The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: An Introduction

In my previous post, I explored the world of early twentieth-century travel by train. Inspired by the glimpse into another era the diary behind that post evoked, I went looking for other travel diaries from the same era and found an anonymous diary kept by a Boston woman while on a steamer cruise up the Nile in Egypt.

Intrigued by the notion of an American tourist riding donkeys out to explore Egyptian archeological sites and having tea at British colonial resorts while Europe was at war, I have decided to use this diary as a jumping-off point to write a series of posts this winter placing this diary, and the adventure it describes, in broader historical context.

The diary begins abruptly on 25 November 2014 with our diarist already en route up the Nile by steamer. The author begins each day with the date and writes a few lines about her daily activities -- notes on where and how she and her party traveled, the sites visited, as well as where and when she had breakfast, lunch, and tea. Even without detailed information about the author’s identity and the personal context of her foreign travel, her written record of progress up the Nile can serve as a catalyst for a number of historical questions.

We might explore, for example, what the diary can tell us about the history of travel, and particularly the history of women travellers. Her story is part of a long history of Anglo-American fascination with Egypt and the Middle East that bears unpacking -- by virtue of her anonymity her experience may shed light on the experience of everyday, rather than famous (or infamous), Americans abroad.  We might ask what her narrative can tell us about the materiality of travel, about human interaction with the natural and built environment. We can also note the silences and erasures within her narrative: those aspects of Egypt which she may or may not see, but certainly doesn’t write about.

Stay tuned for the second post in this series, coming in February, in which we will delve into the timeline of our diarist’s journey up the Nile and some of the activities she did record along the way.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 1:00 AM

A Vacation of the Mind

I went to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) this morning. The flight from Boston normally costs upwards of $1,000. Flight time, with layovers, averages 24 hours. However my trip to Ceylon did not cost me a dime or any flight time. I went on a “mind vacation.” The concept sounds a little quirky but a mind vacation is a great way to visit another place or time without actually spending the money for a flight or inventing time travel. (Although if you are currently devising time travel, I want in.)

My mind vacation materialized as I read Reverend James Cordiner’s Description of Ceylon. In these two volumes, Cordiner recorded his experiences in Ceylon while serving as chaplain to the garrison of the capital Colombo from 1799 to 1804. The first volume contains descriptions of the island’s geography, resources, inhabitants and climate. When I first read the climate description of Colombo, thoughts of the brisk January temperatures in Boston today -- and the approaching blizzard -- simply melted away.

With great detail, Cordiner contrasts the climate of Colombo with the nearby British trading port of Madras (modern day Chennai, India).  “…with the arid plains, withered vegetation, scorching winds, and clouds of burning dust, which, for several months in the year, cast an inhospitable gloom around the vicinity of Madras. There in, the month of May, 1804, Farenheit’s thermometer appeared above ninety degrees before nine o’clock in the morning, and, in the course of the day, rose in many houses to one hundred and nine degrees.” Cordiner considers this port’s climate to be lacking. I also think Madras is a little too hot and dusty for a comfortable mind vacation.

I find his description of Colombo comparatively restorative to read in the middle of January. “The smallest inconvenience from heat is never felt within doors at Columbo. Even passing through this moisture under the full blaze of the meridian sun, the air is ten degrees cooler that than of Madras … There is then always a fresh breeze from the sea, which greatly lessens the effects of the sun’s power.” Colombo is a tropical vacation compared to dusty Madras -- and snowy Boston!  With temperatures in the 80s and a sea breeze, who would not want to visit?

Do you need a mind vacation this week? I encourage you to visit our reading room (although check our homepage, as we may close due to snow) for a mind vacation to plenty of local and distant destinations throughout the centuries available in our collections.  I would love to hear your adventures.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 26 January, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

The Immigration and Urban History seminar scheduled for Tuesday, 27 January, "Interpreters in Ellis Island: A Tool for Americanization, 1892-1954," is CANCELED

However, you can still come in on Thursday for an author talk at 6:00PM. Join us as independent author, Phyllis Lee Levin, presents "The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams." This is the first event in the Adams Family Series of programs. Registration is required for this event with a fee of $10 (no charge for Fellows and Members). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM. Please call 617-646-0578 to register. 

Please note that our exhibition, "Letters  and Photographs from the Battle Country" is now CLOSED. Our upcoming exhibit opens on Friday, 27 February, and is titled "God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill." Be sure to check it out! 

Finally, there will be no Saturday tours until our next exhibition is open. Please refer to our online calendar to see the current schedule. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:22 AM

Serendipity in the Archives

I recently processed a manuscript collection that contains some terrific material related to the Boston Lyceum for the Education of Young Ladies, a school founded by Dr. John Park (1775-1852) in 1811. I'd never heard of the school before, but in a matter of weeks, very similar papers cropped up in two other collections here at the MHS, like an archival version of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

John Park had been a physician in the West Indies from 1795 to 1801, then a newspaperman in Newburyport and Boston, Mass., before founding his Lyceum. The school gave girls a classical academic education rather than lessons in the usual “feminine accomplishments.” Classes were held at Park’s home in Beacon Hill, and he did all the teaching himself. He was, by all accounts, a gifted and enthusiastic teacher, respected and loved by his students.

