This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

It is a busy week at the MHS, offering a bit of something for everyone.  There are assorted daytime, evening, and off-site programs, including an outdoor walking tour.

Tuesday, 1 November at 5:15 PM the Boston Early American History Seminar continues with Todd Estes, Oakland University, presenting his research The Constitution Goes Public: Strategy and Timing in the Ratification Debate, Early Fall 1787.  Pauline Maier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will give the comment. This event will take place at McMullen Museum at Boston College, where participants will have the opportunity to view the “Making History” exhibit following the program.

Wednesday, 2 November, at 12:00 PM visitors can participate as NEH-MHS long-term fellow Joshua Greenberg, Bridgewater State University, presents aspects of his current project Face to Face Value: American Interactions with Paper Money in the Early 19th Century at a brown-bag lunch program. 

Also on Wednesday, at 6:00 PM, Vincent Carretta, University of Maryland, will discuss his latest publication, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing after the lecture.

Thursday, 3 November, 5:30 PM a new seminar series begins at the MHS. The New England Biography Seminar will open with Michael Burlingame, Dean Grodzins, and Tony Horwitz presenting Sowing and Reaping: Biography and the Civil War: Theodore Parker, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln. Author Carol Bundy will moderate the session, which will address the rewards and challenges of looking at the American Civil War from a biographical perspective.

Sunday, 6 November, from 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM the MHS will team up with Barbara Berenson, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and author of Walking Tours of Civil War Boston, for a guided walking tour in the city.  Civil War on the Freedom Trail requires pre-registration. Registered participants will receive directions to the tour’s starting place in advance and a copy of the guide book when they arrive. The cost for participating in this programs is $10 for MHS members; $15 for non-members.

Do not forget the MHS has two exhibitions open. The exhibition halls are free and open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Currently on view are “Like a Wolf for the Prey”: The Massachusetts Historical Society Collection Begins and The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862.  On Friday, 4 November at 2:00 PM, join MHS art curator Anne Bentley as she presents a gallery talk in The Purchase by Blood exhibition space.  

“Gloriously Gruesome” Welcomes Enthusiastic Crowd

By Anna J. Cook

Guests enjoying reception in Dowse LibraryOn Wednesday, 19 October, the Massachusetts Historical Society opened its doors to current and potential associate members for a reception and presentation of some of the “gloriously gruesome” items in our collections. Guests were treated to food and drink in the historic Dowse Library, followed by a show and tell given by Elaine Grublin, Head of Reader Services.

Refreshments were catered by Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge, Mass.) and the appropriately gruesome “dark and stormy” rum punch received high marks from the taste-testers.

Guests viewing exhibition cases

During the reception portion of the evening, guests wandered the public galleries on a scavenger hunt. Here, two attendees examine manuscript items on display as part of The Purchase of Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862 exhibition.

The presentation was held in our portrait gallery, and following a brief welcome by Dennis Fiori, President of the Society, Elaine Grublin introduced a number of objects in our collections with shady histories. These included a bronze death mask, an account of murder and dismemberment at Harvard Medical School, a scrap of towel bearing the blood of Abraham Lincoln, specimens of human hair and bone, a bird preserved in arsenic, and the noose that is purported to have hanged John Brown.

Guests viewing gruesome items on display For those unable to attend, a number of these items were highlighted in Boston Magazine in 2009 and an online version of that article is still available.

Following the talk, guests were invited to the front of the room for a closer viewing.

We were excited to see many first-time visitors at the Society, and hope that everyone felt warmly welcomed. We invite folks to consider membership at the MHS, to return as researchers, or to attend one of our many public programs

Celebrating Water with a Gala Day!

By Daniel Hinchen

“Never since the clink of the first hammer of civilization that rung its notes upon the tri-mountains of the present town or city of Boston, has there been or is there likely to be, such a gala day as that of the 25th of October, 1848! The entrance and reception of Washington, of Lafayette, and the still greater acclamation, parade and pageant that welcomed ‘Old Hickory,’ the Bunker Hill Celebration, all, all fall far behind the brilliancy, fervor and grandeur of the demonstration mode by the citizens of Boston and country adjacent upon this great occasion—introduction of the waters of Lake Cochituate into our city!”

