Celebrating Archivists Working During Covid19

by Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

Though the MHS remains closed to the public due to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic (learn more), our library staff has been able to provide various reference services. Below, several Reader Services staff members offer insight into what it is like to work–both in the building and remotely–during the pandemic.

How has the MHS adjusted and continued to serve its researchers?  

Elaine Heavey, Director of the Library, and Dan Hinchen, one of our Reference Librarians, describe how operations in the Library Reader Services department were amended to accommodate the restrictions posed by COVID-19:

In the aftermath of the state-wide shutdown in mid-March, the library reader services (LRS) staff had to develop new ways to serve our researchers. Of course, as a manuscript repository holding one-of-a-kind materials, serving researchers without direct access to our collections proved difficult. Still, the LRS staffers worked from their various remote locations to provide as much access as possible to those we serve.

In the early stages of the pandemic, we tackled a project to locate digital versions of every title in the Dowse Library and compiled the links so that we could easily share them with researchers.  The LRS staff also created a Reference Services During Covid-19 Closure page, providing links to various print publications in digital format, MHS online resources and collection highlights, and a list of commercial databases that feature MHS content ,all in one place.

In addition to concerns about collection access, communication became more challenging.  Although e-mail remains our primary method of contact with remote researchers, we found we had lost the ability to work with remote researchers in the moment via telephone.  To meet that challenge we sought new means of communicating with researchers. Through our Virtual Reference and Chat Services page researchers can ask questions instantly via chat (Mon., Wed., Thurs., Fri. 10AM to 4PM; Tues.1PM to 7PM), or request a research consultation with a member of the library staff via Zoom. Now, anyone interested in speaking an LRS staff member “face-to-face” has that option.

In July, when our library staff regained access to the building, we began tackling the sizable backlog of reproduction and reference requests that accumulated over the four months we were away from 1154 Boylston. Of course, in keeping with the trends of life this year, staff use of collection material became more complicated when we found ourselves navigating the creation of new collections handling polices aimed at mitigating the health risks of working with shared materials.  Determining best practices around issue like quarantine times, thinking about how to safely quarantine materials, and adjusting our workflows to allow for quarantine between uses, proved to be a moving target as new information about Covid-19 transmission and the time Covid-19 lives on library materials (especially those that cannot be sanitized) became available. We recently extended our quarantine times based on new industry findings, but we will not let that slow us down.

Despite the difficulties the shutdown threw at us, our library staff has worked hard adapting to the situation and strives to continue providing our researchers the best possible remote service until we are able to welcome them back into the library again.

How has the COVID19 state of emergency impacted your work as an archivist and how did you overcome the challenges presented?

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, one of our Reference Librarians, not only found ways to overcome the restrictions imposed by remote work and COVID19, but also found ways to assist fellow archivist during this difficult time:

As a reference librarian who works in a special collections library, moving first to an all-remote work environment in March and now a partially-remote, partially-on site (but still with no patrons in the building) work environment this fall really impressed upon me how much of my job is having conversations with people. All day long, I engage in conversations with my colleagues and with researchers about the work we are doing together or the work they hope to undertake using our collections. And those conversations can take place, and be fruitful, whether I am at the reference desk  or at my dining room table.

I have also been acutely aware of the way that COVID-19 has impacted archival workers unevenly. Those already precariously employed in our field (part-time, contract, student, grant-funded, etc.) have often been the first to see their hours cut or their positions eliminated. During March, a group of archival workers – including myself — came together to establish the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, currently administered by the Society of American Archivists Foundation, which issues cash grants to archival workers in financial crisis due to COVID-19. As of September 15th we have disbursed over $130,000 to over 150 archival workers who are struggling to pay the bills. This has been a major part of my involvement with the wider archival community since March, and gave me something concrete to do to address the suffering that people across the country are experiencing because of the pandemic.

Hannah Elder, our Reproductions Coordinator, saw her role expand as reproductions became the sole source of collection access for undigitized collections:

While working from home, I managed the incoming reproduction requests; contacting the researchers, keeping track of their requests, and helping them find already digitized materials when available. I also worked with my colleagues to develop temporary reference reproduction policies and pricing that enables us to provide our researchers with the resources they need. Find those new policies here! (http://masshist.org/library/reproductions/photocopies)

Now that the staff have some access to the building, I spend my time at 1154 Boylston Street in a flurry of activity, scanning items, photographing volumes, and going through microfilm. I spend my time at home processing the images the reproductions team and I made in the building and sending them off to researchers, while also managing incoming requests, staffing the chat services, and planning for my next rotation through the building.

We will continue to share stories with you throughout Archives month and look forward to answering your questions through our virtual reference and chat services.

Until the next installment, be well!

Happy American Archives Month!

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

It’s that time of year when leaves start to turn, there is a chill in the air, and the days get shorter, which can only mean one thing…It’s Archives Month!

What exactly is Archives Month, you ask? It is a month to learn about, connect with, and explore archives and the archival field. Take some time and talk to an archivist this month and you’ll learn about an exciting field of work that may be even more interesting than you thought.

Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society we usually take this opportunity to introduce you to our team of archivists so that you can learn more about what they do on a daily basis, and share their interests and specialties. However, this year is unlike any other as the coronavirus pandemic alters our lives and work. Archivists across the country and, indeed, the globe are facing challenges brought to the field in the wake of Covid-19.

Therefore, this year we want to share with you the experiences of our staff as they find innovative ways to work remotely and connect researchers to our collections. We will also illustrate the challenges of the job when we cannot physically access and interact with our collections.

For a sample, we asked our Nora Saltonstall Preservation Librarian, Kathy Griffin:

How has the Coivd-19 shutdown impacted your work as an archivist, and how have you overcome the challenges it presents?

KG:  “Since so much of my work is hands-on work with collections, my work has been greatly affected by the coronavirus restrictions, particularly in the early months of the pandemic. I can attend meetings and programs via Zoom and other online meeting formats, but I cannot arrange and preserve collections material. We even had a water leak which I could not respond to, a leak which affected some of our publications, our building itself, and some supplies stored in the basement. I did work at home for other types of projects – digital projects and marketing, but this work did not fill my at-home days. I also worked on volunteer projects for the Boston Public Library and the Dedham Historical Society. At present, we are divided into two teams and we work two weeks in the building and two weeks out of the building. I still do not fill my work days at home. I am very grateful to have a job, and I am most happy when I can come into the building and work on the collections.  The MHS has been a very conscientious and thoughtful employer over these troubling times.”

Tune in next week when we will be sharing more of the thoughts and experiences of our staff during the shutdown.

Ask An Archivist Day
#AskAnArchivist Day is on 7 October

And on Wednesday, 7 October, we will take to social media for #AskAnArchivist Day! Prepare your questions and find us on Twitter @MHS1791 and @MHS1791_Ref where our archivists will respond to all of your questions, from the practical to the whimsical. Remember to include the tag #AskAnarchivist! You can also send in your questions via e-mail, or check out our live chat.

“The peoples had fine times”: Letters of a Black Family in the Early 20th Century, Part I

by Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Tucked away in the stacks of the Massachusetts Historical Society is a small but fascinating collection of letters of the Jarrett family, a Black family living in Shiloh, Georgia. The collection dates from 1905 to 1909 and consists of five letters written to Homer C. Jarrett, who moved frequently but eventually settled in Boston. Each letter contains so many interesting details that I’d like to discuss them individually in a series here at the Beehive.

Claud Jarrett letter
Letter from Claud Jarrett to his brother Homer, 2 Sep. 1905

The first letter in the collection was written by Homer’s brother Claud Jarrett at Shiloh. Below is a complete transcription. I will retain misspellings but add sentence and paragraph breaks for readability.

Saturday Eve Sep 2/05

Mr. Homer Jarrett
French Lick, Ind.

My dear brother

Yours to hand and contents carefully noted. Glad to hear from you. I and all the rest of the family is well. Mama is well and is at Church today.

The peoples had fine times dureing the Association. We was there on the last day. They had the Heigh-shaff and marshall and three or four depertised White men from Hamilton out there. It was a hundred gal. of whiskey drinked or more and just thousands of peoples were there and not a cross word among them no way. We had one deligate that was Mr. [Elax] Joes of Columbus Ga. the richest negro so said to be in Columbus.

The babe of Wilson that died it was onely 7. seven months old. It was unhealthy and sickely from its birth untill it died. Born Feb. the 11- 1905.

Yes I re’cd the paper you sent me from St. Lewis mo. It was O.K. That train was running sum before it rected. They need not do all that. If I should live and can restore good health I am going to fire the lard out of sume locomotive Engine some day before long.

I have just quit picking cotton. We have out a bale and a half. Sold one bale last saturday at 10 1/8 percts weight even 500 lbs. [illegible] is here now come friday before the third Sunday and is now working with Buck and aunt Sallah. Our little big [hed?] Burt is in Ala. some whare. I re’cd a letter from him the first of the year. He was in Curtisy Ala. I dont know if he is there now or not.

Grandpa and lizzie is well. She is in School now. We have an Independent School now for two 2 months. She is progressing very fast in her studies come home from School ever evening and pick a handle Basket full of cotton. I ben averign too hundred for the last three or four days. It is now field time and I must go.

By by yours brother

Claud Jarrett

The envelope is addressed to Homer at French Lick, Indiana, specifically the “French Lick Hotel D. room,” which probably means Homer worked in the hotel’s dining room. French Lick, known for its sulfur springs, was a newly booming resort town in southern Indiana. In fact, according to census data, the population of the town increased seven-fold between 1900 and 1910, from just 260 people to 1,803.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, it’s been difficult to find a lot of information about the Jarrett family. The matriarch, Julia Jarrett, was born into slavery in the 1850s, and it’s likely many of the people mentioned in this letter were her children. My research indicates she may have had as many as 16. Among them were Homer, born in 1882; Claud, born in 1885; Wilson, the one who lost his child; and Elizabeth, or “Lizzie,” about seven years old when this letter was written.

It’s also been difficult to identify many of Claud’s references. Because the collection contains only five letters, often with large gaps of time in between, I don’t have a lot of context to help. The best I can do is make educated guesses.