Sarah Bryant (1812-1887) was one of the many daughters of prominent Boston families who attended the school. The Fay-Mixter collection contains several small (approximately 3 ¾ x 2 ½ inches) “report cards” filled out by Dr. Park, 1827-1829, recording her marks in arithmetic, composition, parsing, history, geography, Latin, French, Italian, and other subjects. Park felt ranking his students and rewarding high achievers with “medals” promoted healthy competition. Sarah Bryant earned medals for good composition and good improvement, as well as a whopping seven Eye of Intelligence awards, “the highest honour ever conferred in the Lyceum.”

Dr. Park also wrote personal remarks on most of the cards. He described Sarah as “one of the best writers in the Lyceum,” “correct and bright,” with “powerful natural talents” that were being “successfully cultivated.” Park was “highly gratified” with her academic work, but unfortunately she had one bad habit that frustrated him: leaving her seat to socialize with other students. He wrote: “Miss Bryant has quick powers and holds a high rank.[…]I have only to regret her being so frequently out of her seat, conversing with those who do not sufficiently value their time.” On another card, he described her as “very capable, but too much like Hamlet’s ghost ‘hic et ubique.’” (Translation: here and everywhere.) His advice? “Steady habits would perfect the scholar.”

Another student (and another Sarah) who attended the school just before Miss Bryant was Sarah Loring (1811-1892). The MHS holds several of her report cards, ca. 1824-1827. Although she earned a few medals for good composition and good improvement, as well as one Eye of Intelligence award, she ranked lower in the class, and Dr. Park’s remarks were more mixed. On the plus side, she was “full of zeal,” “faithful,” “amiable, studious,” “attentive,” and “indefatigable.” However, she displayed an exasperating lack of discipline. She talked too much (“If I did not hear Miss Loring’s voice so often, she should have great praise.”), arrived late (“Exercises begin at 8.”), and disrupted lessons (“Still interrupts me sometimes.”). She was often marked for disturbance, and one card includes the ominous warning: “Beware of another week.”

But no matter how difficult the pupil, Dr. Park almost always mitigated his criticism with encouragement. He frequently assured Sarah that she wrote well, even though he was disappointed by her “dreadful” handwriting: “Your Composition has improved much; you want more care in the execution.” He also complained that her essays were too short: “You write well. Do write longer.” But what Miss Loring needed most, he thought, was confidence. When she wasn’t intimidated by her lessons, she showed great skill. For example, he described her Latin work as “excellent. Was afraid of Horace, but acquits herself well.” And after one impressive composition, he praised her for making “scarcely an error. Courage give the same freedom to your mind, when you take your pen, that it has at other times, & you will find no difficulty.”

 Even earlier papers related to the Lyceum are located in the Rogers-Mason-Cabot family papers. This collection includes a book of essays written by Hannah Rogers (1806-1871) when she was a student of Dr. Park’s between 1822 and 1824. Subjects include friendship, education, religion, etc., and many of the essays won gold medals and medals for literary ambition and rapid improvement. Dr. Park carefully corrected Hannah’s grammatical errors, but added other comments that reveal his affection for and pride in his student. In spite of “small inaccuracies,” he wrote, Hannah’s “powers are vigorous, and your style very much to my taste. With a very little more practice, you will rank among my best in composition.” And her essay about happiness and misery provoked this thoughtful response:

Though there are some small errors in the execution, (particularly the want of periods, where the sentence is completely ended) this is one of the ablest exercises you have produced. Though a sombre view of mankind, it contains strong and just observations, which show a discriminating and reflecting mind.

The Boston Lyceum for the Education of Young Ladies was open for 20 years. One of its most prominent students was Margaret Fuller, who attended from 1821 to 1822. For more information on Fuller’s studies and the school, see Charles Capper’s 1992 biography or Megan Marshall's Pulitzer Prize winning biography, published in 2013. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 22 January, 2015, 12:24 PM

This Week @ MHS

The Society is closed on Monday, 19 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

On Wednesday, 21 January, join us as the Boston Saxophone Quartet performs a selection of songs that take the audience through the musical landscape of World War I. "Here Comes America" begins at 6:00PM with a reception beginning at 5:30PM. This event is open to the public at a cost of $10 (no charge for Fellows and Members). Please call 617-646-0578 to register.

Calling all history teachers! On Saturday, 24 January, the Society will host a teacher workshop co-sponsored by the Abigail Adams Historical Society. "John & Abigail: A Life in Letters" is a hands-on workshop that (re)introduces participants to the famous couple and their rich correspondence. This program is open to all K-12 educators, as well as history enthusiasts. The workshop begins at 9:00AM. Regsitration is required with a fee of $50. For more information, or to register, contact the education departpment at education@masshist.org or 617-646-0557, or, complete this registration form.

Also on Saturday, 24 January, beginning at 10:00AM, is the History and Collections of the MHS, a 90-minute docent-led tour of the public spaces at the Society. The tour is free and open to the public with no reservations required. 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

Finally, this week is your last chance to see our current exhibition before it closes. "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country" is open this week every day, 10:00AM-4:00PM, ending on Saturday. Be sure to see if before it's gone!

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 18 January, 2015, 11:57 AM

older posts