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Voices of the Exhibition: Bostonians at the Centennial

One year ago, I embarked on my first major archival research project outside of the comfort of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I am an undergraduate student studying English literature, communication, and music.  The first stop on my journey was at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) to connect with my research advisor, Professor Natalie Dykstra, and an MHS archivist, Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, who is a Hope alumna.

My research project, titled “Voices of the Exhibition,” is a series of four podcasts intended to bring the stories of different people who visited the Centennial Exhibition to life.  The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was a world’s fair held in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was attended by 10 million people from around the globe, making it the highest attended world’s fair at that time.

Many diaries and letters of Exhibition-goers have been catalogued at the MHS and other Boston archives.  In searching through these archives, I found many interesting sources, but my favorite is the diary of Frank Dudley Chase, which currently resides in the collections at the MHS. 

Frank Dudley Chase was 16 years old when he visited the Exhibition, and in elegant penmanship he dutifully recorded everything he encountered while at the fair.  From the cost of his train ticket to elaborate descriptions of the exhibits, Chase left little about his journey out of his diary. 

Chase was a typical teenage boy who loved being outdoors and did not always like to do his chores.  He travelled from Dedham, Massachusetts to Philadelphia for the Exhibition and was at the Exhibition for five days from October 23 to October 28.  From descriptions of ammunition to meticulously painted foreign vases, Chase’s diary is a vivid record that provides a glimpse of what  exhibits and oddities attracted youthful Exhibition visitors.

On Tuesday, October 24, Chase wrote:

Had a heavy rain last night in the night.  Pleasant.  Visited Main building.  First went through U.S. dept.  Near So. Entrance of building were a number of large fancy mirrors.  Among these was a couple one concave; the other convex one showing an object unnaturally broad; the other unnaturally slim … Also saw an immense crystal of alum, weighing 9 tons, a 365 bladed pocket knife, a table knife 9 ft 6 in costing $1500 … the silk exhibit showing the eggs, butterflies, cocoons and raw silks … In the Brazilian department saw precious stones among them white topaz, amethyst and agate; collections of beetles and butterflies; a leather exhibit and a porcupine fish…

He and the rest of his group were undoubtedly eager to take in every facet of the Exhibition.  However, his diary provides more than a meticulous record of daily weather and exhibits: it is a window into Chase’s experience and the experiences of other teenagers who visited the Exhibition.

The Centennial Exhibition was a fair for the people.  It was designed to bring together Americans to celebrate independence and express their patriotism.  Furthermore, it provided an education tool that introduced Americans, like Chase, to cultures, inventions, and ideas that were brand new to them.

Before researching at the MHS, I was already able to recite many facts about the Exhibition.  I would not call myself an expert in every detail, but I knew a lot.  However, it was not until I read Chase’s diary that I fully understood the impact of the Exhibition on the American people.  On December 31, two months after visiting Philadelphia, Chase said it best when he wrote: “One great event distinguishes this year in my life, and that is my journey to the Centennial where I learnt more than I should have in many years of quiet life.”

As I look back on the past year, I am still so thankful for the experience I had at the MHS.  Not only did I find wonderful information in Chase’s diary, but I read the diary of George W. Ely, a young man who visited the fair, official addresses to the Centennial committee, and letters from prominent Boston citizens, such as members of the Saltonstall family and their friends. 

As an undergraduate student, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to do research at such a prestigious institution.  I cannot express enough the importance of the MHS to my education and professional development.

Listen to a podcast that features Chase’s diary, titled “Children at the Exhibition.” It is the second podcast in the four-podcast series, all of which can be found on my website at





comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 1:00 AM

Fathers’ Day: Louisa Catherine Adams and Joshua Johnson

Fathers have a tremendous impact on the lives of their children; and this is quite evident in the case of the Adams family. While John Adams and John Quincy Adams clearly and significantly influenced their children, I want to highlight the relationship of Louisa Catherine Adams with her father, Joshua Johnson. This relationship not only shaped Louisa’s upbringing, but indeed colored her entire life, and her relationship with the Adamses.

Joshua had moved to London before the Revolutionary War to forward his business interests, and during the 1790s served as the U.S. consul at London. Marrying an English woman, and raising his children in France and England, led some to question his patriotism and Louisa’s need to protect and defend her father’s honor and reputation is evident throughout her writings. This need not only grew out of Joshua Johnson’s long foreign residence but more especially because of her father’s financial circumstances at the period when she married John Quincy Adams. Just as she and John Quincy were married, her father’s business failed. Unable to provide the dowry he had promised and in debt, Joshua Johnson quickly took his family from London back to the United States to attempt to recover his losses. Louisa entered her marriage with the anxiety and shame that her husband and others would think that she and her father had conned John Quincy into marrying her with false promises; it was a sensitivity that never went away.