Such was the joy in Boston and surrounding areas when the new aqueduct was opened in 1848, giving the citizens what they wanted and needed for so long: water that was not only fresh, but free.

Newpaper image of Procession on Park Street, BostonWhile a modern day parade that hails our sports teams as champions draws thousands of loyal fans to the streets, none will celebrate an event that had such an impact on the city or attract such a diverse crowd. While some put their hopes and emotion into supporting the Bruins or the Red Sox and cheer their victories, this was a cause to celebrate lives saved and enriched.

People from all walks and all professions were in attendance. The great procession included, among others: firemen, military, various committee members, Governor Briggs, state officers, municipal authorities, clergy, physicians, mechanics, reporters. There were printers pulling a printing press that spat out flyers and programs as the group proceeded. All of these groups were represented in the first two divisions of the parade, which consisted of at least six divisions! And this does not include the people watching the procession. “We certainly never saw Boston so packed with people before; for miles nothing but compact masses of human beings were to be seen in our streets.”

Map of boston showing parad routeThe procession ended at Boston Common, at which point the performances began. There was singing by the Handel & Haydn Society, a prayer by a reverend minister, an ode sung by schoolchildren and penned by James Russell Lowell. A report on behalf of the Water Commission followed, along with an address by the Mayor. Finally, the water was turned on and the chorus from the Oratorio of Elijah was proclaimed.

Thinking of this event serves as a reminder of the major steps that a city like Boston takes in its development, and that the running water that is now taken for granted was once cause for unparalleled festivities, celebration, and joy.

To learn more about the celebration, or the struggle to bring additional clean water into Boston in the 19th century, visit the MHS library to discover additional source materials.

Web Presentation Launched Today: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862

By Peter K. Steinberg

In connection with the exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, the Massachusetts Historical Society has digitized a number of letters, photographs, and broadsides from its collections to present online. Available are small and large high resolution images as well as transcriptions of letters to facilitate reading where the handwriting may be difficult to discern.

Image of web page banner

The pages in the web presentation represent a subset of the documents in the exhibition, narrating micro-stories of some battles which took place in Virginia (Ball’s Bluff, Peninsula Campaign, Cedar Mountain) and Maryland (Antietam). Regimental units were formed based on networks of friendships and alliances, and the featured materials convey the close connections between many of the soldiers. Each page highlights at least one of Massachusetts’s fallen sons, providing both a photographic image of a soldier and, in most instances, a letter which provides contextual information about a particular battle and/or a soldiers’ actions in the war and in death. Among those individuals featured are William Lowell Putnam, James Jackson Lowell, Richard Goodwin, Richard Cary, and Wilder Dwight. 

The launch is particularly timely as today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a battle explored in both the exhibition and the accompanying web presentation. 

In addition to this web presentation, please visit the The Massachusetts Historical Society Commemorates the Civil War subject portal to find additional online content, including our monthly presentation of a Civil War document from 150 years that month, a timeline, selected publications, classroom tools, and a list of past and future events held at the MHS.

Seminar Recap: Paying For “Freedom” with Her Health

By Anna J. Cook

On Thursday evening, October 13th, the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender welcomed Helen Zoe Veit of Michigan State University who presented her paper “Paying For ‘Freedom’ with Her Health: Rising Life Expectancy, Women’s Aging, and American Youth Culture,” with comment by Brooke L. Blower of Boston University. Veit is an historian of food and nutrition whose first book, Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War (forthcoming in 2012) examines the modernization of food through home economics, food science, and self-discipline. While conducting research for Victory Over Ourselves, Veit discovered the work of Eugene Fiske and the Life Extension Institute, during the 1920s, in promoting the concept of self-discipline over “the one thing you couldn’t possibly apply [self-control of the body] to – that is, death.” “Paying For ‘Freedom’” examines the changing attitudes towards aging in the interwar period, with particular attention to the ways in which notions about the consequences of aging – and advice on anti-aging strategies – were framed differently for female and male audiences.

