The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Christmas in Asswan

Today we rejoin our anonymous diarist as she journeys down the Nile in the winter of 1914-1915. You can read previous installments of this series here (introduction), here (Cairo to Aysut), here (Aysut to Asswan), here (Asswan to Abu Simbel), and here (Wadi Halfa to Asswan), and here (At the Cataract Hotel, Asswan).


In this sixth and final installment of the “American Woman in Egypt” series, we will follow our anonymous diarist through the final ten days of the year as she celebrates the December holidays far from home. While this section of the diary doesn’t conclude the diarist’s trip to Egypt, I will be picking up with a new writer’s diary in January. Hopefully, you have enjoyed this vicarious journey!


From Cairo to the Cataracts by Blanche Mabury Carson (1909)

Dec 21. Went to English church, then walked to village & back. P.M. Busy in my room till 3.45 then we went out for a sail up toward the dam among the islands. Got back & saw the sunset from my balcony.


Dec 22. Read in the garden for awhile, then at 11.40 left the hotel and took train for Shellal with party from Ramses the Great. Got back & went round first to the dam. had lunch at Cook’s resthouse, then walked nearly across the dam and back, got back in boats & went through two locks rowing back to steamer which we reached for tea. Found Mr. Wood, returned from Khartoum.


Dec 23. Sailing along all day & very cold. Began a letter after lunch. Could not sit out. Reached Luxor at 4, but decided not to land & stayed on boat overnight.


Dec 24. Landed at 9.15 & came in bus to Hotel Savoy. Miss Merrill did not feel well. I walked back to Cook’s & looked in the shops. Afternoon sat in garden & then had tea on terrace outside. Wrote in garden.


Dec 25. A.M. Xmas day. Went to church at 10.30. Dr. Hudson ill but he did officiate. P.M. Wrote till 4 in garden then went to Winter Palace for tea with Miss. M. & Miss Ensign. Saw end of some sports & met Mr. Pratman who stayed with me & escorted us home. After tea saw a Xmas tree there & Santa Claus. Listen to the music, then saw sunset on the terrace. We had our own tree for dinner with presents at each plate & a 9 course dinner.


Dec 26. Went to village & bought cards and in P.M. sat in garden & wrote then went out on terrace to see sunset.


Dec 27. Started at 9 for Karnak. Walked there & spent whole morning. Started to walk back but was taken into a carriage by a couple who picked me up in the road. After lunch sat in garden, then walked to village to P.O. - Cook’s & also went into shops. Got back just in time to see sunset from terrace.


Dec 28. Went to church, met Mr. Pratman after it, who walked home with me & sat in the garden. P.M. Wrote in the garden, then went to see Miss Gillander & had tea with her at the Hotel du Nil. Saw Miss Kerr’s pictures after lunch & in evening again.


Dec 29. Walked to village to P.O. & then went into Luxor Temple. P.M. spent in garden & on the terrace.


Egypt: Ancient Sites and Modern Scenes by Sir Gaston Maspero (1911)

Dec 30. Walked to Karnak first to temple of Ptah then up by eastern ave. of sphinxes to the great temple. Tried to find some friezes from Mr. Tynsdale’s book, but could not. P.M. spent in garden & on terrace.


Dec 31. Went across the river met Miss Gillander & we three went to Deir el-Medina - tombs of [illegible phrase], temple Medinet Habu where we ate our lunch & tombs of Nobles [illegible phrase]. Got back to boat at 4:30. Came back & had tea on terrace. Very hot in sun.


We will leave our diarist here, an American abroad enjoying the mid-winter sun on the terrace of the Cataract Hotel. For those of you interested in exploring more of this writer’s story, remember that you can visit the library or order reference reproductions.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

We have a much-shortened week at the Society as we prepare for Thanksgiving, but there are still a couple of events going on here for you take in. 

- Monday, 23 November, 6:00PM : Join us for an author talk with Sally G. McMillen of Davidson College. She is speaking on her new book, Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life, which addresses Stone's omission from the pantheon of women suffragists of the 19th century. This talk is open to the public for a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows or Members). Registration is required. 