First, the Jarretts farmed cotton, so the “Association” was possibly the Southern Cotton Association, an organization established in 1905 to regulate the production (and therefore raise the price) of the cotton crop. The association held state conventions across the South, and it was probably one of these conventions that Claud was describing.

I hoped to identify the man Claud called “the richest negro so said to be” in Columbus, Georgia, delegate to the association, but I’ve hit nothing but dead ends. The name is difficult to discern. I also couldn’t find the newly opened “independent school” Lizzie attended. These two details have been particularly frustrating, but I’ve been in touch with archivists and historians in Georgia and will update the Beehive if I learn anything more. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any leads!

This letter is the only one from Claud in the Jarrett family letters; the other four are from Julia. When he wrote to his brother, Claud was 20 years old and apparently had dreams of becoming a railroad engineer. I like the way he put it: “I am going to fire the lard out of sume locomotive Engine some day before long.”

I hope you’ll come back to the Beehive to read more about the Jarrett family in the coming weeks. If you get a taste for more, the University of Georgia holds a collection of Homer C. Jarrett letters written between 1888 and 1948.

Wine, Wealth, & Revolution

By Megan Watts, MHS Digital Team summer intern

Many things have served as symbols of status, political leanings, and wealth throughout United States history. One of the most iconic symbols of status is alcoholic beverages. The history of early America and British North America is littered with empty bottles and full glasses. Ale flowed freely in taverns full of sailors and artisans. Rum was often cheap and plentiful in New England, the runoff product of sugar manufacturing made possible by the labor of enslaved persons. Failed vineyards could be found all over the British North American colonies in the 1600s and 1700s.[1]

However, one drink that holds a special place in colonial and American history is Madeira wine. Commonly referred to as “Madeira,” this Portuguese red wine has endured throughout the centuries. In the 1700s, it was consumed by people from different social classes and regions of North America. Madeira was popular because of its international origins (European goods were in high demand at that time), but also because it was an economical choice. Its unique creation process allowed it to survive transatlantic trips easily and remain unspoiled for long periods after purchase.

Wine shipped from Madeira was diluted with “neutral grape spirits,” then packed away in the bottom of ships. In his book Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, Steven Grasse discusses how the “sweltering conditions” of transatlantic travel acted as an integral part in the Madeira creation process, which required an oxidization process in high heat.[2] This heating and oxidation process made it possible for Madeira to stay unspoiled and palatable for long periods of time. In addition, Madeira was imported tax free to the British North American colonies, a result of a long-standing political agreement between Portugal and England.[3] Thus it was the perfect practical choice—an imported wine with no taxes and a long shelf life, perfect for merchants and consumers alike.

Madeira is a significant example of the economic, social and political ties which linked the British colonies and Europe. “The invention of Madeira wine was both an economic act—carried out in response to commercial motives—and a social act—not invented by a solitary “genius” but by an Atlantic network of producers, distributors, and consumers in intense conversation with one another.”[4]

At the end of the 1700s, Madeira became more than just a symbol of transatlantic trade, but a symbol of the American Revolution. Madeira was one of the products that British authorities attempted to collect expensive import taxes on in 1768. When a ship packed with the wine was seized by customs officials, its owner, John Hancock, refused to pay. The ship was later burned by colonists in an act of defiance.[5] This incident, and several other events related to taxation contributed to the socio-political upheaval in Boston. Madeira never lost its cultural significance. By the 1800s it served as one of the ultimate signifiers of socioeconomic status, the choice of powerful politicians, wealthy elites and influential socialites. Madeira thus was the one of the only beverages which mixed science, transatlantic shipping, privilege and coincidence.


Megan Watts is a second-year history M.A. student at Simmons University. Megan enjoys researching anything related to history. However, her most recent research has focused on colonial America- particularly American slavery. This past summer, she completed an internship with the Digital Team at MHS. During this internship she worked with the Harbottle Dorr newspapers and created metadata for some of the organization’s online resources.  Currently Megan is completing another internship at the Gibson House Museum in Boston and working at the Paul Revere House.


Grasse, Steven A. “Wine.” Essay. In Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, Being: a Revolutionary Drinking Guide to Brewing and Batching, Mixing and Serving, Imbibing and Jibing, Fighting and Freedom in the Ruins of the Ancient Civilization Known as America, 69–86. New York: Abrams Image, 2016.

Hancock, David. “Commerce and Conversation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic: The Invention of Madeira Wine.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 29, no. 2 (1998): 197–219. https://doi.org/10.1162/002219598551670.

[1] Steven Grasse, Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, New York: Abrams Image, 2016. 69-71.

[2] Ibid, 75.

[3] Ibid,75-76.

[4]David Hancock, “Commerce and Conversation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic: The Invention of Madeira Wine”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29, no. 2 (1998): 197–219. https://doi.org/10.1162/002219598551670. 199.

