This Week @MHS

Join us for a program this week! Here is a look at what is going on:

– Tuesday, 29 January, 5:15 PM: Better Teaching through Technology, 1945-1969, with Victoria Cain, Northeastern University, and comment by Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Uncertainty about media technology’s affective and political power plagued post-World War II efforts to expand media use in schools around the nation. Would foundations or federal agencies use screen media to strengthen participatory democracy and local control or to undermine it? Was screen media a neutral technology? This paper argues that educational technology foundered or flourished not solely on the merits of its pedagogical utility, but also as a result of changing ideas about the relationship between citizenship and pictorial screen media. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

– Wednesday, 30 January, 12:00 PM: Superannuated: Old Age & Slavery’s Economy with Nathaniel Windon, Pennsylvania State University. Plantation owners demarcated elderly enslaved laborers as “superannuated” in their logbooks. This talk examines some of the implications of locating the origin of old age on the antebellum American plantation.This is part of the brown-bag lunch program. Brown-bags are free and open to the public.

– Thursday, 31 January,  6:00 PM: The Great Molasses Flood Revisited: Misremembered Molasses, with Stephen Puleo; Allison Lange, Wentworth Institute of Technology; Gavin Kleespies, MHS; and moderator Rev. Stephen T. Ayres. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, when remembered, is often interpreted in a dismissive, comical manner. How does this case compare with other incidences of historical events that are interpreted or “curated” at the expense of accuracy and respect for human experience? How can we bring complexity back to events that have long been relegated to the realm of local folklore? Local scholars will discuss the question of misunderstood history by looking at the Great Molasses Flood, the fight for women’s suffrage and Leif Erickson. This program is a collaboration between the MHS and Old South Meeting House and is made possible with funding from the Lowell Institute. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. This program will be held at Old South Meeting House.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts.

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

Founder to Founder

By Sara Georgini, The Adams Papers

Like so many good stories here at the Historical Society, it began with a reference question. Jeremy Belknap, hunting through his sources, asked Vice President John Adams for some help. Belknap, the Congregationalist pastor of Boston’s Federal Street Church, had spent the past few years amassing manuscripts for several major research projects. By the summer of 1789, he was deep into writing the second volume of his History of New Hampshire, a sprawling trilogy that he built, slowly, with meticulous footnotes. The clergyman, who honed his narrative skill as a Revolutionary War chaplain and biographer, felt thwarted by a lack of access to key documents.

John Adams, 1735-1826.


Jeremy Belknap, 1744-1798.


After poring over George Chalmers’ Political Annals of the Present United Colonies from their Settlement to the Peace in 1763 (London, 1763), Belknap wrote to Vice President John Adams to see if he knew more about the Scottish antiquarian’s research methods. Mainly, Belknap wanted to see how Chalmers pieced together his saga of America as a “desert planted by English subjects” and made fruitful by the flourishing of English liberties. On 18 July, Belknap wrote: “When I observe his having had access to the papers in the plantation Office, I feel a regret that an Ocean seperates me from such a grand repository. how necessary to form a just judgment of the secret springs of many American transactions!” Jeremy Belknap’s query – and Adams’ detailed reply – form one of the most significant exchanges that we will feature in Volume 20 of The Adams Papers’s The Papers of John Adams (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020).

Though the nation was new, Americans like Belknap hungered to capture their history in print. While British scholars flocked to the Society of Antiquaries of London and dug through government office records, early American scholars lacked similar institutions and resources to conduct historical research. Across Massachusetts, precious family manuscripts and rare artifacts piled up in private homes and flammable steeples. When Belknap looked around Boston in 1789, he lamented how fire and plunder had ravaged materials held in the city’s courthouse (1747), the Harvard College Library (1764), Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s home (1765), the Court of Common Pleas (1776), and Thomas Prince’s cache at the Old South Church (1776). Belknap began sketching out what became the Massachusetts Historical Society: a scholarly membership organization (of no more than seven!) that collected materials and published research. He found a fellow visionary in John Pintard, who led efforts to found the New-York Historical Society.


Jeremy Belknap to John Adams, 18 July 1789, Adams Family Papers.


Adams and Belknap had traded letters before, and they would continue to do so until the pastor’s death in 1798. This one touches directly on his plans to create the Society. Founder to founder, Belknap put the problem plainly:

The want of public repositories for historical materials as well as the destruction of many valuable ones by fires, by war & by the lapse of time has long been a subject of regret in my mind. Many papers which are daily thrown away may in future be much wanted, but except here & there a person who has a curiosity of his own to gratify no one cares to undertake the Collection & of this class of Collectors there are scarcely any who take Care for securing what they have got together after they have quitted the Stage. The only sure way of preserving such things is by printing them in some voluminous work as the Remembrancer—but the attempt to carry on such a work would probably not meet with encouragement—


John Adams to Jeremy Belknap, 24 July 1789, Belknap Papers.