- Tuesday, 24 November, 5:15PM : Mark Herlihy of Endicott College presents "'A barbarous practice that would not be permitted in other civilized countries': The Evolution and Enduring Presence of the African Dodger Game at Boston-Area Amusement Venues," a seminar talk that is part of the Immigration and Urban History series. Jeff Melnick of UMass - Boston provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

Please note that the MHS is closed on Thursday, 26 November, for Thanksgiving. The library remains closed through Saturday, 28 November. The exhibition galleries are open on Friday, 27 November, and Saturday, 28 November, 10:00AM-4:00PM. Normal hours resume on Monday, 30 November. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 22 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

Zymurgy in the Stacks: Brewing History at the MHS

Like many other people these days, one of my hobbies outside of work is brewing beer at home. It’s a good way to spend an afternoon and the results, if not immediate, are usually very satisfying. As I type this, there are 3 gallons of Holiday Cheer Ale in a glass carboy on my counter, bubbling-away during the primary fermentation stage. It will take a few weeks until I get my final product, so patience is a necessity. But, since I’ve gotten myself into a good rotation the last couple of months, I have plenty of other styles on standby for when I get thirsty.

Even though I started brewing about two and a half years ago, I have not yet been brave enough to do a lot of experimentation with my recipes. Instead, I rely heavily on a list of house recipes created by the folks at my local brewing supply store in Cambridge. These recipes provide step-by-step instructions (which I have down-pat, at this point), specific types and amounts of grains, malt extracts, and hops that go into a given brew, and a few types of yeast that they suggest for the best results. So far, these recipes have not failed me.

On a few different occasions I have searched our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what the MHS holds in relation to beer and brewing. Sadly, there is not much, most of it coming in the form of old printed treatises on beer. A few weeks ago, though, I struck gold! While preparing a display of manuscripts for a visiting college class working on food history, I brought out an item that is listed in our catalog as an “Anonymous Recipe Book, ca.1800.” Upon opening the folder, I found staring at me a small manuscript page with the simple heading “To brew Beer.”

“Take 3 pints of malt, a double handful of Hops, as much of bran or shorts, boil these in ten gallons of soft water for two hours, then strain it, and when cold, add half a pint of molasses a half pint of yest and work it well. To colour it add a handfull of roasted barley whilst it is boiling. The yest of this beer put in a bottle with water & kept in a cool place, will serve to make bread.”

Also included on the page is a recipe for Spruce Beer:

“Take half a pint of Spruce. Boil it two hours in five gallons of soft water, a quart of molasses. When cold work in a large tea cup full of god thick yest, let it work 24 hours & then bottle it off. It will be pleasant Beer without the spruce.”

As I mentioned above, with modern recipes I have grown accustomed to seeing very specific amounts (usually in ounces, to one decimal place) and varieties of grains/malts and hops to create a certain type of brew. I feel like these somewhat vague descriptions (3 pints of malt; a double handful of hops) made more sense 200 years ago because the pickings were probably slim and brewers were using what was grown nearby. In the 18th century, a brewer did not have to agonize over whether to use Northern Brewer hops or Fuggles; the myriad options simply were not there.

Still, I think that maybe in the near future I will overcome my reliance on the modern recipe and give this piece of brewing history a try at home.  


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 20 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is a little bit quieter at the Society this week, but there are still some programs for your history-loving pleasure. Here's what's happening:

- Wednesday, 18 November, 6:00PM : "Transforming Boston: From Basket Case to Innovation Hub, Program 3 - The New Economy: Eds and Meds, 1980s to Today." Regsitration is required for this event with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS, BARI, or Rappaport Fellows or Members). Please note that this program takes place at the MIT Stata Center (Vassar Street near Main Street), room 33-123.

- Friday, 20 November, 2:00PM : "From Bunker Hill to Yorktown: Collecting Maps Along America's Road to Independence." Join us for this gallery talk in which Ronald Grim, Curator of Maps at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, will discuss the history of map collection in relation to Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Saturday, 21 November, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a free public tour of the Society's building on Boylston St. The walk-through is docent-led and lasts about 90 minutes. No need for reservations for individuals and small groups, but parties of 8 or more should contact Art Curator Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or

- Saturday, 21 November, 1:00PM : "Begin at the Beginning: Boston's Founding Documents." Historian Margaret Newell leads a discussion of the enslavement of Native Americans from the first years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Registration is required at no cost. Please RSVP.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 15 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

Family and Mental Illness in Early 20th-Century Massachusetts

The MHS is home to a rich variety of family papers. These collections of diaries, correspondence, and other materials provide windows into the way people thought about each other and the world around them. I decided to utilize these resources to explore the ways New Englanders thought about mental illness a century ago. Searches in ABIGAIL led me to the David Richards Family Papers. David Richards (1850- ca. 1927) was a farmer and businessperson who lived in Sherborn, Massachusetts. His wife, Esther (Etta) Coffin Loring Richards struggled with mental illness for a number of years, and a good deal of correspondence among the family members relates to her condition. The personal nature of many of these papers leads to interesting accounts of the way one family understood and responded to mental illness, but the papers also offer insights regarding family dynamics and attitudes surrounding treatment in the early 20th-century.



