Visiting Monticello Vicariously

By Jeremy Dibbell

Maira Kalman’s New York Times blog is called And the Pursuit of Happiness, and her most recent post is particularly apt, given the title. In “Time Wastes Too Fast,” Ms. Kalman recounts a recent visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, VA. It’s a very nice piece, and even features several images from the MHS’ collection of Jefferson manuscripts, including a photo from his Farm Book.

Surgeon’s Kit on Display

By Anne Bentley

A fitted case containing surgeon’s instruments belonging to William Swift, M.D., United States Navy, in the War of 1812 is on display in the USS Constitution Museum’s newest exhibition: “All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812.”  

William Swift (1779-1864), an 1812 graduate of the Harvard Medical School, served in the U.S. Navy from 1812 until his retirement in 1861. He sailed to the coast of Africa in the frigate Chesapeake, and was serving on her when she fought the British vessel Shannon in Boston Harbor, 1813. He later served as naval surgeon in the brig Syren.

The kit was given to the Society by Dr. Lucy H. Swift, 26 October 1991. The MHS also holds Dr. Swift’s papers (Ms. N-162): see the collection guide for more information.

Curators at the USS Constitution Museum have installed Swift’s surgeon’s kit in their “Aftermath” area that very effectively illustrates the realities of war at sea.  You can see it there through December 2010. The grand opening of the exhibit, featuring Boston mayor Tom Menino, will be held on 3 July at 11 a.m.

Adams-Jefferson Conference Recap

By Jeremy Dibbell

Now that the Boston leg of the Adams-Jefferson Libraries conference has concluded (see my earlier post for the full story on the conference), I’d like to offer just a brief synopsis of the proceedings here, and some personal reflections on the meetings.

Following a really fascinating keynote address by Ted Widmer on Sunday evening (“People of the Book: Adams, Jefferson and the Koran”), we had two days of panel discussions (“Adams and Jefferson as Book Collectors” and “Libraries, Law, and Political Philosophy” on Monday; “Adams, Jefferson, and Nationalism” and “Libraries and the Enlightenment” on Tuesday). Most of the sessions were held at the Boston Public Library, with the exception of Monday afternoon’s panel, which we hosted here at the MHS. Conference-goers were also offered tours of the John Adams library at the BPL, the “Gluttons for Books” exhibit at MHS, and the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy.

Thanks to the kindness of my colleagues here I was able to slip away from my normal duties for a couple days and attend the panel discussions. The presentations and conversations were excellent, but even beyond that it was most interesting to be around a great group of folks interested not only in Adams and Jefferson but also in books and reading more generally. I was, as someone remarked to me, “in my element.” The days may have been long, (and rainy), but the stimulation of good discussions more than outweighed the exhaustion.

The conference attracted attendees from around the country and around the world (one woman came all the way from Perth, Australia!), so it was a real delight to be able to meet, talk and share meals with people whose books I’ve read (and I confess I added a number of new books to my ‘to-read’ list). Many of them expressed great appreciation for the MHS and our efforts to make our materials available not only here in the reading room but also via microfilm and digitally so that they can be accessed around the world.

Now the conference moves to Charlottesville for another three days of discussions and tours. I hope that they are as full of good discussions and provocative questions as the Boston portion was, and I look forward to continuing the conversations begun here this week.

Meet & Greet: Publications

By Jeremy Dibbell

Another round of introductions today: the Publications department. Since its inception, the MHS has taken as one of its major missions the “dissemination” of materials of historical interest, and the Publications team is responsible for carrying out that vital task. The types of volumes published by the MHS include:

Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. First published in 1792, and now numbering more than ninety volumes, these are documentary editions of materials from our collections. The most recent is Selected Journals of Caroline Healey Dall, Volume I (1838-1855), edited by Helen R. Deese.

– Thematic collections of essays on historical topics, Studies in American History and Culture.

The Massachusetts Historical Review, an annual journal.

