“I Guess I Shall Stand It”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part I

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

I should have written to you before this but thought I would wait untill I knew when I was going to war. […] I never have been sorry yet that I enlisted but think quite likely that I shall be before I get back if I ever do. I hope we shall not be gone long and will all come back safe and sound. You must not worry any at all about me while I am gone…

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce our readers to another terrific collection of Civil War papers here at the MHS, the Dwight Emerson Armstrong letters. The collection is very small, consisting of just 38 letters written between 13 June 1861 and 27 April 1863, but the content is so interesting that I thought I’d start a short series here at the Beehive to talk about the story in more detail.

Dwight was born in the small town of Wendell, Mass. on 5 December 1839, the son of Deacon Martin Armstrong and Mary (Bent) Armstrong. Mrs. Armstrong died when Dwight was only four years old, and Martin remarried to a widow named Almira (French) Root. Dwight had three sisters, two brothers, and one half-brother. He was working as a laborer in Montague, Mass. when he enlisted on 19 April 1861, just one week after the attack on Fort Sumter. He was 21 years old.

All of the letters in the collection were written by Dwight to his older sister Mary. However, the letters came to us without envelopes, so her first name was all I knew, and it took a little time to track down more information about her. A 1900 genealogy identifies her as Mary Bent Armstrong, named for her mother. I finally found a footnote referencing her in a book called Wendell, Massachusetts: Its Settlers and Citizenry. Mary’s husband was a farmer named Emery H. Needham, and in 1861, they were living in Amherst, Mass. with their two young daughters, Annie and Jennie.

Some of Dwight’s letters are written on stationery decorated with colorful images of the American flag, Lady Liberty, etc. (Incidentally, the MHS holds a collection of over 1,000 Civil War “patriotic covers,” envelopes printed with pictures like these.)

Dwight Armstrong letters
Two letters from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary, 1861

The letter quoted at the top of this post is the first in the collection. Eight days later, on 21 June 1861, Dwight was mustered into service as a private in the 10th Massachusetts Infantry, Company G. His regiment was mobilized at Hampden Park, a repurposed racetrack in Springfield, Mass. In his second letter to Mary, written that day, Dwight described life in camp as “a perfect pandemonium.” This pandemonium included some discontent over the army’s less-than-stellar provisions.

I presume before this reaches you that you will read terrible stories of the muss which we had here yesterday but don’t beleive newspaper stories. The truth is we did come very near having a pretty serious riot and I thought for a time the buildings where the cooking is done would surely be pulled down […] We can if nesessary live on dog soup and ham with two maggots to one meat but dont intend to at present.

For context, I consulted two printed histories of the regiment, Joseph K. Newell’s “Ours”: Annals of [the] 10th Regiment (1875) and Alfred S. Roe’s very similar The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1909). Both downplay this incident as nothing more than young men bristling at the restrictions of army life, or, in Roe’s words, “the unwillingness of Young America to submit to meets and bounds without some sort of protest” (p. 13-14). However, the discontent was real, and desertion was already becoming a problem. In his next letter, Dwight elaborated.

A good many have run away and I suppose they are afraid the rest will if they get a chance. As the time when we are to start comes on some begin to think they had better have stayed at home and a double guard is placed around the Park every night to keep them where they belong.

Regimental rosters in both Newell and Roe indicate that many soldiers did, in fact, desert during the short time the 10th was stationed at Hampden Park.

Dwight himself seemed relatively sanguine about his enlistment. July 1861 was “terrible hot,” but he was “tough as a knot.” He reassured Mary that “I guess I shall stand it as long as any of them.” He did complain about the drilling, guard duty, marching, and of course the food, but he kept it all in perspective.

We cant have a speck of butter and I miss that more than anything else. I suppose it is not best to find any fault for we cant expect to have anything as convenient as we would at home.

The 10th Massachusetts Infantry decamped on 16 July 1861 and began its long trip South. I hope you’ll join me in a few weeks to hear more of Dwight’s story.

