The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Diaries at the MHS (and the Archivists Who Love Them)

As a manuscript processor here at the MHS, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide range of personal and family papers, but I particularly like to work with diaries. Not usually intended for a stranger’s eyes, many of them are highly revealing and deeply moving. MHS collections include diaries by men and women, young and old, rich and poor, kept throughout the centuries for a variety of reasons.

Harriet Stillman Hayward, for example, was a young 19th-century woman who clearly kept her diary as an outlet for her loneliness. She was envious of her older sister Louisa’s many social engagements and, on 21 Feb. 1850, wrote in a confessional, emotional vein: “I wonder if people will ever care more for me than they do now […] I do not think that my highest aim in life is to have every one like me, but if I could feel that one person loved me […] I should not feel entirely forgotten. […] I must continue to bear in secret, while I appear outwardly indifferent […]”

Persis Seaver Bartlett’s diary documenting the decline and death of her son from consumption falls into this category, as well. Many devout people also used diaries to work out their feelings about God and salvation.

On the other end of the spectrum are those diaries that consist of an impersonal and unembellished account of daily activities. William Wharton began every morning with a detailed description of the weather, then noted the day’s errands and appointments—the dentist, the bank, etc. On fishing trips, he recorded the size of his catches. His diaries are almost uniformly mundane and unemotional, except for the entries he wrote at the time of his wife’s death.

Printed “line-a-day” diaries, with only a small space for each day and little room for introspection, lend themselves to this kind of strictly functional record-keeping. For example, the diaries of Jane Cummings:


Travel diaries were very popular and were kept by everyone from traveling salesmen to wealthy Bostonians on the traditional Grand Tour of Europe. My colleague Anna Clutterbuck-Cook has been following one woman’s travels in Egypt. Young Charles Phillips Huse only went as far as Essex County, Mass. on a trip with his grandfather, but he made a careful record of all their adventures, illustrated with photographs pasted onto the pages. Of course, Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam set the standard for illustrated diaries with her elaborate sketches and watercolors.

The diary of Eliza Cheever Davis, a personal favorite of mine, is a travel diary, but also a kind of literary exercise. Davis had fun with descriptions and built suspense into otherwise ordinary anecdotes. Her entry from 9 June 1811 sounds like something out of a Gothic novel: “Behold me then in a large room or rather Hall, the Chimney boarded up, on one side a small door which I ventured to unlock which led into a dark gloomy place in which there was not light enough for me to discover what it contained, but it looked very full of wonders […]”

Obviously most diaries were not meant to be seen by anyone but the writer (though very public figures, like John Quincy Adams, certainly knew their words would be read in later days). But some people did write directly to friends or family members in diary entries. Eliza Davis used this device, but the most striking example I’ve come across is the 1864 diary of Lillian Freeman Clarke, who frequently addressed her intimate friend Emily Russell and wished her a tender “good night” at the bottom of each page:


Some diaries are unfortunately unattributed. Some are shared, with contributions by more than one person, perhaps a husband and wife. The fascinating papers of John Wells Farley consist primarily of typescript pages of diary entries dictated by Farley to his secretary, who couldn’t resist adding the occasional quip or correction.

Diaries at the MHS are cataloged by year, so researchers interested in a particular historical event can get a cross section of opinion. We also use subject headings to group diaries by the types of people writing them, for example: “Students—Diaries,” “Politicians—Diaries,” and “Farmers—Diaries.” We hope you’ll visit our Reading Room and take a look!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 9 December, 2015, 12:00 AM

Penmanship and Copy Books

In a collection rich in manuscript material like that at the MHS, it's easy to fixate on centuries-old handwriting, whether for admiration of delicate script or frustration at illegible penmanship. I’ve overheard a fair balance of researchers lamenting the eyestrain caused by hours of squinting at spidery letterforms, and those who voice their appreciation for such intricate, time-consuming writing and the character it gives to the writer. Penmanship has an element of individuality, even when students were taught the importance of identical script or the “science” of manually forming words on a page through instruction books like Penmanship Explained, or, The Principles of Writing Reduced to an Exact Science by S.A. Potter.

Today, many of us rely on electronic means of forming words, efficiently typed out and spell-checked. Instead of putting pen to page, we often put fingertips to keyboard. I sometimes wonder if we would be able to decipher difficult handwriting more easily if we spent more time writing by hand as well. Though, if all writers had followed Potter's exact science of penmanship, maybe we would have no trouble at all!

