The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Wadi Halfa to Asswan

Today we rejoin our anonymous female 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) and here (Asswan to Abu Simbel).

Image: “The Oriental Lounge of the Cataract Hotel at Assuan,” from Douglas Sladen, Queer Things About Egypt (1910)


In today’s entries, our diarist tours various sites on the border of Egypt and Sudan, in an area today bordering (and in some cases subsumed by) the Lake Nasser/Lake Nubia reservoir. In one case, visiting the Temple Kalabsha, she would have seen the temple in its original location nearly half a century before it was moved to accommodate the rising waters of the lake as the Aswan Dam was constructed (between 1958-1971).

On December 15th our narrator departs the steamer on which she has been traveling and takes the train north to Asswan once more, where she checks into the Cataract Hotel at which she will spend her Christmas holidays. These entries continue to illustrate how, as an American tourist, she experienced the country through which she traveled, and the people she encountered there.


Dec. 11. A.M. wrote post cards & at lunch we arrived at Wadi Halfa. Went on shore after lunch & walked around, then went up to train and saw people off for Khartoum. Went to P.O. for stamps. After tea went ashore again with dragoman & walked through [illegible phrase]. Saw Nubian village & then Sudanese on the desert.

Dec. 12. Had early breakfast & left in small boat at 8:30. Miss M. did not go. Were rowed across first to shore & then towed along for about an hour’s ride. Then landed & got onto donkeys & rode over the desert to the rock of Abu Seer, 1 ½ hours. Went up on rocks & saw two [illegible word] shoot the rapids. Rode back to river bank & had lunch in a little hut there. Then visited Temple of [illegible phrase] took boats again & were rowed back to our steamer in time for tea. After it wrote a letter. Fine full moon.

Image: “The Rock of Abusir” from Amelia B. Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1890)


Dec. 13. Had early breakfast & at 8:30 went ashore in row boats to see rock temple of Sebel Addeli 4 papyrus columns with bud capitals -- used as a Christian church. Soon after leaving this we passed Abu Simbel again. Wrote till noon time. Sailed along all the afternoon.

Dec. 14. Reached Kalabsha just at breakfast & immediately after went ashore -- a large group of [visitors?] - went to rock temple of Beit-El Wali, a vestibule [illegible phrase]. Only side walls of vestibule standing, interesting historical reliefs. Some coloring in the hall & sanctuary. Then went back to river, took boats & rowed into temple of Kalabsha, which is partly submerged -- never finished -- has [illegible phrase] rooms -- 1st vestibule has [illegible word] columns with floral capitals, the roof is gone. The other 3 rooms have walls, preserved reliefs with vivid coloring. Arrived at Shellal at noon. Most of people took 3pm train to Asswan. After they had gone Miss M., Miss Gillender & I had a boat & went around to Philae & back for tea & stayed on boat overnight.

Dec. 15. Left Prince Abbas* after an early breakfast at 7.30 & took 8.30 train to Asswan going to Cataract Hotel to get room. Then walked round to steamer “Arabia” and made a call on the Phelps’, stepping into Cook’s on the way. After lunch lay down & slept, then  sat on my balcony & watched sunset then went down & wrote till dinner. Talked with two English ladies in evening.

In our next installment, we’ll see how our diarist’s routines change (as well as stay the same) once she is no longer traveling daily from place to place but instead residing in a fixed location with a revolving cast of European guests.

*The first mention of it in this diary, I believe Prince Abbas may be the name of the boat our diarist had been staying on.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 July, 2015, 1:00 AM

The July 4 Protest of “Half Mast” Fay

This July 4 marked the 151st anniversary of an interesting political protest by local businessman Joseph Story Fay. His protest provoked heated debate in the Boston newspapers and had professional ramifications for Fay, even months later.

Fay was apparently a Peace Democrat during the Civil War, or what some called a “Copperhead” (as in, the snake). This subset of Democrats supported the Union, but wanted an end to the war through negotiated peace with the Confederacy. At their National Convention in Chicago in Aug. 1864, the Democrats nominated General George B. McClellan to unseat President Lincoln. Their platform read, in part:

[…] after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of a military necessity of war-power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired, justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities […]

It’s not hard to imagine what the Republicans thought of that! The Boston Evening Transcript, a pro-Lincoln newspaper, tore into the Copperheads in every issue published that election season. If McClellan won the presidency, the paper editorialized, “compromise and concession to traitors will be the policy of the new administration.” The paper ran stories of rebels cheering McClellan’s nomination and routinely implied that the Copperheads celebrated Confederate victories.

