The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Sarah Checkley’s Spirituous Liquor License, 18 July 1764

It is the season of graduations, celebrations, and toasts. My personal social network bubbled this past weekend with images of familial celebrations, beach weekends, and - of course - spirituous liquors. Many a photo popped up of friends in drinking establishments, and I became curious about the history of taverns as a result. I browsed our online catalog ABIGAIL and discovered a liquor license issued to Sarah Checkley of Boston on 18 July 1764. Naturally it piqued my interest for several reasons. The license states:

We the Subscribers Selectmen of the Town of Boston do approve of Mrs. Sarah Checkley’s being a Retailer of Spirituous Liquor, at the House where into she has lately removed and now dwells, in Hanover Street near the Mill Bridge Boston, and recommend her a Person of sober Life and Conversation, and suitably qualified and provided for the Exercise of such an Employment she having for many years past been a Retailer in this Town and behaved to good acceptance.

This document is peculiar for what it is not. The license is not the oldest item pertaining to liquor petitions in the Society’s collections. The honor of oldest liquor petition goes to Samuel Walton of Woburn, Mass. who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court on 30 March 1665 to sell "strong waters.” How strong, the document does not specify. Checkley’s 1764 petition is not even the only liquor license in the MHS collections granted to a woman! A quick glance among retailer’s licenses, tavern licenses, and innkeeper’s licenses shows the custom to issue such documents to women not unusual for the late 18th century.

The Suffolk County Court and Boston Selectmen approved retailer and liquor petitions from widow Elizabeth Pittson on 7 June 1767, widow Rachel Masters on 21 July 1767, and widow Mary Rose on 8 July 1773. The court also approved a petition from Mary Vinal to sell liquor on 30 July 1771. The petition did not designate Mary Vinal a widow unlike the aforementioned ladies. Her father suffered from palsy and could not provide for his family. Thus, Mary Vinal required a means to make an income as did the widows. In their petitions to the selectmen, the women granted these licenses all clearly stated a similar problem in their personal situations: a lack of income from male earners. Sarah Checkley’s petition lacks detailed information about her familial or marital status. This lack of information does not imply that she was not a widow or did not care for aging or sick male members of her family, but the petition is more interesting to me without these details. This absence lets me rosily imagine Sarah Checkley as a robust purveyor of spirituous liquors of her own accord.

For those of us celebrating graduations, petitioning for prospective employment, or just enjoying summer fun, we all know the important role income plays in our lives. May your summer be fruitful in your endeavors, but spirituous in fun! And remember to tip your bartenders.

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 13 June, 2014, 8:00 AM

Discovering Georgiana Appleton and the Fort McHenry Flag

A few weeks ago a writer contacted me looking for material located in the Appleton Family Papers.  The writer, Ariel Sabar, was working on a piece for the June issue of Smithsonian Magazine.  The focus of the article was the act of taking souvenir clippings from the original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when the British attacked on the evening of  13 September 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose our national anthem.

Sabar hoped I could locate and provide him with a copy of a letter written to a Georgiana Appleton from a Stephen Salisbury in 1874. The letter, Sabar knew, contained Salisbury’s request for a clipping from the old Star-Spangled Banner. I was dubious, until realized that Georgiana Appleton was formerly Georgiana Armistead, the daughter of Major George Armistead. Major (later Colonel) Armistead, upon taking command of Fort McHenry in 1813, saw to it that an enormous flag was made to be flown over the fort, which he assumed would be a likely British target in the ongoing War of 1812. Sometime in the three years between the inspirational battle at Fort McHenry and Armistead’s death, Armistead came to possess the flag. His daughter Georgiana, who had married into the Appleton family, inherited the flag upon her mother’s death in 1861. 

So I spent a bit of time browsing the Appleton Family Papers (our very detailed collection guide helped me narrow my search to 5 folders contained in box 10 of the collection) and my interest was piqued! Even after I located the letter Sabar had requested, I kept reading. I needed to learn more about Georgiana and the flag.

