Happy Birthday, MHS!
Today marks the 222nd anniversary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the nation's oldest historical society. The Historical Society (being the only one, there was no need for the Massachusetts in the name at the time of our founding) had its first official meeting in the comfortable home of William Tudor in downtown Boston. Only eight of the ten founding members -- the ten being James Sullivan, William Tudor, John Eliot, Peter Thacher, James Winthrop, George Richards Minot, Thomas Wallcut, Reverend James Freeman Clark, Dr. William Baylies, and Reverend Jeremy Belknap -- attended that first meeting. At that meeting they selected officers, developed a constitution, and set the maximum number of members at 30 resident members and 30 corresponding members.
As laid out in a circular letter first disseminated in the fall of 1791, Jeremy Belknap, the catalyst behind the formation of the Society, envisioned both a repository and a publication program -- an institution that would collect, preserve, and disseminate resources for the study of American history.The collection, which today boasts over 12 million pages of manuscript documents in addtion to thousands upon thousands of published items, photographs, and artifacts, began at that first meeting through pledges of family papers, books, and artifacts from the founding members personal collections. And with the appearance of their first title at the start of 1792, volume 1 of the still published Collections of the Massachusetts HIstorical Society, they also made the MHS the nation's first institution of any description to publish in its field.
We are proud to say that 222 years later the MHS is still an active repository and publisher. Our collection continues to grow and supports the work of thousands of researchers every year, who access our holdings through visiting our library, exploring our website, reading our publications (and the many publications that result from the work of our researchers), and corresponding with our staff members.
Wishing a very happy birthday to the MHS -- and many, many more.
**For more on the history of the MHS, see Louis Leonard Tucker's The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791 - 1991 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995).
| Published: Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 8:00 AM
The MHS Tweets!
By Emilie Haertsch, Publications
The Massachusetts Historical Society is proud to announce the launch of a new organization-wide Twitter account: @MHS1791. After the success of the John Quincy Adams line-a-day diary tweets, we have similarly high hopes for this venture, which will feature historical tidbits, news on events and happenings, and behind-the-scenes glimpses. We are thrilled to engage in this new way with other historical and cultural institutions, as well as scholars, educators, researchers, visitors, and history enthusiasts. Join the conversation! Follow the Society at @MHS1791. Looking for other ways to interact with the MHS? Follow @JQAdams_MHS to keep up with the Adamses, visit out Facebook page, or check out other posts on the blog.
| Published: Thursday, 3 January, 2013, 8:00 AM
Massachusetts Historical Review Volume 14 on Its Way
By Jim Connolly, Publications
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: that time when a new volume of the Massachusetts Historical Review goes to press! Print subscribers will receive Volume 14 by mail in the early days of the new year, and the electronic version will be published simultaneously through JSTOR’s Current Scholarship Program. Learn more about subscription here. The journal is also a benefit of MHS membership—learn more about membership here!
The upcoming volume treats a diversity of fascinating topics:
“Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic” by Amalie M. Kass
Cotton Mather’s advocacy for inoculation—a practice then unheard of in the colonies—stirred up a controversy in 18th-century Boston. Insults and accusations flew in the partisan newspapers as inoculation’s champions and opponents fought for public health—and personal glory. The source of Mather’s knowledge of inoculation may surprise you.
“The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion and Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings” by Douglas L. Winiarski
This article explores the phenomenon of the prayer bill or prayer note in colonial religious practices, and how a satirical prayer bill was crafted to injure the reputation of Newbury Congregational minister Rev. Christopher Toppan, who vehemently opposed the popular religious revivals of the Great Awakening.
“A Prince among Pretending Free Men: Runaway Slaves in Colonial New England Revisited” by Antonio T. Bly
Bly sheds light on the lives and characteristics of runaway slaves through in-depth analysis and explication of runaway notices in newspapers. Clues within these notices tell us how fugitive slaves employed quick wits and savvy under extraordinary duress. Bly, who has compiled a database of runaway slave notices, crunches the numbers on a variety of characteristics, illuminating the most common months for escape, the race, linguistic ability, and work backgrounds of runaways, and more.
“Boston, the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, and the Poncas” by Valerie Sherer Mathes
When the Ponca Indians of Nebraska were forced from their homeland in 1877 and sent to the inhospitable Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), many Americans sympathized with their plight. Among those who took up the cause was the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, a group of philanthropists, described in detail for the first time in this article. Mathes also chronicles the speaking tours in support of the Poncas, including the tour of Ponca chief Standing Bear.
The new volume also includes review articles by Sarah Phillips and Chernoh Sesay concerning environmental history and books about Phillis Wheatley and Venture Smith, respectively.
