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They’re Comin’ Out, They Want the World to Know: Boston’s Depression Debutantes

Elizabeth Elliot Mixter was born in Boston on 24 January 1913. She was the oldest child and only daughter of renowned neurosurgeon William Jason Mixter and his wife Dorothy (Fay) Mixter. Like other young women hailing from the elite Brahmin families of Boston, coming of age meant a “debut” into society at around the age of 18. Elizabeth’s debut took place in the fall of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression.

The MHS collection of Fay-Mixter family papers contains a large scrapbook of newspaper clippings, programs, invitations, photographs, and other papers documenting Elizabeth’s ”Coming Out Year 1932-1933.”


Elizabeth made her official debut on 9 November 1932 at a tea held in her honor by her grandmother, Elizabeth Elliot (Spooner) Fay, at 330 Beacon Street. Pourers at the tea included other young ladies from the so-called “smart set.” Many of their names are recognizable—for example, Polly Binney, whose family’s papers are located right here at the MHS, just a few shelves away from Elizabeth’s. Another pourer was Abigail Aldrich, none other than the niece of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Elizabeth’s cousin Anne Mixter, also one of that year’s debs, couldn’t make it to the tea because of an emergency appendectomy. Neither could “plucky” 17-year-old Frances Proctor, who’d been mugged just two days before and apparently punched in the mouth when she refused to surrender her car keys. Frances’ story is told in a newspaper clipping entitled “Society Girl Is Beaten by Holdup Man.”


According to the Boston Evening Transcript of 4 June 1932, more than 150 debutantes were formally presented in the 1932-33 season in Boston, an “unusually large” number. After coming out, a deb’s life became a whirlwind of parties, dinners, concerts, costume balls, charity events, etc. Elizabeth was invited to join exclusive clubs like the Junior League of Boston and the Vincent Club. She took part in theatrical performances and studied cooking and home economics.

A deb was photographed, or “snapped,” around town, and the society pages detailed her clothing and appearance. For example, on their way to a luncheon, two young ladies were “nicely turned out in their new fall costumes, so modishly trimmed with fur.” Polly Cunningham was described as “the luscious, rounded type with golden curls and merry blue eyes, beautifully poised and magnetic.” And here’s what one article had to say about a roller skating party: “One of the prettiest of the skaters was Miss Elizabeth E. Mixter of Brookline. Like many others, she took dainty falls but enjoyed the frolic.” Another writer used the word “pulchritudinous.”

Amidst the high-society gossip and fashion tips are a few hints of the tough economic times then plaguing the country. One page of the scrapbook contains a re-written version of Psalm 23 that begins: “The politician is my shepherd – I am in want / He maketh me to lie down on park benches.” Also included is an article entitled “Depression Debutantes,” from the 12 November 1932 Saturday Evening Post, which makes the argument that “coming out” prepares a young woman not just for marriage, but also for work. Perhaps most revealing, Elizabeth filled out an elaborate budget sheet, probably as part of her home economics coursework, detailing how to save money on clothing purchases over three years.


As for the uncomfortable premise of the whole debutante phenomenon—the marketing of young women of a certain social standing as eligible marriage prospects—Elizabeth’s scrapbook has that covered, too. It includes a column from the gossip magazine Tatler and American Sketch by an anonymous author, aptly named “Audacious.” In the column, Boston debs are sorted into “grades” based on, well, the blueness of their blood.

Grade A includes Abigail Aldrich and Polly Cunningham, as well as Misses Appleton, Coolidge, Hallowell, Holmes, Jackson, Lawrence, Loring, Peabody, Perkins, Saltonstall, Shaw, Winthrop, and others. Elizabeth, her cousin Anne, and Polly Binney are all listed in Grade B. “Plucky” Frances Proctor rates Grade C, though I would argue she deserves much higher!

The mercenary nature of these rankings shocked some contemporary journalists. When the Tatler and American Sketch went out of business in January 1933, editor John C. Schemm, outed as the author of the column, said: “I meant that department to be a constructive force, but it can’t be done. No matter how intelligently you strive to do the job, or how constructively, you cannot avoid creating hard feelings.”

