Are these self-portraits at all like “selfies”?

By Nancy Heywood

In November, the Oxford Dictionary announced that “selfie” was the word of the year for 2013. The definition of selfie (from is:

a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website

Selfies are very common these days. Many images show the subject looking up, into the lens, and often the subject’s arm extends out of the picture (holding the very device that captures the image). These photographs are sometimes seen as lighthearted and whimsical and sometimes seen as a sign that the world is becoming filled with self-absorbed people!

Do a couple of photographic self-portraits from the past (held within the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections) have much in common with selfies of today? The photographic equipment and processes used in the 19th century (requiring cumbersome cameras and multiple steps: exposure, development, and printing) significantly differ from the equipment and approach of creating digital images today (captured on portable and ubiquitous devices and then often seamlessly shared with family and friends).

What about the characteristics of the self-portraits from two different eras? Selfies are deliberate but quick, documenting that one was at a place or with a person and distributed publicly, ideally seen by lots of people. 19th-century self-portraits were also deliberate but had to be painstakingly composed. Within these self-portraits, most photographers took efforts to hide the fact that they took their own pictures.  Photographic self-portraits were potentially sharable; many copies of a particular image could be made from the same negative and then distributed to friends and family members.

Two examples of 19th century photographic self-portraits from the collections of the MHS are a photograph taken by Francis Blake in 1885 (image below, on left) and a photograph of two men taken in 1862 by Charles D. Fredricks , who is most likely the man on the right (image below, on right). One reason why it is likely that the image on the right does include the photographer (Fredricks) is because the man on the right’s left hand extends beyond the frame of the image and could have held  a remote control for the camera’s shutter. Here is one slight similarity with selfies—the arm beyond the edge of the image!  However that similarity is offset by the fact that 19th century photographers tended to minimize any evidence of how they took their self-portrait whereas within selfies it is often quite obvious that someone in the picture, took the picture. Viewers have to closely examine the large digital image of Francis Blake’s self-portrait (click on the photo) to see that he holds a remote shutter release in his right hand.

Blake self portrait  Photograph probably by Fredricks

The seriousness of both the 19th-century images seems to differentiate them from most selfies, but one way they are similar to selfies is the fact that Blake and Fredricks consciously put themselves in front of their cameras and took the pictures. I find Fredricks’ image of himself and the Chippewa man to be intriguing, and although it is very different from a selfie, I wish he had treated it more like a selfie by leaving a comment or answering that familiar prompt from Facebook: “Say something about this photograph…”!  Fredricks’ photograph is awkward (the two men look in different directions, and Fredricks’ right arm is stiffly draped over the shoulder of the Native American) but the image seems to document a significant moment for the photographer. 

Whether or not there are many similarities between 19th-century self-portraits and selfies of today, it is interesting to take a few moments to see some examples of how people from a different century left glimpses of themselves that are still visible today! 

Extra note for word lovers: The Oxford Dictionaries blog stated that “selfie” was added to the (online version) in August 2013, but as of November 2013 was under consideration for (but not yet in) the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

A New England Christmas (And A Mystery)

By Susan Martin

On friday evening came the chunky, fat, merry, rosy cheeked dutchman Santa Claus, who makes an annual visit to good children, who have loving parents, on Christmas eve, bringing with him his pack of all sorts of nick-nacks to put into the Christmas stocking. How he makes out to get down our narrow throated chimneys, and these obstructed by grates or stoves, I dont know, unless he and his pack can be contracted and expanded by volition, like Miltons fallen angels, who reduced their gigantic forms to the size of bees, that they might be accommodated in Pandamonium…

This Christmas letter from Jacob Newman Knapp (1773-1868) to his son Frederick, written on 27 Dec. 1852, is just one of many interesting letters in the Knapp family correspondence, a new collection at the MHS.