In Adams, Belknap found a high-profile ally. A longtime supporter of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the statesman had championed the new nation’s intellectuals abroad. He approved wholly of Belknap’s instinct. Despite his duties presiding over the Senate in the first session of the federal Congress, John Adams prioritized Belknap’s query, firing off a reply on 24 July. He shared a few thoughts on Chalmers’ work and filled in details of Revolutionary War history. Then John Adams lingered happily on Belknap’s dream of a historical society. He had a very personal stake in how the national story was told, after all, and he was eager to impart advice. Adams wrote:

Private Letters however, are often wanted as Commentaries on publick ones.— and many I fear will be lost, which would be necessary to shew the Secret Springs… some of these ought not to be public, but they ought not to be lost.— My Experience, has very much diminished my Faith in the Veracity of History.— it has convinced me, that many of the most important facts are concealed.— some of the most important Characters, but imperfectly known—many false facts imposed on Historians and the World—and many empty Characters displayed in great Pomp.— All this I am Sure will happen in our American History.


Encouragement from John Adams and others led Belknap to dedicate the following months to drafting a concrete plan for the organization’s future. On 24 January 1791, Belknap invited nine colleagues to join him in creating the Massachusetts Historical Society, following up with a detailed circular letter ten months later. John Adams and his family, all ardent advocates of Belknap’s mission to preserve history, have supported the Society ever since, in word and deed.

“Great sights upon the water…”: unexplained phenomena in early Boston

By Daniel Tobias Hinchen, Reader Services

I hear you haue great sights upon the water seene betweene the Castle and the Towne: men walking on the water in the night euer since the shippe was blowen vp or fire in the shape of men. There are verie few do beleeue it yet here is a greate report of it, brought from thence the last day of the weeke.*


The above excerpt is from the letter shown, dated 29 January 1643/4, written from John Endecott in Salem to Governor John Winthrop in Boston. In the weeks preceding this letter, a series of strange occurrences took place in Boston, and Winthrop recorded the events in his journal. It seems that the entries were written after the fact since Winthrop relates a couple of happenings in the same entry. The first event, though, was said to have taken place on January 18th of that year.

About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and governour’s garden. The like was seen by many, a week after, arising about Castle Island and in one fifth of an hour came to John Gallop’s point.


Winthrop continues his entry recording matters pertaining to maintenance of Castle Island and defense of the town of Boston. But after just a paragraph, he returns to the topic of strange sights in the sky.

The 18th of this month two lights were seen near Boston, (as is before mentioned,) and a week after the like was seen again. A light like the moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and the parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many. About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by divers godly persons. About 14 days after, the same voice in the same dreadful manner was heard by others on the other side of the town towards Nottles Island.


Writing after the facts, Winthrop made very little attempt at providing explanations for these occurrences. In the immediate journal entries there was only one bit that gave anything in the way of reasoning for what people saw:

These prodigies having some reference to the place where Captain Chaddock’s pinnace was blown up a little before, gave occasion of speech of that man who was the cause of it, who professed himself to have skill in necromancy, and to hav done some strange things in his way from Virginia hither, and was suspected to have murdered his master there; but the magistrates here had no notice of him till after he was blown up. This is to be observed that his fellows were all found, and others who were blown up in the former ship were also found, and others also who have miscarried by drowning, etc., have usually been found, but this man was never found.


Interested in finding out more? Consider visiting the MHS Library to work with the sources cited, or see the suggestions below for further reading. 


*The transcriptions of the documents in this post appear as they do in the published volumes cited below, typically with original spelling and punctuation intact.




Endicott family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Winthrop, John, The journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, Cambridge, Mass.: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Winthrop papers, vol. IV, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1944.


Further Reading

Hall, David D., “A World of Wonders: The Mentality of the Supernatural in Seventeenth-Century New England,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 63 (1984), pp.239-274.

McKeown, Adam N., “Light Apparitions and the Shaping of Community in Winthrop’s ‘History of New England’,” Early American Literature, Vol. 47, No. 2, BETWEEN LITERATURE AND HISTORY (2012), pp.293-319.