Elizabeth E. Mixter married Dr. Henry Thomas Ballantine, Jr. in 1938, and the couple had two children. She died in 1998.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 12:00 AM

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, March 1917

Today we return to the 1917 diary of Gertrude Codman Carter. You may read the previous entries here:

Introduction | January | February

All but the last page of March 1917 is sliced out of the diary; a practice of selective record-keeping that seems to have been somewhat routine for Carter (or her descendents).  On the page for March 29 - 31, we are left a few brief notes about a charity auction, Palm Sunday, and a pencil sketch of son John refusing his medicine -- “see preceding page,” reads the note, below, referring to an entry no longer available to us.



In search of any additional information the  MHS library might hold related to Carter’s life during this time, I called up a box from the Marian Lawrence Peabody papers in which can be found four folders of letters from Marian’s friend Gertrude. Carter was apparently out of the habit of dating her letters, but did charmingly illustrate her missives much as she does her diary. In the absence of March 1917 diary entries, I instead share with you two of Carter’s undated letters with their accompanying illustrations, that survive within the Peabody papers. Both seem to post-date the period of the diary which we are reading, since the first recounts the adventures of an adolescent John and the second suggests that John was an independent adult who might drop by “to pass the time” with his mother.

The first letter I selected was written in late September (of an unknown year, perhaps in the 1920s) while traveling on board the R.M.S. Mauretania.

* * *

29th Sept

Dear Marian,

This is a fine ship but the writing desks are arranged for hippopotomi. I can’t get near this one and I am, as you know, no sylph. Still, nothing shall prevent me from returning our correspondence, especially when I remember what a nice welcome you gave me in Bar Harbour.



All of America was splendid but we did look back on Bar Harbour as the best of all. Those pines and mountains, the glorious air & all the various dinner picnics, etc. The frescoes impress me more than words can say. I’d give anything if you’d come down & paint the grand canal of venice on my staircase. I believe we could amuse you for a fortnight -- I have to remember that you said Gertrude’s holidays didn’t work out properly. In that case you’ll have to dash down without her. They are certainly very safe at her age, schools & relations have them in care & as they have to do what they are told, you can rest in safety. I realise this especially at this juncture -- Eton takes such enveloping care. A “dame” lives there with a complete pharmacy in [case of] accidents & a battery of pills & powders -- when I realize that John next week will be [illegible] on his own at Cambridge & no one noticing whether he is ill or not or cold or not, I tremble. -- We went to Boston from Bar Harbour & proceeded to inspect Codman roots at Lincoln, Parker roots at [illegible], the rum-running industries at Cohasset. Only we saw nothing of it except the fog. Cousin Susy took us to a lovely Carillon of Bells, & John was handed over to some of the young people in the neighborhood. Charlie Cobb took us afterward to the Bank & John was enchanted with the amusement of Checking the Securities & learning the difference between a share & a bond.  Then we went out to Dover in the last of the time. Tony Parker was always a friend of John & gave him motor lessons in the truck. I saw plenty of Forbes & [illegible] & Potters, etc. I missed Terry Morse’s entertainments, he was always so full of amusements. Miss Forbes was awfully nice in giving John, [illegible] flat at the [illegible] house to keep his things & sleep as we flitted from place to place, while I was at the Club. Washington was a joy. Perfect weather sunshine & fall moon & the Admiralty came to see the [illegible] in, a nice Captain [illegible] was most kind and useful. The [illegible] New York was thrilling. John in love with these [illegible] of engineering and with the same [illegible] with which he climbed the Mts. of Mt. Deseret, ascended everything & dived into the subway. Gerry C. materialized & took us to dine at the St. Regis [illegible] & to a play. We saw the “Little Show” which had some good times. I am [illegible] with the idea of turning the Churches into apartment houses who rent will pay all the expenses of running a chapel on top or a crypt. I haven’t discovered which! Now do write to me & tell me everything from the moment of my departure. Address c/o [illegible] 43 Charing X, London. As I shall not go to Barbadoes much before Dec. Lots of love, Gertrude.