In an effort to learn more about the history of penmanship, I decided to see what resources I could find in the MHS collection. In the online catalog ABIGAIL I found a variety of results for penmanship instruction books and advertisements, broadsides for ink powder and writing instruments, and a few personal copy books in family manuscript collections. One manuscript item (manuscript fittingly meaning “hand” and “to write”) that I found particularly interesting was Tristram Little’s copy book. Tristram Little of Newburyport, Maine was born in December 1784, making him fifteen years of age at the time of this book’s use beginning in early 1800.

Copy books often provided written lines and blank spaces for a student to copy the text. In the case of Little’s book, there are no printed lines to copy, which indicates he must have copied from a separate volume. On one delicately lettered leaf, Little has copied from a cover or title page, “Round Text Copies, Written for the Use of Schools and Academys by D. S…Engraved by J. Ellis.” Perhaps this is from Bowles's elegant set of round hand copies, round text copies and comprised in a set. Performed for the use of schools & Academies by D. Smith, written by I. Trinder of Northampton, or a similar copy book circulated by this publisher.

Some penmanship books are literally by-the-book, with lines written directly from a published original. Others are strewn with more personal touches. The pages of Tristram Little’s penmanship practice book mostly contain repeated lines of proverbial advice. Some are of general instruction, “Beware of idleness & sloth”, “Quarrel not at play,” and some loftier lines: “Rouze up your Genius & exalt your mind” and “Honor attends virtuous actions.” Tristram’s personal touches include original poems, one an illustrated epitaph titled “On the death of General Washington,” complete with tombstone frame. He notes on the top of the page, “He died…December 15th 1799” – which is actually one day off, the correct date being December 14.

The poem reads:

Ah! while we gather round your urn,

Joins your blest bands great Wasington [sic],

Hark to that knell, a NATION sighs,

Waft his PURE SPIRIT to the skies.


Newbury Port

The bells were then tolling.


On a previous page, Little recorded an ode to the “glorious George Wasington [sic],” asking, “What mortal praise can equal thy great claim?” Clearly, Little had a great regard for George Washington’s reputation. This common copy book offers an insight into the mind of a teenager growing up in America’s early years, looking up to his nation’s leader and lamenting his loss. Other pages include lists of personal names and cities (Newburyport and Philadelphia). Little’s embellished pages, glorifying poems, and ornate illustrations add another level of character to his already unique handwriting, as we might consider it today.

Tristram Little’s copy book is just one example of penmanship study and practice in the MHS collection. You can find other penmanship practice books and copy books for arithmetic exercises, many as part of family manuscript collections. If you would like to explore this topic further, visit the library and enjoy these personal copy books – or fascinating handwriting throughout the collection – in person.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 7 December, 2015, 12:00 AM

Dashing Through the Snow: A Tale of Boston’s Horse Railroads

Growing up in a small Midwestern town in rural Minnesota, I had what some might say was a quintessential upbringing -- complete with a horse farm! This, however, was a long time ago. Moving to the Twin Cities to attend college, and more recently Boston three months ago, I thought I left whatever rural nature I had in me behind for ‘bigger and better’ things. Yet, being in the ‘big city’ makes me nostalgic for my country childhood.

As I began to explore the extensive collections at the MHS, I found myself drawn to a number of items related to cities and working horses in the nineteenth century - particularly the ‘Horse Railroads’. This material intrigued me having worked with horses for the first thirteen years of my life and the romantic notions of a city filled with horse drawn carriages and trolley cars. Mentioning this to one of my coworkers, the joke became that after last winter’s transit halt,  it might not be a bad idea to return to these simpler roots. I wonder though, would New England snowstorms really be any easier to weather if the city ran on hooves rather than rails?


Cover of Rules and regulations for the government of horse railroads, 1865. Boston (Mass.). Board of Aldermen.


A 1865 pamphlet, “Rules and Regulations for the Government of Horse Railroads”, helped to shed some light on this question. It was declared, by an act of the legislature in 1864, that regulations on horse railroads were needed to address “the interest and convenience of the public.” Any instance of noncompliance with the rules would result in a penalty of “not more than five hundred dollars for each offence.” Today this would be a maximum fine of seven thousand dollars per offence, not a small sum at all!  

Much of the language in the rules and regulations pertain to maximum speeds allowed (five miles per hour in Boston proper, seven miles per hour outside of these city limits, and a walking gait when taking corners), and all the restrictions around when stopping of the horse railroad car is allowed and for how long. Most restrictions prohibited the stopping of the car for longer than one minute between “six o’clock in the forenoon and eight o’clock in the afternoon” (6:00 AM to 8:00 PM.) and then only at a station or designated stop. The only exceptions which allow for unscheduled stopping, repeated throughout the small four page document, are “unless detained by obstacles in the track or to avoid collision.”