This Week @MHS

Please note that the Society is CLOSED on Monday, 21 Janaury. Normal hours resume on Tuesday. Here are the programs on the schedule for coming week:

– Tuesday, 22 January, 5:30 PM: How to Be an American Housewife: American Red Cross “Bride Schools” in Japan in the Cold War Era with Sonia Gomez, University of Chicago, and comment by Arissa Oh, Boston College. In 1951, the American Red Cross in Japan began offering “schools for brides,” to prepare Japanese women married to American servicemen for successful entry into the United States. This paper argues that bride schools measured Japanese women’s ability to be good wives and mothers because their immigration to the US depended on their labor within the home as well as their reproductive value in the family. This is part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

– Thursday, 24 January, 5:30 PM: Writing Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom with David Blight, Yale University, and host Carol Bundy, author of The Nature of Sacrifice. Join us for a conversation with David Blight about the challenges of writing his biography of Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave who became America’s greatest orator of the 19th century. Blight, a prolific author and winner of the Bancroft Prize among other awards, has spent a career preparing himself for this biography, which has been praised as “a stunning achievement,” “brilliant and compassionate,” and “incandescent.” Carol Bundy, author of The Nature of Sacrifice, will host. This is part of the New England Biography Seminar series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

Images of the 1925 bombing of Damascus

By Adam Mestyan, Duke University and 2018-2019 MHS Andrew W. Mellon Fellow

These images are part of a series of 24 photographs of the October 1925 bombing of Damascus found at the MHS in the papers of Sheldon Leavitt Crosby,* a professional American diplomat in the interwar period. He was chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Istanbul from 1924-1930 and Acting American High Commissioner in Turkey in 1925. It is very possible that he acquired this series of astonishing photos from Damascus while acting in this capacity.

Damaged building in Damascus
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

Smoke rises over Damascus
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

Historians have recently begun to discuss the “greater war,” positing that the period of the First World War extended beyond 1914-1918. Indeed, after the Ottoman armistice, conflict and occupation continued in the Ottoman provinces well into the 1920s. In Damascus, the famous Emir Faisal (in fact, a general military governor appointed by the British) could not stop local notables and his own soldiers from proclaiming an independent kingdom with Faisal as king in March 1920. This desperate move was a pre-emptive strike against the implementation of the League of Nations mandates handed down at the San Remo conference in April of 1920, which gave France the mandate over Syria. It also came just a few weeks after the still-existing Ottoman assembly proclaimed their National Pact in Istanbul. Despite negotiations, the French government decided to put an end to the Syrian kingdom, and French soldiers occupied Damascus and other inland cities in July of 1920. Faisal was expelled from Syria and departed for the United Kingdom. But the Syrians stayed. From 1920 on, small groups engaged in guerilla actions and rebellions throughout the region.

In the summer of 1925, the series of events known as “The Great Revolt” in English scholarship and “The Great Syrian Revolution” in Arabic took place. In July, the mountain Druze population revolted against the French troops. Next, Damascus and Hama rose up against the French. There was also internal pillage and cross-ethnic-religious violence. On 18 October, the French army deployed tanks and airplanes around Damascus in retaliation. From six in the evening until noon the next day the French intermittently shelled the city. They did not warn the civilian population. The exact number of casualties is still debated but several hundreds died, including women and children. Although resistance continued in Ghouta (interestingly, also the last rebel-held location around Damascus in 2018) and the north, the massacre caused the recall of the French general in charge and a new Civil High Commissioner arrived to finally create a civil government.

Street scene in Damascus
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

Rubble in Damascus street
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

The photographs collected by Sheldon Crosby depict the destruction and casualties in Damascus and were taken by Luigi Stironi, an Italian in residence in Damascus active between 1921 and 1933. Some of these photos are clearly intended to evoke horror in the viewer and many were published in European newspapers and distributed as private propaganda. The American businessman Charles Richard Crane describes in his diary how a friend showed him very similar (if not the very same) images in Jerusalem in 1926. According to Daniel Neep’s Occupying Syria under the French Mandate, Stironi claimed in 1926 that his images were bought by an American diplomat. Although many of these photographs are well-known, it is rare to find such a comprehensive set among private papers. Is it possible that Crosby was the American diplomat to whom Stironi referred?  

Soldiers in front of the Pharmacy building
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

Soldiers in front of the French Bank of Syria
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

Selected literature:

Gelvin, James L. Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Neep, Daniel. Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Provence, Michael. The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates. London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.


MHS catalog records:

*The photographs were removed from the Sheldon Leavitt Crosby papers, and are now shelved and cataloged as the Sheldon Leavitt Crosby photographs.

Sheldon Leavitt Crosby photographs

Sheldon Leavitt Crosby papers

“Light, airy, and genteel”: Abigail Adams on French Women

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

When Abigail Adams arrived in France in August 1784, she must have felt like she had just landed on the moon. In all 39 years of her life, Abigail had never been south of Plymouth, north of Haverhill, west of Worcester, or east of Massachusetts Bay.