[5]Steven Grosse, Colonial Spirits: a Toast to Our Drunken History, Being: a Revolutionary Drinking Guide to Brewing and Batching, Mixing and Serving, Imbibing and Jibing, Fighting and Freedom in the Ruins of the Ancient Civilization Known as America (New York: Abrams Image, 2016),  76

2020 John Winthrop Student Fellows Caroline Johnson & Olivia Chickering: Researching the History of Boston’s Responses to Epidemics

by Olivia Chickering, Caroline Johnson, and Kate Melchior

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Students perform historical research and create a project (usually an assignment for class) using materials at the MHS, both in our archives or digitized online. This project can be something assigned in a class, a National History Day project, or something of the student’s invention! Both student and teacher receive $350 to support their research. Applications for the 2021 student fellowships are due on February 18, 2021. Learn more and apply!

This year, John Winthrop Student Fellows Olivia Chickering and Caroline Johnson, as well as their teacher Dan Ritchie of Marblehead High School, have been researching the evolution of Boston medical practices and the city’s response to epidemics throughout history.  Here they explain their plans for their research project and what they hope to find in the MHS archives.

John Winthrop Student Fellows Caroline Johnson and Olivia Chickering

Hello members of the historical community, we are Caroline and Olivia and we are honored to be one of the recipients of the John Winthrop Student Fellowship. The John Winthrop Fellowship offers students the opportunity to conduct research using historical documents found at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Before we begin explaining our topic of research, we’d like for you to get to know us a bit more! We are both rising seniors at Marblehead High School that share a passion for history. We are also intrigued by the development of medical practices over time. With both of these interests in mind, we decided to focus our research on the evolution of medical practices used in Boston throughout the centuries.

Today Boston is highly regarded as one of the best cities for medical care. Mass General and Boston Children’s Hospital are both top tier institutions that attract patients from all over the world. Initially, we intended to focus our research on how Boston’s history has contributed to its current position as a leading city in the medical field. However, this topic was far too broad as there are so many various types of doctors and medicine. This topic would have required extensive research in order to connect every single medical development and historical event. We decided to narrow our topic and focus our research on something more specific. The recent global outbreak of COVID-19 has led us to look more specifically at Boston’s response to pandemics and epidemics throughout history. The state of the world right now is one that many people are not acquainted with. Never before in our lives have we experienced a health crisis that has caused such drastic changes in all ways of life. Using our own experiences, recent sources, and the archives at the MHS, we will be able to research Boston’s response to the smallpox outbreak and the Spanish Flu of 1918. Then we will be comparing the city’s responses to these earlier pandemics to the current response to COVID-19.

The MHS has a wide selection of documents in their archives that we are very excited to use while conducting our research. Using ABIGAIL, the library catalog for the Massachusetts Historical Society, we have been able to select some sources that we would like to use. The first of which is an anonymous letter written by an individual living in Boston during the smallpox epidemic. This document will give us an idea of what epidemic life was like during the eighteenth century. Another source we’ll be exploring is a smallpox statistic for Boston to determine how many people were infected, and how many of those infected people died. We will also be using a medical advisory from a Health Commissioner on the prevention of the influenza virus, written during the 1918 outbreak. This source will allow us to compare the prevention methods used in 1918 to the methods used today to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While we will not be conducting this research exactly how we initially intended, we are looking forward to exploring the digitized archives and learning about pandemics while in the midst of one. Hopefully, we will be able to uncover information about how the outbreaks of the past shaped Boston’s response to the current health crisis.

Healthcation Anyone?  

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

People throughout America have been forced to place a much greater emphasis on health and well-being due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One public health measure we have been encouraged to follow is to refrain from travel and take “staycations” in order to avoid spreading contagion. However, in 19th-century New England, if you lived through a pandemic or were diagnosed with some other illness—and had the wealth to afford temporary relocation—you might have been encouraged to travel and take what we might, perhaps, call a “healthcation”.

In the 19th century, medical travel or medicinal vacations were very popular. So perhaps this is a great time to explore—from the safety of your own home, of course—a few of the historic health hotels and spas that offered answers to various ailments.  Let’s take a look at several leaflets and manuscripts found at the MHS … and who knows, perhaps healthcations will begin trending once again!

Shaker Medicinal Spring Water
Shaker Medicinal Spring Water, Boston: Shaker Agency [1880?], Knight Lib. Bdses
Shaker Hotel in Ayer, Massachusetts
Cure your kidney Stone!

Shaker Hotel

According to this leaflet, the Shaker Hotel offers Shaker Medicinal Spring Water and a quick train commute from Boston to help with many of your ailments. It goes on to state that Shaker Medicinal Spring Water will cure everything from Kidney disease and loss of appetite to constipation and drug addiction. The ‘Rural’ Home offered “large airy rooms with new furniture. Reasonable rates. Good accommodations for teams.”  Imagine, team outings in 1880! The leaflet lists gleaming reviews and success stories. “Moses smote the Rock. This water smites Disease and Death.” It’s a pretty good advertising campaign, wouldn’t you say?

Mount Mineral Springs advertisement
Mount Mineral Springs Health Spa, Charles A. Perry Bdses-Sm Trade Bills–Lock’s Village

Mount Mineral Springs Health Spa in Franklin County, MA
“These waters are Performing the most wonderful cures…” !

