Insights & Tips from a Volunpeer Expert: Context Matters

Context Matters: In Which I Get to the Bottom of a Definition

My husband and I have been obsessed with tight butts lately. Hold on, now: it’s not what you think! Hear me out; it’s all about context.


Context matters. When we read anything, we bring to it our prior knowledge to try to makes sense of what’s on the page. Some reading educators liken it to a “mental backpack” that we reach into, pulling out whatever experiences we can that will help us construct meaning as we read.


Recently, a phrase in a Freedmen’s Bureau Project letter that had us all stumped, and our mental backpacks were no help at all. Imagine you’re a time traveller, come for a visit to Washington, D.C. in 1866, wanting to experience the workaday life of, let’s say, a 19th-century carpenter. (It could happen, right?)


Imagine that you’ve been given a list of construction supplies to get for an upcoming renovation project. Most of the items on the list you’ve been given are familiar to you – lengths of pipe, screws, 10-penny nails – and you’re able to quickly tick those off your list. But then you get to the next item: Tight butts.



You stop short. What? That can’t mean what you think it means, can it? Tight butts? Tight … butts? That means something entirely different to you, the 21st-century reader. Oh, in our 21st-century mental backpacks we certainly have an inside compartment containing the meaning of the phrase “tight butt,” but it has nothing to do with building materials. (Gentle reader: Google the phrase at your peril.) So, what did the 19th-century construction worker have in his mental knapsack? In other words, what would “tight butts” have meant to him? We know from the context of the letter that it has to be a building material. So there has to be a way to uncover the meaning of this term.


Here’s a summary of the letter requesting these materials. As is typical of army correspondence in the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, a secretary has summarized the letter on the back of its contents.


The first transcriber read the item in the list and pulled “light bulbs” from her mental backpack, which certainly makes sense in context. In fact, it’s a most excellent guess: one would need light bulbs in just about any construction project. As I edited this document, though, something kept niggling at me and I decided to verify when the light bulb was invented.



As it turns out, this 1866 letter predates the light bulb by 13 years. Lights out, first theory. My next idea came from my own mental backpack. I know from having seen my mother-in-law quilt that a “batt” is a form of wool or cotton insulation that is sandwiched between layers of fabric. I wondered if could the secretary could have written “light batt,” and if a batt could have been a 19th-century building insulation.


It seemed plausible, and I was feeling pretty proud of my decoding skills – that is, until I turned the page and read the actual contents of the letter.


Here, the transcriber read the phrase as “tight butts,” and, indeed, that’s exactly what the handwriting appeared to show. So much for batts. It was clearly time to bring in the big guns, so I emailed Caitlin Haynes, the Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center volunteer coordinator. After she was done wiping away the coffee she had spewed on her computer screen (turns out her mental backpack has similar contents to mine), she consulted with a Reconstruction historian and came back to me with … bupkes.



Lively dinnertime conversation ensued that evening at my house. My husband, son, and I worked out that a butt is a term for a cask holding liquid, but danged if we could make it fit the context of that pesky list of building materials. Maybe butts held pitch or another liquid used in construction. Or maybe a bunch of construction workers were planning on drinking on the job. The problem was, the list in the letter called for pairs of tight butts, and for a large quantity of them. My academic husband, intrigued in spite of himself, promised to look in the Oxford English Dictionary at work and see if he could get to the bottom of things. A few days later, he reported back:


Hi [Term of Endearment redacted to protect the innocent]:

I remembered to check the OED finally. They don't record "tight butt" anywhere, but they do have "tight barrel" and "tight cask." Both are defined by being designed to hold liquids, as opposed to a "slack barrel" or a "slack cask," which hold dry goods. Tight butt must have the same meaning.

Love, [Another term of endearment redacted to protect the innocent]


That night at dinner our family continued our discussion. The problem remained: The list of materials referred to pairs of these objects being needed. Would have casks been requested in pairs? And in such vast quantities? (Incidental hilarity was had over my family’s genetic propensity for “slack butts.” Sigh.) Back to the drawing board.


I finally decided to try a period dictionary of American English. The 1864 edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary was the closest I could find to the time of this letter. And there I started to crack it.



Definition from Webster, Noah, 1758-1843, William Torrey Harris, and Noah Porter. Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language: Being the Authentic Edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Comprising the Issues of 1864, 1879, And 1884 Thoroughly Revised And Much Enlarged Under the Supervision of Noah Porter, With a Voluminous Appendix And References History to Which Is Now Added a Supplement of Twenty-five Thousand Words And Phrases.

Reference history ed. Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1907. Accessed in (HathiTrust Digital Library) on 11/26/19


Check out definition 10: (Carp.) A kind of hinge used in hanging doors, etc. ; — so named because fastened on the edge of the door, which butts against the casing, instead of on its face, like the strap hinge ; — also called butt hinge. A-ha! Could it be? The 1866 list asks for pairs of tight butts, so that certainly seems to make sense in context. I went a bit further, though, and checked the meaning of “tight,” along with “hinge,” and see if I could buttress my argument for this meaning.



Yes! Meanings one and two make sense: a “tight butt” could be a door hinge that is firmly fastened, so as not to leak air.



My husband did a bit more research to confirm my hypothesis, and in a database of old American periodicals found a reference to “tight butt hinges” in an article on building inexpensive houses from the Ohio Farmer: “Take pains to swing cellar windows with tight butt hinges, having hooks and eyes to hold up to ceiling with when open.”




Jones, C. "The Household.: A Cheap House." Ohio Farmer (1856-1906), Apr 04, 1901, 318,


And there you have it. Not a light bulb, nor a batt, nor a cask. A door hinge.


I shouldn’t end this way, but I can’t resist: “Tight butts, don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”



A postscript: My husband was chatting with his father a few days ago and mentioned our “tight butt quest.” Before he’d had a chance to reveal what we’d concluded, his father said, “Oh, you mean a hinge.” Flabbergasted, Ken asked him how he could possibly have known that. Bill replied, “My father owned a hardware store, after all.”


If only I’d remembered that I had access to my father-in-law’s hardware knowledge in that mental backpack of mine.


Interior of Graham Brothers Hardware, Rosetown, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1912. Beth's grandfather-in-law W. H. E. Graham (in suit) leans on the counter at the right; his brother John is at left, arms crossed.


***The label "lifelong learner" describes Beth Graham best. She thrives on new challenges, and has held positions as varied as children's librarian, advertising agency proofreader, crochet pattern designer, and Crafty/Bluprint Instructor. Currently, Beth keeps busy by volunteering on the Freedmen's Bureau Project in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, knitting ever more socks for her overflowing sock drawer, and playing clarinet in the local New Horizons band. A native of California, Beth lives in Ontario, Canada.

This is the third post in a series of blog posts from long-time volunpeer Beth Graham (see her other posts here and here). While transcribing and reviewing over 5,000 pages of TC projects, Beth has gained insight & knowledge, and uncovered fascinating historical details. Follow along in this series to learn from Beth as she shares her personal motivations, expert tips, and transcription discoveries!