Map showing horse rail roads and the surface steam roads with 104 stations in and around Boston...1878.

(A 1876 version of this map is available online at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.)


Yet, it was the regulations of Section 11 and 12 that proved to be the most valuable when thinking about surviving a winter with horse railroads. Section 11 spoke to the removal of snow, [] stating that if depths were sufficient “no plough shall be allowed to pass over” unless permission was granted by the Superintendent of Streets. In this case alternative methods could be employed by the railroads, in the form of sleighs, to transport citizens until rail tracks were again accessible and normal transit methods could resume.

Similarly, Section 12 discusses the use of any salt, brine or pickle or any other material employed in the melting of snow and ice would only be allowed after receiving a permit from the city. Such permits would only be given if such use would not be detrimental to vehicles crossing the tracks and rails.


Highland Street Railroad Tickets. [No Date]


These restrictions make me imagine that if such a winter as the one last year were to have occurred during these times, the breakdown in public transit would have been far worse. While the Rules and Regulations document spoke little to the care of the working animals, the necessity of keeping the horses in working condition alone would have extended delays in transportation and confined citizens as city and transit officials worked to clear the streets.

So as we approach another winter season, and my first in Boston, a joke about returning to horse powered public transit may seem like a good idea, but I hesitate to think that the ability to combat the snowstorms of nature would be any easier won.

These are just a few samples of the material at MHS about transportation and horse railroads. If you are interested in further exploration of our collections, please visit the library or contact us for further information.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 3 December, 2015, 1:52 PM

Zymurgy in the Stacks: Brewing History at the MHS

Like many other people these days, one of my hobbies outside of work is brewing beer at home. It’s a good way to spend an afternoon and the results, if not immediate, are usually very satisfying. As I type this, there are 3 gallons of Holiday Cheer Ale in a glass carboy on my counter, bubbling-away during the primary fermentation stage. It will take a few weeks until I get my final product, so patience is a necessity. But, since I’ve gotten myself into a good rotation the last couple of months, I have plenty of other styles on standby for when I get thirsty.

Even though I started brewing about two and a half years ago, I have not yet been brave enough to do a lot of experimentation with my recipes. Instead, I rely heavily on a list of house recipes created by the folks at my local brewing supply store in Cambridge. These recipes provide step-by-step instructions (which I have down-pat, at this point), specific types and amounts of grains, malt extracts, and hops that go into a given brew, and a few types of yeast that they suggest for the best results. So far, these recipes have not failed me.

On a few different occasions I have searched our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what the MHS holds in relation to beer and brewing. Sadly, there is not much, most of it coming in the form of old printed treatises on beer. A few weeks ago, though, I struck gold! While preparing a display of manuscripts for a visiting college class working on food history, I brought out an item that is listed in our catalog as an “Anonymous Recipe Book, ca.1800.” Upon opening the folder, I found staring at me a small manuscript page with the simple heading “To brew Beer.”

“Take 3 pints of malt, a double handful of Hops, as much of bran or shorts, boil these in ten gallons of soft water for two hours, then strain it, and when cold, add half a pint of molasses a half pint of yest and work it well. To colour it add a handfull of roasted barley whilst it is boiling. The yest of this beer put in a bottle with water & kept in a cool place, will serve to make bread.”

Also included on the page is a recipe for Spruce Beer:

“Take half a pint of Spruce. Boil it two hours in five gallons of soft water, a quart of molasses. When cold work in a large tea cup full of god thick yest, let it work 24 hours & then bottle it off. It will be pleasant Beer without the spruce.”

As I mentioned above, with modern recipes I have grown accustomed to seeing very specific amounts (usually in ounces, to one decimal place) and varieties of grains/malts and hops to create a certain type of brew. I feel like these somewhat vague descriptions (3 pints of malt; a double handful of hops) made more sense 200 years ago because the pickings were probably slim and brewers were using what was grown nearby. In the 18th century, a brewer did not have to agonize over whether to use Northern Brewer hops or Fuggles; the myriad options simply were not there.

Still, I think that maybe in the near future I will overcome my reliance on the modern recipe and give this piece of brewing history a try at home.  


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 20 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

Family and Mental Illness in Early 20th-Century Massachusetts

The MHS is home to a rich variety of family papers. These collections of diaries, correspondence, and other materials provide windows into the way people thought about each other and the world around them. I decided to utilize these resources to explore the ways New Englanders thought about mental illness a century ago. Searches in ABIGAIL led me to the David Richards Family Papers. David Richards (1850- ca. 1927) was a farmer and businessperson who lived in Sherborn, Massachusetts. His wife, Esther (Etta) Coffin Loring Richards struggled with mental illness for a number of years, and a good deal of correspondence among the family members relates to her condition. The personal nature of many of these papers leads to interesting accounts of the way one family understood and responded to mental illness, but the papers also offer insights regarding family dynamics and attitudes surrounding treatment in the early 20th-century.