Twelve years earlier, Abigail wrote a letter to her cousin Isaac Smith Jr., who was traveling in London. She wanted to ask him “ten thousand Questions” about Europe. “Had nature formed me of the other Sex, I should certainly have been a rover,” she told him. Abigail explained to Isaac that it was too dangerous for a woman to travel alone and that by the time a woman has a husband with whom to travel, she also has a house to maintain and children to raise, creating “obstacles sufficent to prevent their Roving.” Already a mother of a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and an 11-month-old, Abigail believed she had missed her chance to travel. “Instead of visiting other Countries; [women] are obliged to content themselves with seeing but a very small part of their own.” For these reasons, she told Isaac, “to your Sex we are most of us indebted for all the knowledg we acquire of Distant lands.”

One can’t help but wonder if Abigail remembered writing those words as her carriage bounced through the French countryside en route to her new residence in Auteuil, just outside of Paris. Whether or not she remembered that specific letter, she remembered the feeling of being stuck at home while her male relations traveled. She determined to write long, detailed letters to her female acquaintances, especially her nieces Elizabeth and Lucy Cranch, in an attempt to expand their worldview and to provide them with a female’s perspective of Europe.

In her letters to Elizabeth and Lucy, Abigail described the architecture of theatres, the designs of French gardens, and holiday customs. But John or John Quincy could have done that. That’s one of the things that makes Abigail’s letters remarkable—that she bothered to write to her nieces at all—something their uncle and cousin had largely neglected to do.

Left: Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius; Right: Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de Lafayette

Travel books could describe architecture and provide maps, but there wasn’t one that provided a New England woman’s perception of French women. Though her correspondents entreated Abigail to divulge what French women were actually like, Abigail really only became acquainted with two women during her nine months in France—Dr. Franklin’s friend Madame Helvétius and the Marquise de Lafayette. The former “highly disgusted” her with her untidiness of dress and lewd manners; the latter charmed her immediately. When she arrived at the Lafayettes’ front door, “the Marquise. . .with the freedom of an old acquaintance and the Rapture peculiar to the Ladies of this Nation caught me by the hand and gave me a salute upon each cheek, most heartily rejoiced to see me. You would have supposed I had been some long absent Friend, whom she dearly loved.”

Unless she was with the Marquise, who spoke English well, Abigail felt isolated by her ignorance of the French language and took to observing rather than conversing. “It is from my observations of the French ladies at the theatres and public walks, that my chief knowledge of them is derived,” she explained to family friend Hannah Quincy Lincoln Storer. She accordingly described what French women communicated beyond words: “The dress of the French ladies is, like their manners, light, airy, and genteel. They are easy in their deportment, eloquent in their speech, their voices soft and musical, and their attitude pleasing.”

She observed to her sister Mary that “Fashion is the Deity every one worships in this country and from the highest to the lowest you must submit.” During her stay in Europe, Abigail mailed fashion magazines and patterns home so her friends could see what was a la mode and included silk or ribbons whenever possible so they could try the designs for themselves. She gave strict instructions, such as that “the stomacher must be of the petticoat color” and “gowns and petticoats are worn without any trimming of any kind.” Abigail added that Marie Antoinette had set the trend of “dressing very plain. . .but caps, hats, and handkerchiefs are as various as ladies’ and milliners’ fancies can devise.”

Marie Antoinette en chemise, 1783 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Abigail never resigned herself to French attitudes towards sex and marriage, but she came to admire the easy elegance of French women and found herself missing them when she, John, and their daughter, Nabby, relocated to London in April 1785. She noticed that the English tried to copy French fashions but ended up “divest[ing] them both of taste and Elegance.” Abigail’s brush with European style convinced her that “our fair Country women would do well to establish fashions of their own; let Modesty be the first, ingredient, neatness the second and Economy the third. Then they cannot fail of being Lovely.”

This Week @MHS

We have two seminars and an evening talk scheduled at the MHS this week. 

– Tuesday, 15 January, 5:15 PM: Camp Benson & the “GAR Camps”: Recreational Landscapes of Civil War Memory in Maine, 1886-1910 with Ian Stevenson, Boston University, and comment by Ian Delahanty, Springfield College.This chapter examines sites where veterans transitioned the Civil War vacation toward a civilian audience: Camp Benson, where several Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) posts built a campground, and at the “GAR Camps” where a single veteran proprietor built rental cottages. The chapter asks why postwar civilians would want to mimic the veteran desire to associate healthful destinations with wartime memory. How do these outdoor landscapes explain the nation’s healing process from the Civil War? This is part of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

– Wednesday, 16 January,  6:00 PM: Breaking the Banks: Representations & Realities in New England Fisheries, 1866–1966 with Matthew McKenzie, University of Connecticut. Matthew McKenzie weaves together the industrial, cultural, political, and ecological history of New England’s fisheries through the story of how the Boston haddock fleet rose, flourished, and then fished itself into near oblivion before the arrival of foreign competition in 1961. This fleet also embodied the industry’s change during this period, as it shucked its sail-and-oar, hook-and-line origins to embrace mechanized power and propulsion,more sophisticated business practices, and political engagement. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

