The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“. . . unidentified girl exercising with dumbbells”

That was the line in our online catalog that caught my eye last week. Sandwiched between portrait descriptions and mention of a family crest, this hint about a tintype dating to the 1870s in the Homans family photographs collection was too arresting not to follow up on.

I pulled the appropriate box from our photograph collection and sure enough, the second-to-last folder bore the title “four unidentified girls exercising, ca. 1870-1880. Photographer unknown. Tintype.” Four girls exercising? My interest was well and truly piqued.

Tintype of four girls lifting dumbbells, ca. 1870-1880. Found in the Homans family photographs.

Facing the camera, the four girls wear matching outfits, complete with white handkerchiefs tucked into their chest pockets and shiny black shoes. They appear to be in their mid-to-late teens and are standing straight-spined, each holding aloft two dumbbells.

In a collection of unremarkable individual and group portraits, this photograph raised a multitude of questions for me, chief among them being, why are these girls lifting weights? What group are these girls a part of that they are identically dressed and posing for this photograph? Was this common practice for Boston-area women in the 1870s? While common practice today, weight-lifting women were not always so familiar.

I took a two-pronged approach to answering these questions, first searching the Homans family papers, including the 1878 and 1881 diary of teenager Mattie Homans, to see if I could find reference to this type of exercise, and then looking at our collections more broadly for materials related to women’s gymnasiums in Boston and physical education for women.

The Homans family papers disappointingly failed to illuminate the context for this photograph, and so I moved on to other, related resources.

Ideas regarding health, fitness, and the role of physical activity for shaping personal and cultural character changed dramatically over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and this photograph illuminates the pervasiveness of these changes. Puritan beliefs that illness was an unavoidable and even expected aspect of their daily lives, gave way to the active promotion of health and hygiene through personal actions and environmental changes. 19th century Boston played host to a multitude of facilities, practitioners, and publications devoted to shaping the public discourse on physiology and hygiene, and middle class citizens, particularly women, were at the heart of this movement.

In Able-Bodied Womanhood: Personal Health and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Martha H. Verbrugge posits that

"[A]ntebellum health reform prescribed self-governance to alleviate the problems of urban life. The world seemed unmanageable to Boston’s middle class . . . [i]n an unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable world, [they] looked inward for stability. Self-control appeared to be the most reliable, perhaps only, mechanism for restoring order." (47)

While Bostonians believed that a person’s biological characteristics (like a weak heart), and their physical environment (like a drafty house) contributed to their health, or lack-thereof, they placed the greatest emphasis on the role of personal behavior in actively shaping their lives.

Attempting to break the monopoly men held over early gymnasiums, Bostonians such as Dr. Dio Lewis and Mary E. Allen, opened gymnasiums catering specifically to women and children. In 1860 Lewis opened the New Gymnasium, focused almost exclusively on promoting muscular development in children of both sexes, and his Family School for Young Ladies in Lexington, MA, which centered its curriculum around both intellectual and physical instruction.

Dr. Lewis’s Family School for Young Ladies. Sketch found in “Catalogue and circular of Dr. Dio Lewis’s Family School for Young Ladies, Lexington, Mass. 1866.”

 

Mary E. Allen continued this trend into the 1870s, opening the Ladies Gymnasium on Washington St. in 1877 and offering facilities for women and children to conduct slow, careful, and progressively more difficult physical exercise in the pursuit of “symmetrical bodily development”. In addition to providing a gymnasium, Allen also taught a so-called “Normal Class . . . for the instruction of those who intend to teach Gymnastics, either in public or private schools, or in Gymnasiums devoted to women and children, an urgent need of which exists in the larger towns and cities.” Not only training women to improve their own physiques, but to become teachers of such methods themselves.

“The Ladies’ Gymnasium. Eighth Year, 1885-1886”

 

This broadening emphasis on physical culture was deeply intertwined with changes in beauty and fashion standards, the roles of middle class women in the private and public spheres, and developments in science and medicine. Verbrugge’s work does a wonderful job of addressing the intersectionality of these varied forces, particularly within the sphere of Boston society.

