MHS in Primetime!

By Elaine Grublin

On 27 January 27 2009 there was a celebrity sighting at the MHS library.  Sarah Jessica Parker, of Sex & the City fame, visited our reading room and worked with material from our manuscript collections. We’ve kept it under wraps for more than a year waiting for the right moment to tell the world, but now we want everyone to know so that they can share in our celebrity experience!

Sarah Jessica visited as part of filming for the inaugural episode of NBC’s new series “Who Do You Think You Are?” This program, an American adaptation of the hit British documentary series by the same title, follows well-known celebrities as they work to discover their proverbial roots, researching their ancestors in an attempt to learn more about their families and themselves. 

During her visit Sarah Jessica registered as a researcher and followed all the rules of the reading room – although we did allow the film crew to follow her in, which is way beyond our norm. I spent some time working with SJP in the catalog room, helping her identify and call for the material she wanted to see and then brought the material to her in the reading room. We can’t tell you which documents she looked at, though – you’ll need to tune in to the show in order to find out!

Sarah Jessica was an eager and interested researcher as well as a gracious celebrity guest. Naturally she was interested in seeing the material we held that was connected to her ancestor, but she also asked questions about the size and scope of our collections and how we preserve our documents. After filming wrapped, she stopped in our lobby to chat with a couple of students from Emerson College that had also been conducting research here and posed for photographs with them. She then stayed on into the evening for a tour of the MHS building and a chance to see some of our treasures. While looking at selected materials from the Adams Family Papers we discovered that March 25, the date Thomas Jefferson wrote his last letter to John Adams, is SJP’s birthday (only off by about 140 years). And she enthusiastically agreed when a staff member pointed out that our portrait of Lieutenant Frederick Hedge Webster, who was killed in action while serving in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in 1864, bore an uncanny resemblance to her husband Matthew Broderick, who played Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, also of the 54th, in the film “Glory.”

“Who Do You Think You Are?” debuts on NBC on Friday, 5 March 2010 at 8:00 p.m. with the Sara Jessica Parker episode. The MHS is just one of the many stops Parker makes on her journey of genealogical discovery, so be sure to tune in to learn her story and to catch the MHS library and reading room staff during their 15 minutes of fame. 

 You can watch some “preview clips” from the show here.

Presidential Letters Guide Launched

By Tracy Potter

Over the last several months Jeremy Dibbell, Anna Cook, and I have been tantalizing all of you with peeks into the library’s latest project, Presidential Letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society: An Overview.  I am glad to announce that as of the 23 February 2010 the project has finally come to its completion and the completed finding aid is now available online at

This subject guide is an overview of the MHS’ holdings of all known letters written by presidents found in the Society’s manuscript and autograph collections.  The guide now lists over 5,400 letters written by every U.S. president except for William Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. This number does not include the letters found in the Adams Family Papers and the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts for John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. 

This very large project was completed over a relatively small period of time (five months to be exact), which could not have been done without the assistance of several people. 

 – L. Dennis Shapiro, a Trustee of the Society, who developed the original idea of the project with Peter Drummey, provided funding for the project through the Arzak Foundation, and gave feedback throughout the project. 

– Peter Drummey, the Stephen T. Riley Librarian, who developed the original idea of the project with Trustee L Dennis Shapiro, helped brainstorm formatting and content, provided me with locations of important letters and tidbits of information on presidents. 

– Brenda Lawson, the Director of Collections Services, who helped brainstorm formatting and content and who also edited endless pages of presidential letter descriptions.

– Susan Martin, Manuscript Processor and EAD Coordinator, who helped encode the finding aid and gave both Sarah and me a tutorial on the use of XMetal. 

– Sarah Desmond, Semester Intern from Endicott College, who spent 35 hours a week for three months looking through catalogs and collections, describing presidential letters, and formatting and encoding the finding aid. 

I also would like to mention the assistance of the staff of the MHS who provided me with feedback and locations of letters that fell through the cracks.  

Although the bulk of the guide is complete, please keep in mind that this is an ongoing project. As new collections come in and new collections are processed new letters could be added to the guide. 

It was a pleasure working on this project and I hope all will enjoy it.  

You can browse the guide here.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

Join us on Tuesday, 23 February for a lecture by Richard Katula, “Edward Everett, George Washington, and the Power of Ordinary Greatness.” Refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m., with the talk beginning at 6 p.m. More info here, including registration information.

Please note that the Boston Immigration & Urban History seminar scheduled for Thursday, 25 February has been postponed, and will be rescheduled.

Presidents at the MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

Back in November Anna Cook recapped a brown-bag event on the progress of the “Presidential Papers Project” at MHS, headed by my colleague Tracy Potter, with assistance last semester by intern Sarah Desmond. The end product of this survey will be a web-accessible subject guide to letters written by U.S. Presidents within the collections of the MHS, which we hope to have available in the near future. Tracy provided me with a few “sneak peeks” into the data, though, so I could offer a Presidents’ Day preview:

Not yet counting the letters of John and John Quincy Adams (of which there are many thousands in our collections), Tracy’s tabulated 12,988 presidential letters at MHS. We have manuscripts from all of the presidents excepting the three most recent (Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton). Our top five holdings (again without the Adamses) are:

5. Eisenhower (386 letters)

4. Theodore Roosevelt (440 letters)

3. Monroe (568 letters)

2. Washington (621 letters)

1. Jefferson (9,446 letters)*

Tracy also highlights just one collection which is particularly rich in presidential manuscripts: the Edward Everett papers contain correspondence from fourteen presidents! That’s each chief executive from Washington to Lincoln except for Madison and William Henry Harrison.