At first glance, what I read both thrilled and slightly horrified the trained archivist in me. I kept reminding myself that the best practice guidelines for preservation of historical treasures we follow today simply did not exist in the mid-1870s. But it seemed that each letter uncovered tales about snipping souvenirs from the flag to give to different parties, shipping the flag off by mail, and schlepping it around from exhibition site to exhibition site. I thought about the stringent guidelines we impose on borrowing institutions when we loan items from our own collection, not to mention the time we invest in doing condition photographs and reports, having insurance appraisals done, hiring professional art movers to transport artifacts, etc., etc. I marveled that the flag survived into the early 20th century, when Appleton’s son, Eben Appleton, gifted it to the Smithsonian, who has worked to preserve the flag ever since.

Starting with a letter written in February 1873 there is a rich correspondence between Georgiana Armistead Appleton and Commodore George Henry Preble. Preble authored a history of the American flag, first published in 1872, and I gleaned from his first letter that Appleton had sent him a list of corrections to his text regarding the Star-Spangled-Banner. Preble promised to correct those errors in the next edition, and then asked that Appleton facilitate his photographing the flag so that he could include an engraving of the original flag in his next edition as well.

Here is where the feeling of horror began to sink in. Appleton agreed to loan the flag so that it could be photographed, and in letter dated 15 May 1873 Preble advised Appleton to “express ‘the flag’ to the address on this letter [the Boston Navy Yard] any time after or about the 1st of June” so that he could have it “hoisted on the Navy Yard Flag Staff & be so photographed.” It was so casual, as if she were lending him a table cloth, not a national treasure.  

But when I read a bit deeper, I discovered the horror was a bit unwarranted.  In his first letter in February 1873, Preble expressed concern for the flag, stating that such treasures should not remain in private hands and recommending that Appleton deposit her flag at the Military Academy at West Point for long-term safe keeping. And in writing on 9 June 1873 Preble assured Appleton that once he received the flag at the Navy Yard he would see to it that “the banner is carefully preserved,” noting that he will only attempt to have it hoisted at the Navy Yard if its current condition merits it. 

Alas, when the flag arrived by express on 11 June, Preble disappointedly found it “too frail & tender” to be hoisted. The next day he informed Appleton that he was having some of the ripped seams restitched, and that he planned to have the flag “hung (out of the wind) against the wall of some one of the Navy Yard buildings” so that the photograph could be taken.  Preble was clearly more preservation minded than I had at first given him credit for.

For a period of about three years Preble acted as caretaker to the flag. He arranged to have the Banner, along with two other historical flags he wrote about in his history (the flag of the Revolutionary era USS Bon Homme Richard, and a flag from the USS Enterprise, famous for its involvement in the Tripolitan Wars of the early 19th century) exhibited at the New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEGHS).  A one-day exhibition of the relics took place on 9 July 1873. Appleton’s flag remained on display for several weeks after, until, under Preble’s supervision, it was carefully rolled up, placed in a canvas bag, and deposited in the fire proof safe at the NEHGS for safe keeping. 

Immediately after the NEHGS exhibition, Preble and Appleton began corresponding about another opportunity to publically exhibit the flag.  As early as March 1873 representatives of the Centennial Committee, based in Philadelphia, began contacting Appleton about borrowing the flag for display during the celebration of the centennial in that city.  What again seemed a risky venture on the surface, proved that Preble was concerned about the long-term preservation of the flag, as he advised Appleton (on both 12 July and 21 Aug 1873) that if she chose to lend the flag, she should require that it be insured for “$5 or $10,000 dollars” and request a guarantee from the committee that none of it will be sold for relics. He also stressed the importance of ensuring that the flag would be displayed in a manner that prevented relics from being taken by enterprising attendees.  Reading through to the letters of 1876, I discovered that Appleton did choose to loan the flag, and that Preble ensured that proper case was taken.

Of course I could not overlook that Preble also wrote of taking snips of the flag, with Appleton’s authorization, to give to this person and that.  In fact, there is a receipt in one of the folders, dated August 1873, indicating that a snip of the flag was given as a gift to the NEHGS. But as Sabar points out in his article, the act of flag snipping was common in the 19th century, and Preble does stress in his letters that he takes great pains to take his snippings from areas where they will not be missed. So I can try to forgive this preservation transgression. [Side note: The MHS has its own snippet of the Fort McHenry flag, but it was not gifted to the MHS by Appleton.  It was received in 1917, inserted an extra-illustrated edition of Preble’s History of the Flag of the United States of America, that was donated by a Nathan Paine.]

