Bumping up against the past

The other day I was cataloging a brochure from the 1930s advertising a dude ranch in Wyoming.  The artwork was wonderful, the prose colorful and inviting.

If you, the tired business man, are looking for a place to spend a vacation with your family where you can really get acquainted with your children once again by doing with them every day those things you have been wanting to do with them; or you, the mother, are looking for a place not made complicated by modern social conditions where boys and girls, and dads, are kids again, where the day’s fun or work has left all so refreshingly tired that an hour or two in the club house in the evening tops off a full day and send them to the feathers at 10:00 p.m., to sleep the clock ‘round—if it weren’t for the cursed rising bell,–then, oh well, you’d just better be writing to the ranch that this booklet is telling you about.

…you can ride for days with the cowboys and never leave the confines of the property.  Here you really lead the range life of a half century ago and obtain an intimate knowledge of the ranching game while fully enjoying health-giving hours in the saddle.  And when the day’s work or day’s play is over, you return to a hot tub or shower in your own cabin, to a real meal, and to a social evening in the club house or a quiet one in your little cottage; and then you are lulled to sleep by the rushing mountain stream that flows past your door.

I slipped into the spell of the salesman’s pitch as I read:

“TO ANTICIPATE QUESTIONS:  There are no rattlesnakes…. There are never any mosquitoes…after the first of July….It is comforting to know that we always have a splendid young physician and trained nurse in residence during the summer months.”

But then came a sentence that brought me up short:  “RESERVATIONS… No one is accepted against whom there can be the slightest racial, moral, social or physical objection.” And I wondered who could be accepted under those conditions?  And how could the writer be so blithely exclusionary?  My dude ranch romance was over, because I had bumped up against the past.

I thought about this dude ranch from 80 years ago, and how offended I was by their casual prejudice, and then I remembered this library’s well-considered statement:

The mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful. The Library offers broad public access to a wide range of information, including historical materials that may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials must be viewed in the context of the relevant time period. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.

If you work with historical materials, you know that times and attitudes can change a great deal over the years.  What was once commonplace becomes an affront.  But to ignore or censor the past diminishes our understanding of it, and as historians, we seek to understand people and events in all their complexity—good and bad.