– Illustrated books highlighting materials and artifacts from MHS collections.


Click here for a full list of in-print MHS publications.

The Publications department staff include Ondine Le Blanc, Director of Publications, and Assistant Editors Suzanne Carroll and Jeanine Rees.

Complete contact information is available here.

“Gluttons for Books”

By Jeremy Dibbell

Books and reading played a major role in the lives and careers of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In a major conference, an exhibition, and a web presentation this summer, the MHS and other institutions around the country highlight the collections, reading habits, and literary legacies of these two men.

The conference, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson: Libraries, Leadership, and Legacy, is a joint effort sponsored by the MHS, the Boston Public Library, and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello (and supported by several other institutions and benefactors). The full conference schedule is available here. It will begin in Boston on this coming Sunday, 21 June, with a keynote address by Dr. Ted Widmer, Director of the John Carter Brown Library (free and open to the public). Two days of panel discussions and other events in Boston will follow, and then the conference moves to Charlottesville, VA, for another keynote address by former U.S. Senator Gary Hart on Thursday 25 June. That will be followed by two concluding days of panel discussions at the University of Virginia. Information on registration, the conference schedule, and PDFs of the conference papers are available at the conference website.

To accompany the conference and extending through the summer, the MHS has mounted an exhibit, “‘Gluttons for Books: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Their Libraries.” The show includes the book catalogs of Jefferson and Adams, correspondence between members of the Adams family about books and reading, and selections from the retirement correspondence of Jefferson and Adams (which is, I think, one of the most fascinating exchanges of letters ever written). One case will highlight the recent discovery and verification of Jefferson’s inventory of the collection of books he received through the bequest of his friend and teacher George Wythe (an MHS-Monticello collaboration). A computer terminal will be available to access those portions of the exhibit which have been digitized (including Jefferson’s 1783 and 1789 catalogs, the BPL’s excellent John Adams Library site, the Wythe List, and online catalogs of the Jefferson and Adams libraries).

The exhibition will remain on display at the Historical Society from Tuesday, 23 June through Friday, 4 September. The MHS is open to the public Monday-Wednesday, and Friday, 9:00 a.m. -4:45 p.m.; Thursday, 9:00 a.m.-7:45 p.m.; and Saturday, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. The Society will be closed on Friday, 3 July and Saturday, 4 July. As the MHS hosts many programs for school teachers and other visitors during the summer months, please call the front desk (617-646-0500) for specific exhibition hours.

Finally, June’s Object of the Month highlights one of the letters from our collections relating to the Wythe library: it’s a 22 July 1806 letter from Thomas Jefferson’s cousin and agent George Jefferson, notifying him that the Wythe books have been packed up in Richmond and are ready for shipment to Monticello.

Collection Profile: Robert Keayne’s Sermon Notebooks

By Jeremy Dibbell

I’ve been reading the new collection of Edmund S. Morgan’s essays, American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women who Shaped Early America (W.W. Norton, 2009), and one of the people he profiles is Anna Keayne (later Lane), the granddaughter of early Boston merchant Robert Keayne (1595-1656). Anna’s story is absolutely fascinating in its own right, but seeing Robert Keayne’s name reminded me that we hold several collections of his notebooks:

Robert Keayne sermon notes, 1627-1628. This volume contains notes taken by Keayne in London prior to his 1635 removal to Boston. Among the ministers represented are John Cotton, Hugh Peters, John Wilson and John Davenport. Extracts were published in the MHS Proceedings, Vol. 50 (March 1917), pp. 204-207.

Robert Keayne sermon notes, 1639-1642. This volume contains notes of sermons preached at Boston’s First Church by John Cotton. Keayne also includes minutes of the 1640-41 ecclestical trials of Sgt. Richard Wait and Ann Hibbins (the latter was executed for witchcraft in 1656). This notebook, which was given to the MHS as early as 1791 (possibly by founder Jeremy Belknap), was discussed at length by MHS Librarian Samuel Abbot Green at the March 1889 meeting of the Society. You can read an off-print of his paper here via the Internet Archive, or from the MHS Proceedings here via Google Books.