– Thursday, 17 January, 5:15 PM: Race, Empire, & the Erasure of African Identities in Harvard’s “National Skulls” with Christopher Willoughby, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, with comment by Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard University. In 1847, John Collins Warren gave his anatomical collection to the Harvard medical school, including a collection of “national skulls.” This paper analyzes how skulls from the black Atlantic were collected and dubbed “African,” to show that medical schools were intimately connected to the violence of slavery and empire, and to posit a method for writing the history of racist museum exhibitions that does not continue the silencing of black voices at the heart of those exhibitions. This is part of the Boston Seminar on African American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Please note that the building will be closed on Monday, 21 January. Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

George Hyland’s Diary, January 1919

By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

A new year means a new serialized diary here at The Beehive, where for the past four years we have showcased a diary from the collections written one hundred years ago (you can read the 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 series in our archives!).

In October 1913 a fifty-nine year old man, George Hyland of Hingham, Mass., was given a hardbound standard diary by his representative to the Massachusetts state legislature, Rep. Charles H. Waterman. Rather than using the book as intended–filling one page per day for the year–Hyland instead began recording his life story in dense, script beginning with his childhood memories of the Civil War. Once he reached the present, Hyland continued to fill the diary until 1922, including the daily details of his life during the year 1919. 

The year of 1919 opened “Cloudy. Cold. W.N.W. tem. about 25-36.” As you will see, the weather is a continual refrain in George’s diary — as you might expect for someone who spends his days outside chopping and hauling wood, walking to buy groceries, and visiting family.  In order to make the most economical use of space in his diary, George abbreviates common words: “Staid [sic] all aft. ret. to N. S. on tr.” Stayed all afternoon, returned to North Scituate on train. We read about the price of milk (“now 12 cts per quart”) and the mundane tasks of life (“Mended some of my clothes in the eve.”) as well as entertainments (“Music by victrola in the sitting room.”) and tragedies: “A great mollasses [sic] tank exploded about 1 P.M. to-day on Commercial St., Boston.” We also get glimpses of the way in which the Great War continues to cast its long shadow even after the armistice. “Little Elizabeth,” George writes on January 21st, “came into the Swamp to tell me to come to the house and eat dinner. She is only 4 years old. She said her papa went to the war to fight the Germans and now he is dead.”

Join me in following George Hyland during one year of his life in the early 20th century. 

 * * *

PAGE 320


Jan 1. Cloudy. Cold. W.N.W. Tem. about 25-36. Misty rain at times, very heavy fog all day. Eve warm, tem. 55 W.S.W. mod. Gale and rain — max. wind about 34 m.

2d. Mod. rain all day and eve. W.N.W. tem. About 36. Called at uncle Samuel’s late in aft. Lt. Weyland and Nellie G. Sharpe there, Elizabeth Bahe there, is to stay with Ellen at present.

3d. Rain all day and eve. W.N.W. to N.E. tem. About 27-32. Late in aft. Went to Lt. Weyland’s and bought a bus. of potatoes. Also bought some bread at H. Litchfield’s, then went to Mrs. Merritt’s and bought some milk. 10 P.M. snowstorm. W.N.E. Sawed some cedar logs in the cellar (some […] outlast winter) and put the wood in the back chamber — also put some planks and timbers there. Snowstorm all night

4th. Forenoon cloudy, aft. Clear. Tem. about 28-25, W.N.W. early in eve. Went to N. Scituate. Walked down and back. Stopped at Mrs. Merritt’s and bought some milk. Eve. clear. Cold. 3 inches of snow on the ground.

5th (Sun.) Clear. Cold. W.N.W. tem. 12-26 early in eve. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. Staid [sic] there 1/2 hour. Music by victrola in the sitting room. Elizabeth sent me a cornball this aft. Eve. clear. cold; tem. 12. Got 2 sledloads of wood in Swamp this aft. Called at Uncle Samuel’s in eve.

6th. Light snowstorm early A.M. W.N.E. forenoon clou. aft. Par. clou. to clear. Tem, 26. Eve clear. W.N.W. tem. 7 P.M. 12. Got 2 sledloads of wood in Swamp. This aft. Called at Uncle Samuel’s early in eve.

7th. Light snowstorm early A.M. clear after 10 A.M. tem. About 18-38, W.N.W. in forenoon, S.E. in aft. N.W. in eve. Eve clear. Mended some of my clothes in eve. Called at Uncle Samuel’s later in aft. Elizabeth gave me a cornball.

8th. Clou. A.M. began to rain at 11 A.M. tem. 24-38. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s in eve. Clear in eve. W.W.N.W.