In comment, Blower commended Veit on her “classic cultural history objective” of seeking to understand how the discourse of self-discipline over the body as a means for extending life (and even defeating death?) has cast a “long shadow” over the 20th century. She pointed out how Veit brings our attention to the fact that, in the 1920s, Americans had to be sold on the idea that growing old could be a positive thing. One of the ways the fear of old age became managed was through separating the idea and performance of youth from one’s numerical age – the notion that acting young could actually make you physically youthful, no matter how many years you had been alive. Blower raised the question of whether the growing emphasize on youth in American culture may not, in fact, mask the reality that political and economic power remained in the hands of the late-middle-aged: “’youth’ rules; the young do not,” she suggested. Finally, she challenged Veit to provide more context – particularly exploring the way in which life extension efforts might relate to Teddy Roosevelt’s advocacy of “the strenuous life,” to fears of neurasthenia, and to the work of eugenics advocates. She was interested in popular reception of ideas concerning life extension, and whether Fiske’s advice had any noticeable effect on public practice. Given the gendered nature of the debate, she also wondered whether any women might be found pushing back against the new rhetoric of yourhfulness, and where and how they did so.

The discussion period was lively, as audience members discussed how persuasive Veit had been in her argument concerning the differing expectations of male and female youth and vitality. The consensus seemed to be that while the idea had promise, more evidence was needed. A number of suggestions were made for further exploration of context: Christian Science theology from the period, discussions of fertility and motherhood, the connections between nationalism and public health, the development of the life insurance industry and modern statistics collection, and scientific research on hormones.

The seminar series at the Massachusetts Historical Society are open to the public free of charge, with a small subscription fee for those wishing to receive the pre-circulated paper. We welcome you to explore our offerings, and hope to see you at upcoming sessions!

This Week at MHS

By Elaine Grublin

Our latest exhibition, The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. In addition to seeing the exhibition visitors will have the opportunity to attend two gallery talks this week. On Wednesday, 19 October, from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM, and again on Friday, 21 October from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM members of the exhibition’s curation team we speak about elements of the exhibition.

On Wednesday, 19 October at 6:00 PM current and potential associate members are invited to a special event just for them. Gloriously Gruesome at the MHS will feature a number of gruesome objects from the MHS collections. Registration is required for this event. 

And do not forget our weekly building tour The History and Collections of the MHS. The 90-minute tour departs our lobby at 10:00 AM.  


New on our Shelves: Hannah Mather Crocker’s “Reminiscences” Published

By Tracy Potter

One of the newest additions to the Society’s bookshelves is a volume more than 180 years in the making. Written by Hannah Mather Crocker in the 1820s and edited by Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser in the 2000s, Reminiscences & Traditions of Boston (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011) has finally made its way to publication. 

Hannah Mather Crocker was an author and early feminist. She was the granddaughter of renowned Puritan minister Cotton Mather, author of the Biblia Americana (another long awaited publication), and niece of Thomas Hutchinson, Jr., the royal governor of Massachusetts. Born in 1752, she lived through and participated in some of the most tumultuous and significant times in United States history. In her final years she wrote two versions of Reminiscences, combining personal anecdotes with a narrative history of Boston from the colonial era to the early 19th century. The manuscript touches on various elements of Boston history including religion, economics, gender, and foreign relations. Crocker also includes an extensive appendix of historical documents containing a large number of her own poems. 

Crocker began writing Reminiscences believing she would publish it in the near future. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1829 before she could make that happen. In the years after her death, her Reminiscences disappeared until John Wingate Thorton, a founder of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), acquired it for his own personal collection. Upon his death in 1878, Thorton bequeathed the manuscript to the NEHGS, where it remains today.

Botting and Houser create a fully annotated documentary edition of Hannah Mather Crocker’s Reminiscences & Traditions of Boston. This edition includes an informative introduction that provides background for Crocker, the manuscript, and the publication including a guide to how to read the two versions. It is fully indexed and includes a biographical directory, a poetry index, and a bibliography. In their attempt to remain true to Crocker’s original writing, the editors include Crocker’s original pagination, original spellings, and original notes. This volume will allow a wider audience to analyze, interpret, and understand the lives of residents and events that took place in Massachusetts from 1620 to the early 19th century.  

Sarah L. Houser is the Jack Miller Center-Veritas Fund Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy at Georgetown University. Eileen Botting is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Notre Dame. Botting received the 2009-2010 Colonial Society of Massachusetts Fellowship which she used her to research on Hannah Mather Crocker’s and her Reminiscences at the MHS and a number of other New England research institutions. In January 2010 Botting presented some of her findings at a brown-bag lunch program at the MHS.   


A Lovely Day in the City

By Elaine Grublin

Yesterday walking around neighborhood in the sunny but crisp fall weather — Kenmore Square filled with bustling pedestrians, many carrying lightweight jackets thrown over their arms, others basking in the last warm days of season and braving the elements sans jackets — brought this image from the 1940s to  mind. Arriving at the MHS this morning I immediately went to the stacks to find the image. A close inspection revealed the image was likely captured in the spring rather than the fall, but the essence of Boston in the changing seasons is still there.

A crowd of pedestrians walking on Comm Ave in Kenmore Square, spring circa 1944

To relive this photographic moment today, head over to the Kenmore Square area and stand in front of Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Ave) looking down Commonwealth toward the Back Bay. In the image the two black signs on posts just behind the sign for the Kenmore Cafeteria mark the entrance to Kenmore Station.


Original photograph from Massachusetts Views, Boston Streets, Massachusetts Historical Society.

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

Join us today between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM for an Open House.  The MHS will be open for tours as part of the Fenway Alliance’s Opening Our Doors program.  Please note that the MHS library is closed today in observance of the Columbus Day holiday.  

Later in the week there are many other programs worth marking your calendar for.

Tuesday, 11 October, at 5:15 PM the Boston Environmental History Seminar offers John T. Cumbler, University of Louisville, presenting Cape Cod: The Environment, the Economy, and the People of a Fragile Eco-system. James O’Connell, National Park Service, will give the comment.  Advanced copies of the seminar papers are available for small subscription fee.  Find out more here.

Wednessay, 12 October, at 6:00 PM author Adam Goodheart, Washington College, offers a lecture centering on his recent book 1861: The Civil War Awakening.  Refreshments will be served beginning at 5:30.  

Thursday, 13 October, there is an offsite program, held at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, beginning at 5:30 PM. The Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender presents
Helen Veit, Michigan State University, presenting on her research “Paying for ‘Freedom’ with Her Health”: Rising Life Expectancy, Women’s Aging, and American Youth Culture. Brooke Blower, Boston University, will give the comment. Again, advanced copies of the seminar papers are available for small subscription fee.  To subscribe to this series please email Susan Landry.

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 8

By Elaine Grublin

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch. Over the past two months the posts to the Beehive from the diary have been almost weekly as part of the Civil War series. From this point forward, the posts will be monthly — except in the few months where Bulfinch provides no comment about the war in his diary. 

This particular post is rather timely, as today marks the opening of the Society’s newest exhibition The Purchase By Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862. The terrible loss of life suffered by Massachusetts’ regiments at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, referenced by Bulfinch as “a recent skirmish near Harper’s Ferry,” is a focal point of the exhibtion.

In this entry Bulfinch makes a slight mistake in identifying Col. Edward Baker. While Baker had lived in California for a number of years, he was a resident of Oregon at the time of his enlistment. He was elected to represent Oregon in the the US Senate in 1860. Baker was the only sitting US senator killed in the Civil War. 

Friday, Oct. 25th, 1861

The war advances slowly. The late engagements seem as much against as for us. We have to mourn the death of the gallant Col. Baker of Cala, & the death or capture of other valuable officers, – among them some of distinguished Boston families, in a recent skirmish near Harper’s Ferry. “O Lord, how long?”

Bulfinch’s pen remains silent in November 1861. Be sure to check back in December for his 15 December 1861 entry in which he comments on Union successes through the fall of 1861, the developing Trent Affair, and makes a prediction about the outcome of the war.