Jacob Newman Knapp letter

Jacob’s long life stretched from the American Revolution to the Civil War. He had been a teacher for many years and now lived on a farm in Walpole, N.H. with his wife Louisa (Bellows) Knapp and Frederick’s younger brother Francis. Frederick was minister of the First Parish Church in Brookline, Mass. The family was obviously very close, and letters were frequent and affectionate. Jacob’s in particular, though not short on paternal advice, also reveal a playful and endearing sense of humor.

Christmas at the Knapp home that year was a big event. The guest of honor was a young girl named Rebecca. Rebecca’s name had suddenly appeared in the correspondence just a few days earlier, and any letter indicating who she was or why she was staying with the family has since been lost. Neither Frederick nor Francis was married or had children yet, so I assumed Rebecca was the daughter of a friend or distant relative, or perhaps the child of a servant. The Knapps were known for their hospitality, and Jacob and Louisa seem to have taken this girl under their wing. Whoever she was, she was fêted in grand style, with her very own Christmas tree, a Queen Mab doll, sleigh rides, and afternoon tea with seven other children of Walpole.

One of my favorite passages in the letter is Jacob’s description of a sleigh ride with Rebecca and the other children. He was obviously a natural storyteller, painting a vivid picture for us:

They were as full of happiness, as they could hold. The people in the street stared at the passing show, for the children, comely by nature, were bright, and cleanly dress’d. There were so many little heads peeping above the sleigh, that you might have imagined it a man and horse running off with a birds nest.

Then this fascinating detail:

Ah! a certain friend of ours would say, “you are spoiling that little coloured girl, if you have not already done it.” That we cannot readily assent to. Goodness, in every condition of life, should be encouraged, merit rewarded, and practical reform be prefer’d to theoretical and visionary. When our dignity requires to be enclosed in a glass case to guard it from plebean contact, we shall distrust in generousness, and we prefer being obeyed by love, rather than by fear.

I was more intrigued than ever. Who was Rebecca? A few other letters in the collection contain passing references to her, but nothing more. I consulted published biographies of the Knapps, but turned up nothing.

On 27 June 1853, Rebecca left the Knapp household under the care of a Mr. Makepeace, probably Walpole resident George R. Makepeace. The last letter in the collection is dated a few days later. In it, Jacob tells Frederick: “Rebecca’s safety was well cared for, as much so, as if her complexion had been a combination of white and red. She is a good girl, and will, I hope, continue so.”

Corticelli Sewing Silk Thread, 1876

By Andrea Cronin

In a prior post about American Sericulture, Dr. James Mease of Philadelphia wrote to Colonel Timothy Pickering about his sericultural pursuits in 1826. Small American sericulture experiments such as Dr. Mease’s endeavor gave way to industrial enterprise by the 1840s. In Northampton and its surrounding towns, businessmen Samuel Whitmarsh and Samuel Lapham Hill spun the necessary structure for the Nonotuck Silk Company and its Corticelli production line of sewing silk.

Though Samuel Whitmarsh gave Nonotuck Silk Company its name, the company did not survive the mulberry speculation bubble and subsequent implosion in the late 1830s. The Northampton Association of Education and Industry purchased the remains of Whitmarsh’s operations but struggled to produce raw silk until the ultimate dissolution of the association in 1846. 

Samuel L. Hill converted the silk production operations of Northampton Association of Education and Industry into manufacturing mills. The company began importing the silk from China and Japan thereafter. Hill began to manufacture a new silk sewing thread known as “machine twist” that was durable enough to be used in mechanical sewing machines. Hill sent sewing machine inventor Isaac M. Singer some of his entrepreneurial “machine twist” silk spools in 1852. Singer was so impressed that he requested all of the company’s silk spools stock. The silk thread market blossomed under the influence of these two businessmen.

Samuel Hill remained president of the Nonotuck Silk Company until his retirement in 1876. At the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, the Nonotuck Silk Company presented this gorgeous 1876 broadside that depicts twelve steps in silk production process from silkworms to raw silk.

Broadside - 12 step silk production

What step in this broadside interests you the most?

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

There are no events scheduled here at the Society this week.