I discovered a number of other interesting letters in the Appleton Family Papers, all of which I am sure could lead to hours of research and future blog fodder.  There were multiple letters from individuals seeking clipping from the flag (unfortunately, Appleton did not keep copies of her replies to those requests) and letters from individuals that had written poems and songs about the flag.  There was even a letter from the granddaughter of Mary Pickersgill, the woman credited with making the flag, revealing her own poverty, and asking that a sign be displayed with the flag at the centennial to generate donations to support her.  But, I must say, the letters from Preble, that not only tell the story of the flag, but offer insight into thinking about preservation issues in the mid-19th century, are the real gem for me.   

comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 8:00 AM

“Time will bring forth...a fine Child”: The Labor of Declaring Independence

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. In June 1776, John Adams likened the struggle in the Continental Congress to declare independence to giving birth. For Adams, the fact of independence already existed; it was only a matter of recognizing what was already there. In a letter of June 12, Adams alluded to the momentous occasion finally on the horizon: “We have greater Things, in Contemplation, than ever. The greatest of all, which We ever shall have. Be silent and patient and time will bring forth, after the usual Groans, throws and Pains upon such occasions a fine Child—a fine, vigorous, healthy Boy, I presume. God bless him, and make him a great, wise, virtuous, pious, rich and powerfull Man.”

Those final throws and pains began in earnest on June 7, when Richard Henry Lee put forward a simple but powerful resolution: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” John Adams seconded the motion, but patience was yet required. Some delegates were unwilling to take such a step without explicit instructions from their constituents moved for a delay of consideration of the Lee Resolution. So that there would be no further loss of time, however, it was proposed to form a committee that would draft a declaration to serve as a justification for the resolution should it pass. On June 11, the Continental Congress appointed a Committee of Five—Robert R. Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and John Adams of Massachusetts.

Leaving no contemporary minutes, the details of the committee’s proceedings to create the draft of this declaration have been lost to history, although Adams gave a brief, though contested, overview in his Autobiography based on his recollections thirty years later. The draft that came out of the committee on June 28 was closely debated in Congress from July 2d to 4th, and the final product—the Declaration of Independence (to Adams’s surprise)—would go on to surpass the Lee Resolution in national importance and symbolism.

Nevertheless, on July 3, 1776, the day after the Continental Congress unanimously declared “that these United Colonies, are of right ought to be, free and independent States,” Adams wrote triumphantly to his wife Abigail that the “Day of Deliverance” had arrived—the child safe delivered: “Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men.... You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man.” The child born, the day past, the real work could now begin.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 8:00 AM

Guest Post: Unlocking the Story of a Real-life Robinson Crusoe

Tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society Library are two small, leather-bound volumes printed nearly 300 years ago. These small tracts, titled Ashton’s Memorial, reveal an incredible story -- the first-hand account of a Massachusetts fisherman named Philip Ashton who was captured by pirates in 1722 and then escaped and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island for nearly two years. Ashton’s Memorial is a rare description of a voyage aboard a pirate ship during the peak of Atlantic piracy and it reveals rich new details about the crew, captures, and nearly-fatal mishaps.

The Society may hold the only surviving copy of the original 1725 printing of Ashton’s Memorial in Boston. There are original editions from a second printing of Ashton’s Memorial, published in London in 1726, at both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the British Library. The second printing is nearly identical to the first, except the title page uses the descriptor “An Authentick Account” instead of “An History” and includes three lines of text that were omitted from the Boston printing, apparently due to a typesetting error.

Ashton’s narrative was compiled by his minister, John Barnard of the First Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The fact that the book was published in London a year after it was printed in Boston speaks to the popularity of the story at the time. In fact, Ashton’s Memorial may have been read in London by Daniel Defoe, who had a lifelong interest in piracy, castaways, and the maritime world. A leading scholar of Defoe’s work, Manual Schonhorn, has compared Defoe’s writings before and after Ashton’s Memorial was published and concludes that Defoe incorporated new details from Ashton’s story -- never published anywhere else -- in his next novel.