* * *

The second letter, likely post-dating the first, was written while in Boston and struggling with what appears to have been chronic knee pain.

* * *

56 Commonwealth
Friday Eve

My dear Marian, I was hoping for a word from you, especially today, as I finally called upon Dr. Wheeler -- the old reliable of a 20-year arrangement -- and he sent me around to a Dr. Morrison to be x-rayed -- isn’t it a painful process? -- I never can understand the medical mind. The last time I hurt my knee, Dr. Moore concentrated on my ankle & to-day all the interested was centered on my back, none of the photographs (five) appeared to be aimed at my knee at all! -- I have given the matter profound thought & have decided there’s a dash of Christian Science in the treatment & the idea is produce a happy state of mind in the patient -- I can see that the beautiful time you are having in that wonderful house & with your charming hostess is being very beneficial. Wheeler is a merry Andrew. His prescription (which I opened in the taxi on the way to the x-ray place) read: “If you don’t want to go back to the nurse & formetations [sic], instead - soak in a hot bath 1/2 hour three times a day, take lots of aspirin -- 6 or 8 tablets a day, (signed), love & kisses Roy Wheeler (!!). On the whole your programme of gay [illegible] sounds much nicer but the idea is the same -- build up the ego! -- But the prescription is certainly difficult.



Suppose the telephone rings. Or the laundry arrives. Or dear little Miss Forbes arrives with some strawberries or John Codman drops in to pass the time of day? So I have arranged to take two of the baths per day at the Club. I hope it will work out all right. It seems a waste of time. But after all town is empty and time is what I have got a lot of.

Your affectionate,


* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary or letters yourself, in our library, or have other questions about the collection please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 24 March, 2017, 12:00 AM

Women and Organized Labor in Early 20th-Century Boston

According to Tom Juravich, William F. Hartford, and James R. Green, authors of Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters in the History of Massachusetts Workers and their Unions (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), the years around the turn of the 20th century were a time of growth for unions in Boston, both in terms of membership and political influence, with groups such as the American Federation of Labor and the Boston Central Labor Union gaining significant power. Unlike the earlier Knights of Labor and the later Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the AFL, which was primarily focused on craft unionism, largely excluded women, people of color, and unskilled workers. However, workers outside of the AFL’s focus did organize during this period, and women began working within the AFL itself in the second decade of the 20th century. These differing visions and practices within organized labor, and their connections to race, gender, and skill levels of workers, raise a variety of considerations for the analysis of this union’s activities and place within dynamic organized labor movements of the period.

The Boston Central Labor Union (Mass.) records at the MHS includes one volume of Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers’ Union records, 1899-1904. The records of this Boston union of tobacco strippers, which was comprised entirely of women, offer an opportunity to investigate both the conditions for women working in manufacturing in Boston around the turn of the 20th century, as well as the actions taken by working women in order to exercise their collective strength.

Photograph of a page from 15 January 1900 Executive Board Meeting minutes, including an accepted "Motion made for a seal for the union bearing the words, Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers Union No. 1 of Boston. Organized Dec. 1899.”


The Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers’ Union formed in December 1899, and was affiliated with both the American Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Union. The records consist of meeting minutes for regular meetings, executive board meetings, and various special meetings. The minutes document the activities of the group over a period of several years. General union business included the distribution of funds for a variety of purposes, such as compensation for union officers, sick benefits for members, and support for strikers and labor unions around the country. The union also initiated organizing activities in order to bring in new members, called for boycotts of certain businesses, heard grievances from members relating to working conditions in their respective factories, and tasked committees with the investigations of these grievances.

