MUN archivists are on a mission to identify the mystery women who shared their wisdom for decades

The #MissusMonday campaign's mission is to recognize the women who have contributed to Memorial University's folklore archive.

By providing the cards to the public, the archive hopes that they can identify who these women were.

old square cards written by hand atop files of more cards.
Folklore students at Memorial University have been sent out to communities with these cards to search for stories from people since the 1960s. Many women who contributed didn't sign their own name, or signed their husband's name. MUN's archive department hopes to learn who they are. (Arlette Lazarenko/CBC)

Tucked neatly in stacks of drawers in the Memorial University's folklore and language archive are cards filled with nuggets of wisdom. 

The cards, dating back as far as the 1960s, contain stories collected by folklore students who were given a simple task: with a survey card in hand, they were sent into communities across Newfoundland and Labrador and would ask anyone for a story, a saying, advice — anything that would delight a folklore enthusiast and researcher.

They came back with stories that warned of fairies, recipes for potato pork buns, nursery rhymes, advice on how to tell if you can trust someone with a secret, and herbs to take for different body aches.

The archive contains as many as 120,000 cards in various categories. But many of them have one thing in common: the folklore is attributed to nameless women. Sometimes they were only signed with the letter of their first name, or with their husband's name.

"Before the '80s, it was traditional and considered 'polite' for women to use their husband's name instead of their own first name," said Nicole Penney, an assistant archivist for the past eight years in the department.

One woman, signed only as Mrs. H. House, advises people that if they plan to start sewing a garment on Friday, they should finish it on the same day. Otherwise, they risk bringing misfortune upon their entire household.

"We have all this wonderful information that these women have donated to us and we aren't able to give them their full credit because we don't have their name."

The collection was started one day back in 1963 by Herbert Halpert, the founder of MUN 's folklore department. And it's still ongoing, said Penney, helping to catalog the province's folklore and traditions and providing a source of information  for researchers.

Cabinet full of files and inside cards.
This is one of the many cabinets in the archive department filled with survey cards. There are as many as 120,000 cards containing pieces of information that contribute to the overall picture of folklore in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Arlette Lazarenko/CBC)

In 2019, MUN's archivists launched a social media campaign to try to identify the anonymous contributors. Under the hashtag #MissusMonday, they share pictures of the survey cards and the information on them every other Monday, in hopes of providing clues to someone who might have known the woman behind the wisdom.

Around 138 #MissusMonday cards have been posted with a few dozen women identified, Penney says.

"We always get a lot of engagement," said Penney, even from people who don't know the person on the card. "We'll get a lot of people who [say], 'Oh, I remember that recipe, I remember that rhyme.'"

The verification isn't always certain or 100 per cent accurate since they are many decades old and based on the memory of strangers online, says Penney, but it's a positive start.

Penney says the department owes its existence to the support and involvement of the community over the years. The fabric of folklore in Newfoundland is woven through the stories of its residents, she said, and the voices of the women are an integral part of that tapestry.

"It's more so about the awareness and to get the idea out there that we should appreciate some of these women. And that if you're doing research from a certain time period … maybe you could do a little bit more legwork and try to give them their first name."

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Arlette Lazarenko is a journalist working in St. John's. She is a graduate of the College of the North Atlantic journalism program. Story tips welcomed by email: