This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

If you are in the neighborhood at lunch time on Wednesday, 1 August, plan to attend our brown-bag lunch.Research fellow Justin Clark, University of Southern California, will present “Training the Eyes: Romantic Vision and Class Formation in Boston, 1830-1870.” Clark will describe his work examining why, in the spectacular world of the nineteenth-century city, Boston’s Transcendentalists, clairvoyants, blind autobiographers, naturalists, artists, photographers, and numerous others became invested in seeing more than meets the eye, leaving time for discussion with audience members.

Before or after lunch — or anytime between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM, Monday through Saturday — take some time to explore our latest exhibition, Mr. Madison’s War: The Controversial War of 1812, showcasing a number of letters, broadsides, artifacts, and images from the Society’s rich collections including a midshipman’s log of the USS Constitution describing the ship’s first great victory, letters written by John Quincy Adams to his mother while serving as the American minister to Russia, and a brass cannon captured from the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

And on Saturday, 4 August, do not miss “The History and Collections of the MHS,” our regular building tour. The 90-minute tour departs our front lobby promptly at 10:00 AM.



The Westland Gate

By Daniel Hinchen, Reader Services

Walking just a few minutes south down the Fenway from the MHS, one arrives at the main entrance to the Back Bay Fens. At the intersection of the Fenway and Westland Avenue stands the Johnson Gates, more commonly known as the Westland Gate.

Erected in 1905, the Westland Gate is composed of a pair of large marble piers with columns on each corner and bronze lion head fountain spouts on each face. Beneath two of the spouts are marble basins. Flanking the piers are balustrades and two marble benches. The piers are constructed of white marble, while the balustrades and benches are Tennessee pink marble. While the fountains used to function and served as a water trough for animals, this use discontinued in 1919 due to an epidemic among horses.

The gates were originally dubbed the Johnson Memorial Fountain after a wealthy Boston businessman, Jesse Johnson, whose widow, Ellen Cheney Johnson, donated the money to fund their construction in his memory.

Architect Guy Lowell was commissioned to design the fountain. Lowell is better known as the architect who designed the Museum of Fine Arts just a bit further down the road. In addition, Lowell designed several buildings on the campus of Harvard University, the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord (which also features a sculpture by Daniel Chester French, who designed the John Boyle O’Reilly memorial on the Fenway), and the New York State Supreme Courthouse in New York City.

The fountains underwent their first restoration in 1980, at which time inconsistencies in the stone were addressed and the whole gate received a protective treatment to resist graffiti. A rededication ceremony was held in August of that year. There was a subsequent restoration in 1990. Since then, the fountains have remained untouched, though as of 2008 the Westland Gate and other fountains around the city are on a list of projects to be repaired by the Parks Department.

While the MHS does not have any material relating specifically to the Westland Gate/Johnson Memorial Fountain, there are plenty of items authored by Guy Lowell. Check ABIGAIL to see what there is!

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

We are offering a couple of lunch time programs this week. Bring your lunch and join us in the Dowse Library for on of the following.

Monday, 23 July at noon listen as Andrew W. Mellon research fellow Benjamin Wright, Rice University, shares his insights into “Conversion and Antislavery, 1750-1830.” Wright’s project examines how ideologies of conversion directed the tactics of early antislavery reformers and how changes in these ideologies transformed antislavery into abolitionism.

Wednesday, 25 July at noon Malcolm and Mildred Freiberg research fellow Katherine Grandjean, Wellesley College, discusses her research into the relationship between the wars plaguing New England’s northern frontier and the rise of the press at the turn of the eighteenth century with “Terror ubique tremor: Communicating Terror in Early New England, 1677-1713.”

And on Saturday, 28 July do not miss “The History and Collections of the MHS,” our regular building tour. The 90-minute tour departs our front lobby promptly at 10:00.

