The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around MHS

Ellen Coolidge Meets Charles Babbage, 1839

In 1838, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, arrived in London for a visit that would last nearly a year and fill four notebooks with Ellen’s sharp and witty observations. Ellen and her husband, Joseph Coolidge, Jr., gained entry to some of the most coveted drawing rooms of the time, and Ellen candidly recorded her impressions of the illustrious people she met.

One such person was Charles Babbage, the mathematician, inventor, and author celebrated today as the father of computing for his design of mechanical computers that he called the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Babbage held Saturday-evening parties of London’s elite, which Coolidge attended twice. She writes on 18 February 1839 of the previous Saturday’s gathering,

Here was a gathering of the elect, a ‘re-union’ of literary & scientific men, artists, authors, celebrities of both sexes. Those who like myself had no claim of learning or letters for admittance into so choice an assembly, could only rejoice in the opportunity of seeing so many Lions in one cage. We had, Mr Babbage himself the inventor of the famous calculating machine. . .

But for all the rejoicing they might have caused, these gatherings also inspired some choice words on English manners. On 21 February 1839, Coolidge writes,

The persons . . . whom I meet in society have all, more or less, the same style of manners and of dress, and their ordinary conversation is pitched nearly in the same key. They vary because Nature has put it out of their power to conform in all things to a given standard, but they vary as little as they can. This, in general society, produces a certain amount of insipidity, a want of heartiness, or earnestness, of any sort of warmth or glow. At [Babbage’s] saturday evening parties, where so many political, literary, scientific & artistic characters assemble, I should say that the distinguishing mark was want of all character for good or evil. . . . [I]t seems a pity that Babbage, Hallam, Whewell, Wilkie &c &c should move about requiring . . . to have labels pinned to their backs, in order to tell one from another.

Do you see why earlier I described her observations as “sharp”?

Ellen Coolidge’s diary of the trip—edited by Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla and co-published by the MHS and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2011 as Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839—is being reprinted in paperback as we speak and will be released in April 2013, just in time for Thomas Jefferson’s 13 April birthday.

comments: 3 | permalink | Published: Friday, 22 February, 2013, 8:00 AM

Happy Birthday, MHS!

Today marks the 222nd anniversary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the nation's oldest historical society.  The Historical Society (being the only one, there was no need for the Massachusetts in the name at the time of our founding) had its first official meeting in the comfortable home of William Tudor in downtown Boston.  Only eight of the ten founding members -- the ten being James Sullivan, William Tudor, John Eliot, Peter Thacher, James Winthrop,  George Richards Minot, Thomas Wallcut, Reverend James Freeman Clark, Dr. William Baylies, and Reverend Jeremy Belknap --  attended that first meeting. At that meeting they selected officers, developed a constitution, and set the maximum number of members at 30 resident members and 30 corresponding members. 

As laid out in a circular letter first disseminated in the fall of 1791, Jeremy Belknap, the catalyst behind the formation of the Society, envisioned both a repository and a publication program -- an institution that would collect, preserve, and disseminate resources for the study of American history.The collection, which today boasts over 12 million pages of manuscript documents in addtion to thousands upon thousands of published items, photographs, and artifacts, began at that first meeting through pledges of family papers, books, and artifacts from the founding members personal collections. And with the appearance of their first title at the start of 1792, volume 1 of the still published Collections of the Massachusetts HIstorical Society, they also made the MHS the nation's first institution of any description to publish in its field.

We are proud to say that 222 years later the MHS is still an active repository and publisher.  Our collection continues to grow and supports the work of thousands of researchers every year, who access our holdings through visiting our library, exploring our website, reading our publications (and the many publications that result from the work of our researchers), and corresponding with our staff members. 

Wishing a very happy birthday to the MHS -- and many, many more. 



**For more on the history of the MHS, see Louis Leonard Tucker's The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791 - 1991 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995).



comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 8:00 AM

The MHS Tweets!

The Massachusetts Historical Society is proud to announce the launch of a new organization-wide Twitter account: @MHS1791. After the success of the John Quincy Adams line-a-day diary tweets, we have similarly high hopes for this venture, which will feature historical tidbits, news on events and happenings, and behind-the-scenes glimpses. We are thrilled to engage in this new way with other historical and cultural institutions, as well as scholars, educators, researchers, visitors, and history enthusiasts. Join the conversation! Follow the Society at @MHS1791. Looking for other ways to interact with the MHS? Follow @JQAdams_MHS to keep up with the Adamses, visit out Facebook page, or check out other posts on the blog.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 3 January, 2013, 8:00 AM

Massachusetts Historical Review Volume 14 on Its Way

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: that time when a new volume of the Massachusetts Historical Review goes to press! Print subscribers will receive Volume 14 by mail in the early days of the new year, and the electronic version will be published simultaneously through JSTOR’s Current Scholarship Program. Learn more about subscription here. The journal is also a benefit of MHS membership—learn more about membership here!