Taking these sources in concert, it is no longer strange to have found the image of young women lifting dumbbells, particularly within the family photograph collection of a prominent Boston family. Unfortunately, I was not able to identify the women in the photograph, or establish their affiliation with a particular school or gymnasium. That will have to be a project for another day.

If 19th century dumbbells strike your fancy and you would like to see the Homans tintype in person, please feel free to stop in and visit our library. If you are interested in seeing what other materials we have related to physical education, you can browse our online catalog, ABIGAIL from the comfort of your own home.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 15 January, 2016, 12:00 AM

Counting Down to the Quasquibicentennial

In eleven days, the Massachusetts Historical Society will be celebrating its quasquibicentennial, or, if you prefer, its bicenquasquigenary. In other words, on January 24, the MHS will turn 225 years old! We don’t think it looks a day over 200.

The MHS was founded on 24 January 1791, when Rev. Jeremy Belknap and a group of like-minded men met in Boston to form a society that would “collect, preserve and communicate, materials for a complete history of this country.” It was the first historical society in America, so its founders called it simply “The Historical Society.” (The New York Historical Society came along in 1804, then the American Antiquarian Society in 1812.) The MHS lived at six different locations before moving in 1899 to its current building at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston.

 

 

Staff members at the MHS have been working on a web project to commemorate our 225-year history: a gallery highlighting 225 items from our collections, including manuscripts, artwork, artifacts, and printed material representing four centuries of American history. Helping out with this project, I’ve had the chance to see a broad cross-section of material, learn the stories behind individual items, and better understand their significance.

Of course, the MHS is well-known for its iconic collection of Adams family papers, which include the letters and other papers of John, Abigail, John Quincy, and many generations of family members. We’ll be featuring some of these papers in our 225th anniversary gallery, from an early love letter by John to correspondence about Abigail’s death. John Adams’ notes on the Boston Massacre trials and his son’s reflections on the Amistad case document fascinating milestones in this illustrious family’s story.

The MHS also holds the second largest collection of Thomas Jefferson papers after the Library of Congress. Not only will our project feature Jefferson’s original manuscript draft of the Declaration of Independence, but also John Adams’ manuscript copy, the first printing, and the first printing that included signers’ names.

Many of the items in our collections are, in fact, the only known surviving copies of printed works. These include Samuel Sewall’s seminal anti-slavery pamphlet The Selling of Joseph, Benjamin Franklin’s first published work, and an early engraving of Harvard discovered by accident in the MHS collections 85 years after its acquisition!

Other ground-breaking printed works you’ll find here are the first books of poetry by Anne Bradstreet (1650) and Phillis Wheatley (1773), as well as the first Bible (1663) published in North America, a translation into the Massachuset Native American language.

The MHS holdings also include some remarkable Civil War-era material, so these papers figure prominently in our gallery. Particularly heartbreaking is a letter from Lt. Col. Wilder Dwight to his mother, written as he lay dying on the battlefield of Antietam. And this broadside recruiting African American soldiers for Massachusetts’ famous 54th Regiment becomes more poignant when you learn how the U.S. government failed to make good on its promises to the men who answered its call.

As for papers related to slavery and abolition, we highlight an eight-page letter from Abraham Lincoln to his friend Joshua Fry Speed detailing Lincoln’s feelings about slavery and the Union, and one Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote on the day she finished her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I also really like our 1892 photograph of the African Meeting House, the site of many anti-slavery meetings.

Speaking of striking images, here are a few more in MHS collections that you may not know about: a watercolor painting of the Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp, John Noble’s illustrated letter to his children depicting scenes from the South Pacific, and the only known portrait of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone painted from life.