This Week @MHS

Here’s a look at the programs we have planned for this week:

On Monday, 22 April at 10:00 AM: Celebrating National History Day in Massachusetts at the State HouseThe MHS, the state sponsor of National History Day in Massachusetts, invites legislators, teachers, and the general public to learn more about the National History Day (NHD) program and its important impact on students across the Commonwealth. NHD is a year-long interdisciplinary program focused on historical research, interpretation, and creative expression for students in grades 6-12. Over 5,000 students participate across Massachusetts each year, honing 21st-century skills like writing, research, and critical thinking that prepare them for active citizenship and success in college and career. We are grateful for the support of our partners, The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Mass Cultural Council, and Mass Humanities. There will be a brief speaking program featuring student participants from NHD, followed by light refreshments. The event is free and open to the public! Location: Massachusetts State House (Grand Staircase), 24 Beacon Street, Boston.

On Tuesday, 23 April at 5:15 PM: Boston’s North End: Post-World War II Italian Immigration, Segmented Assimilation, & the “Problem of Cornerville” with James Pasto, Boston University, and comment by Marilynn Johnson, Boston College. This paper examines the dynamics and impact of Italian immigration in the North End via the lens of segmented assimilation. Depending on age, gender, parental style, and opportunity, some immigrants assimilated “downward” into the Italian American street culture of the neighborhood, becoming more susceptible to the drug abuse and violence of the ‘70s and ‘80s, while others assimilated “upward” into a new Italian identity tied to the North End’s gentrification as an Italian neighborhood. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

On Thursday, 25 April at 6:00 PM: “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote: Sneak Preview ReceptionMHS Fellows and Members are invited to the sneak preview reception for “Can She Do It?” The exhibition explores the activism and debate around women’s suffrage in Massachusetts. Featuring items from the MHS collection, it illustrates in dynamic imagery the passion that surrounded both sides of the suffrage question. Special thanks to our exhibition sponsor M&T Bank. This event is open only to MHS Fellows and Members and space is limited. Become a Member today!

Opening at the MHS on 26 April: “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote
Commemorating 100 years since Massachusetts ratified the 19th Amendment, this exhibition explores the activism and debate around women’s suffrage in Massachusetts. Featuring dynamic imagery from the collection of the MHS, “Can She Do It?”  illustrates the passion on each side of the suffrage question. The exhibition will be open Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM through 21 September.

Special thanks to our exhibition sponsor

M&T Bank logo

 

 

Please note that the reading room will close at 3:30 PM on Thursday, 25 April. Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

George Hyland’s Diary, April 1919

By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

If this is your first time encountering our George Hyland diary series, catch up by reading the January 1919,  February 1919 , and March 2019 installments first!

Uncle Samuel’s health, much remarked upon in the George’s diary entries for March, continues to be poorly for much of April. This means that George spends additional time and effort not only doing his own chores but attending to Uncle Samuel’s household as well. “Had dinner and supper there,” is the refrain for the month as George tends to his Uncle’s property. Only toward the end of the month does he remark that Samuel is well enough to do the chores himself. It is a chilly April, with temperatures only occasionally reaching above the 50s according to Hyland’s records. On the 25th it was so cold and windy that George decided not to make the journey into Boston to attend the return of the 26th Division (a.k.a. the “Yankee Division”) from France, though he had a ticketed seat in the reviewing stands along Commonwealth Avenue. Perhaps, if he had gone, he would have been given or purchased one of these welcome home placards produced for the event (the example below is from the MHS collections).

Welcome Home 26th Division shield
Welcome home 26th Division

One of the quirks of George’s record keeping that I find particularly charming is that he specifies “S. time” following some of his time-of-day weather notations — meaning “summer time,” a relatively new observance for the United States which had begun during the war as an effort to conserve on energy.

Without further ado, join George on his daily rounds during April 1919.

***

PAGE 327 (cont’d)

April 1. Clou. to par. clou. Cold. W.N.W. tem. 24-42. Did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Went to H. Brown’s store lat in aft. Job L. Ellins called at Uncle Samuel’s early in eve. Came from Campello. Cold night. Clear.

2d. Cold weather. Tem. 18-40. W.N.W. Snowstorm at times in forenoon. Aft. clear. did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s — Had dinner there. Late in aft. went down to Charlie’s. Had supper there and spent part of the eve. there. Walked down — ret. rode 2 miles with Geo. Ellins and Mrs. E. in auto. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. did some chores. eve. Clear. Carried 1 coat and 3 vests and gave them to Charlie this aft.