The upcoming volume treats a diversity of fascinating topics:

“Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic” by Amalie M. Kass
Cotton Mather’s advocacy for inoculation—a practice then unheard of in the colonies—stirred up a controversy in 18th-century Boston. Insults and accusations flew in the partisan newspapers as inoculation’s champions and opponents fought for public health—and personal glory. The source of Mather’s knowledge of inoculation may surprise you.

“The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion and Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings” by Douglas L. Winiarski
This article explores the phenomenon of the prayer bill or prayer note in colonial religious practices, and how a satirical prayer bill was crafted to injure the reputation of Newbury Congregational minister Rev. Christopher Toppan, who vehemently opposed the popular religious revivals of the Great Awakening.

“A Prince among Pretending Free Men: Runaway Slaves in Colonial New England Revisited” by Antonio T. Bly
Bly sheds light on the lives and characteristics of runaway slaves through in-depth analysis and explication of runaway notices in newspapers. Clues within these notices tell us how fugitive slaves employed quick wits and savvy under extraordinary duress. Bly, who has compiled a database of runaway slave notices, crunches the numbers on a variety of characteristics, illuminating the most common months for escape, the race, linguistic ability, and work backgrounds of runaways, and more.

“Boston, the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, and the Poncas” by Valerie Sherer Mathes
When the Ponca Indians of Nebraska were forced from their homeland in 1877 and sent to the inhospitable Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), many Americans sympathized with their plight. Among those who took up the cause was the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, a group of philanthropists, described in detail for the first time in this article. Mathes also chronicles the speaking tours in support of the Poncas, including the tour of Ponca chief Standing Bear.

The new volume also includes review articles by Sarah Phillips and Chernoh Sesay concerning environmental history and books about Phillis Wheatley and Venture Smith, respectively.

Every issue of the MHR offers pieces rich in narrative detail and thoughtful analysis, and Volume 14 is no different. The MHS looks forward to its publication.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 30 November, 2012, 1:00 AM

Making the Body Politic

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Suzanne and Caleb Loring Research Fellow Ann Holder of the Pratt Institute discussed her research on post-Civil War citizenship, race, and public spaces in a presentation titled “Making the Body Politic: Sexual Histories, Racial Uncertainties, and Vernacular Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation U.S.” The presentation drew on one chapter from a book-length project exploring “public space as a battleground for citizenship.” In this particular chapter, Holder focuses on segregation debates and practices on streetcars and railways from the late 1860s into the early 20th century. She looks comparatively at Boston, Richmond (Virginia), and New Orleans in order to explore how the public space of streetcars and railway carriages were negotiated with regards to race, class, and sexuality, as these public transit systems developed and became necessary for urban life over the course of the 19th century.

Historians have often assumed that, following emancipation, the categories of black/white were easily mapped onto American society as a substitute for slave/free. Holder argues instead that racial segregation, in custom and law, actually rose in response to the uncertainty of racial categories in the Reconstruction era.  Inter-racial sexual relationships during the era of slavery had created racial ambiguity that slavery regulated; once slavery ended, the instability of racial identities exposed the fallacy of a clear demarcation between black and white. Segregation, she suggests, was a “newly-created borderland” between white and black communities, and one which required new mechanisms for enforcement – such as physical segregation in public spaces. Where once whites were relatively free to travel “at will” in black spaces, in the latter half of the 19th century they became subject to new laws restricting them to white spaces. This led to complaints, for example, by whites about crowded whites-only streetcars (particularly when black cars passed by relatively empty, as during organized boycotts), and the rise in arrests of whites for violating segregation laws. In other words, whites had to be disciplined into the “white role” in a similar (though lesser, less violent) fashion as blacks.

Here at the MHS, Holder is exploring the history of segregation in Boston transit, which was practiced customarily in the early 19th century before it fell victim to the campaigns to “strip the legal system of reference to race” in the early 19th century, and to repeal laws banning inter-racial marriage. She notes how the “forced democratization” of crowded public spaces, and the “physicality of encounters with the ‘other’” whether of another class, sex, and/or race, often discomfited those of higher social standing and introduced an unmistakable undertone of sexuality to the experience of traveling. In her presentation, she quoted an anonymous diarist who recounted his unhappy experience of traveling from New York to Boston on the railway, using the word “amalgamation” to describe class mixing in train cars – a word that would, in the Reconstruction era, come to mean inter-racial sexual relations.

Discussion following Holder’s presentation explored the various ways in which imposed order was attempted on the disorganization of public transit, whether by the creation of “first class” rail cars, smoking cars, women-only cars, or racially-segregated trolleys and trains.

We look forward to seeing where Anne Holder takes her research from here, and are very pleased to have her with us throughout the academic year pursuing her work in our Reading Room.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 8:00 AM

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