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 15

By Elaine Grublin

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Sunday, July 27th, 1862

Public events, which in this trying time, occupy our thoughts greatly, have of late been very saddening in their character. I refer chiefly to the week of battles near Richmond, where, notwithstanding the skill of Gen. McClellan and the valor of his troops, all that could be accomplished was to gain by a retreat, a safer position, with great loss on both sides, – more probably on the enemy’s than on ours. The result has been a comparative pause, while new enlistments are urged, – 300,000 men being called for by the President. The share of Mass is 15000, – that of Dorchester 137. Public meetings are held, – large bounty offered; – many towns have completed their quotas; & ours I hope will do her part. Some are very earnest to have a proclamation of emancipation; but our President, cautious and firm, holds back from what might at present, if it did not arouse the horrors of a slave insurrection, at least divide the North and embitter the South. Gen. Halleck is appointed Commander-in-chief. Congress has confirmed, after passing a Confiscation bill. Three from this town have died in the service; – two, Edward Foster and Ambrose Howe, by sickness; & one, – Dodge, – perhaps more, – in battle. My own young parishioners, thank God! have thus far been spared, as far as accounts have been received.

Bulfinch’s pen is silent in August, but look for his next entry in the Beehive in September.

Divorce, Colonial Style

By Susan Martin, Collection Services

The MHS recently acquired a manuscript collection called the Russell-Cutter family papers (Ms. N-2866) that contains one particularly interesting item: a divorce agreement dated 30 April 1735. It reads, in part:

Know ye that James Smith of Boston in the County of Suffolk in New England Coachman and Hannah his Wife In Consideration of the want of mutual Love & Affection between them, and for sundry acts which they each of them acknowledge is the Strongest proof for any divorce in Law, Have Agreed and by these Presents do agree to and with each other to part and Seperate themselves Voluntarily, and never to molest or Disturb each other in any act or acts Business or Imployments whatsoever or even if Either of them should marry again, they will not prosecute each other but will Look upon themselves as though they had never marryd at all.

Not knowing much about divorce law in colonial America, I did a little digging and found that, although rare, divorce was by no means unheard of at the time. Massachusetts Bay granted the first divorce in the colonies in 1639. (The husband was a bigamist.) According to historian Peter Charles Hoffer, in Law and People in Colonial America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), the immigrants who settled in New England in the 17th century considered marriage a civil contract, not a religious sacrament. In fact, despite its Puritan beginnings, the New World had more permissive divorce laws than Anglican England. The laws varied from colony to colony and were generally more lenient in the north than in the south. Of course, social stigma would also have acted as a powerful deterrent.

Hoffer provides some helpful statistics:

In Massachusetts and in Connecticut, whose divorce practices were even more liberal than those of Massachusetts, there was rarely one petition per year in the seventeenth century. In the next century the number of petitions steadily increased. Between 1692 and 1785 the Massachusetts General Court heard 229 petitions for divorce, 101 of them from men, and granted 143. The Connecticut Superior Court would grant almost 1,000 divorces before 1800. (p. 108)

The most common reasons for divorce were adultery, cruelty, or desertion. The Russell-Cutter collection contains no clues to the unspecified “sundry acts” cited in this particular document, but it’s telling that, even in 18th-century Massachusetts, “the want of mutual Love & Affection” might be considered grounds for the dissolution of a marriage. I don’t know what happened to James or Hannah after 1735, but I like to think their divorce was a mutual and amicable one.

JQA’s Self-Assessment on His Birthday in 1812

By Nancy Heywood, Collection Services

On 11 July 1812, John Quincy Adams (JQA) celebrated his 45th birthday.  JQA was living in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was serving as a diplomat from the United States.  His title was minister plenipotentiary to Russia, a position to which he was appointed in 1809.  Although he was still several years away from his eventual accomplishments as secretary of state under President James Monroe, and his own challenging term as U.S. President, by 1812, JQA had held a number of notable professional positions.  He had worked as a lawyer, held diplomatic positions in the Netherlands and in Prussia, served as a U.S. Senator, and taught rhetoric at Harvard. 