Please note that the Library of the MHS is closed beginning Tuesday, 24 December, and will reopen on Thursday, 2 January. The galleries are open to the public Thursday, 26 December – Saturday, 28 December, and again on Monday, 30 December, 10:00AM-4:00PM. Be sure to come in and take a look at our current exhibition, “The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections” before it closes on 17 January. And keep an eye on our events calendar to see what is coming up in January.

Wouldn’t it be fun…

By Nancy Heywood

Wouldn’t it be fun if the Boston Red Sox World Series Trophies from 2004, 2007, and 2013 got to meet the 1912 Boston Red Sox medal from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society?   Staff members love picturing this scenario!   And, we’ve tweeted a pitch (pun intended!) about this possibility to the Red Sox Holiday Trophy Caravan!

The Red Sox announced that today (Thursday, December 12) they would bring the trophies to several hospitals and after visiting with patients, they would go to three Boston-area businesses in the afternoon.  Organizations have been asked to tweet using the hashtag #WeWantTheTrophies and explain why their office deserves to be selected.  

MHS sent this tweet:

MHS Tweet December 12, 2013

The MHS has a small number of sports-related medals in our collections including the 1912 Red Sox medal.

1912 Red Sox medal

The bronze medal was made by a Boston jeweler, Frank A. Gendreau.  MHS’s medal is made of bronze and some people speculate that our medal might have been a model because it isn’t as fancy as the two other known examples that were given to players on the team. (Those medals were made of gold with precious stones.) Read more about our medal.







“Long Sleeps Last Night for Both Sophias”: A New Mother’s Diary from 1910

By Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

As one of our staff prepared to depart on maternity leave this fall, I took the opportunity to delve into the print and manuscript materials in our collection related to pregnancy and childbirth, parenting and childhood. The MHS has a wide variety of print, manuscript, art and artifact materials related to the history of parents and children, from Cotton Mather’s Help for Distressed Parents, Or, Counsels & Comforts for Godly Parents Afflicted with Ungodly Children (1695) to the children’s health diaries of Helen C. Morgan (in the Allen H. Morgan Papers), who kept tidy notes on her children’s growth, eating habits, childhood illnesses, and medical treatments from their infancy through their college years (1923-1951).

One of my favorite discoveries was the diary kept by Sophie French Valentine during the first months of her daughter’s life. Perhaps in anticipation of her daughter’s birth, Sophie purchased a page-a-day Standard Diary for 1910. In the days before Internet-based social media was our platform of choice for documenting the everyday, Standard Diaries offered a way for many Americans to keep account of their own comings and goings with “status updates” that continue to resonate with intimate immediacy for future generations.

Sophie Valentine’s 1910 diary remained blank until the page for Saturday, July 23, on which she wrote simply, “She came. 8 pounds 7 ounces, 21 inches. Thoroughly healthy. abt 11.42 a.m.”

While her infant daughter was healthy, Sophie was not. On August 2nd she had to undergo an operation (unspecified), that necessitated separation from her daughter and several days’ sedation with “narcotics.” Sophie wrote on the page for August 2nd, “I nursed the baby every three hours up to this time – but just before the operation it was decided best to take her from me!”

As the summer waned, Sophie recovered from her surgery and chronicled the comings and goings of her household, as well as the growth of her daughter (also christened Sophia). Several weeks after the birth, the family doctor paid a visit and pronounced “the little one…sound and vigorous.” Three days later, infant Sophie “went out in the bassinette in front of the house” for the first of what would be many afternoons in the fresh air with her mother. Sophie’s husband, a diplomat, appears to have been away during much of his wife’s convalescence, but a steady stream of female friends and relatives populate the pages of Sophie’s diary. On August 14th, for example, the day “the little one” was baptized Sophia French Valentine, she “had pictures taken with Harriet, Charles, Aunt Martha, Auntie May; and Elizabeth and Lucy,” as well as with her mother and Aunt Caroline (“who held her and talked to her lots”). Later she was visited by “Theodore, Mrs. Graves, and Auntie Beth.”

By Thursday of that week the social whirl may have worn thin for both mother and daughter: the entry for August 18th reads simply, “Long sleeps last night for both Sophias.” A heartfelt status update that will no doubt resonate with many new parents generations hence.