We hope you’ll enjoy our 225th anniversary celebration and visit us either in person or on-line. Keep an eye on our website, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter, as we count down to this momentous occasion.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 January, 2016, 4:18 PM

This Week @ MHS

Our map exhibition just closed and we are awaiting the arrival of The Private Jefferson which comes later this month. In the meantime, we still have a couple of free programs to tide you over this week:

- On Tuesday, 12 January, 5:15PM, there is an Environmental History seminar. "Airplanes and Postwar America: An Environmental History of the Jet Age" is presented by Thomas Robertson of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and assesses the environmental consequences of aviation. Sonja Duempelmann of Harvard University provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- On Wednesday, 13 January, there is a Brown Bag lunch talk beginning at noon. This week, Jennifer Chuong, Harvard University, speaks about "'Chargeable Ground' and 'Shaking Meadows': New Models of Land Cultivation in Eighteenth-Century New England." Part of her dissertation research, Chuong's talk examines Connecticut minister Jared Eliot's An Essay Upon Field-Husbandry in New England as It Is or May Be Ordered (1748), with a particular focus on Eliot's identification of different landscapes as entailing different proportions of effort, investment, and delay in their cultivation. This talk is free and open to the public. Pack a lunch and stopy by!

Please note that the MHS is CLOSED on Monday, 18 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 19 January.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 10 January, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

We are back in the library for another year (our 225th!) but we are starting things off slowly. This week we have two items on the agenda for you:

- Wednesday, 6 January, 12:00PM : "Factory Fleets and Fewer Fish: Fisheries Management in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, 1945-1996" is a Brown Bag lunch talk presented by Benjamin Kochan of Boston University. This project makes heavy use of the Leverett Saltonstall papers to explore the evolution of US fishery policy in the mid-twentieth century. The talk is free and open to the public. 

- Saturday, 9 January, 9:00AM : "Transforming Boston: From Basket Case to Innovation Hub" is a teacher workshop that connects the history of Boston to the major economic and social trends of the late 20th century, providing educators with classroom-ready materials that reveal how Boston became the innovation hub of America. This program is open to educators and history enthusiasts with a fee of $25. To register or to get more information complete this registration form, or contact the education department at education@masshist.org or 617-646-0557.

- Finally, this week is your last chance to see our current exhibitions! Come in any day this week, 10:00AM-4:00PM, to get a last glimpse of our map exhibit, the correspondence of Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, and the Unitarian Conscience. Then stay tuned to learn more about our upcoming exhibit, The Private Jefferson, opening later in January. 

* N.B. - There are no Saturday public tours scheduled in January before the next exhibit opens.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 3 January, 2016, 12:00 AM

New to the Reference Collection

Below are titles newly received or purchased for the library’s collection of contemporary historical scholarship and reference works. All of these books will be available for use in our library once we reopen to the public on Monday, 4 January 2016. In the meantime, enjoy the end of year holidays with family and friends. May you enter the new year renewed -- and excited to pick your research back up in our cozy reading room while the winter snow piles up outside!

 

Cleves, Rachel Hope. Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Crabtree, Sarah. Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Downs, Jacques M. with a new introduction by Frederic D. Grant, Jr. The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844. Hong Kong University Press, 2014.

Free, Laura E. Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era. Cornell University Press, 2015.

Graves, Donald E., ed. First Campaign of the A.D.C.: The War of 1812 Memoir of Lieutenant William Jenkins Worth, United States Army. Old Fort Niagra Association, 2012.

Hamlin, Kimberly A. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Hemphill, C. Dallett. Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Jefferson and Palladio: Constructing a New World. Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, 2015.

Johnson, Marilynn S. The New Bostonians: How Immigrants Have Transformed The Metro Region Since the 1960s. University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.

Lockwood, J. Samaine. Archives of Desire: The Queer Historical Work of New England Regionalism. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Nicolson, Colin, ed. The Papers of Francis Bernard: Governor of Colonial Massachusetts, 1760-69. Volume IV: 1768. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts vol. 87. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2015.

Prieto, Laura R. At Home in the Studio The Professionalization of Women Artists in America. Harvard University Press, 2001.

Rex, Cathy. Anglo-American Women Writers and Representations of Indainness, 1629-1824. Ashgate Press, 2015.

Schiff, Stacy. The Witches: Salem, 1692. Little, Brown and Co., 2015.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 12:00 AM

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