By the summer of 1812, JQA had an active family life too.  He and his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams (LCA), had three sons and a daughter.  JQA and LCA made the long journey to Russia in the summer of 1809 with their third son, Charles Francis Adams leaving their two older sons, George Washington Adams and John Adams 2d, in the care of relatives in New England.  In August 1811, JQA and LCA celebrated the birth of their daughter, who was named after her mother.

Despite these significant professional and personal accomplishments, JQA gave a rather harsh assessment of his situation on his birthday in 1812: 

I am forty-five years old— Two thirds of a long life are past, and I have done Nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my Country, or to Mankind— I have always lived with I hope a suitable sense of my duties in Society, and with a sincere desire to perform them— But Passions, Indolence, weakness, and infirmity have sometimes made me swerve from my better knowledge of right, and almost constantly paralyzed my efforts of good— I have no heavy charge upon my Conscience—for which I bless my Maker, as well as for all the enjoyments that he has liberally bestowed upon me— I pray for his gracious kindness in future—  From John Quincy Adams diary 28, 5 August 1809 – 31 July 1813, page 394.


Do you think JQA had “done Nothing to distinguish [his life] by usefulness to [his] Country”?

If somehow you were able to send JQA a birthday message in 1812, what would you say?


This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

The weather man is predicting a lovely week, so plan to escape a bit on your lunch break and head to the MHS for one of our lunchtime programs.  Be sure to check the online calendar for additional details about the events.

Monday, 9 July at noon Moira Gillis, University of Oxford, will present a brown-bag lunch program, The Emergence of the American Corporation: The New England Example. Gillis will discuss her research into the legal and historical parameters of the corporation as it developed in New England.

Wednesday, 11 July at noon Allison Lange, Brandies University, wil present a brown-bag lunch program, Pictures and Progress: The Politics of Images in the Woman Suffrage Movement, in which she explores the visual culture of the suffrage movement.

Saturday, 14 July at 10:00 AM join our 90-minute building tour “The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.”

An Interview with MHS Conservation Technician Oona Beauchard

By Emilie Haertsch, Publications

Photograph of Oona  Beauchard leaning on light table in  conservation lab

What does a conservation technician do?

My work consists of repairing and cleaning historic documents. I dry clean them by first removing the surface dirt, then testing the ink for solubility, and soaking the pages in purified water. After the soak, I de-acidify the pages and repair any damage with Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste that I make myself. 


How do you interact with manuscripts and objects in different ways than historians?

The main difference is that I view the documents as physical objects. I don’t focus on the intellectual content, but on the physical aspect of manuscripts.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

My days usually follow a routine, and involve a lot of multi-tasking. I come in, prepare the wheat paste, and begin soaking paper in the sink. Then I’ll dry clean the next batch, or trim excess repair paper while I’m waiting for the paper to finish soaking. Once in a while I’ll get unusual things in the lab that break up the routine. I once worked on cleaning glass plate negatives, and another time I cleaned a very large Civil War banner for an exhibition. The work is always interesting!

What are some common misconceptions about your job?

People always think I get to read all the manuscripts, but if I read every page I would never finish my work! Many also are shocked that I wash the paper. They think that that would ruin the documents, but it’s an important part of the conservation process.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently working on conserving the final volume of Harbottle Dorr’s annotated Revolutionary-era newspapers (read more about that acquisition here). Dorr, a shopkeeper, collected Boston area newspapers in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, indexing the contents and making his own notes. It’s a very interesting project because, as with most historic documents in need of conservation, much of the damage is on the edge of the pages. That’s also where Dorr wrote his notes, so the conservation is preventing very valuable information from being lost.

What are some of your favorite projects and why?

I’ve really enjoyed working on the Dorr newspapers. Another one of my favorites was the Sarah Gooll Putnam diaries. She started keeping a diary at a young age and continued until her death. She was an artist, so her diaries contained sketches and fabric swatches – a lot of interesting things for me to look at while I did the work.* I also am a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, so I love working on any documents authored by him.



