The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Giving a Photograph a Name: Identifying Mary Swift Lamson in the MHS Photo Archive

The photograph collections in the MHS library never fail to excite me. Dabbling in photography as a hobby has allowed me to better appreciate the laborious processes of early photography, and how beautiful the resulting images turn out.

Recently, two unidentified photographs caught my interest while searching for images on behalf of a remote researcher. The initial search for images of Mary Swift Lamson in our online catalog ABIGAIL only turned up one result; a companion portrait of Mary accompanying portraits of her husband Edwin and her young son Gardner drawn by Matthew Wilson in the 1850s. However, I knew our library holds the Lamson family papers, and with them the Lamson family photographs. This collection is comprised of three carte de visite albums, one box of loose portraits, and ambrotypes and daguerreotypes stored separately.

Many of the ambrotypes and daguerreotypes from the Lamson family are unidentified, primarily of children, taken in the mid-19th century. I looked through several of these unidentified photographs in my search for Mary. Two of these photographs were reminiscent of the 3 companion portraits; photographs of a young couple and a mother with her child. With the help of our Senior Cataloger Mary Yacovone, these two photographs have now been identified and cataloged with additional information in our online catalog ABIGAIL.


Mary Swift Lamson, son Gardner Swift Lamson, and husband Edwin Lamson. Each by Matthew Wilson ca. 1855-1858. Currently on loan to the Parkman House, Boston. Images taken from the catalog Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Oliver, Hanson, and Huff, eds. (Boston: MHS, 1988.)


The portrait of the young couple was the most striking to me. The young woman’s direct gaze and the hint of a smile playing at her lips stands out from the many portraits with eyes averted. Mary’s pursed lips and Edwin’s pronounced brow crease stood out to me immediately as part of their defining features in their painted portraits. With this photograph identified, it was easy to notice the young mother in the other photograph was Mary. While infants are more difficult to pin down, the child has a similar appearance to Gardner in his painted portrait (although perhaps Matthew Wilson took liberties with painting him in a more flattering light, his hair is perfectly groomed).


The photographs, previously labeled as “Unidentified man and woman” and “Unidentified woman with child” can now be found in our library catalog as Mr. and Mrs. Edwin and Mary Swift Lamson, ca 1846 and Mary Swift Lamson with child, ca. 1855-1856. The child is tenuously identified as Gardner in the catalog description. Now that the photographs are better described and thus more easily accessible, I hope this will aid researchers in their research into this winsome family.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 1:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

On Tuesday, 24 February, joing us at 5:15PM for an Immigration and Urban History Seminar. "'I Had Ample Opportunity to Notice the City as It then Was': Social and Economic Geographies in New York City, 1783-1830," is presented by Carl Smith of Providence College. Joshua Greenberg of Bridgewater State College provides comment. This event is free and open to the public, RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

On Thursday, 26 February, MHS Fellows and Members are invited to a special preview of and reception for "God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill." This exhibition tells the story of the coming of the American Revolution in Boston, using letters and diaries, political cartoons, newspapers, maps, artifacts, and portraits. The reception begins at 6:00PM. Registration required at no cost.

The exhibition opens to the public on Friday, 27 February, and is on view Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, until 4 September 2015. 

With the opening of the new exhibition we will also return to hosting our free Saturday tours! Come by on Saturday, 28 February for the History and Collections of the MHS, a 90-minute docent-led walk throught the public spaces at the Society's home on Boylston St. The tours are open to the public free of charge. No reservation required for individual or small groups. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 3:16 PM

From Russia with Love: LCA’s Journey from Russia to France

This month marks the 200th Anniversary of Louisa Catherine Adams’s six-week and nearly 2,000-mile trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, France. Travelling by carriage across a war-torn Europe and in the midst of Napoleon’s Hundred Days after his escape from his exile on Elba, trying to reach her husband, John Quincy, who, negotiating an end to the War of 1812 in Ghent, she had not seen for a year, Louisa’s story is an amazing one.

Louisa’s journey began on Sunday, February 12, 1815—her fortieth birthday—setting out with her seven-year-old son, Charles Francis, and a few servants she didn’t know if she could entirely trust. Despite what she knew would be an arduous and dangerous journey, Louisa started out in hope and expectation as she wrote to her husband:

I am this instant setting off and have only time to say that nothing can equal my impatience to see you some of my business is necessarily left undone but I hope that you will forgive all that is not exactly correspondant to your wishes and recieve me with as much affection as fills my heart at this moment for you. I could not celebrate my birthday in a manner more delightful than in making the first step towards that meeting for which my Soul pants and for which I have hitherto hardly dared to express my desire but in the full conviction that the sentiment is mutual.

During her trip, Louisa faced poor lodgings, broken down and lost carriages, and news of murders on the roads she was travelling. Still she recalled the scenes she passed in her retrospective Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France: “The Season of the year at which I travelled; when Earth was chained in her dazzling, brittle but solid fetters of Ice, did not admit of flourishing description, of verdant fields, or paths through flowery glebes; but the ways were rendered deeply interesting by the fearful remnants of mens fierry and vindictive passions; passively witnessing to tales of blood, and woes.” Finally, as she approached Paris, a unit of soldiers loyal to Napoleon, seeing that her carriage was of Russian origin, threatened to seize and kill them. Louisa, fluent in French, was able to show them her passport and explain that she was an American and diplomatically shouted, “Vive Napoleon!” to appease the troops and guarantee her safe passage. At last, late in the evening of March 23, a “delighted” John Quincy reunited with his wife and child.

