature documents, but sometimes there are surprises.

From squished mosquitoes in a research notebook to a bomb from the Vietnam War, surprises await

(Flora Pan/CBC)

When Bridget Whittle goes to work in the basement of Mill's Memorial Library at McMaster University, she is surrounded by history. Stuart McLean's manuscripts, Bruce Cockburn's musical arrangements are only small snippets of what exists in her workspace.

Bridget Whittle compares working at the archives to doing a "giant treasure hunt." (Flora Pan/CBC)

"That's a beauty of this whole job, it's like a giant treasure hunt the whole time," said Whittle, the digital archives librarian at the department of archives and research collections.

While the archives at McMaster mostly consist of Canadian music and literature paper documents, there are a number of artifacts the library has received over the years.

Mowat wrote, "They were so thick about our heads as to make a solid cloud.” (Flora Pan/CBC)

Dead mosquitoes squished by Farley Mowat

It was a bad summer for mosquitoes in the Arctic in 1948. Canadian writer Farley Mowat was studying wolves up north, taking note on their behaviours.

On June 23, he closed his research journal on them about 30 times and their dead bodies have been trapped on the pages ever since.

Whittle said Mowat had donated that research journal along with many of his other archives to the university.

The trench map is from the First World War and it belonged to a pilot. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Blood-splattered trench map

In the university's collection includes a map of the trenches for Belgium that belonged to J. H. B. Wedderspoon, a pilot in the First World War.

While the cover is splattered with what appears to be blood, the insides remain spotless.

It's not clear why a pilot would have a map of the trenches, but it's possible he may have had a copy in case his plane was shot down.

Soldiers reporting on enemy movements from the front back to home base used pigeons to carry messages. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Old-school pigeon mail

On a lighter note, pigeons used to be messengers during the war. Soldiers would take note of enemy movements on the ground and write them on incredibly thin paper they would roll up and send off via pigeon.

Whittle said the message will include location ID that can be mapped to the trench maps in the university's collection.

The soldiers would also write multiple copies of the message as a fail-safe.

Whittle said the items may have been shown either at launch parties or in display windows. It includes items railway workers would've carried with them to the construction site, from canned buffalo meat to a small bottle of breakfast champagne. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Advertising for Pierre Berton's The Great Railway

McClelland & Stewart did not shy away from advertising Canadian author Pierre Berton's new book at the time, The Great Railway, which explored the planning and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1800s.

"The Canadian publishing industry has always been a difficult industry," Whittle said. The McClelland & Stewart publishing company has done "a lot of sort of crazy stuff" to get the word out for their books.

Concealed weapons started being popular when “it stopped being acceptable to carry a sword” in the 18th to 19th century, according to Whittle. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Hidden dagger in a cane

The archives received a thin cane with a hidden dagger inside its body one day, but it's not known who the cane belonged to, or if the dagger has been used.

She speculates the cane was a woman's even though it would have been rare for a woman to carry a dagger.

But it doesn't mean it couldn't have happened.

"Life could be pretty rough sometimes, and a nice aristocratic lady might have wanted a little bit of extra protection."

On the very right is a "pineapple bomb." The top pieces are connected to the yellow piece by a spring. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Parts of bombs from the Vietnam War

J. B. Neilands, a Canadian-born American microbiologist, was against the Vietnam War. He travelled to Vietnam to investigate whether war crimes had been committed and published a book on the effects of herbicides and defoliants on the people in Vietnam by the American forces, Harvest of Death.

When he came back to Canada, he brought with him pieces of bombs dropped in Vietnam.

And on a lighter note, he also collected a letter opener and comb made out of scrap metal from a fallen war plane, made by and gifted from the locals he had stayed with.

Whittle said Neilands found the comb funny, because he had no hair at the time.

"Given that he was there for something so serious, there's clearly some humour and camaraderie going on," she said.

Russell's furniture sits in the room dedicated to his belongings in the archives. The photo in the back is of Russell. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Bertrand Russell archives

J. B. Neilands was not the only one against the Vietnam War. Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, mathematician and Nobel laureate for literature, organized the International War Crimes Tribunal to evaluate American intervention in Vietnam.

Russell's archives is one of few that the university had purchased. Originally he was in talks with American universities for his archives, but his stance on war made it difficult.

"The university librarian here got in touch with him and said, you know, Canada is anti-nuclear and we're not involved in the Vietnam war, maybe you should think about giving them here to Mac," Whittle said.

Now in the basement of the library, there is a room dedicated to Russell's belongings, with shelves and shelves of his books, arranged exactly the way they were in his home.

The two fellow mathematicians wrote to each other via snail mail. (Flora Pan/CBC)

In an scrapbook, there are replicas of letters sent to Russell from prominent world figures, such as Albert Einstein and Muhammad Ali.

Whittle said sometimes people researching a person might want to know their views on particular subjects, and those letters might be able to give them a clue.

Ali also objected to the Vietnam War and at the time of this letter, he was in jail for refusing to be drafted into the military. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Due to the large number of letters Russell had and people asking for them all the time, they created replicas to show people who come in for tours.

Open to public

The archives at McMaster University are open to the public five days a week, from 9 to 5 p.m. However, it will be closed for the winter holidays.