*See an entry from Sarah Gooll Putnam’s diary here.

Massachusetts Goes to Nationals

By Kathleen Barker, Education Department

Early on the morning of June 10, 2012, I found myself standing in a parking lot in Woburn, Mass., with dozens of bleary-eyed middle- and high-school students. Despite the early hour there was a touch of excitement in the air, for these talented young ladies and gentlemen were waiting for the buses that would take them to the National History Day (NHD) finals at the University of Maryland in College Park. The 2012 contest was the largest ever in NHD history, and while 2,794 students participated in this year’s national competition, that number represents only a fraction of the students who participated in National History Day during the 2011-2012 school year.

For the students gathered in College Park, the national competition represented the zenith of a process that began nearly nine months earlier. Soon after the 2012 theme, “Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History,” was announced, students began investigating potential topics, exploring local (and not-so-local) libraries and archives, and creating exhibits, performances, documentaries, websites, or papers. Students from across the United States consulted collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society for this year’s competition. The Library Reader Services staff fielded reference calls and emails on topics such as the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Horace Mann and nineteenth-century school reform, Dorthea Dix, and the abolition of slavery.

Panaromic shot of opening ceremony at National History Day in  College Park MarylandI was fortunate enough to travel with the Massachusetts delegation to this year’s national competition. The festivities began on the evening of Sunday, June 10, with a rousing opening ceremony on the lawn at McKeldin Library. Imagine thousands of students, parents, and teachers cheering, chattering, and trading pins and you’ll have a good sense of what the opening ceremony was like. The competition got down to business on Monday morning, and while in College Park I had the opportunity to serve as a judge along with more than 300 other historians and other education professionals. Anyone who has ever judged at a history day competition can tell you what an amazing experience this is. I met with many talented and enthusiastic students over the course of the three-day competition. They taught me a great deal about topics as diverse as Levittown, the use of helicopters in the Vietnam War, and Nicola Tesla. Thanks to a very well illustrated project on Civil War hospitals, I also have new appreciation for modern medicine.

Alas, the contest did eventually come to end. After three days of intense but rewarding competition, winners were announced at a ceremony at the University’s Comcast Center on June 14, 2012. The event Massachusetts students entering auditorium for awards ceremonybegan with the best parade I’ve ever seen: a parade of participating students across the floor of the arena. I watched over 2,000 students circle the arena with everything from state flags to inflatable lobsters! Throughout the morning, dozens of students were singled out for awards and special prizes, and the boisterous crowd made sure that each winner was duly appreciated. Prizes were sponsored not only by NHD but by friends of history like the National Endowment for the Humanities, the History Channel, and the National World War II Museum. Several students from Massachusetts took home special prizes, but a special congratulations goes to our lone award winner, Chad Nowlan of Holyoke Catholic High School, who placed second in the Individual Performance category for his project, “From Revolution to Constitution, Shays’ Rebellion.” (You can find a complete list of winners on the NHD website.)

It takes a cast thousands to make History Day happen every year. Kudos to the national staff for making NHD a successful enterprise for more than 30 years! A special thanks to the Massachusetts History Day co-coordinators, Bill Szachowicz and Bob Jones, as well as all the members of the Massachusetts History Day board, who volunteer many hours to make History Day happen in Massachusetts. Thank you to all of the teachers, librarians, archivists, parents, and other mentors who shepherded students through the historical research process. Last, but certainly not least, a hearty congratulations to all of the students who participated in National History Day this year. These dedicated students gave up their evenings, weekends, and even school vacations to engage with the past. In the end, they are ALL winners!  

If History Day sounds like tons of fun (and it is), learn more about the 2012-2013 contest theme, “Turning Points in History” at the NHD website. Visit the Massachusetts History Day website for information about participating in contests in the Commonwealth. Finally, come back to the MHS website in September 2012 to find out how the Society can help you with your History Day research.