You can read more of Louisa’s recollections in A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams.

Images: LCA to JQA, 12 Feb. 1815; LCA’s French Passport issued 10 March 1815; and the first page of LCA’s Narrative of a Journey


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 February, 2015, 9:58 AM

This Week @ MHS

As we endure yet another snowstorm here in Boston, we are entering a shortened week again, this time thanks to a holiday. Please note that the Society is closed on Monday, 16 February, in observance of President's Day. If you plan to come in for any of our upcoming events, please check our website or call the Society before your visit to ensure that the event is proceeding as scheduled. 

First up this week on Tuesday, 17 February, is a midday author talk featuring Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate - Carnegie Endowmentfor International Peace. Join us at 12:00PM for his talk entitled "The Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks Come to Terms with Genocide, Memory, and Identity." This talk is free and open to the public. 

The event scheduled for Wednesday, 18 February, "Comic Books in the History Classroom," is POSTPONED. Contact the education department at or 617-646-0557. To inquire about rescheduling. 

And on Thursday, 19 February, come in for the third program in the Adams Family Series. This time, independent author Rosanna Wan presents "The Culinary Lives of John and Abigail Adams: A Cookbook." Registration is required for this event at a cost of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members). Please call 617-646-0578 to register, or click here. There is a reception that begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. 




comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

All the Single Ladies: Deliberate Spinsterhood in the 19th Century

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, I thought I'd take a closer look at some letters related to courtship and marriage that recently caught my eye. The Fay-Mixter family papers at the MHS include correspondence by the very witty Maria Denny Fay (1820-1890) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a letter to her brother Joseph Story Fay on 15 Nov. 1846, Maria began by discussing their mother's health and the recent death of Salem merchant Dudley Leavitt Pickman. Speculation about the marriage prospects of Pickman's children, Eliza and Dudley, prompted Maria to remark:

I agree with you in thinking it desirable for every body to be married, and I should be the first to set the example if I were not an only daughter as it were, and if I was not assured that having been created entire, I need not expect a better or worse half.

Maria Denny Fay was the sixth of seven children of Samuel P. P. and Harriet (Howard) Fay. She did, in fact, have two sisters, but all of her siblings were married by this time, and Maria was the last still living at home. Was it solicitude for her parents that compelled her to stay single? It's impossible to say for sure, but her breezy dismissal of matrimony (and not-so-subtle dig at married couples) suggests a deliberate choice. At 26, she was, by all accounts, attractive and accomplished, and she must have been under some pressure to find a suitable husband. But she had other priorities. Her mother Harriet had written to Joseph the previous year about Maria's romantic apathy:

Maria has her new piano which is a source of endless pleasure to her, and she is also very much engaged in the study of the german language. She therefore stays at home, goes to no parties, and enjoys her music and study more than the conversation of beaux.

The less generous among us may wonder if she lacked for offers. Apparently this was very far from the case. Just three months after Maria's letter, her mother passed along this juicy gossip:

We have had a little variation to our domestic affairs by a love affair of Maria, except, as is always the case with her, the love was all on the other side. I mention the circumstance lest you should think her remaining single was on the principle of “sour grapes.” The case in question would offer a most unexceptable [i.e., unobjectionable] connexion, if she had the least disposition to marry. The gentleman is a resident in Cambridge, of suitable age, a scientific man and is one of the most prominent literary men of the day, has sufficient property and a good income, has urged his suit with great zeal, and renewed his offer after an interval of several days, in the hope to gain her consent. But she is very decided, and declined giving him any encouragement. I do not mention his name, because his conduct was very honorable and frank, and it would therefore be wrong to expose him to the mortification of having it known that he [has] been refused.[...] I presume there is not another lady in Cambridge would have refused so eligible an offer. Maria has no wish to marry and therefore a man must have great attractions to win her heart.

Who was the disappointed suitor? I wasn't able to identify him, but I hope Maria let him down easy!

Maria's cheerful and confident self-sufficiency is very refreshing. Not exactly “conscious uncoupling,” but maybe “conscious never-coupling”? I found no sign of resignation, despair, or loneliness in her letters. The 19th-century author Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote in her novel Hope Leslie (1827), “Marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman.” Sedgwick was not only one of the most popular authors in America during the first half of Maria's life, but also another “spinster.” The MHS holds an extensive collection of Sedgwick's papers, including a large amount of correspondence devoted to her ideas on marriage and “maidenly independence.”

As a child, Maria Denny Fay had been educated at the Ursuline convent in Charlestown before it was burned in 1834. As an adult, she traveled widely, eventually returning to Cambridge and living in the family home, known as Fay House. This became the first building owned by Radcliffe College when Maria sold it to the school in 1885. A scholarship was also endowed in her name after her death.

Here's to Maria Denny Fay, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Esther Howland (“Mother of the Valentine”), and all of the other “singular” ladies of the 19th century on this Valentine's Day.


comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 11:03 AM

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