Robert Keayne sermon notes, 1643-1646. This volume contains notes of sermons preached at Boston’s First Church by John Cotton, John Wilson and Thomas Cobbet. Following Green’s remarks about the earlier volume at the 1889 meeting, Amos Perry of the Rhode Island Historical Society wrote to Green to inform him that this volume was then in the collections of RIHS, having been presented to them in 1851 by a Mr. Cooke. “People must have been smart in that early period to read such writing,” Perry wrote. The MHS purchased this third volume of sermon notes in 1969.

All three of the Keayne notebooks are available for consultation on microfilm, P-85.

Robert Keayne cut quite the figure in early Boston. He was the first commander of the town’s Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and also served in various official capacities. His early success in business proved nettlesome to his neighbors; in 1639 he was tried before the General Court and fined for charging too much for his merchandise, and was later admonished by church authorities for this nefarious crime (also considered a grave sin). He issued a formal apology. He was later involved in a lengthy legal battle after being accused of stealing Mrs. Sherman’s sow (see Darren Staloff, The Making of an American Thinking Class. Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 83-85).

Keayne’s sermons notes are interesting, but they are not his most remarkable legacy. That distinction must go to his will, one of the longest known to exist from the American colonial period. The document runs to more than 158 pages and 50,000 words, and contains lengthy justifications of his life and conduct, as well as instructions for the disposition of his complicated and extensive estate.

Among his gifts were £300 for the creation of a granary, plus a town-house to house meeting rooms, a library, a gallery and an armory. He ordered that several books of his own authorship (biblical commentaries) to given to the library, plus any books from his own library not desired by his son Benjamin or his widow. As a contingency plan, if the town did not create his desired library, Keayne specified that his books were to go to the library of Harvard College. The town did use Keayne’s legacy to partially fund the construction of the first town-house, which included the library (the first “public library” in Boston). The books were mostly saved from the 1711 fire which destroyed the building, but did not survive a second blaze in 1747.

For more on Keayne’s will, and an edited version of the text, see Bernard Bailyn, ed. “The Apologia of Robert Keayne”, Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 42 (1964), pp. 243-341.

Today @ MHS: Mann Brown-Bag

By Jeremy Dibbell

Join us today (Wednesday) at 12 noon in the Dowse Library for a brown-bag lunch with Allison Mann of the University of New Hampshire and research fellow at MHS. Mann will discuss her current project: “Slavery Exacts an Impossible Price: John Quincy Adams and the Dorcas Allen Case, 1837.”

This event is free and open to the public.

Martinko on Historic Preservation

By Jeremy Dibbell

University of Virginia doctoral candidate and 2009-10 MHS short-term research fellow Whitney Martinko’s article “Progress and Preservation: Representing History in Boston’s Landscape of Urban Reform, 1820-1860” has been published in the June issue of The New England Quarterly. Martinko’s article is a fascinating re-evaluation of the roots of historical preservation in America: she argues that while preservation in the modern sense of retaining historic structures as such did not come into fashion until after the Civil War, antebellum Bostonians found other ways to “preserve the historic fabric of their city even as they directed its transformation into a modern metropolis.”

Working with MHS Curator of Art Anne Bentley, Martinko examined artifact data sheets relating to several pieces in the Society’s collections: an exterior pediment from the Foster-Hutchinson mansion, donated to the MHS for use as a pedestal; an early daguerrotype of the Old Feather Store; a round wooden box made from the remnants of a seventeenth-century house on Tremont Street, and several other items. Martinko suggests that these artifacts, along with other materials such as historical guidebooks and popular literature which drew on the historical culture of the city, reveal that Bostonians of the early 19th century “preserved the historic landscape in two ways: by recognizing buildings as historic while appropriating them for contemporary use, and by representing them [in artwork, photographs, prose, &c.].”