3d. Clear. W.N.W.; tem. About 29-53. Did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Late in aft. went to N. Scituate. Walked down – ret. rode 2 miles with Fred Litchfield in auto truck. Eve. clear. Frogs peeping again — first time for days. Has been same as […] 10 P.M. (S time) cloudy.

4th. Par. cloud. W.S. to S.E. Did the chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Eve. par. clou., 10:30 cloudy.

5th. Light rain and fog. W.N.E. In aft. (late) went to N. Scituate to Charlie’s — had supper there. Bought some meat at Job H. Vinal’s store for Ellen. […] rode 1 3/4 miles with Prescott […] in farm wagon. I walked home. Had dinner at Uncle Samuel’s did some chores there today. Eve. very foggy, W.N.E.

6th (Sun). Misty; W.N.E. tem. About 38-44. Did chores of Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there, eve. Misty. W.E. fog.

7th. Fair. Par. to clear. tem about 44-70. W.S.W. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s – had dinner and supper there. Clou. late in aft. Began to rain about 6:30 P.M. Rain at times heavy, thunder, tempest. S.W. of here (near). 9:40 P.M. (S. time) until 10:40 P.M. Rain here.

8th. Clear, W.N.W., N.E., S.E., S.W.; tem. About 40-60. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood 3 1/4 hours for Uncle Samuel. I also did chores there. Had dinner and supper there, eve. Cloudy.

9th. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood 5 hours for Uncle Samuel — also did chores there. Had dinner and supper there. fair. tem. 40-50. W.N.E., S.E. eve. par. Cloudy.

10th. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood three hours for Uncle Samuel. Clou. very […]. Rain in aft. Light rain. Cold. W.S.S.E. tem. About 40-46. Did chores. Had dinner and supper at Uncle Samuel’s. Light rain in eve. (late).

11th. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood 3 hours for Uncle Samuel. fin. 1 cord of wood. Did chores there. Had dinner and supper there. Cloudy. Tem. 45-66, W.S to S.S.W. Windy. Eve. cloudy. Very windy (S.) Began to rain at 10 P.M. (Ad. time.)

12th. Fair, W.S.W., W.N.W., tem. about 45-66. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s — had dinner there. In aft. to Charlie’s. Had supper there. Rode 1 1/2 miles with John Selvine and […] in auto. Walked home in eve. Eve clou.

13th (Sun). Fair to cloudy. W.N.W., S.E., N.E., tem. About 40-62. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there.

14th. Fair to par. Clou. W. N. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. He is better now, can do the chores himself. Eve. nearly clear. Large circle around the moon for a few minutes late in eve.

15th. Par. clou. W.N.W., N.E. Did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Eve. cloudy. W.N. E. to E. Cold wind, tem. Today about 40-56.

PAGE 328

16th. Split wood 1 1/2 hours in forenoon for Jane Litchfield. 35. Had dinner there. (J. had no breakfast. Nothing in the house to eat.) Very cold, chilly wind. E., cloudy. Windy. Rain all aft. Windy and cold. Light rain in eve. W.S.E. Heavy showers at times in night.

17th. Light rain most of the time. W.N.E. and S.E. Called at Uncle Samuel’s late in the forenoon. Did a few chores. Had dinner there. He is nearly well now. Will do chores himself. Eve. cloudy. W.S.E.

18th. Par. cloudy; W.N.W., N.E., tem. About 40-60. In aft. Carried a large box of toy furniture to a place just beyond the Bap. church — for Henry — A […] lady buys them. Called at Irene’s — no one there. Bought some groceries at J. H. Vinal’s, N. Scituate. Walked down and back 7 miles. Called at Uncle Samuel’s. Peter W. Sharpe, Mrs. Ella Sharpe, and Miss Olive Beull my third cousins there. She is the Great-Granddaughter of my Uncle Henry — Henry Hyland (father’s brother) — have recently moved from Eastford Coun. to Putterham, Mass. Eve. clear. W.W. Rode 1 1/4 miles with a man in auto down. Lives N. […] place.