9th. Cloudy. Chilly. Damp. late in the forenoon walked to N. Scituate. Went to Hingham 12:17 tr. Went to Henrietta’s. Had dinner there. Carried a lot of toy furniture for her to sell for Henry. Staid [sic] all aft. ret. to N. S. on tr. at about 5:15 P.M. Walked home in eve. Brought my […] bag ([…]) full of clothes — coats, pants, etc. heavy to carry. Tem. to-day about 23-36. W. W. S. W. late eve. par cloudy. colder. very windy.

10th. Par. clou. to clear. W.N.W. and S.W. tem. 9-24. Called at Uncle Samuel’s in aft. Gave Elizabeth an orange and a bannana [sic] (Henrietta gave them to me yesterday). Got some wood in Swamp late in aft. Went to H. Litchfield’s and bought some bread early in eve. eve. clear. Cold.

11th. Split wood (very large pieces) 3 hours for Jane Litchfield. 75. Had dinner there. Early in eve. went back to N. Scituate. Walked down and back. Bought some groceries at Mr. Seavern’s store. Mrs. S. got […] for me also some chocolate candy (2 cts) for Elizabeth. Tem. 30-18. W.N.W. fair to par. clou. eve. cold. Tem. 9.

12th (Sun.) Clear. W.N.W. tem. 2-24. Eve. cold. clear. calm.

13th. Fine weather; clear; W.S.W. tem. 8-34. Fine eve. Got some dead wood in Swamp 1/2 mile from here to-day. Hard to get along there is so much dead wood piled up lying in all directions.

14th. Got some of my wood out of the Swamp (wet in Swamp to-day). Also cut wood 2 1/4 hours in Swamp for Uncle Samuel. He was cutting wood there. Cloud. Wind. S. to S.W. tem. 34-44. Early in eve went to N. Scituate. Bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store. Also bought some cold tablets for Ellen and some quinine (for toothache) for myself (1 doz 2 gr. Sulph Quinia pills – 15 cts). Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s — milk is now 12 cts per quart. Margaret Brown medicine for me at the Drug Store. Eve. clou.

15th. Cut wood 4 hours for Uncle Samuel. Cloudy A.M. 11 A.M. clear. W.N.W. tem. 32-42. Had supper at Uncle Samuel’s. Eve. clou. Fine weather

A great mollasses [sic] tank exploded about 1 P.M. to-day on Commercial St., Boston. 2,250,000 gallons ex. des. buildings, flooded street, k. 11 men, women, and children, and injured 60 others. Several horses k. 1 girl

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[cont’d] a. about 12 was drowned in the molasses.

16th. Cut wood 5 hours. Very fine weather. Clear. tem. 32-46 W.W.S.W. bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s early in eve. Fine eve. tem. 35. Weather is like early spring.

17th. Cut wood 6 hours. clou. A.M. Clear at 11 A.M. aft. par clou. to clou. a few drops of rain. 3 P.M. clear. eve. clear. temp. to-day – 30-48. W.S. to S.W.

18th. Cut wood 5 hours in Swamp. Cloud A.M. W.N.W. began to rain about 11 A.M. rain light for 1 1/2 hours. aft light misty rain, W.N.E. tem. To-day 30-36 early in eve. Walked to N. Scituate. rode back with Albert Litchfield. Stopped at Mrs. Merritt’s and bought some milk. Eve very foggy. L. E. Bates here while walking to N. Scituate. I boxed the compass four times each way – backwards and forwards – N. by way of E. back to N. – then by way of W. back to N. – then S. to E. both ways, then S. to S. both ways – then W. to W. both ways. I like to do it.

Bought 5 cents worth candy for Elizabeth.

19th. (Sun.) forenoon cloudy. aft. and eve. Clear. W.N.W. tem. About 33-40. Windy. Weather like March.

20th. Cut wood 6 hours. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s and some bread at H. Litchfield’s in eve. Elizabeth gave me some soure [sic] candy and an apple when I called there in eve. Fine weather to-day clear; tem. 30-46; W.N.W., S., S.W. fine eve.

21st. Cut wood in Swamp 6 hours. Had dinner at Uncle Samuel’s — little Elizabeth came into the Swamp to tell me to come to the house and eat dinner. She is only 4 years old. She said her papa went to the war to fight the Germans and how he is dead. (Was in the U.S. Navy). Elizabeth is Sarah’s third daughter. Cloudy. very damp to-day, W.N.E. and S.E. tem. 36-44. Very wet in the swamp. Eve. clou. W.S.E. will prob. Rain or snow to-night or to-morrow.

Last eve. (5-9 P.M.) I heard a great number of steamer whistles in Boston Harbor. [word] were saluting the Stm. “Canada” just arrived from France, with a load of soldiers. The whistling continued for 15 min.

22nd.Cut wood in the Swamp 6 hours. Finished cutting 2 1/2 cords of hardwood for Uncle Samuel. 625. Cloudy. Very damp. W.S. to S.W. tem. 34-46. Bought some choc. Candy for Elizabeth – 3cts. She came into the Swamp today. Eve. cloudy. 10:30 P.M., misty rain, W.W.