The Mount Mineral Springs Health Spa claimed to have four different types of healing waters, that would work on ailment from ulcers to liver complaint to ‘female weakness’ to constipation, diarrhea and diabetes.  “These waters, of which there are four different kinds, all within a space of six feet, are a perfect exterminator of every Impurity of the Blood, and an antidote for every kind of poison, internal and external.” Just a hop, skip, and jump, or three train rides away! They had take-out service as well “Order for Water promptly filled and delivered at Lock’s Village; but all orders should be accompanied with statement of disease.” After all, this was for serious health issues. It goes on to offer “Good Stable Accommodations. Accommodation for Picnics in the Grove. Dinner parties of twenty or less promptly served.”

Why is the Vineyard Healthful
Worth, Edward P, Why is the Vineyard Healthful?, Oak Bluffs Association, Oak Bluffs 1920

Martha’s Vineyard, MA 

This brochure was written by Dr. Edward P. Worth “To promote the material interests of Oak Bluffs as a summer resort” for the Oak Bluffs Association. “Why is the Vineyard ‘Healthy?’ I am often asked”, begins the physician in explaining the health benefits provided by a summer trip to the Vineyard. He goes on to say “The non-resident comes to the Vineyard to regain or conserve the health of himself or family. ‘To live a favorable life the climate must be as such, in connection with diet, rest exercise and recreation, shall promote the highest physiological efficiency of the human machine,’ and the Vineyard offers these unsurpassed.” He continues, “Rest, reading and recreation are the three R’s for the simple life on the Vineyard. The way or manner of resting is largely a choice… But Oak Bluffs offers amusement of every variety for every age… Sea bathing, a most cheerful exercise, and tonic in effect, is rendered very agreeable by the warmth of the water, averaging 72 degrees at Oak Bluffs during July and August.”

Introduction to Saratoga Waters
Saratoga Waters, or, The Invalid at Saratoga, Dr. M. L. North, [NY: Saxton & Miles, 1843].
Saratoga Springs, NY

The place to be seen! Perhaps the most famous example was Saratoga Springs in New York, where many Bostonians traveled for health. Though their observations upon arrival were more aligned to a summer resort than a medical facility. Perhaps this is the reason why Dr. M. L. North wrote in the Introduction to Saratoga Waters, or, The Invalid at Saratoga, [NY: Saxton & Miles, 1843]:

“To the Invalid, whom infirmities have depressed, whom pains have harassed, and whose hopes of regaining health have hitherto proved delusive, the inquiry –“Shall I visit Saratoga?” is one of no ordinary moment. Home must be abandoned-toil and exposure encountered- the supervision of domestic concerns and of business suspended- expense incurred-strange faces and scenes met-new lodgings, new accommodations, new reciprocities established… The healthy, the fashionable and the pleasure-seeking cannot appreciate at all the sacrifices and painful efforts that are often made by those whom they meet at the Springs.”

In a travel Journal, Jeremiah Fitch of Boston described his pilgrimage to the Saratoga Springs in great detail, including the lodging and halls (rough transcription):

July 28, 1820

“…this  Hall is 200 feet in length by about 30 in width, 3 stories high, 3 halls comprise the whole lower floor, one is for breakfast, dinner & supper, the middle hall is for the gentlemen and ladies to walk & sit in, being elegantly furnish’d. the eastern hall is for balls, & other amusements, in front of the building is a piazza the whole length and height, 18 feet wide & another back of the building as high, but not quite as wide. The former is for gentlemen & ladies to walk in, in the evening The latter is for gents to lounge & smoke & tell stories in— This place is a delightful village…

… drank freely of the waters, which operated powerfully on Mrs. F and Caroline, not quite so much on George or myself,—

(July 29 1820) “spent this day very agreeably in company with about 50 Bostonians.”

For your sake and mine, I hope we will travel again someday soon, and when we do, I hope it will not be for our health. But until then, bottoms up on that spring water!

“A letter is a letter whether there is anything interesting in it or not”: Barbara Channing’s Letters to Her Brother

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

When you work with collections of family papers, there’s often one family member who, for whatever reason, stands out from the pack. This happened with me and Barbara Channing. Even before I knew anything about her, I couldn’t help liking her.

Barbara was born on 28 May 1883 in Brookline, Mass., the middle of the five children of noted psychiatrist Dr. Walter Channing. She had three brothers and one sister, but judging from the letters she wrote to her brother Henry Morse Channing, or “Hal,” she may have been especially close to him. You can find her letters in the MHS collection of Henry Morse Channing correspondence.

Hal was three years Barbara’s senior, and before he entered Harvard, his parents sent him to live and study in Germany for a year. Barbara wrote to him faithfully nearly every week, from August 1897 to August 1898. She was only 14 years old when he left and clearly idolized him.

I think it was her carefree, breezy writing style that first appealed to me. Her letters contrast with those of her father, who, in a loving but stern tone, frequently scolds Hal for the way he spends his money or manages his studies. Barbara’s letters are like a breath of fresh air.