19th. Clear; W.N.W.; tem. about 44-62. In aft. dug up and transplanted currant bushes 3 hours for Peter W. Sharpe. Called at Charlie’s late in aft. Had supper there. Walked nearly down — rode 1/2 mile with P.W.S. in auto. Walked home in eve.

20th (Sun.) Forenoon fair. aft. par. Clou. Very windy — S.W. chilly wind. Eve. clou. Light rain late in eve. Called at E. Jane Litchfield’s in eve. […] late in night.

21st. Split and housed 1 cord of dry hardwood for E. Jane Litchfield — 6 1/2 hours 162. Wind N.W. in forenoon. par. clou. Aft. clear; W.N.E. fine weather. Had dinner at E.J.L’s. tem. Today about 45-63.

22nd. Clear; cold; windy — W.N.E.; tem. 37-54. In aft. Went down to Charlie’s. Called at Peter W. Sharpe’s. Norma […] there. Walked down and nearly back — rode 1/4 mile with Merton Burbank. Had supper at Uncle Samuel’s. Fine eve. Clear; W.S.E.

23rd. Worked in flower gardens 4 hours for P. W. Sharpe. Walked down and back. Bought a lunch (doughnut and cheese) at J. H. Vinal’s store. Fine weather, clear; cool; W.N.E. fine eve.

24th. Worked on flower gardens 3 1/2 hours for P.W.Sharpe. Par. clou. to clou.; W.S.E. began to rain about 3 P.M. Went to Charlie’s — staid [sic] until 5 P.M., then went back to Mr. Sharpe — Had supper there. Rode home with P.W. and Mrs. S. — they [took] a young goat to L. H. Hyland’s. Bought some bread — also a Boston Daily Transcript. B. M. saved it for me. Walked down late in forenoon. Called at E. Jane Litchfield’s in eve. Lot Bates and Irma came there. I rode home with them. Light rain all eve. W.N.W. at 11 P.M.

25th. Cold and very windy (30 m.) W.N.W.; tem. 28-38. Ice in meadow this A.M. Eve. cold. — & P.M. tem. 30 — colder later in eve. The 26th Div. 1st Corps. — in the late war — marched through Boston this aft. With their guns, art., and band. Lately arr. from France. I had a ticket for a seat on the reviewing stand — on Commonwealth Av. Boston, but did not go there as it was so cold and windy.

26th. Cold and windy. W.W. tem. 28-41. Late in aft. Whent to No. Scituate — bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store. Called upon P.W. Sharpe and got a loaf of bread I left there Ap. 24. They were at supper. Walked down, rode back with Albert Litchfield. (2m.) Par. clou. To-day a few flakes of snow at times. Eve. fair. 3 men last from [..].

28th. Par. clou.; W.N.W.; tem. About 40-62. In aft worked in flower gardens 3 1/4 hours for P.W. Sharpe. 15. 13 3/4 hours in all, 275. Straightened edges of all the flower gardens and weeded them. Carried a lunch — at it in the house — also Mrs. S. gave me a piece of squash pie and some tea. Walked down — rode back with Albert Litchfield. Mrs. Emma P. Sargent came out to engage me to do some work on their place.

PAGE 329

[28th cont’d] Mrs. Ethel Torrey (nee Speare) also engaged me to work on flower gardens. Met Marron Hammond in Mrs. Seavern’s store. Norma M. with her.

29th. Mowed bushes, briers, and etc. in field 3 1/2 hours for Uncle Samuel. 75. Had dinner there. Par. clou. W.N.E., N.E., E. Eve. clear. cool. Spent eve. at Uncle Samuel’s.

30th. Worked 6 hours for Arthur E. Litchfield. Par cloudy to clear; W.N.E., S.E., very cool. Eve. clear. W.W. at 11: P.M.

* * *

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.