Meet & Greet: Research & Education

By Jeremy Dibbell

Continuing with the departmental introductions, I thought I’d do two at once today: Research, plus Education & Public Programs.

The Research department, overseen by Conrad Wright (Worthington C. Ford Editor and Director of Research), is responsible for organizing the Society’s four seminar series (Early American History, Environmental History, Immigration & Urban History, History of Women and Gender), conferences sponsored and co-sponsored by the MHS (including the upcoming John Adams & Thomas Jefferson: Libraries, Leadership and Legacy), and the frequent brown-bag lunch series of research talks. The department also facilitates the research fellowship program (this year’s fellows are listed here), and edits the Massachusetts Historical Review.

The Education & Public Programs department, headed by Jayne Gordon, organizes many of the public programs hosted by the Society, including book talks and signings, lectures, and other events. They also manage the teacher fellowships program, as well as many teacher workshops and seminars (we have 25 teachers from Nashville in the building as I type, in fact). They offer a multitude of web-based curriculum projects, including several major digital productions (Coming of the American Revolution, and Battle of Bunker Hill among them).

Kathleen Barker, Education Coordinator, helps keep both of these departments up and running, and each department is frequently assisted by several interns from institutions around the country.

Complete contact information is available here.

One Donor’s Rationale

By Jeremy Dibbell

The sharp-eyed crew from the MHS Publications department alerted me to a very interesting section in one of our collections, the John Pierce memoirs, 1788-1849 (Ms. N-714). Rev. Pierce (1773-1849) was the minister of the First Parish Congregational Church in Brookline, and was also a longtime member of the MHS (elected in 1809, and a member of the Council from 1813 through 1834).

In his eighteen-volume memoir, Pierce includes “death notices and sketches of other ministers, Harvard classmates of the Class of 1797, and others; notes on attendance at annual Harvard commencements and public exhibitions, conventions of Congregational ministers, dedications of churches and other institutions; and attendance at numerous meetings of local societies and clubs, among them the Mass. Bible Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Thursday lectures, Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America, various temperance societies, Dudleian lectures at Harvard, and the Mass. Congregational Charitable Society. The volumes also contain notes on various journeys and visits with individuals, his work as a minister, Boston ministers, and Harvard classmates; and copies of letters” (text from the collection description).

In the first volume of a “new series” of his memoir, begun in June 1843, Pierce wrote a short introduction to the project, noting that he as a Harvard student he began “to write certain memoranda.” In January 1806, he continues, he “procured a bound volume, and began … to make a more formal record, than I had before attempted.” His original series, including transcriptions of his pre-1806 notes, filled ten volumes, and covered “a period of precisely forty years.” Pierce writes that he did not originally intend to continue keeping such a record, but “though on the borders of threescore years and ten, as my health remains so firm, I have concluded to prolong my Memoirs, so long as God shall continue the ability for such a service.”

Following this brief introduction, Pierce writes “I intend, that all these volumes, lettered on the back, Memoirs, shall be deposited by my Executor or Administrator, be they more or fewer, in the Library of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“My reasons are, that this is the place expressly designed for such deposits, where they will be will kept most safely, and can be consulted most conveniently.

“Were they left to my family, it is probable, that they would, ere long, be scattered, defaced, and lost.

“But in a public Library, where no Manuscripts are allowed to be taken away, they stand the best chance of preservation.

“These Memoirs are not such as I could desire, being written without alteration or amendments, as the events, which they relate, transpired. I doubt not, that many errors may be detected, and that many of the records may savor of the prejudices and partial judgments of their writer.

“But such as they are, they are bequeathed, without reserve to The Massachusetts Historical Society by one of its devoted members, John Pierce.”

Following his death in 1849, Pierce’s memoirs did come to the Historical Society as per his wishes. They remain available for convenient consultation to this day, both in original form and in the form of long extracts published in various volumes of the Proceedings.