For example, she describes spending her summer swimming, horseback riding, sailing, playing croquet, etc. She realizes how trivial these subjects must seem to Hal, so she excuses herself by saying, “A letter is a letter whether there is anything interesting in it or not.” Her letters are newsy, chatty, and gossipy, and when she runs out of material, she resorts to sending jokes or poems. Here is one of her original compositions:

There was a youth named Hal Channing,
Who after much fussing and planning,
Sailed across the blue sea,
To far away Germany,
And his brain now with German he’s cramming.

The MHS collection unfortunately doesn’t include Hal’s half of the correspondence, but it’s clear Barbara likes to get the same kind of letter from him. Once she tells him, “The kind of letter you wrote to me about all the funny things that happened to you and the funny things you saw I think is much more interesting and funny than a heap of discription [sic] about the scenery.”

Her slang is endearing. Things are bully, dandy, jolly, awfully this, or frightfully that. Modifiers are sometimes combined for emphasis (“It is perfectly terribly hot here to-day.”). Hal, all of 17 years old, is a “dear old man.” Instead of getting angry, people get “wrathy.” My personal favorite is Barbara’s description of her grandmother’s chocolate pies: “whackingly good”!

As cheerful and confident as she seems in her correspondence, Barbara is apparently shy and quiet in real life. She is frequently mortified in the presence of young men. One evening, she attends a dinner party thrown by her oldest brother Walter. She describes her nervousness in the company of the older girls (“I looked like such a little kid”) and her inability to make satisfactory conversation.

In spite of this shyness, Barbara has very close friendships. In almost every letter she mentions the Whitneys, neighbors who seem to be almost a second family for her. The Whitneys consist of father Henry Melville Whitney, mother Margaret (Green) Whitney, four daughters, and a son. The three oldest girls, Ruth, Elinor, and Laura, are around Barbara’s age.

Another of Barbara’s likeable qualities is her good-natured self-awareness. She acknowledges her own faults. These include difficulties at school, particularly with algebra and Latin; a tendency to bicker with her siblings; a certain nonchalance about church; and general naughtiness. But she is trying to improve herself: “I really am going to try not to lose my temper more than once a day. I may have to decide on twice a day.”

She also passes along local gossip, but she’s never unkind. In fact, here’s what she has to say about the engagement of Pauline Shaw to Laurence C. Fenno, which I think is pretty adorable:

Miss Pauline Shaw is just engaged. She is about thirty-five, and he forty. […] It is great fun to see them together in church, you know what I mean. Sort of hidden spoon. When they look at each other, there is a great deal of hidden spoon. They will make such a good couple. There both tall, he a little taller than she, and both very good looking. I’m sure you would like church better if you could see them. I watch them a lot. I suppose it is wicked but I do.

Barbara’s letters reveal an intelligent, lively, and above all very funny young woman. For example, on sending Hal a Christmas card, she quips: “You were always very fond [of] cards. Cheer up, you can give it to me next Christmas.” Here’s another humorous passage:

I do write such rotten letters, and such short ones compared to you. Your’s [sic] are always so nice and long, but really nothing ever happens exciting [here]. But last week Miss Bolles and Hayden got tipped out of the sleigh […] but they didn’t get hurt a single bit so that wasn’t so awfully exciting.

Barbara frequently teases Hal, knowing he’ll be embarrassed by her affection, but she’s also genuinely proud of him. She writes, “It is so nice to think of my big brother, good and fine enough to be able to have Mamma and Papa send him abroad alone.” She pleads with him to send her his picture, one of him looking her “square in the eyes.” He relents, and she keeps the picture on her dressing table.

All of this is not to say there are no dark clouds in Barbara’s life. In fact, the Channing family gets quite a scare in September 1897 when Barbara’s “severe attack of bowel trouble” turns out to be appendicitis and she requires an emergency appendectomy. The case is “unusually severe,” but she pulls through.

Dr. and Mrs. Channing, not wanting to worry Hal, don’t reveal the extent of the danger until after the fact, when Dr. Channing confesses to Hal, “Our anxiety and suffering to see Barbara so ill was quite beyond words, and even as I wrote you, the question of life and death was pending.” One of the few letters from Hal included in the collection is his reply:

I cannot tell you how much I have felt for dear Barbara, it has been such a terrible illness, and no on[e] except Barbara could have borne it as she has. She must have shown great patience and bravery, as I have heard that appendicitis is an exceedingly painful thing, and the slow convalescence must be very trying to one with a disposition as energetic as Barbara’s. It is terrible to think now what might have happened, and I so far away from home.

During Barbara’s recovery, Mrs. Channing writes, “She looks very well, and is just her old jolly happy self, joking often & enjoying all there is to be enjoyed.” Barbara, unable to sit up in bed, scribbles a little note at the bottom of her mother’s letter sending Hal “heaps of love.” Her sense of humor certainly survives intact. When Hal himself gets sick, she chides him, “You have not any business to behave that way. One sick in a family is plenty.”

Another significant event that weaves its way into the Channing family is the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Hal is ashamed to be away and wants to return to the states and join the army. His father advises him to defer his decision, saying the matter isn’t as urgent as he believes and there are enough men for the war. In Barbara’s letters, we get a slightly different spin: “Papa won’t let Walter go and your [sic] younger, so I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t let you. He doesn’t know that you think you ought.”