Watch this space for a link to the presidential guide when it’s launched, and many thanks to Tracy for giving us a chance for a preview.


*Note: all numbers may continue to change slightly with the final tabulations.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

The MHS, including the library, will be closed on Monday, 15 February for the Presidents’ Day holiday.

On Wednesday and Thursday, 17-18 February, MHS is partnering with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to present a two-day teacher workshop based on court cases and documents dealing with the end of slavery in both Massachusetts (after the Revolution) and in the country (before the Civil War). During their day at MHS (Thursday) participants will work with key documents from the collections that have been paired with Library of Congress documents to enhance an understanding of activities and events leading to the emancipation of slaves in this state and others. Teams will complete lesson plans around the documents to be shared by all the attendees. More info here.

MHS Announces New Membership Rates

By Jeremy Dibbell

In case you missed it in this month’s e-newsletter: the Massachusetts Historical Society has announced a promotional new member rate for 2010: Members who join through the end of June can take advantage of a special first-year introductory membership rate of $75. As an added incentive, new members who are recommended by an existing MHS Member or Fellow will be eligible for a reduced introductory rate of $50 for the first year. The MHS is confident these new members will want to remain involved and help the Society secure a future for our past.

Read more about member benefits and see what your membership supports.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

Join us on Tuesday, 9 February for a conversation with Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops. Lockhart will speak on “Creating the Past through Music.” The conversation will be facilitated by Steve Marini of Wellesley College. Refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m., and the conversation will begin at 6 p.m.

Reservations for this event are requested: email or call 617-646-0557.

Reading “Silence Dogood”

By Nancy Heywood

Many people have heard of Silence Dogood, and recognize that name as a pseudonym used by Benjamin Franklin, but how many people have read “her” words? The MHS has just launched a web exhibition, “Silence Dogood: Benjamin Franklin in The New-England Courant”  featuring contextual essays about the topic as well as digital images and transcriptions of the 14 pieces appearing in a Boston newspaper between March and October of 1722 “by” the outspoken widow Silence Dogood.

In 1722 Boston-born Benjamin Franklin was 16 years old and busy working as an apprentice for his brother James, the printer and publisher of The New-England Courant. The Courant wasn’t officially tied to the colonial government of Massachusetts and the newspaper became known for publishing opinionated, lively, and satirical pieces, some of which questioned the political and religious establishment. In his autobiography Benjamin Franklin remembered how he wanted to write for the paper but thought his brother wouldn’t accept or print any pieces he submitted.  So Benjamin thought of a less direct method to get his writing published: he recalled, “I contriv’d to disguise my Hand, and writing an anonymous Paper I put it in the Night under the Door of the Printing House.” This “anonymous Paper” was the first essay written by “Silence Dogood” that was published as a letter to the editor in the 26 March-2 April 1722 issue of the Courant.

The appearance of Silence’s letter in the newspaper (followed by a note from the publisher, James Franklin, with suggestions to Mrs. Dogood about how to ensure the safe delivery of future letters to the newspaper) prompted Benjamin to continue writing. Over the next 7 months, thirteen more essays appeared in the newspaper. Silence Dogood shared her life story (see essay one to read a dramatic account of her birth on board a ship), advocated for the rights of women (essay 5), quoted a lengthy piece from a London newspaper about freedom of speech (essay 8) and commented on the vice of drunkenness (essay 12), which includes what is perhaps one of the longest lists ever compiled of all the harmless sounding terms used to describe a state of drunkenness: “boozey, cogey, tipsey, fox’d, merry, mellow, fuddl’d, groatable, Confoundedly cut, See two Moons, are Among the Philistines, In a very good Humour, See the Sun, or, The Sun has shone upon them … .”).

Also available within the MHS’s web presentation of the Dogood essays are links to online displays of the full issues of the 14 newspapers in which the essays appear. Website visitors have the opportunity to browse a few sample issues and see the output of the publishing house where Benjamin Franklin learned many aspects of the printing trade.

“A Good Stiff Grog”

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our February Object of the Month is a 15 February 1939 letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to historian Roger Merriman, FDR’s former teacher at Harvard and in 1939 the vice president of the MHS. In this letter, Roosevelt bemoans what he calls the “We who are about to die, salute you” attitude exhibited by the British, recounting to Merriman a recent visit by the British ambassador, Lord Lothian which made him “mad clear through.” He ends his letter thus: “What the British need today is a good stiff grog, inducing not only the desire to save civilization but the continued belief that they can do it. In such an event they will have a lot more support from their American cousins — don’t you think so?”

You can see images of the letter, read a transcription, and get some more background here, in Tracy Potter’s Object of the Month essay.