This Week @MHS

Please note that the MHS is closed on Monday, 15 April. Here is a look at the programs planned for this week:

On Tuesday, 16 April, at 5:30 PM: The Long 19th Amendment with Corinne Field, University of Virginia; Katherine Turk, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and moderator Susan Ware, Schlesinger Library. With popular and scholarly attention focusing on the August 2020 centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, this session will explore “the long Nineteenth Amendment” stretching from the woman’s suffrage movement to second-wave feminism and beyond, with an eye toward continuities, challenges, and unfinished business. This is part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

On Wednesday, 17 April, at 6:00 PM: The City-State of Boston: The Rise & Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630–1865 with Mark Peterson, Yale University. In the vaunted annals of America’s founding, Boston has long been held up as an exemplary “city upon a hill” and the “cradle of liberty” for an independent United States. Wresting this iconic urban center from these misleading, tired clichés, Mark Peterson highlights Boston’s overlooked past as an autonomous city-state, and in doing so, offers a path-breaking and brilliant new history of early America. 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).

On Thursday, 18 April, at 5:15 PM: Historians & Ethics: The Case of Anne Moody with Francoise Hamlin, Brown University, and comment by Chad Williams, Brandeis University. In the process of conducting research for her book project, Hamlin encountered an ethical conundrum regarding the papers of Anne Moody, author of the iconic autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi. This paper explores this case in depth and probes how historians should record the lives of those who might not have wanted to be found. This is part of the Boston Seminar on African American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

Opening at the MHS on 26 April: “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote
Commemorating 100 years since Massachusetts ratified the 19th Amendment, this exhibition explores the activism and debate around women’s suffrage in Massachusetts. Featuring dynamic imagery from the collection of the MHS, “Can She Do It?”  illustrates the passion on each side of the suffrage question. The exhibition will be open Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM through 21 September.

Living with Copley’s Fragments

by Caroline Culp, Stanford University, Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Research Fellow at the MHS

There is a curious, even eerie painting in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections. The remnant of a larger canvas, Charles Russell’s disembodied head floats as if suspended in its adopted gold frame. So many of the standard questions scholars lob at portraits fail to stick to Russell’s image—How does the sitter’s pose reflect his identity? How does his clothing mark his social rank? How do the objects surrounding him speak to his historical moment?

Portrait of Charles Russell
John Singleton Copley, Charles Russell, circa 1757.

None of these questions can be answered. Instead, the repeated drumbeat of one query sounds: why and how did this cut-out face survive?

Charles Russell was painted by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), colonial America’s preeminent artist. Perhaps the work was completed in 1757, on the occasion of Russell’s graduation from Harvard. A loyalist, Russell fled to Antigua in 1774, where he died six years later. His portrait remained in the care of his sister, Sarah Russell, until her death in 1819, when it should have been inherited by Charles Russell’s eldest daughter, Penelope Russell Sedgwick.

But according to family ledged, Penelope’s sister Katharine Russell was so distraught at not herself receiving the picture of her father that “she cut out the head with a pair of scissors, and concealed it in her pocket” where she “always carried the head cut from the portrait.” In the pocket it remained for nearly thirty years, until “shortly before her death in 1847 she sent for her cousin, confessed to her what she had done, and gave her the head.” For almost a hundred years afterward the fragment was passed down the female line of the family until Mary Curtis donated it to the Society in 1943.[1]

This startling tale of family jealousy, desire, and destruction reveals Katharine Russell’s deep fetishization of her father’s portrait. It is a story that calls us to re-imagine all those heritage portraits hanging silently above the fireplace of American history.

In the 19th-century Atlantic world, a portrait was no mere silent witness to domestic drama. It was often a personified presence, activated by the mind’s desire for connection. A set of Copley family letters in the MHS collections illustrate the role a portrait could play within the home. Years after the painter left revolutionary Boston for London, his daughter Elizabeth (called Betsy) married and returned to America. Letters between Betsy and her sister Mary vowed that Betsy’s “absence will never lessen our mutual attachment.” Please, Mary begged, “dear Sister write to me as frequently as you can, as that alone can alleviate the pain of separation.”[2]

It was Betsy’s portrait that lessened some of the heartbreak the Copleys left in London felt at her leaving the household—and the hemisphere. John Singleton Copley painted Betsy shortly before her departure, capturing her with dreamy directness, her mouth half open as if about to speak. Though her dress and background fade into incompleteness, the crisp strokes of her face look ahead to the “immense distance [that] will be between us.” Betsy’s portrait was touted as “perfectly satisfy[ying]” to the family, who were “quite in raptures” with this surrogate presence that came to represent her absence.[3]