The war, however, does preoccupy her. She writes about it several times, saying things like, “It seems so terrible to think of war. I suppose we don’t half imagine how bad it will be. […] I can’t really think what an awful thing war is.” And later:

It seems perfectly fearful to think about this war and somehow I simply can’t think it is justifiable. You won’t go into it. If they really needed you it would be different only it would be terrible to have you go away. I only hope that all will be settled soon, though things seem to be worse all the time. I won’t be mournful anymore.

Barbara Channing married Dr. Donald Gregg in 1912 and died on 28 Mar. 1960 at the age of 76. She is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.

Henry Morse Channing returned to the states, attended Harvard, and became a lawyer. The MHS also holds a collection of the diaries he kept while he was studying in Europe between 1897 and 1898. He married Katherine Minot in 1904, and the couple named their oldest daughter Barbara, probably after his sister.

I’ll leave you with one of Barbara’s typical sign-offs:

I would like to say a lot of affectionate and nice things but I wont for I suppose you would think they were silly but if you don’t, know that it’s just the same as if I had written them down and you will always be the same very dear brother. Ba.

I Lived like John Quincy Adams for a Week (and This is What I Learned)

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It is an oft-repeated maxim that “what we love we shall grow to resemble.” Well, I love John Quincy Adams, and in the past few years I’ve noticed several of his habits cropping up in my life. Thinking that all of his habits are good, I made the decision that for one week I would live as closely as I could to the way JQA lived.

Knowing a week wasn’t enough time to kick start a political career, I went to John Quincy’s diary and looked at a more leisurely time in his life—July 1803. In July, he summarized his daily routine thusly: “Rise between 5 and 6. Bathe and walk about two hours— Read or amuse myself with George untill 9. Breakfast— At Market— Read or write untill 2. p.m. Dine— Read again untill Sunset— Walk an hour. Lounge away the time untill 10.”

Detail of diary entry of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams’s diary entry summarizing July 1803.

That sounded doable. Keeping in mind that I have seven hours a day of mandated Adams time (How cool is that?!), I sketched out this daily schedule for myself.

5:00 a.m. — Wake and study the Bible
6:00 a.m. — Walk
7:30 a.m. — “Bathe”
8:00 a.m. — Read John Tillotson’s Sermons
9:00 a.m. — Work
2:00 p.m. — Lunch
3:00 p.m. — Work
5:00 p.m. — Read William Winterbotham’s View of the United States
7:00 p.m. — Walk
8:00 p.m. — Dinner and “lounge”
10:00 p.m. — Sleep

We know from an 1811 letter to his son George that John Quincy read the Bible cover-to-cover once a year, spending approximately an hour every morning in meditation. In July 1803 John Quincy also read John Tillotson’s Sermons to further nurture his spirit, so I did too.

The morning walk was easy enough to duplicate, but skinny dipping in the Charles is now frowned upon. Since JQA’s morning swim was as much about healthy circulation as it was about exercise, I substituted an ice cold shower. (If you can recall Janet Leigh’s shrieks in the Psycho shower scene, you have an idea of how that went.)

Adams also noted that he was reading William Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States, which is available to read online. Like JQA, I allowed Winterbotham to fill my evenings (and was as antsy as a Labrador to get out for my evening walk). Of course, one cannot imitate John Quincy Adams without meticulously keeping a diary, so I ended each day with pen in hand.

What was it like to be John Quincy Adams? Exhausting, if my experience is anything to go on. I wanted to weep every time I finished work and had to open Winterbotham. It took substantial willpower to step into a cold shower each morning. Even so, I would recommend the experiment to anyone.

Purposefully recreating his actions allowed me to understand Adams in a way I never had, and it reminded me of the best thing about John Quincy—his industry was always for others.

He pored over religious readings to keep his moral compass calibrated so that he could act justly throughout the day. He used exercise as a tool to help him focus. (I can’t convey the level of mental clarity after a long walk and cold shower. You’ll have to try it.) Once grounded and focused, he studied his country so that he could serve it effectively.

As I lived the life of 36-year-old Senator Adams, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the advice a ten-year-old JQA received from his mother: “Improve your understanding for acquiring usefull knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an Honour to your Country, and a Blessing to your parents.” No wonder Abigail was so proud.

“Standing Up, Stepping Forward, and Speaking Out” on 9 September

By Sarah Bertulli, Public Programs Coordinator

To kick off our fall season of virtual programming and what is sure to be a contentious and all-consuming election season, the MHS is presenting  Standing Up, Stepping Forward, and Speaking Out: The Political Courage to take a Principled Stand with John W. Dean III and William F. Weld on 9 September at 5:30 PM. This conversation, moderated by historian Ted Widmer, will explore the formative career experiences of Dean and Weld that inspired in each an enduring dedication to voice dissent against their own party when it mattered most, even when it hurt them politically, or derailed their career.