But for Louisa, her father had been entirely blameless, and this belief she also carried throughout her life. Fortune was unkind. His partners had cheated him. In her Autobiography, “Adventures of a Nobody,” Louisa reminisced:

The qualities of the heart and of the mind, excited a higher aim; and a romantic idea of excellence, the model of which seemed practically to exist before my eyes, in the hourly exhibition of every virtue in my almost idolized Father; had produced an almost mad ambition to be like him; and though fortune has blasted his fair fame; and evil report has assailed his reputation; still while I live I will do honour to his name, and speak of his merit with the honoured love and respect which it deserved— As long as he lived to protect them, his Children were virtuous and happy—amidst poverty and persecution.

Like many adults in times of sorrow or hardship, even at the age of 64, in her Diary in July 1839, she looked back with fondness and nostalgia for her childhood:

My Father! my Dear my honoured my revered Father! In the hour of sickness, of sorrow, of disappointment; memory carries me back to the days of my youth; when on the slightest complaint, I met thy sympathising tenderness, anxious solicitude, and affectionate indulgence to suffering and weakness; and the soothing encouragement which braced the nerves to fortitude, and the spirit to courage! Where in this world is thy likeness to be found! Thou wert not great, but thou wert good!!!

As we celebrate Fathers’ Day, this is yet another reminder that the emotions and relationships, particularly those of parent and child, remain familiar across the centuries.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 1:00 AM

The More Things Change....

Today’s media commentators like to decry political polarization and incivility in the United States. It’s become a well-worn cliché: Why can’t we all just get along? Some will even claim that this polarization is worse now than ever before. (Of course, we only have to go back 150 years to find Americans literally at war with other Americans, but let’s put that aside for the moment.) I’d like to present, as evidence for the defense, a letter written in 1813, when this nation was still in its infancy. The letter forms part of the Henry P. Binney family papers at the MHS.

In mid-1813, Benjamin Homans (1765-1823) worked as chief clerk of the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. His friend and colleague Amos Binney (1778-1833) was the Navy Agent at Boston. The United States was a year into the War of 1812, and Boston was a hotbed of dissent. New England Federalists and merchants vehemently opposed “Mr. Madison's War, largely because of their reliance on trade with England. Binney lived and worked in the belly of the beast as an agent for the federal government, and Homans sympathized. He wrote to Binney on 23 June 1813:

You may be very sure, that I am no stranger to the active operation of evil spirits in Boston, party spirit, selfish spirit, envious spirit, proud spirit, family spirit, mean dirty spirit, assassin spirit, infernal spirit, tory spirit, royal english spirit, pseudo patriot spirit, hypocritical sanctity spirit, professional spirit, Jew spirit & Turk spirit. […] I conceive that every good quality, every moral virtue, and every social principle to be rapidly depreciating in Boston, and that it is at this day the vilest and most profligate spot on Earth, and for myself, my heirs & successors, I would prefer a residence in Algiers, Siberia or Botany Bay, than to live within one hundred miles of the atmosphere tainted by the noxious breath of Ben Russell and the Junto and their satellites.

Wow! Homans certainly didn’t mince words. A little bit of context: Benjamin Russell (1761-1845) was the editor of Boston’s hugely popular and staunchly Federalist Columbian Centinel. He had editorialized against Thomas Jefferson and now regularly attacked his successor James Madison. The “Essex Junto” was a group of hardline New England Federalists, so-called because many of its original members hailed from Essex County, Mass.

It would be difficult to overstate the Junto’s opposition to the Madison administration and the Democratic-Republicans. Governors of Federalist states refused to send their militias to join the war effort. There was even talk of secession. Just before Homans wrote this letter, John Lowell (1769-1840), a prominent member of the movement, published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts in a Series of Letters, in Answer to a Question Respecting the Division of the States. In this pamphlet, Lowell argued that the Louisiana Purchase had been an unconstitutional overreach by Jefferson and a violation of the original compact of the thirteen colonies. In truth, the annexation of all that new territory meant a shift in the balance of power and a dilution of the political and economic influence of the North. Lowell thought the original colonies should expel the western territories from the Union. Russell at the Columbian Centinel agreed.