The Peace Democrats argued that the war wasn’t just destructive to the Union, but to the Constitution. They railed against the violations of civil liberties perpetrated by Lincoln’s administration. The spur to Fay’s protest on 4 July 1864 was the suspension of habeas corpus in the case of a group of Illinois Copperheads who had been arrested and detained in a military prison without due process of law. Fay chose Independence Day to make his stand. He flew an American flag at half mast outside his home in Woods Hole, Mass., and attached a note:

The submission of Americans to this & other such cases, and to the suppression of free speech & of a free press without protest or complaint forms a strong & strange contrast with the Spirit of ’76. Our flag is no longer a protection & it droops its folds in sorrow.

There’s some dispute about what exactly happened next, but all accounts agree that a group of people objecting to Fay’s protest confronted him at his house. Fay warned them off, armed with a rifle. His youngest daughter Sarah, about 8 years old at the time, wrote later (her note is visible on the image above): “I remember my father going out on the piazza with his new .15 Shooter repeating rifle – a crowd of men around the flagpole, my father’s stern voice & then being bustled in & up to the nursery out of sight.”

Thankfully no one was hurt, but the incident would come back to bite Fay two months later. After he presided at a pro-McClellan rally at Faneuil Hall in Boston on 17 Sep. 1864, the Transcript printed a letter from an unnamed person reminding readers about Fay’s earlier “dishonor” and “insult” to the flag. The Democratic Boston Courier supported him, but the Transcript was unimpressed: 

The Courier defends and applauds Mr. Fay for putting the American flag at half mast on the Fourth of July, and for threatening to shoot anybody who interfered “to alter the position of the flag.” […] If the party to which they belong gets into power they may have the consolation of seeing the American flag permanently at half mast, with Jeff. Davis, pistol in hand, threatening to shoot anybody who “alters its position.”

Fay wrote to the Transcript to defend himself and his patriotism. His letter was published in full, but with unflattering commentary. The paper assumed the guilt of the Charleston “traitors” and the necessity of their detention, criticized Fay’s arrogance, and called him out for hypocrisy by rattling off a litany of abuses of power by his party, the Democrats. Fay’s protest was a “desecration,” the paper said, and not the act of a “true gentleman.” 

The flagpole issue would rear its ugly head again two months later, when Fay was denied a position on the Committee of Arrangements of the Boston Board of Trade, set up to honor the captain and crew of the U.S.S. Kearsarge. The Transcript (who else?) wrote, somewhat gleefully, on 11 Nov. 1864: “Mr. Fay's friends make a great mistake in constantly crowding him before the public. He has damaged his political party and his family name, brought discredit upon the fair fame of our State, and should retire from the public view for the remainder of his days.” One of his detractors dubbed him “Half Mast Fay.”

 Fay resigned from the Board of Trade in a printed circular letter dated 14 Nov. 1864. But he was not without defenders among his fellow businessmen. George B. Carhart, president of the New York and New Haven Railroad Company, wrote to Fay that his critics were “fanatics,” and abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence also sent him an optimistic letter of support.

Joseph Story Fay was no stranger to controversy. He had lived in Savanna, Georgia, during the antebellum years and often sparred with newspaper editors there. He’d once had to refute public accusations that he was an abolitionist. (Not only wasn’t he an abolitionist, he was a slave owner!) In the case of the Woods Hole flagpole, he never wavered or apologized. As he declared in his circular letter:

I trust I shall never live to be recreant to my opposition to wrong acts, for it is above party or politics. […] I feel that I have a right to mourn over any submission to such violations of personal liberty as brought on our war for Independence. What is our nationality, unless that is its spirit? For what are we fighting to-day?

Joseph Story Fay’s papers form part of the Fay-Mixter papers at the MHS.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 July, 2015, 1:00 AM

Stills and Strikes: Policing in Early-Twentieth Century Boston

For my first blog post for the Beehive, I decided to look beyond the major political and social names to see what the collections here could tell me about life for “everyday” people in Massachusetts. In my search, I came across the Robert E. Grant Diaries. These diaries, kept, between 1901 and 1930 by a Boston police officer, provide opportunities for research into a variety of events and developments that took place in the city during those decades, such as the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and executions. While Grant’s entries are usually brief and direct, they chronicle the career of a person who spent three decades experiencing urban life at the ground level. As such, they could be of potential interest to a variety of researchers studying early-twentieth century urban history.