23rd. Cloudy. Foggy. W.S. tem 40-44. Got some wood in Swamp. In aft. Put rivet in a pair of scissors — also sharpened them — for Mrs. Merritt. 15. Late in aft. Went to N. Scituate. Bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s Store. Also some choc. Candy for Elizabeth – 3cts. Walked down and back. Eve. clou. 9:30 P.M. began to rain. Rain all night.

24th. Cloudy to par. Cloudy. Very windy. tem. About 34-37 W. N.W. did some work at home. Early in eve. Went to H. Brown’s store. Wind blowing a gale – (40m.) Cold. Clear. Windy all eve. mod. At 11:50 P.M. much colder.

25th. Did some work at home. Very fine weather for […]. Clear; W.N.W; tem. 26-37. Paul Briggs […] home to-day – stopped here nearly 2 hours – had dinner here with me. He has been in the U.S. Army for one year and 4 months – has not had a furlough for a year – been on duty all the time — was in […]U.S. […] Guards — on duty at Jersey City, N.H. — pier 1 where the U.S. transports leave for […]. They had to guard the stores, supplies, and etc. He was discharged yesterday, and came from a Mil. Sta. in Pa. come on the 11:15 P.M. tr. from N.Y. last night had honorable discharge. The soldiers are coming home now as fast as they can get them here. Went to N. Scituate early in the eve. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. Fine eve.

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[cont’d] Jan. 25. Paul brought home a box of fine cigars, which the capt. of his gave him. Paul gave me one of them (15 ct cigars). Paul was in the 16th Div. U.S. Army — Co. L. 302nd Inf. — but was transferred to Co. A. U.S. Guards.

Gave 25cts for [word] to soldier.

26th (Sun.) Clear; tem. about 26-40. W.N.W. eve. clear.

27th. Cut wood in Swamp 5 hours for Lt. Weyland. Fine weather. W. N.W., tem. about 28-40. Early in eve. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. Eve. par. clou.

28th. Sold E. Jane Litchfield 1 1/2 ft. of cedar wood for kindling. 150. Split it into very small pieces, also split some large pieces of hardwood, and housed the whole. 5 hours in all. 125. Had dinner there. Fine weather, fair to par. clou. tem. 32-40; W.N.W., N.E, S.E., S.W. early in the eve. Went to N. Scituate – bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s Store – also some choc. candy for Elizabeth – 3cts. Rode 1 1/4 miles with George Hardwick in auto. Alma Lincoln and Irene Dalby brought a […] of Mt. Blue Spring water to E. Jane Litchfield late this aft. eve. clear but hazy at times. Stars look very small — will snow or rain soon.

29th. Light snow storm all day. W.N.E.; tem. 37. Cut wood in Swamp 1 hour in aft. Early in eve. Went to H. Brown’s store — also went to Mrs. Merritt’s and bought some milk. Eve. clou. 10 P.M. clear; W.N.W.

30th. Cut wood in Swamp 5 hours. fine weather, clear; tem. about 30-40; W.S.W. Snow nearly all melted today. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s in eve. Fine eve. clear. warm for season. W.S.W., by W.

31st. Cut wood 5 1/2 hours in Swamp. Clear, windy. (M.W.) tem. 28-40. Cold late in aft. and in eve, windy early in eve. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s, also got some for Ellen, then went to H. Litchfield’s and bought some bread. Cold night.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the George Hyland’s diary may be found here. Hyland’s diary came to us as part of a collection of records related to Hingham, Massachusetts, the catalog record for this larger collection may be found here.

New and Improved: The Tufts Family Logbooks

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

My work as a processing archivist here at the Massachusetts Historical Society involves not only cataloging new manuscript collections, but also improving descriptions and access for collections that have been sitting on our shelves for some time. Case in point: the Tufts family papers, which was recently brought to my attention by Laura Wulf, the MHS’s photographic and digital imaging specialist. While working on digital images from that collection, she noticed an oversight in our online catalog ABIGAIL.

The collection consists of correspondence, diaries, logbooks, and other papers of the notable Tufts family of Charlestown, Mass. Included are two logbooks dating from the mid-1850s, kept by brothers George and Alfred Tufts. Normally, logbooks that are part of a larger collection are individually cataloged to allow for more detailed subject access. As Laura discovered, Alfred’s had been cataloged, but George’s was nowhere to be found.

The oversight was understandable—the brothers were actually traveling together on the same ship, the Ocean Pearl, and it’s pretty easy to make a mistake about who kept which volume if you don’t have time to examine them closely. But George deserved his due, and I was sorry to see him overshadowed by his younger brother like that! So the first thing I did was create a new, separate catalog record for his log.