John Dean served on Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel from 1970-1973. In his role as legal advisor to President Nixon, Dean was clearly implicated in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal; however his choice to cooperate in the investigation ultimately led to the resignation of the president and the conviction of top aides to the president, including Dean himself. On June 25, 1973, Dean delivered 245 pages of prepared testimony against president Richard Nixon. A reported 80 million Americans tuned in to watch the five days of Mr. Dean’s congressional testimony, which would come to be widely understood as an astonishing single-handed take-down of a sitting president. Many speculate that without Dean’s testimony against Nixon, and the subsequent discovery of the president’s recorded conversations that corroborated Dean’s story, the Watergate crisis would never have risen to the level of impeachment.

William Weld is perhaps mostly widely known as the 68th governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, vice presidential candidate as a member of the Liberatarian Party in 2016, and Republcian presidential candidate running against incumbent Donald Trump. Weld began his career as legal counsel to the United States House Committee on the Judiciary in the impeachment process against Richard Nixon in 1974. Unlike John Dean, Weld never had a starring role in the Senate hearings, but he did contribute to the pivotal report “Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment,” which has been amended and used during the impeachment hearings of William J. Clinton and Donald J.Trump. As U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts under President Ronald Reagan, Weld was noted for his prosecution of white collar and financial crimes. He was later promoted to be head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department in Washington, a post he held until he resigned in protest over the improper conduct by United States Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1988.

Joining Dean and Weld, is historian Ted Widmer, a MHS Trustee, former advisor and speechwriter for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and author of the recent book, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington. Widmer will help facilitate what should be a lively conversation and offer his reflections on what it meant to be a Bostonian during the Watergate scandal, when some of the major players hailed from the city.

Join us on Wednesday, 9 September, at 5:30 PM for Standing Up, Stepping Forward, and Speaking Out: The Political Courage to take a Principled Stand. Please note, this is an online event held on the video conference platform, Zoom. Registrants will receive an email with links to join the program. Register today!

A Photographic History of Boston’s Back Bay Neighborhood

By Laura Williams, Visitor Services Coordinator

As I look forward to future days when the doors of our institution are once again open to the public, it has been difficult not to miss walking through the beautiful Back Bay neighborhood on my usual commute. This neighborhood has been home to the MHS since March of 1899, though it hasn’t always been made up of the beautiful tree lined streets we see today!

There are so many interesting pieces from our collections regarding the development of the Back Bay neighborhood, beginning with the Boston & Roxbury Mill Corporation records from 1794-1912. When Back Bay was still just a bay of water, this company had previously used a dam on the bay to draw power for its mills. Unfortunately, this led to improper draining and a backup of wastewater that created a horrible smell. This was the way of it until 1856, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to fill in the Back Bay and to construct a new neighborhood on top of the wasteland. [1] These records serve as a valuable piece of history for the understanding of city planning and development in Boston during years of momentous change.

In addition, the MHS is home to photographic documentation of certain aspects of this project. Below I have highlighted some pieces from the Arthur Asahel Shurcliff collection of glass lantern slides which show many plans and views of the Back Bay neighborhood. Shurcliff worked in the planning and development of Metropolitan Boston beginning in 1905, and served as an active member of the Boston Parks Commission and the Boston Planning Board. Shurcliff’s success in landscaping architecture extended outside of Boston as well, in the planning of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, the Plymouth Rock Shrine at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and consulting for the development of Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts.These lantern slides were digitized at the MHS in 2018, and show a unique view of the developing community.

Enjoy a look back at the MHS’s neighborhood and see what differences stand out to you! Explore the full collection of lantern slides here.

To begin, I have included a map by Benjamin Dearborn depicting  previous proposed plans for the Back Bay area, circa 1814. Due to impending sewage and wastewater buildup as result of similar plans, the land would later be filled in.

Map by Benjamin Deerborn, c. 1814
A Plan of those Parts of Boston and the Towns in its Vicinity: with the Waters and Flats Adjacent …, Boston: Benjamin Dearborn, [1814].
Here we have a view of the Boston Public Garden c. 1869.

Boston Public Garden
Public Garden and Back Bay, Boston, Mass, Lantern slide possibly taken by Arthur A. Shurcliff, 1869.

These plans show the Boston Park Department’s ideas for the Extension of Jersey Street c. 1912. Peep the MFA!

Plans for extension of Jersey Street
Boston Park Department: Back Bay Fens, Plan for the Extension of Jersey Street, lantern slide of plan drawn by Arthur A. Shurcliff, February 1912.

Aerial view of Back Bay c. 1920’s.

Aerial view of Back Bay, c. 1920s
Aerial view of Back Bay, looking east from over the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, lantern slide taken by Fairchild Aerial Surveys, New York City, circa 1920s

View of Back Bay c. 1920’s.

View of Back Bay
View of Back Bay, showing Massachusetts Avenue and area to Kenmore Square, Boston, lantern slide of map by unidentified creator, circa 1920s.

This image shows Shurcliff’s plans for widening roadways in Back Bay c. 1925.

Plan for widening roadways
Boston Park Department: Back Bay Fens, Plan for Widening Park Roadways, lantern slide of plan drawn by Arthur A. Shurcliff, March 1925.

[1] History. (2015, September 23). Back Bay Association. www.bostonbackbay.com/about-back-bay/history/