In The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill, historian Gerald N. Grob writes that the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries constituted a period of challenges to and changes within the psychiatric profession. There were calls for an increasingly-scientific approach to psychiatric medicine, as well as a shift toward psychopathic hospitals rather than “traditional” mental hospitals. These new hospitals emphasized research and cared for a variety of so-called deviant individuals rather than simply long-term, chronically-ill people. However, according to John R. Sutton, rates of institutionalization remained high even with attempts at reform, in part due to new developments in the creation and management of deviance in the United States. Etta Loring Richards’ institutionalization takes place within this context. According to “A Very General Sketch of Mrs. R from the Summer of 1907 to Spring of 1916,” written by David Richards ca. 19 July 1916, Etta felt around the summer of 1907 that she could not trust anyone, and that she was not “having the medical attention she needed.” Etta was taken to Arlington Heights Sanatorium, then later to Adams Nervine. At Arlington Heights, she was diagnosed by a Dr. Ring (three Dr. Rings, two of whom are said to be affiliated with “Ring’s Sanatarium” in Arlington Heights, are mentioned on page 395 of this 1910 Medical Directory of Boston), who said of her condition: “There is nothing the matter with the woman physically, its simply Hypochondria.” After six months at Adams Nervine, Etta returned home. However, her mental health concerns reappeared in later years.

Throughout these papers, Etta and David reflect on Etta’s illness; these writings present possibilities for analysis of family and gender dynamics in their time and place. In a 2 December 1907 letter from David Richards to Mr. Batchelder, the family’s lawyer, David quotes Etta and her pleas for treatment, writing “‘If Mr. Batchelder were here he would say that you ought to take me [and] you say that you always do what Mr. Batchelder says,’” as well as “‘I did wrong in not going, but I am doing wrong all the time.’” Later, in an undated letter from about January 1908, Etta writes that she is sleeping well, but is having trouble eating, and often stays in bed feeling fatigued. She also notes that she is hurt and upset that David wanted to “keep money away from me,” as he thought she would “spend it all on Quack [doctors].” I certainly feel Etta’s pain when reading these letters.

In addition to Etta’s frustration regarding David’s apparent indifference and skepticism toward her treatment, I got a sense of the loneliness Etta felt when her husband failed to give her the attention she sought while she was institutionalized. In a 1 June 1908 letter, Etta writes:

Why do you [–] how can you forsake me so [–] Dr. Fuller [told] me you had never inquired for me through him. He said Dr. Stevens had not inquired for me since he was here [–] the 28 of March so you have not heard of my condition for two months. God in heaven knows I could never leave you in such a suffering condition [-] and never inquire for you – directly or indirectly – for two long months[.] Oh how it hurt me[.]



Etta’s writings about her husband suggest that, in her mind, he was not there for her or interested in her well-being. This raises questions about the ways women were supposed to be taken care of by their husbands during this period. Was David’s behavior normal, with Etta expressing frustration at the roles of men during this period, or was David failing to fulfill a role that was expected of him? A closer look at David’s own writings may shed some light on these questions, as well as raise some additional ones.

David’s blend of indifference toward and control over Etta’s treatment and conditions are noticeable in his own writings, as well. In his “General Sketch,” he writes about his “indifference to my wife’s sufferings.” This supposed indifference is not just observable in hindsight; David writes that “some dear friends insisted Nervine plan my plan [sic], trying to make out my wife [insane?] to get control of her property.” This assertion may or may not have been entirely accurate, but the idea does seem to have some basis in his actions, as a similar fear seems to be on Etta’s mind when she laments his unwillingness to give her any money. David admits in his account that, when Etta wanted to go to an Asylum in 1914, he “laughed at her fears, would not listen to her story of desperation.” This apparent trivialization of Etta’s concerns regarding her health is frustrating to read; however, David’s attitudes present possibilities for analysis of patriarchy within early 20th-century families as well as gendered responses to mental illness within families of this period.

This brief exploration certainly does not tell the whole story of the Richards family, nor does it provide an authoritative account of mental illness and family in the early 20th-century. Numerous other correspondents and subjects exist in these papers, including other family members, as well as Etta’s friends and doctors. The David Richards Family Papers are available for viewing at the MHS, so feel free to stop in for a visit if you would like to explore them on your own.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 13 November, 2015, 12:00 AM

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