One example of the union’s activities relates to a series of grievances involving the H. Traiser factory. In the 1901 Boston Register and Business Directory (Boston: Sampson & Murdock), Henry Traiser & Co. is listed as a Boston cigar business. Workers expressed various concerns relating to the dryness of stock, poor wages, and unjust firing of workers at various points in the C.F.T.S.U. meeting minutes. A committee, appointed at a 27 March Special Executive Board Meeting, met with Traiser about the grievances. In a 28 March 1901 Regular Meeting, the committee reported that Traiser claimed not to know of issues with the stock, but that he would address that issue. However, grievances were noted again in the minutes of a 6 May 1901 Executive Board Meeting. At 13 May 1901 Executive Board Meeting, another committee was organized to meet with Traiser, and a report on the meeting was given at a Special Executive Board Meeting two days later. The Traiser situation was further noted in the minutes of meetings on 20 May, 23 May, 27 May, and 28 May 1901.

Photograph of meeting minutes for a 31 May 1901 Special Meeting.


In a 31 May 1901 Special Meeting, grievances were again read relating to conditions at Traiser’s, resulting in a motion for the creation of a “committee of five . . . to use all possible means to settle all trouble in Traiser’s shop, failing in that they be empowered to order a strike,” which passed by vote of 104-20, with four additional ballots left blank. They listed the following demands of Traiser:

            Reinstatement of girls who were laid off.

            Obnoxious rules dispensed with.

            Stock in better condition.

At the 13 June 1901 regular meeting, the standing committee reported a willingness by Traiser to work them on all of the demands, including reinstating three workers who had been discharged. While similar grievances came up again in the minutes regarding Traiser’s and other plants, I did not see documentation in the volume of a strike at the factory, suggesting that, for the time being, the union was able to exert enough pressure in order to avoid a strike and obtain some concessions.

This volume of Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers’ Union records is available here in the MHS library for research, along with the entire collection of Boston Central Labor Union (Mass.) records.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 4:05 PM

From Hero to Barbarian: The Adamses on Andrew Jackson

As March 15 marks Andrew Jackson’s 250th birthday it will come as no surprise that this incredibly influential and controversial figure in American history provoked strong and memorable reactions from the Adams family as he entered their circle in the 1820s, eventually clashing with John Quincy for the presidency in 1824 and 1828.

The relationship between the Adamses and Jackson did not begin with hostility however. Louisa Catherine Adams recorded her first impressions of Jackson in her Diary in February 1819: “He is tall and very thin and when he smiles his countenance is very agreeable his manners are those of a Gentleman neither confidant or timid and on the whole he produced the most favourable impression— I heard much astonishment expressed by some persons not friendly to him at his being so polite as they expected to have seen him at least half Savage.” John Adams declared him a “Hero and a Conqueror” and even as the election of 1824 was underway, John asked his grandson John Adams 2d to “give my compliments to General Jackson and tell him, if I had strength enough in my old fabric I would take a “Journey to Washington” and pay my homage to the “deliver[er] of his country.” He also thought that “if General Jackson should be chosen,” that John Quincy should continue as Secretary of State for Jackson “untill he has time to look about him and choose a successor, and for what I care, throughout his whole administration.”

The controversial conclusion to the election of 1824 which saw John Quincy’s elevation to the presidency through the House of Representatives, and even more so, the bitterness and rancor that surrounded the election of 1828, which had included deeply personal attacks, ended forever any positive feelings by the Adams family for the newly elected Andrew Jackson.

This change in attitude and the depth of their animosity toward the man was fully revealed in 1833 in the reaction to Harvard University’s decision to award Jackson an honorary doctorate of laws. Louisa Catherine Adams mocked the idea in rhyme:

            Discerning old Harvard presents the Degree

            Old Hickory asks pray what means LLD?

            The Corporate Sages afraid of excess

            Reserve for themselves that of A.S.S.

John Quincy meanwhile recorded his conversation with the president of the university, Josiah Quincy III, on the matter in his Diary, declaring that as “an affectionate child of our alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest Literary honours upon a barbarian, who could not write a sentence of Grammar, and hardly could spell his own name.” To Charles Francis Adams the event marked “the climax of absurdity in General Jackson’s elevation.”