Today, Copley’s fragments of the past continue to have a presence among the living. Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts at the Massachusetts Historical Society, welcomes incoming staff members with: “Let’s see if we can find you a nice office mate.” New staffers may select a work of art from the Society’s collections to hang in their personal office—a work that would otherwise be languishing off view in the shadows of storage. Bentley helps MHS historians to find a fitting “office mate” to share their space and inspire their work. It is this practice that allows Copley’s miniature portrait of Samuel Danforth to retain the integrity of its original use. Looking out affably from his gilded oval frame, Danforth’s image from the 18th century continues to be comfort and company in the 21st. Would that we could all have “someone to live with” at work.[4]

Portrait of Samuel Danforth
John Singleton Copley, Samuel Danforth, circa 1758.

[1] All quotations copied from a letter given by the donor, Mary Curtis, when she donated the fragment to the MHS in 1943. See Andrew Oliver, Ann M. Huff, and Edward W. Hanson, Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society: An Illustrated Catalog with Descriptive Matter (Boston: The Society, 1988): 87.

[2] Mary Copley to Elizabeth Copley Greene. August 23rd, 1800. MHS MS N-1034, Box 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quotations derive from email correspondence with Anne Bentley and Katy Morris, April 5, 2019.

“Aut Ceasar aut Nullus”: The 1796 Presidential Election and Abigail Adams’ Latin Motto

Rhonda Barlow, The Adams Papers

Unlike the Harvard-educated men in her family, Abigail Adams did not spend years of her life learning Latin. When John Adams wrote to her and used Latin phrases, he often included the English translation. Once, after quoting several lines of the Roman poet Horace, he advised her to have John Quincy translate it for her. Yet in 1796, when it was unclear who would succeed George Washington as president, Abigail declared, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 Feb. 1796, Adams Papers

“Either Caesar or nobody.” Abigail’s long correspondence provides clues to how and why she developed this motto. When Abigail read Plutarch’s Lives, the descriptions of the “tyranny, cruelty, devastation and horrour” of the Roman emperors gave her nightmares. She observed that just as Satan “had rather Reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” Julius Caesar would “rather be the first man in a village than the second in Rome.” She remarked that “to be the first in a village, is, preferable to the second in Rome and, is one of the first Maxims in the Catalogue of Ambition.”

When Abigail opened a 20 Jan. 1796 letter from John and read that George Washington would not seek a third term, she wrote back the next day, “My ambition leads me not to be first in Rome,” but “as to holding the office of V P, there I will give my opinion. Resign retire. I would be Second under no Man but Washington.” John also reported on the sectional divisions in Congress, and a possible compromise between “the Southern Gentry” and “the Northern Gentlemen” which would result in Thomas Jefferson becoming president and Adams remaining vice president.

But Abigail was having none of it. Writing to John on 14 Feb. 1796, she declared: “The Southern Gentlemen think I believe that the Northern Gentleman are fools, but the Nothern know that they are so, if they can believe that Such bare faced Dupery will succeed.” As long as Washington was president and Martha Washington first lady, she “had no desire for the first,” but if the Washingtons sought retirement, then, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 March 1796, Adams Papers

John responded with a Latin motto of his own on 1 March 1796: “I am quite at my Ease— I never felt less Aniety when any considerable Change lay before me. aut transit aut finit— I transmigrate or come to an End. The Question is between living at Phila. or at Quincy. between great Cares and Small Cares.” John’s stoical acceptance of his fate belied his own ambition.

Aut Ceasar aut Nullus: Abigail issued her challenge to Congress and the nation. John won the election, and she became the first woman in Rome.