Barnard compiled Ashton’s Memorial shortly after Ashton returned home to Massachusetts from his three-year odyssey, but the book is written in the first person and reads as though Ashton wrote it. Barnard notes in a short introduction that he met with Ashton on several occasions to record the narrative and subsequently verified its accuracy: “I have taken the minutes of all from his own mouth, and after I had put them together, I have improved the first vacant hour I could to read it over distinctly to him that he might correct the errors that might arise from my misunderstanding his report. Thus corrected, he has set his hand to it as his own history.” In researching Ashton’s story, I found that a number of significant events recounted in Ashton’s text were supported by other sources.

The Massachusetts Historical Society also holds the papers of John Barnard, including his Autobiography and three other volumes of his sermon notes. These papers provide additional insights into the adventurous life of one of New England’s more prominent Puritan ministers during the early eighteenth century -- but they reveal nothing more about Philip Ashton or Ashton’s Memorial. It is striking, in fact, that Barnard was compelled to record Ashton’s story not for the sake of history, but because he believed it conveyed important religious themes to an audience that was, in his mind, lacking in faith. This was quite common, in fact. Religious leaders during this era -- including Barnard’s former teacher, Cotton Mather -- frequently exploited pirate captures, executions, and other dramatic events to issue dire warnings against what they saw as a rising tide of drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, church skilling, and other transgressions in Boston and throughout colonial New England. As interesting as Ashton’s voyage was, for Barnard the true message in the story was “God’s ability to save” an ordinary fisherman from death and disaster.

 

 

Gregory N. Flemming is the author of At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, published in June. He will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society at 12 noon on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The event is free and open to the public.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 3 June, 2014, 1:00 AM

Oliver Lofts: Mapping the Traces of a Music Publishing Empire

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved across town from one former streetcar suburb-turned-neighborhood of Boston (Allston/Brighton) to another (Jamaica Plain). A paltry three mile journey as the crow flies, since we live without a car and get around on foot, public transit, or bicycle, this has meant learning new pathways to all of our usual destinations -- including the Massachusetts Historical Society. Along these new routes stand traces of Boston’s past, if only you keep your eyes open and know where to look for them.

Bicycling home from work along the Southwest Corridor Park, from Symphony Hall to Jackson Square, last week I happened to notice the brick facade of an old factory building turned residential lofts that announced in the stonework “Oliver Ditson Co.”

Who, I wondered, was Oliver Ditson, and what had his factory once produced? Fresh from reading Alexander von Hoffman’s history of Jamaica Plain, Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), I knew the Heath Street area had been known for its breweries. Perhaps, I thought, our Mr. Ditson was a brewer. Happily, I work at a place where such questions can often be answered by searching our catalog and going on a historical treasure hunt! A few keystrokes and call slips later, I had discovered that Oliver Ditson and his company were not brewers but, instead, music publishers and retailers here in Boston. Ditson, born in Boston in 1811, began his career working at a bookshop on Washington Street, under the employ of Samuel H. Parker, before launching into the music publishing business in 1835. In 1858 Oliver Ditson & Co. began publishing Dwight’s Journal of Music, one of the most highly respected music journals of the nineteenth century, and was soon expanding into the Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York markets.

In 1918 a history of the music scene in Boston, published by the Oliver Ditson Company, foregrounded the company’s sparkling new ten-story retail building that still stands today on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, overlooking the Boston Common. “The focus on modern Boston’s shopping activity is at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, where converge the currents of vivid life from hotels, theatres, and subways,” writes William Fisher in Notes on Music in Old Boston. “Within a stone’s throw of this teeming corner … is the splendid new home of the Oliver Ditson Company” (79). From its state-of-the-art heating plant in the sub-basement to its Tiffany show windows, “Victor Talking Machines” department,” and opulent meeting rooms, the Tremont Street headquarters was the company’s public face.

 

The building that would become Oliver Lofts in 2011 meanwhile, was a late arrival into the company’s holdings. The property did, indeed, begin life as a brewery -- though unassociated with Ditson. According to Historic Boston, the Highland Spring Brewery occupied the site until Prohibition brought the American beer industry to its knees. The Oliver Ditson Company then purchased the storehouse, built in 1912 and once used to house casks of ale and porter, and used the building as a print shop and warehouse into the mid-twentieth century.

Thus, one single rehabilitated industrial building I pass by on my evening commute holds within its walls traces of two centuries worth of Boston development.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 8:00 AM

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