I enjoy doing this kind of clean-up, not only because it makes our catalog more useful and our collections more discoverable for researchers, but also because it gives me the opportunity to add more detail to ABIGAIL and to familiarize myself with our older collections. The Tufts family papers were donated to the MHS back in 1962, and I don’t think I’ve ever had reason to look at them before. It’s a really fun and interesting collection.

In their logbooks, George and Alfred kept the usual navigational records—longitude, latitude, wind, course, temperature, etc.—but they didn’t stop there. The logs are also journals, fleshed out with long-form descriptions of daily life on a ship, including who got seasick (George), who lost his hat overboard (Alfred), who got drenched (pretty much everybody at some point), what Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin were arguing about (the window shutter), and what was really going on between Capt. Sears and Mrs. Whitney (who knows?). The two volumes complement each other; the brothers recount the same events, often in very similar language, although Alfred’s entries tend to be longer. Both logs also contain sketches of icebergs, islands, and other sights.

The Ocean Pearl sailed from Boston on 28 November 1854, around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, and landed at Honolulu, Hawaii. There, it turns out, the brothers split up—Alfred continued on the Ocean Pearl to the Far East, but George stayed in Hawaii for six months, where he wrote terrific descriptions of the islands’ natural and cultural wonders. On 26 September 1855, George embarked for San Francisco, overlapping with the tail end of the California Gold Rush, then sailed across the Pacific to Hong Kong and other points in Asia. Adding insult to injury, these voyages had been mistakenly attributed to Alfred, too!

After straightening out the catalog records for both logbooks, I noticed the collection contained another journal kept by George in 1850. On closer inspection, I found it described a trip up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers via steamboat, so I added some detail to that catalog record, as well. Like the logbooks, there’s a lot more to this volume than meets the eye. For example, here’s one of George’s entries from June of that year:

In the afternoon went in a canoe to Crow wing village 6 miles below St Paul. I had seen the indians among the whites, but here they were by themselves on their own soil doing things in their own way. When I arrived at the village they had just been dancing the scalp dance, over the scalps they had taken this spring from the Chippeways. When the scalps were taken they made a mark on the knee & are to dance every other day till the grass gets to that height. A group of them were sitting on the ground playing a game with moccasins accompanied with singing, drumming & yelling with “variations.” I heard their noise when two miles from the place. Their burial ground is on a hill back of the town. The bodies are mounted on a scaffold with the articles used by the deceased in his life time hanging about it. Also the clothing & locks of hair. They leave them in this way about 6 weeks & then bury them.

High-quality digital images of the Ocean Pearl logbooks of George and Alfred Tufts, as well as material from related collections at the MHS and other repositories, are available as part of the China, America and the Pacific online resource, published by Adam Matthew Digital. You’ll have to visit our library in person (or another participating library) to use this subscription database, and we hope you will. If you have questions about any of our collections, please don’t hesitate to contact our reference staff.

This Week @MHS

Happy 2019! Here is a look at what is going on at the MHS this week:

– Tuesday, 8 January, 5:15 PM: The Consecration of Samuel Seabury & the Crisis of Atlantic Episcopacy, 1782-1807 with Brent Sirota, North Carolina State University, and comment by Chris Beneke, Bentley University. Samuel Seabury’s consecration in 1784 signaled a transformation in the organization of American Protestantism. After more than a century of resistance to the office of bishops, American Methodists and Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans all established some form of episcopal superintendency after the Peace of Paris. This paper considers how the making of American episcopacy and the controversies surrounding it betrayed a lack of consensus regarding the relationship between church, state and civil society in the Protestant Atlantic.This is part of the Boston Area Seminar on Early American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

– Wednesday, 9 January, 12:00 PM: The Octopus’s Other Tentacles: The United Fruit Company, Congress, Dictators, & Exiles against the Guatemalan Revolution with Aaron Moulton, Stephen F. Austin University. With the 1954 U.S. government-backed overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz, scholars have focused on ties between the State Department, the CIA, and el pulpo, the octopus, the United Fruit Company. This talk reveals how the Company’s influence reached further to Boston-based congresspersons, Caribbean Basin dictators, and Guatemalan exiles. This is part of the brown-bag lunch program. Brown-bags are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, 9 January,  6:00 PM: American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, & Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic with Victoria Johnson, Hunter College. The legacy of the long-forgotten early American visionary Dr. David Hosack includes the establishment of the first botanical garden in the United States as well as groundbreaking advances in pharmaceutical and surgical medicine. His tireless work championing public health and science earned him national fame and praise from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander von Humboldt, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Alongside other towering figures of the post-Revolutionary generation, he took the reins of a nation. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

– Saturday, 12 January, 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. Join is for a 90-minute docent-led walk through of the public rooms of the MHS. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or   

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.