In his letter, Homans advised Binney to stay strong and ignore the haters:

There is but one course a man can take, and that is to fix the pole star in his mind and steer by his own Compass, without attraction deviation or variation; the privilege of finding fault gives employment to the idle and food to the envious and vicious, and Saint John or Angel Gabriel could not go from the Town House to the head of Long Wharf without having some fault found with them, and even some would be self-righteous enough to cast a stone; in my opinion, no event in the progress of human affairs will ever restore Boston, to a state of social happiness civil liberty & personal independence. Since the Essex Junto took possession of it, every unclean Beast has found an asylum there. 

Homans also referred to the capture of the U.S.S. Chesapeake just three weeks before and took one more swipe at Madison’s domestic adversaries: “We have a desperate, enraged and brutal Enemy to deal with. And their friends & advocates are ten times worse and deserve ten times greater damnation.” Though he didn’t use the word, there’s little doubt that he considered these men traitors. In fact, some people called them “Blue Light Federalists” because they were alleged to use blue signal lights to communicate with British ships from the harbor.

 For better or worse, bitter partisanship and vitriolic attacks have been a part of our political landscape from the beginning. When Homans’ letter was written, the United States was just 37 years old, and acrimonious debates were already raging about vital issues: territorial expansion, states’ rights, international alliances, and regional conflicts between the mercantile North and the agrarian South.

 With only superficial changes, Homans’ words might have been spoken by any number of today’s political commentators. And if Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel were an online publication, it’s easy to imagine what the comments sections would look like!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 8:00 AM

"Covered with Egyptian Darkness": New England's Dark Day of 1780

While the weather in Massachusetts was sunny and beautiful over Mothers' Day weekend, many other places in the country experienced extreme and severe weather ranging from hail and tornadoes to flooding and blizzards. On 19 May 1780, Massachusetts, along with the rest of New England, experienced a different type of extreme weather event in what became known as the "dark day."

Abigail Adams, home in Braintree while John continued his diplomatic mission in Europe, recorded her impressions of "a strange Phenomena":

"On fryday the 19 of May the Sun rose with a thick smoaky atmosphere indicating dry weather which we had for ten days before. Soon after 8 oclock in morning the sun shut in and it rained half an hour, after that there arose Light Luminous clouds from the north west, the wind at south west. They gradually spread over the hemisphere till such a darkness took place as appears in a total Eclipse. By Eleven oclock candles were light up in every House, the cattle retired to the Barns, the fouls to roost and the frogs croaked. The greatest darkness was about one oclock. It was 3 before the Sky assumed its usual look. . . . About 8 oclock in the Evening almost Instantainously the Heavens were covered with Egyptian Darkness, objects the nearest to you could not be discerned tho the Moon was at her full. . . . I hope some of our Philosophical Geniousess will endeavour to investigate so unusual an appearence. It is matter of great consternation to many. It was the most solemn appearence my Eyes ever beheld but the Philosophical Eye can look through and trust the Ruler of the Sky."

In a letter to John Adams, Abigail's uncle Cotton Tufts included his own account and noted the various explanations local people were giving for the strange occurrence:

"This uncommon Darkness, greater in Degree and longer in Duration than had ever been before amongst us occasioned much Speculation, some attributed it to the Influence of the Planets, some to the Effects of a Comet and some to an Eruption of a Vulcano. The Vulgar considered it some as portending great Calamities, others as a Prelude to the general Dissolution of all Things. A close Attention to what appeared before and during this Event will help us to (at least) a probable Solution of this Matter, without having Recourse to the Planets &c. for a Cause. Prior to this, The Woods from Ticonderoga for Thirty Miles downwards had been for some Time on Fire. No Rain for many Days, Winds chiefly at West and N. West. By these the Smoak and Vapours were carried to a great Distance, insomuch that in our Vicinity, the Sky was at Times obscurd, the Air crowded with Smoak and Vapours, a disagreable Smell like what proceeds from Swamps on Fire."

Indeed, Tufts' explanation of forest fires proved correct; however, it was only recently that examination of tree rings in the forests of Ontario, Canada, indeed confirmed a widespread fire sending smoke far into New England, coupled with fog and cloud cover combined to produce a weather event that was remembered for generations.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 10:00 AM

"A Second Mother"

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to a remarkable person from one of our manuscript collections: Frances Elizabeth Gray. Elizabeth, as she was called, was born on 2 July 1811, the oldest child of Henry and Frances (Pierce) Gray, and spent most of her life in Roxbury, Mass.

