SCIM-C Demonstration 1: A Letter from Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau (1939)

In this demonstration section below, historian Tom Ewing uses the SCIM strategy to analyze the following primary source in order to explore the guiding historical question: What was the life of a child like during the Depression? His analysis using SCIM was taped and transcribed. A multimedia version is also available on this page. The source to be analyzed is a letter obtained from the National Archives (view original handwritten letter, Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). The letter was originally handwritten and sent to the Children's Bureau. What you see before you is a transcription based on that original.


The first phase of the SCIM strategy is summarizing. The purpose of summarizing is to locate any information or evidence that is explicitly available within the source. The first piece of evidence available from the source is the source type, that is, a letter. At this point it is necessary to read through the letter to get a broad understanding of the letter's author, subject, audience, and purpose.
What does the letter reveal, explicitly? The author of the letter is a 15-year-old boy, Bobby Murray, who is in the 10th grade. The purpose of the letter is to seek assistance to be able to continue school; specifically, he is writing to the government, to the Children's Bureau at the Department of Labor for some help. In addition, the author has a mother and obviously an older sister, who died fairly recently, 6 months earlier, and a niece from his now deceased older sister. The mother works, though not regularly, and pays the family's living expenses.


The second phase of the SCIM strategy is contextualizing. The purpose of the contextualizing phase is to examine the source in more detail in terms of recognizing and locating the source in time and space. In this case, when and where the letter was written is fairly straightforward and was mentioned previously within the summarization phase. Specifically, the letter was written in 1939, in Malvern, Arkansas. Why the letter was written is also clearly stated. Bobby Murray, the author, is seeking financial assistance from the government to continue his schooling.
The question of what was happening within the immediate and broader context of when and where the letter was written is interesting. The date of 1939 is significant, in a broad context. Ten years earlier, in 1929, the Depression started in the United States. By 1939, however, the time of the writing of this letter, economic life was generally getting better. However, within the immediate context of Malvern, Arkansas, the letter indicates that life was still difficult, though not desperate. The author is not talking about starvation, about being thrown out of his home, or about his niece being taken away from them. Specifically, the letter reveals that unemployment was still a problem for boys under 18 years of age.


At this point, the letter's author, the letter's purpose, and the letter's context have been addressed. Within the SCIM strategy the next phase is inferring, that is, what information may be implied or concluded from the evidence within the source? For example, the letter suggests that the boy is mature for 15 years of age, as he seems to understand the family's dynamics. Specifically, he is concerned with furthering his education, but not allowing his education to adversely affect the family finances.
The author also seems sensitive to his mother's workload and her need to take care of his niece. Unfortunately, the author does not reveal much about his family; specifically, who was his father, how did his sister die, or who was the father of his sister's child? In addition, since the author is writing the Children's Bureau and referencing the Superintendent, it is likely the author already asked the Superintendent for financial assistance. Extending this financial focus, since the author is seeking financial assistance from the government, it can be concluded that the family was not an upper class family, but more likely, a middle or lower class family where finances would be difficult.
Finally, this letter reflects a change in individual's perspectives, that is, the letter reflects a perspective that the government is willing and able to get directly involved in citizen's lives - a perspective not common in the 1920s. Curiously, the author does not provide much explicit information regarding life in Malvern, Arkansas. The author paints a picture of a difficult time, but the author does not reference bleak details about the number of unemployed, the number of students out of school, or the number of people starving, which would suggest that life has improved since the depths of the Depression in early 1930s.


The progression from summarizing, through contextualizing, to inferring, always leads to questions. The fourth phase of the SCIM strategy is the monitoring phase, that is, what questions exist regarding initial assumptions and interpretations or current understandings? The author also seems very mature for a 15 year old boy, which raises the question: Was there something about the experience of the depression that would have increased the sense of responsibility of a 15-year-old boy? Also, what opportunities were available to a 15-year-old boy during 1939? The author seems to value an education, why? Did the author see an education as a way to better conditions for himself and his family?
As mentioned previously, the author does not indicate much about the conditions in Malvern, Arkansas. It may help to know more about Malvern to understand the author's environment and better contextualize the contents of the letter. Was Malvern a typical southern community? Similarly, questions remain regarding his family. Who was his father and did something happened to him? What happened to his sister? What happened to his niece's father? Were the conditions of the author's family common during the late 1930s?
Finally, questions remain as to what happened to Bobby Murray and his family. Unbeknownst to Bobby, he will be of a prime draft age when World War II begins for the United States in December 1941. Ultimately, there's a lot in this letter. It is short, but it's clear and it's objective is specific.


With all four phases of the SCIM strategy complete, I am left to create an interpretation of the source relative to the guiding historical question: What was life like for a child during the great Depression? One such interpretation might look like this:
This letter, written in 1939 by Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau, suggests how the effects of the Depression were felt by one boy and his family. The boy's difficulties were not caused directly by the Depression, but rather by the lack of resources available to the family. The one source of support, the sister, has passed away, leaving the mother to work part-time while also raising her grand-daughter. The Depression is thus a background cause, suggested in the statement that a boy under eighteen cannot find any work. The letter does show, however, how the government is perceived as a source of assistance. Bobby Murray is writing to the Children's Bureau because he is hopeful of receiving some of the assistance being offered to children who cannot pay their school expenses. He refers to the superintendent of the local school district as a reference who will testify to his attendance. The letter thus shows how the combined difficulties of home life and the Depression caused problems for a child, and how the child's response demonstrates both a sense of responsibility and a willingness to look for assistance from as far away as Washington, D.C.. The author is clearly hopeful that a change will come as soon as possible, because any further delays will keep him from school.
As can be seen from the interpretation above, utilizing the SCIM strategy results in a deep, thorough, and careful analysis of the primary source, as well as an insightful and well-grounded interpretation.

The Historical Inquiry project was funded by an IDDL Research Fellowship and a FIPSE grant.
Copyright © 2004-2005, Peter Doolittle, David Hicks, & Tom Ewing, Virginia Tech