A political feud too personal to overcome, even forgiveness was difficult and the Adamses and Jackson would have “no intercourse of a friendly character” ever again.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 March, 2017, 8:37 AM

Archivist as Detective: Francis Parkman's Spurs

The MHS recently acquired this letter by Mary Ware Hall about spurs belonging to famed historian Francis Parkman, possibly worn during his expedition on the Oregon Trail in 1846. To catalog the letter, I had to identify its writer, recipient, date, and subject. But not only is the letter undated, it didn’t come to us as part of a larger collection, so I had no context to help me. Fortunately, researching the people and the stories behind our manuscripts is all part of the fun.



The letter itself is fairly mundane. It reads:

Dear Mr. Coolidge

Among my cousin, Mr. Hall’s books we found this which it seemed to me should go back to the Parkman family and I thought it might be of some value to you.

The spurs I found among Mr. Hall’s army outfit, labelled “F.P.[”] as you see, and we wondered if by any chance they could have been worn by Mr. Parkman on his “Oregon Trail” journey. It is of course only a guess, but certainly F.P. could only mean Mr. Parkman and Miss Lizzie might have given them to Mr. Hall as a keep-sake. If they were his, possibly your son Jack would like them. If not, you can of course do as you please with them.

Hoping that all goes well with your scattered children and grand-children, believe me,

Very sincerely yrs.

Mary Lee Ware


Mary Lee Ware (1858-1937) was a noted philanthropist who lived at 41 Brimmer Street, Boston. She was easy enough to find. And Francis Parkman (1823-1893) is definitely a known quantity here at the MHS—not only do we hold books by and about Parkman, we also have collections of his papers (here, here, and here) and photographs.

Our cast of characters also includes Mr. Coolidge (the recipient), Mr. Hall (Ware’s cousin), Miss Lizzie, and Jack. My first step was to put together a family tree to trace the connections between the Wares, Halls, Parkmans, and Coolidges. The spurs had somehow made their way from Francis Parkman to Mr. Hall to Mary Lee Ware. Who was this mysterious Mr. Hall that connected Parkman and Ware? Ware’s aunt Harriet had married a Hall and had several sons, but most of them died as children. Francis Parkman’s mother Caroline had also been a Hall.

I found a clue in Parkman’s 1865 book Pioneers of France in the New World. He dedicated that book to the memory of three relatives “slain in battle”: Theodore Parkman, Robert Gould Shaw, and Henry Ware Hall. Henry Ware Hall (1839-1864), Parkman’s cousin, had served in the 51st Illinois Infantry Regiment and was killed in action at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Ga. This military connection would explain Hall’s “army outfit,” where the spurs had been found.

Henry Ware Hall and Francis Parkman shared an uncle, Edward Brooks Hall—the same Hall who had married Mary Lee Ware’s aunt Harriet. So Henry, Francis, and Mary were all first cousins. Still with me?

So who was Mr. Coolidge, the Parkman family member to whom Ware sent the letter and the spurs? That question was a lot easier to answer. John Templeton Coolidge (1856-1945) was Parkman’s son-in-law. (Coolidge had a son with the same name, but he was undoubtedly the “Jack” mentioned in the letter.)

Identifying the letter’s recipient also helped me to assign an approximate date. Not only did the reference to Coolidge’s grandchildren confirm it was written later in his life, but if Ware was sending the spurs to him, I could probably make the assumption that he was the last (or oldest) surviving relative of that generation. Parkman had had two daughters who lived to adulthood—Coolidge’s wife Catherine and her older sister Grace. Most likely they had both already died, as well as Grace’s husband Charles P. Coffin, or else Ware might have sent the spurs to one of them.

Catherine died in 1900, Charles in 1927, and Grace in 1928. Mary Lee Ware herself died in 1937. So the letter was apparently written sometime between 1928 and 1937. The style of stationery and writing seem to correspond to that time.

I can only guess at the story behind the spurs. If I’m right that Mr. Hall is Henry Ware Hall, they may have been found among his things long after his death in the Civil War. Ware speculates that “Miss Lizzie” gave them to Hall. She is probably Francis Parkman’s unmarried sister Eliza Willard Shaw Parkman (1832-1905)—“Lizzie” to her brother—who lived with him at 50 Chestnut Street for the last twenty years of his life, just a few blocks away from Mary Lee Ware.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 March, 2017, 12:37 PM

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