What makes Elizabeth so remarkable? Her story begins with the tragic and premature death of her mother. Frances Pierce had been just 16 years old when she married Elizabeth’s father Henry in 1810. Twenty years later, just three days after giving birth to a daughter Anna Ellen, she died. She had delivered sixteen children, three of whom died in infancy. With Frances gone and Henry working as a merchant far away in New York, their daughter Elizabeth found herself with twelve—that’s right, twelve—younger siblings to raise. She was 18 years old.

Her siblings were: William (17 years old), John (16), Henry, Jr. (14), Caroline (12), Charles (11), Lydia (10), Mary (8), Frederick (6), Arthur (5), Frances (4), Horatio (15 months), and Anna Ellen (3 days). The Grays received some support from uncles, but the day-to-day care of the family fell on young Elizabeth’s shoulders.

Her diaries begin with entries describing her mother’s death and the events that followed:

1830. On Monday, March 22d, my mother died; was buried on Saturday 27th, the funeral delayed in consequence of my father’s absence, who did not arrive till a few hours, after it had taken place; he had gone to New-York on Saturday, 20th, on business, but being informed of my mothers illness, immediately returned, but was not aware of her death, till he arrived home.

Sat. eve. 27. A scene of trouble. I will not attempt to describe it.

Sunday, April 11th. Horatio, aged 15. mos, & Anna Ellen, the baby, born March 19; were christened; all the children were present, making thirteen.

Anna Ellen put out to nurse, March 22d to Mrs Moncrief.

Henry Gray returned to business in New York and frequently wrote to Elizabeth with news and advice. I was prepared to dislike Henry for his absenteeism, but his letters demonstrate a respect for his daughter that impressed me. He almost always deferred to her in matters related to the children. He wrote with genuine affection and regard for her happiness, as well as confidence in her judgment. For example: “I approve your measures, not only what you have done, but what you may do.”

The rest of the correspondence consists primarily of letters to Elizabeth from her brothers William, John, and Henry, Jr. In the 1830s, the boys were living in various Massachusetts towns, where they were educated and trained for professions. My favorite correspondent, by far, is John. He often wrote to Elizabeth with desperate pleas for money, clothing, and other items, and when she sent them, he was effusive in his gratitude. Here’s part of letter dated 25 Oct. 1831:

I shall simply say I have received what you promised: viz bundle and moneys. A thousand thanks—best feelings—memorys of you—none wrecked. Indeed you have been a second mother. May the Father of Mercies, direct the early beginning of such charity, to terminate in your own personal happiness! I address him for you; for you especially, peculiarly, emphatically for you.

John’s life also ended prematurely, which adds to the pathos of his letters. He was studying law, but struggled with financial and emotional problems. After a failed effort to establish himself in the west, the 23-year-old John was found dead in a hotel in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) on the morning of 21 Mar. 1837, almost seven years to the day after his mother’s death. He’d taken a fatal dose of opium.

Caption: The last letter in the collection from John Gray, written in Wheeling.

The collection includes many letters related to John’s death, as the family struggled to come to terms with it. Henry felt that John had been the most gifted of his children, and his death was an “irreparable loss.” An inquest established that John had not committed deliberate suicide, and Dr. Eoff of Wheeling provided more details on his state of mind in the last days. In a letter to Elizabeth, he explained that John had suffered from delusions and took the opium as a curative:

He believed that one or more living animals were within him & consuming his heart, liver, &c &c & imagined that he could hear them singing &c. These impressions produced great depression of spirits & kept him continually anxious to take some medicine to remove them.

As for the other Gray siblings, my research turned up only the barest outlines of their lives. Elizabeth herself lived to be 82, but never married, though she received offers. In later life, she lived with her youngest sister Anna Ellen and helped care for her nephew, William Gray Brooks. He remembered his aunt Elizabeth fondly, writing: “I owe to her unselfish devotion and love whatever I am or know.”

Another moving tribute appears in a letter to Elizabeth from her troubled brother John, written on 16 Sep. 1834:

You say little to me of Futurity; perhaps you speak the less, because you feel the more. You have acquired fame enough. To illustrate your virtues and tenderness I point to twelve brothers and sisters. Let me partake of your advice often, that my gratitude may be strengthened, if it be capable of it.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 7 May, 2015, 1:00 AM

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