The Sophie French Valentine Papers are part of the Robert G. Valentine Family Papers and available for use by researchers in the reading room of the MHS library.





This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

As we edge closer to the New Year, the MHS offers a slew of public programming this week.

First up, on Tuesday, 10 December, is a panel discussion. “Telling Environmental History,” will explore different ways of presenting environmental history, including the use of GIS, the intersection of environmental history and planning history, incorporating visual materials, and environmental history as narrative. Anthony Penna of Northeastern University will moderate the panel comprised of Brian Donahue of Brandeis University, Karl Haglund of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Megan Kate Nelson of Brown University, and Aaron Sachs of Cornell University. Seminars are free and open to the public though, RSVP required. Discussion begins at 5:15PM.

On Wednesday, 11 December, at 12:00PM is a Brown Bag lunch talk focused on a piece of colonial history. Christine DeLucia, Mount Holyoke College, presents “The Memory Frontier: Memorializing King Philip’s War in the Native Northeast.” The late 17th-century conflict known as King Philip’s War has haunted colonial New Englanders and diverse tribal communities.  Their remembrances of this violence have taken shape in highly local ways, through material objects, performances, and stories about landscapes.  This study highlights the importance of such overlooked sources for understanding the persistent, widespread effects of warfare and settler colonialism in the Northeast. Brown Bag talks are free and open to the public so come on in and have a piece of history with your lunch.

Also on Wednesday is a public program presented by students of the Boston University course “Making History.” During this presentation, “Making History: The Salem Witch Trials in Documents & Artifacts,” the students discuss the MHS exhibition that they have researched and compiled. The semester-long project on Salem and the wider fear of witches in England and colonial America includes work on letters and diaries, sermons, early printed books, and objects form the period. James H. Johnson, who teaches the course and will facilitate the program, is Professor of History and a prize-winning author. This program is free and open to the public though registration is required. Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the program starts at 6:00. To register at no cost, please call 617-646-0560 or email

And on Thursday, 12 December, join us for the second seminar of the week, this time a part of the History of Women and Gender series. Beginning at 5:30PM, Amy Kesselman of SUNY, New Paltz, presents “Women versus Connecticut: Insights from the Pre-Roe Abortion Battles.” In the early 1970s lawsuit Abele v. Markle, Women versus Connecticut coupled litigation with grassroots organizing in a strategy that stimulated public discussion of reproductive rights and brought women’s experiences of Connecticut’s abortion laws to bear on what went on in the courtroom. The story illustrates the role of the feminist reproductive rights movement in shaping Roe v. Wade. Linda Gordon of New York University will provide comment for the discussion. This seminar is free and open to the public, RSVP required.

Rounding out the week on Friday, 13 December, is our final public program of 2013. Come in at 2:00PM as Michael Wheeler shines a spotlight on our current exhibition with “Patriotic Banding: Red, White, and Blue.” In the federal period (1790-1820), wealthy Boston merchants expanded trade to the West Indies and China. As part of this trade, they imported rare and expensive lumber into Boston. Mechanical inventions and the harnessing of waterpower made sawing this lumber into thin veneers possible. Inlay makers, were able to dye, stack, and cut those veneers into decorative geometric bandings which cabinetmakers used as inlays in neoclassical furniture. Guest speaker Michael Wheeler has recently discovered that red, white, and blue banding was made in Boston during the federal period. In his presentation, he will take us through his discovery and research, followed by a gallery tour of the inlaid furniture in our exhibition and his example of modern patriotic banding.This program is free and open to the public.

And thus ends our schedule of programs for this calendar year. Begin planning for the New Year now and resolve to check out our online calendar for Seminars, Brown Bags, and other assorted Public Programs coming up in 2014. And remember that our current exhibition, “The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections” remains on display six days per week until 17 January.

Please note that the Society will be closed beginning Tuesday, 24 December, and will reopen on Thursday, 2 January. The exhibition galleries will be open Thursday, 26 December – Saturday, 28 December, and again on Monday, 30 December, from 10:00AM until 4:00PM.