One interesting topic covered in the Grant diaries is Prohibition, including the police raids conducted during that period. For example, in an entry from Friday, 15 February 1924, he writes that “5000 lbs of sugar was seized,” followed by a mention of the “largest still seized.” A newspaper clipping describing four raids that had recently occurred (and mentioning Grant’s name) is attached to this entry. This account captures the pride Grant must have felt on that day; it also serves as a snapshot of Prohibition-era Boston and the actions taken by law enforcement to enforce bans on alcohol. This story is not the only one of its kind described in Grant’s diaries, so there are certainly opportunities for further research into this topic contained in these pages.

Grant also writes briefly about the Boston Police Strike of 1919. On Tuesday, 9 September 1919, he writes:

After rollcall at 5:45 PM, Patrolman Buckley informed the Captain that they refused to go on duty & twelve of them said the same they were told to leave all property belonging to the Department at the desk which they did & walked out. At 11:15 PM patrol Downey who did not join the union reported to this station that he refused to go on duty on morning watch & he turned in his property & walked out.

While Grant’s coverage of the police strike is brief, the MHS does hold other materials that offer some more details about the strike and the climate of the city during the strike. For instance, Dates, Data and Ditties: Tour of Duty, A Company, 11th Regiment Infantry, Massachusetts State Guard, During the Strike of the Boston Police, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, printed for members of the A Company in the aftermath of the strike, provides insight into the activities of the soldiers deployed to patrol the city during the strike. The book details incidents ranging from the violent, such as attempted assaults against women, to the mundane, such as giving directions to pedestrians at South Station.

In-depth studies of the strike help provide context for these materials. In A City in Terror, Francis Russell analyzes the context for the strike, the major players and events, and the aftermath of the strike.

The Grant diaries are an excellent example of the wide variety of research possibilities contained within the collections at the MHS. Researchers are welcome to visit the library and explore these opportunities.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 7 July, 2015, 1:00 AM

Incendiary Fun: 19th Century Toys for Boston Youth

As the school year draws to a close and students across Boston slip leisurely into the summer heat, I was inspired to look at the MHS collections through a more playful lens. As difficult as it can be to piece together a historical narrative of adolescence, I wanted to see what we might have on the most playful of subjects: toys. 

I found disappointingly few children’s artifacts or toys in the MHS collection. I did, however, find two items from the 19th century that brought a smile to my lips, and one or two questions to my mind. 

The first is a fascinating tease. An encasement for a toy dramatically named “Torpedo Balloons!”. If the name itself fails to ignite your excitement, the picture on the cover surely will. Dating to 1897, the envelop features four adolescents excitedly, yet purportedly harmlessly igniting bits of paper with a well-timed flame. Similar to fireworks, the “Balloons” are advertised to attract the budding pyrotechnic, with safety-conscious parents.


 Directions: Distend the paper cone, placing it on a smooth surface (table or desk), and light the upper edge. It will burn down and the ashes will ascend and explode in the air.

 As the boy in the foreground lights a “Balloon” with a match, ashes explode over his head. His unsupervised peers appear to be playing in a well-decorated formal dining room, with delicate furniture, portraits hanging in the background, and gas light fixtures on the walls. While the flying embers may enrapture the children, the advertisement reassures parents that no harm will befall their expensive possession (if not their children).

Absolutely harmless [it reads]. Will not ignite or injure table cloth, bank note, or any similar article upon which it may be placed for sport.

Though the envelope has been preserved in almost pristine condition, I was disappointed to discover that it no longer contains even a single “Balloon”.

The second item I found is directed towards the girl we seen in the background of the “Torpedo Balloons!” cover image. The American Toilet, a small “conduct book” for young woman, uses emblematic illustrations to teach the reader moral precepts with regard to socially appropriate comportment and expectations.

Hannah and Mary Murry’s The American Toilet was adapted from Stacey Grimaldi’s “The Toilet,” first published in London in 1822, and includes delicate illustrations of the materials often found on a woman’s dressing table. The book is an example of a flap book, referring to the bits of paper that can be lifted to reveal hidden messages throughout the pages.


caption: With this choice liquid gently touch the mouth. It spreads o’er all the face the charm of youth

The Toilet juxtaposes shallow desires for opulent jewelry and alluring, made-up lips, with attitudes of meekness and good charm. Girls were instructed at a young age that to be socially accepted and respected they must counter desires for beauty and glamour with overt modesty and unwavering deference. The work constantly reinforcing that girls should be seen and admired as implacably pleasant creatures, not engaged with as substantive individuals.


caption: This ornament embellishes the fair, And leaches all the ills of life to bear

As engaging as the “Torpedo Balloons!” and The American Toilet are, it is important to note that they represent a very narrow experience of well cared for, educated childhood within Boston’s more affluent families. Just as adult narratives cannot be blindly generalized beyond class lines or economic boundaries; neither can children’s experiences be taken as monochrome. It is doubtful that the idyllic image of children in well-tailored clothes that adorns the “Torpedo Balloons!” packet would be mirrored in homes of less-wealthy children.