Every issue of the MHR offers pieces rich in narrative detail and thoughtful analysis, and Volume 14 is no different. The MHS looks forward to its publication.
| Published: Friday, 30 November, 2012, 1:00 AM
Making the Body Politic
By Anna J. Cook, Reader Services
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Suzanne and Caleb Loring Research Fellow Ann Holder of the Pratt Institute discussed her research on post-Civil War citizenship, race, and public spaces in a presentation titled “Making the Body Politic: Sexual Histories, Racial Uncertainties, and Vernacular Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation U.S.” The presentation drew on one chapter from a book-length project exploring “public space as a battleground for citizenship.” In this particular chapter, Holder focuses on segregation debates and practices on streetcars and railways from the late 1860s into the early 20th century. She looks comparatively at Boston, Richmond (Virginia), and New Orleans in order to explore how the public space of streetcars and railway carriages were negotiated with regards to race, class, and sexuality, as these public transit systems developed and became necessary for urban life over the course of the 19th century.
Historians have often assumed that, following emancipation, the categories of black/white were easily mapped onto American society as a substitute for slave/free. Holder argues instead that racial segregation, in custom and law, actually rose in response to the uncertainty of racial categories in the Reconstruction era. Inter-racial sexual relationships during the era of slavery had created racial ambiguity that slavery regulated; once slavery ended, the instability of racial identities exposed the fallacy of a clear demarcation between black and white. Segregation, she suggests, was a “newly-created borderland” between white and black communities, and one which required new mechanisms for enforcement – such as physical segregation in public spaces. Where once whites were relatively free to travel “at will” in black spaces, in the latter half of the 19th century they became subject to new laws restricting them to white spaces. This led to complaints, for example, by whites about crowded whites-only streetcars (particularly when black cars passed by relatively empty, as during organized boycotts), and the rise in arrests of whites for violating segregation laws. In other words, whites had to be disciplined into the “white role” in a similar (though lesser, less violent) fashion as blacks.
Here at the MHS, Holder is exploring the history of segregation in Boston transit, which was practiced customarily in the early 19th century before it fell victim to the campaigns to “strip the legal system of reference to race” in the early 19th century, and to repeal laws banning inter-racial marriage. She notes how the “forced democratization” of crowded public spaces, and the “physicality of encounters with the ‘other’” whether of another class, sex, and/or race, often discomfited those of higher social standing and introduced an unmistakable undertone of sexuality to the experience of traveling. In her presentation, she quoted an anonymous diarist who recounted his unhappy experience of traveling from New York to Boston on the railway, using the word “amalgamation” to describe class mixing in train cars – a word that would, in the Reconstruction era, come to mean inter-racial sexual relations.
Discussion following Holder’s presentation explored the various ways in which imposed order was attempted on the disorganization of public transit, whether by the creation of “first class” rail cars, smoking cars, women-only cars, or racially-segregated trolleys and trains.
We look forward to seeing where Anne Holder takes her research from here, and are very pleased to have her with us throughout the academic year pursuing her work in our Reading Room.
| Published: Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 8:00 AM
Who’s Your Favorite Historian?
By Kathleen Barker, Education Department
Although it’s only early November, program planning for the winter and spring of 2013 is well under way here in the Education Department. The MHS will be offering an interesting mix of public programs in the coming months, including concerts, author talks, a walking tour, and even a dramatic reading! Even as we experiment with different program formats, however, we always remember to ask ourselves how we can shine a spotlight on the Society’s unique resources and assets. In addition to our amazing collections, the MHS also employs a phenomenal staff with connections to an engaging array of historians, public figures, artists, and others who make use of history in their work. How can we tap into this deep pool of historical enthusiasm? What is the best way to connect all of these fantastic people with our public program audiences? We’ve come up with a few ideas, but we’d love to hear what YOU think.
One program we will pilot in 2013 is modeled after something we’ve tried at our annual fundraiser, “Cocktails with Clio.” At each of the past two events, the Society’s President has interviewed a prominent historian as part of the evening’s entertainment. We’d like to build on this format and develop an entire series of discussion-based programs that feature historians working on intriguing projects.
So ... who is your favorite historian? Who would you like to converse with at the MHS? Along the same lines, we’re also on the lookout for non-historians who could comment on how history affects their work. Jurists, for example, could discuss how they use history to frame their responses to current court cases, while city planners could explain how they engage with the past while planning for the future. Are there other “opinion makers” you’d like to see at the MHS? Use the comment form below to let us know!
Of course, writers and artists use history in their work all the time, and we’re excited to offer several prominent examples of historically minded creations this spring. In February, for example, we will host author William Martin, who will share the experience of writing his latest book, The Lincoln Letter, a work of historical fiction that takes readers on a an adventure through Civil War Washington. In May, we will bring our collections to life in song and theater. Local playwright Rob Velella will join us for a dramatic reading that explores the friendship between Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His performance is based on the letters, journals, and other documents created by both men. Later in the month, Berklee Professor of Music Education Peter Cokkinias brings his Boston Saxophone Quartet to MHS. The group will perform music from the era of the American Civil war and provide historical commentary on songs that our audience will be sure to recognize. Are you ready to sing along?
Now that you’re all excited about 2013, don’t forget that we have some nifty programs coming up in November and December. Be sure to visit our web calendar often for more information about programs on the horizon.
| Published: Thursday, 8 November, 2012, 1:00 AM