Julius Caesar bust
Bust of Julius Caesar, Vatican Museums

This Week @MHS

Here’s a look at what is going on at the MHS this week:

On Tuesday, 9 April, at 5:15 PM: “The Dream is the Process:” Environmental Racism & Community Development in Boston, 1955-1980 with Michael Brennan, University of Maine, and comment by Daniel Faber, Northeastern University. When environmental justice became a widely understood framework for action in the 1990s, the core tenets of owning land, developing the built environment, and sustaining existing social institutions had long been a practice for Boston’s minorities. To this end, members of Roxbury’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) worked to create an urban village in Dudley Square. The story of the DSNI demonstrates the utility of examining a topic in both a social and environmental sense. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

On Wednesday, 10 April, at 12:00 PM: “Our Fellow Creatures”: Discourses About Black People in Early American Scientific Societies with Andrea Nero, University of Buffalo. Although not officially recognized as scientific practitioners, scholarly societies, including the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, depended upon black people as sources of observation and subjects for inquiry in the eighteenth-century. While their discussions about them were littered with racism from a modern-day standpoint, a close examination of their discourse reveals a complicated relationship with race. This talk on a dissertation chapter in progress seeks to navigate this rocky terrain, where, for example, black people are depicted as both victims of white superiority and as ugly in their blackness. This is part of the Brown-bag lunch programBrown-bags are free and open to the public.

On Saturday, 13 April, from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, a teacher workshop. On 15 January 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s most unusual disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the city’s North End at upwards of 35 miles per hour, killing 21 and injuring 150 while causing horrendous property damage. With historian and author Stephen Puleo, we will explore how the flood is more than a bizarre moment in Boston history: it offers a lens into Boston and World War I, Prohibition, the anarchist movement, immigration, and the expanding role of big business in society. This program is open to all K-12 educators. Teachers can earn 22.5 Professional Development Points or 1 graduate credit (for an additional fee). There is a $25 per person registration fee. Please note that this workshop is now full. If you would like to join the waiting list, please contact Kate Melchior at kmelchior@masshist.org or 617-646-0588.

The MHS is closed on Monday, 15 April.

Theodore Metcalf, “the Nestor of Boston’s Drug Trade”

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

The apothecary of Theodore Metcalf & Co. was a Boston staple for decades. Founded by Metcalf in 1837 in the former house of Peter Faneuil at 39 Tremont Street, the pharmacy was patronized by untold numbers of the city’s residents in the 19th and early 20th century. The MHS recently acquired a fascinating volume listing thousands of daily prescriptions administered to Metcalf & Co. customers between 19 April 1865 and 5 April 1866.

Daybook
Daybook of Theodore Metcalf & Co.

The volume is very large—over 16 inches tall and 2 inches thick—and every one of its 552 pages is dense with writing. (I don’t know if the handwriting is Metcalf’s or a clerk’s.) Prescriptions for a single day stretch to several pages. Considering that this volume represents only one year of prescriptions, we can get a sense of the scope of the operation. The pharmacy obviously did a booming business.

I couldn’t possibly list all the medicines, tinctures, extracts, and treatments Metcalf’s clientele were prescribed, but here are a few that caught my eye.

There’s cannabis…

Detail from page 6 of daybook
Detail from page 6

Codeine…

Detail of page from daybook
Detail from page 73

And belladonna.

Detail of page from daybook
Detail from page 187

Other prescriptions include laudanum, potassium iodide, quinine sulfate, narceine, camphor, and Hooper’s Female Pills(!). (I’ll leave it to the experts to make inferences from these, but I admit I spent a little time researching what conditions these medications were used to treat.) A promotional booklet, cited in a later article, touted Metcalf & Co.’s role in introducing to the American public “the four inestimable boons to humanity, chloroform, cocaine, ether, and vaccine.”

Some entries in the volume contain specific instructions, such as “To be rubbed behind each ear at night” or “One pill every second hour until the bowels are thoroughly moved.” Many, though not all, include the name of the prescribing doctor, a who’s who of the Boston medical establishment, as well as the name of the patient. Among Metcalf’s more recognizable customers were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow…

detail from daybook
Detail from page 183

And Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

detail from daybook
Detail from page 233

Some of the symbols and abbreviations are unfamiliar to me, including letters in the first column and something resembling shorthand or Roman numerals in the third. I assume these notations indicate doses or lots, but I wonder if any Beehive readers might know. Please leave a comment below if you do!