In The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill, historian Gerald N. Grob writes that the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries constituted a period of challenges to and changes within the psychiatric profession. There were calls for an increasingly-scientific approach to psychiatric medicine, as well as a shift toward psychopathic hospitals rather than “traditional” mental hospitals. These new hospitals emphasized research and cared for a variety of so-called deviant individuals rather than simply long-term, chronically-ill people. However, according to John R. Sutton, rates of institutionalization remained high even with attempts at reform, in part due to new developments in the creation and management of deviance in the United States. Etta Loring Richards’ institutionalization takes place within this context. According to “A Very General Sketch of Mrs. R from the Summer of 1907 to Spring of 1916,” written by David Richards ca. 19 July 1916, Etta felt around the summer of 1907 that she could not trust anyone, and that she was not “having the medical attention she needed.” Etta was taken to Arlington Heights Sanatorium, then later to Adams Nervine. At Arlington Heights, she was diagnosed by a Dr. Ring (three Dr. Rings, two of whom are said to be affiliated with “Ring’s Sanatarium” in Arlington Heights, are mentioned on page 395 of this 1910 Medical Directory of Boston), who said of her condition: “There is nothing the matter with the woman physically, its simply Hypochondria.” After six months at Adams Nervine, Etta returned home. However, her mental health concerns reappeared in later years.

Throughout these papers, Etta and David reflect on Etta’s illness; these writings present possibilities for analysis of family and gender dynamics in their time and place. In a 2 December 1907 letter from David Richards to Mr. Batchelder, the family’s lawyer, David quotes Etta and her pleas for treatment, writing “‘If Mr. Batchelder were here he would say that you ought to take me [and] you say that you always do what Mr. Batchelder says,’” as well as “‘I did wrong in not going, but I am doing wrong all the time.’” Later, in an undated letter from about January 1908, Etta writes that she is sleeping well, but is having trouble eating, and often stays in bed feeling fatigued. She also notes that she is hurt and upset that David wanted to “keep money away from me,” as he thought she would “spend it all on Quack [doctors].” I certainly feel Etta’s pain when reading these letters.

In addition to Etta’s frustration regarding David’s apparent indifference and skepticism toward her treatment, I got a sense of the loneliness Etta felt when her husband failed to give her the attention she sought while she was institutionalized. In a 1 June 1908 letter, Etta writes:

Why do you [–] how can you forsake me so [–] Dr. Fuller [told] me you had never inquired for me through him. He said Dr. Stevens had not inquired for me since he was here [–] the 28 of March so you have not heard of my condition for two months. God in heaven knows I could never leave you in such a suffering condition [-] and never inquire for you – directly or indirectly – for two long months[.] Oh how it hurt me[.]



Etta’s writings about her husband suggest that, in her mind, he was not there for her or interested in her well-being. This raises questions about the ways women were supposed to be taken care of by their husbands during this period. Was David’s behavior normal, with Etta expressing frustration at the roles of men during this period, or was David failing to fulfill a role that was expected of him? A closer look at David’s own writings may shed some light on these questions, as well as raise some additional ones.

David’s blend of indifference toward and control over Etta’s treatment and conditions are noticeable in his own writings, as well. In his “General Sketch,” he writes about his “indifference to my wife’s sufferings.” This supposed indifference is not just observable in hindsight; David writes that “some dear friends insisted Nervine plan my plan [sic], trying to make out my wife [insane?] to get control of her property.” This assertion may or may not have been entirely accurate, but the idea does seem to have some basis in his actions, as a similar fear seems to be on Etta’s mind when she laments his unwillingness to give her any money. David admits in his account that, when Etta wanted to go to an Asylum in 1914, he “laughed at her fears, would not listen to her story of desperation.” This apparent trivialization of Etta’s concerns regarding her health is frustrating to read; however, David’s attitudes present possibilities for analysis of patriarchy within early 20th-century families as well as gendered responses to mental illness within families of this period.

This brief exploration certainly does not tell the whole story of the Richards family, nor does it provide an authoritative account of mental illness and family in the early 20th-century. Numerous other correspondents and subjects exist in these papers, including other family members, as well as Etta’s friends and doctors. The David Richards Family Papers are available for viewing at the MHS, so feel free to stop in for a visit if you would like to explore them on your own.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 13 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

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