These are just a selection of our items at MHS pertaining to childhood; others include diaries and photographs that can expand our snapshot of youthful realities through personal writings, drawings, and images. If you are interested in viewing the “Torpedo Balloons,” The American Toilet, or any of our other collections in person, please contact the library or stop by for a visit.




comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 2 July, 2015, 1:00 AM

A Life in Bondage: The Narrative of Moses Grandy

Fielding reference questions at the MHS often means I come across fascinating material that I might not have the opportunity to discover for myself.  One particular inquiry introduced me to Moses Grandy, an African-American born into slavery in about 1786 whose experiences during and after his bondage have fortunately been recorded for posterity.  The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: formerly a slave in the United States of America is a disturbing but truthful account of one man’s suffering under forced servitude. Grandy’s narrative provides a firsthand insight into the lives of the men and women who lived in captivity.

The story of Grandy’s life, written down by noted abolitionist George Thompson and first published in 1843, became popular with the abolitionist movement both in the United States and abroad.  Grandy’s story, like a number of other slave narratives including those of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northrup, served to illustrate for a wide audience the cruelties of slavery and the outrages endured by those kept in bondage.  Stories of this kind helped to spread the message of abolitionism far and wide in the decades prior to the American Civil War. 

Like many enslaved men and women, Grandy witnesses the break-up of his family when his siblings and father are sold away.  He recounts how his mother at times would hide some of her children to prevent them from being sold, but several of his brothers and sisters would be sold away never to see him again.  Grandy later witnesses the sale of his first wife.  When he protests her sale to the man who has purchased her, he is threatened at gunpoint and forced to watch her go.  As she is taken away, Grandy beseeches her new master to let him see her one last time.  “I asked for leave to shake hands with her, which he refused, but said I might stand at a distance and talk with her.  My heart was so full, that I could say very little.”  In addition to this heart-wrenching instance, Grandy describes in detail the atrocities endured by his fellow enslaved Americans, including beatings and malnourishment.  Grandy himself states that he was often half-starved for lack of proper meals. 

Grandy’s account also offers detail into some of the common practices of slaveholders and into the variety of responsibilities with which an enslaved individual may have been entrusted.  The narrative is an important historical source for studying the practice of “hiring out” slaves to work temporarily for different masters.  Moses is hired out by his master James Grandy at the age of ten.  He describes in detail some of the horrific incidents he experienced in the employ of various individuals, ranging from brutal beatings to being fed so little that he was forced to eat ground cornhusks.  One particular master who hires Grandy multiple times is described as a great gambler who would keep Grandy up for several nights in a row without sleep to wait on his gambling table.  In one case, Grandy writes that he “was standing in the corner of the room, nodding for want of sleep, when he took up the shovel, and beat me with it: he dislocated my shoulder, and sprained my wrist, and broke the shovel over me.”  A number of frightful incidents like this are described or referred to in the narrative, sometimes with Grandy as the victim and other times with him as a witness to similar instances of brutality.

However, Grandy also provides a valuable account of many of the tasks he performed at one time or another.  Grandy’s narrative provides a unique example of how enslaved men and women often became highly skilled laborers and artisans.  Grandy himself is managing ferry crossings at Sawyer’s Ferry in Camden, North Carolina by the age of fifteen.  He is eventually hired as a freightboat captain for several boats which navigate and transport goods on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and the Pasquatonk River.  Grandy explains that he “took some boats on shares…I gave [the owner] one-half of all I received for freight: out of the other half, I had to victual and man the boats, and all over that expense was my own profit.” 

Grandy works a wide variety of other jobs as well, including the cutting of timber for the canal and working as a field hand.  Through these different tasks, Grandy is able to save up enough of his earnings to purchase his freedom.  However, he twice gives the money for his freedom to his respective masters and twice they keep his money and refuse to free him.  Ironically, it is one of the most brutal overseers described in his narrative who apparently expresses outrage over Grandy’s treatment and who connects him with a man who is willing to buy Grandy and help him earn his freedom.

The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy can be read in its first American edition, published in Boston by Oliver Johnson in 1844, here in the MHS reading room.  For those researchers who are unable to come to the MHS in person, Grandy’s narrative can be read through Project Gutenberg, as well as through the Internet Archive.





comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 1:00 AM

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