Are those sketches of penguins?

By Andrea Cronin, Reader Services

Penguins unexpectedly cover the first page of a 1939 sketchbook in the Henry Daland Chandler papers. The rest of the sketches within the book are detailed and shaded images of Bermudian buildings created with the critical eye of the professional architect, Henry Daland Chandler. These penguins from the Bermuda Aquarium add a delightful and personal touch to this small volume.

I nominate the chubby grump in the lower left corner as “cutest penguin.” Do any of these penguins speak to you?

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 28

By Elaine Grublin

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

Monday Dec. 7th, 1863

Mr. Loring declines my book, considering it too much founded on the subject of slavery to suit the present taste. Don’t know; but have this morning secured a perusal of it from Mr. Spencer…The war goes on, with further gain in Tennessee & Georgia, but a check on the Rappahannock. Congress meet to-day. God bless their deliberations!

Tuesday Dec. 22d 1863

Of public affairs, the president’s message & proclamation, with his plan for reorganization of the insurgent states, are most observable. Heaven has given us a great blessing in our wise and firm chief magistrate.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

We return from our Thanksgiving break well-rested, well-fed, and grateful for the respite it provided. We have two hectic weeks ahead here at the Society before we slow down once again for the next holiday break. This week we have a plethora of programs on tap for public consumption.

Starting things off on Tuesday, 3 December, is a public seminar from our Early American History series. Serena Zabin of Carleton College present “Occupying Boston: An Intimate History of the Boston Massacre.” In this talk, Zabin shows the fundamental component that women constituted in the British army’s experience in Boston, evidenced by the records of some forty marriages of military men and more than a hundred baptisms of their children. This chapter from a larger study of the occupation of Boston examines the personal, social, and political meanings of these new families. Comment provided by Lisa Wilson, Connecticut College. The seminar begins at 5:15PM and is free and open to the public. RSVP required. Subscribe to received advance copies of the seminar papers.

On Wednesday, 4 December, spend your lunch hour at the Society for “To Spread Liberty to the North: The Invasion of Canada and the Coming of American Independence, 1774-1776.” In this Brown Bag talk, Amy Noel of Boston University presents research on her project which seeks to explain the enormous changes taking place in American society between 1774 and 1776 by examining the failed invasion of Canada. The campaign played a crucial role in shaping colonial attitudes toward Catholicism and Britishness, the escalation of rebellion into an imperial civil war, and the looming issue of American independence. The talk begins at 12:00PM and is free and open to the public.

And on Wednesday evening, join us for “Elegant Interiors in Early 19th-Century Boston.” In this public program related to our current exhibition, Richard and Jane Nylander discuss the new styles of architecture and furniture that appeared in early 19th-century Boston and will provide a glimpse of the interiors of the homes of some of the city’s wealthiest citizens, among them Nathan Appleton, Charles Russell Codman, Benjamin Bussey, Barney Smith, and David Hinckley. Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. Registration is required for this event and you can RSVP here. This program is part of the Massachusetts Furniture Series.

On Thursday, 5 December, the Society hosts a special year-end reception for MHS Fellows and Members to celebrate the season with the Trustees and staff of the MHS. The event begins at 6:00PM and is open only to MHS Fellows and Members at no cost. Please RSVP here.

Then, on Friday, 6 December, there is a public author talk. Join us at 2:00PM for “End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” Fifty years ago, our country was jolted by tragedy: our 35th president was shot. In End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, historian James L. Swanson offers a comprehensive understanding of this historic day, lending edge-of-your-seat storyteller’s mastery to the subject. This event is free.

And last but certainly not least, on Saturday 7 December, come by the Society at 10:00AM for “The History and Collections of the MHS.” This 90-minute docent-led tour exposes visitors to the Society’s public rooms and touches on the history, collections, art, and architecture of the Society’s historic building at 1154 Boylston Street. The tour is free and open to the public. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact the MHS prior to attending a tour. For more information please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or