Theodore Metcalf was only 25 years old when he opened his pharmacy, which would grow by leaps and bounds until it became what an article in the National Magazine (September 1904) called “the finest drug store in the world.” A piece in the Bulletin of Pharmacy (July 1908) features some terrific photographs of the store’s interior.

An obituary of Theodore Metcalf in the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record (5 May 1894) compared him to the wise advisor of the Odyssey and the Iliad, “the Nestor of Boston’s drug trade.” Metcalf was also credited with “elevating the position of the pharmacist from the rank of a tradesman to that of a professional man.” He was one of the founders of the American Pharmaceutical Association (now the American Pharmacists Association) in 1852.

We hope this volume will prove to be a valuable resource for researchers. The raw data it contains could inform many different fields of study. And you don’t have to take my word for it: according to one of the articles cited above, “The prescription books of the Metcalf store are of great historic value.” Another writer agreed, declaring that Metcalf’s “array of prescription books bound in Russia leather […] told an eloquent tale.”

This Week @MHS

Fashioning the New England Family closes on Saturday, 6 April. Stop by 1154 Boylston Street this week to see it and to attend a program. We have a seminar, a brown-bag lunch program, and a tour planned. Read on for more information.

On Tuesday, 2 April, at 5:15 PM: Naming Plantations in the 17th-Century English Atlantic with Paul Musselwhite, Dartmouth College, and comment by Cynthia Van Zandt, University of New Hampshire. The language of “plantation” in early Virginia and New England described a providential, public process intended to serve the interests of god and the commonwealth. How and why did this civic language become transformed into a place for the private pursuit of agricultural wealth? This paper uncovers the ways ordinary men and women grappled with the definition of plantation by systematically investigating the names they gave to the places they termed “plantations.” This is part of the Boston Area Seminar on Early American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

On Friday, 5 April, at 12:00 PM: The Shade of Private Life: The Right to Privacy & the Press in Turn-of-the-Century American Art with Nicole Williams, Yale University. This talk considers how American artists shaped the modern concept of “the right to privacy” in response to the increasingly invasive mass media of the Gilded Age. It examines diverse artworks by John White Alexander, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and others in relation to period critiques of the press and the emerging legal discourse on privacy protections. This is part of the Brown-bag lunch programBrown-bags are free and open to the public.

On Saturday, 6 April, at 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. This is a 90-minute docent-led walk through of our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM through 6 April. 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.

This Week @MHS

Looking for something to do this week? Stop by to see our current exhibition Fashioning the New England Family before it closes on 6 April. We also have a seminar, a panel discussion, and a tour planned.

On Tuesday, 26 March, at 5:15 PM: Carceral Culture with Melanie D. Newport, University of Connecticut—Hartford, and Morgan Jane Shahan, Johns Hopkins University, and comment by Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard University. This panel examines carceral culture in the twentieth century. Morgan Jane Shahan’s paper, “‘Making Good’: On Parole in Early 20th Century Illinois,” traces the experience of ex-prisoners, and exposes the negotiations between employers, voluntary organizations, prisons, and parolees. Melanie Newport’s chapter, “‘I’m Afraid of Cook County Jail’: Making Space for Women in Chicago’s Jails,” addresses how women both inside and outside Cook County jail contested the plan to double the jail’s capacity in the 1970s. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

On Wednesday, 27 March, at 6:00 PM: Reuse, Recycling, & Refashioning: Past, Present, & Future in Fashion with Linzy Brekke-Aloise, Stonehill College; Jay Calderin, Boston Fashion Week; Michelle Finamore, Museum of Fine Arts; and Pete Lankford, Timberland; and moderator Kimberly Alexander. Throughout history, garments have been handed down to be worn in different contexts or to be used as material to create something new. Our panel will talk about the history of reuse and refashioning as well as how designers today are using secondhand clothing or previously disposed of material in new ways. This panel will be the first in an annual lecture series in honor of President Emeritus Dennis Fiori in recognition of his leadership. The lecture series is made possible by gifts from friends of the Society. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).

On Saturday, 30 March, 10:00 AMThe History & Collections of the MHS. This is a 90-minute docent-led walk through of our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM through 6 April. 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.