The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

MHS Staff Meet with Librarians from Uzbekistan

Although there are many miles between Boston, Massachusetts and Tashkent, Uzbekistan (6,148 miles according to Google) and although the English language is quite different from the Uzbek language, librarians from the National Library of Uzbekistan and staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society found much common ground and camaraderie during a recent meeting at MHS. 

The scheduling logistics for the group - comprised of the Director, Deputy Director, Head, Reading Halls Lead Specialist, and Head of IT and Access to Foreign Library Collections - were handled by WorldBoston. The focus of the meeting and tour, which took place on 5 June, was on how the MHS makes special collections materials available to researchers both remotely and on-site.  During the visit, with the aid of two highly skilled interpreters, we were able to convey information about cataloging, archival storage, and collections management issues.

Following Librarian Elaine Heavey's  brief introduction to the MHS's history and collections, Digital Projects Coordinator Nancy Heywood and Web Developer Bill Beck showed some examples of how we make selections of our collections available online. The MHS website features a few different types of digital presentations—some sections of the website present sets of materials comprised of relatively small numbers of items with lots of contextual information and transcriptions, but other sections of the website present large sets of documents and/or fully digitized collection with minimal descriptive information and usually without transcriptions.

Elaine Heavey then conveyed information about how researchers use online catalogs and collection guides to prepare for their research visit and she demonstrated Portal1791, our new researcher request system.  The group toured the building and saw the spaces that researchers use (orientation room, reading room, catalog room) as well as some staff areas including the conservation lab and one of the larger stack floors.  They also saw a few highlights from the collections.






comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 9 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

This Week @ MHS

July is here and it is a busy month for teachers at the Society. This week, starting on Tuesday, 7 July, there is a three-day teacher workshop titled "Perspectives on the Boston Massacre." The workshop includes a visit and tour to the Old State House, discussion with historians using historical documents, and suggestions for exploring the event further. Registration is required for the workshop with a fee of $35. Complete this registration form, or contact the education department at or 617-646-0557.

On Wedensday, at noon, is a Brown Bag lunch talk called "Native Hawaiian Labor in a Global Economy: The View from Nineteenth-Century New England." In this talk, Gregory Rosentahl of SUNY Stony Brook discusses the mansucript and archival sources he is currently using in his current research project. The talk is free and open to the public, so pack a lunch and stop on by!

And on Thursday, 9 July, there is an author talk taking place at 5:30PM. Join us as John Ferling of the University of West Virginia discusses his new book Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It. In the book, Ferling attempts to balance social and political concerns of the period while examning the war itself. This event is open to the public. Registration is required at no cost, so please RSVP.

Finally, on Saturday, 11 July, stop by at 10:00AM for "The History and Collections of the MHS." During this is a 90-minute docent-led walk through the public spaces at the MHS, visitors will learn about the history, collections, art, and architecture at the Society. The tour is free and open to the public. Parties of 8 or more should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or Small groups and individuals do not need to make arrangements beforehand. 



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 5 July, 2015, 12:00 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

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