The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around MHS

Last Chance to Visit Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land

Boston enjoys a reputation for its role in the founding of the United States. That reputation is well deserved, but the American Revolution was hardly the last time Boston figured significantly in a radical and righteous cause.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Boston became a center of the national antislavery movement. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, a key figure in the movement, began the publication of The Liberator, the country’s leading abolitionist newspaper. On the first page of the first issue (1 January 1831), Garrison fired a bold volley against not only proslavery attitudes, but apathy and arguments for a cautious and gradual approach to abolition. “Urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch.—AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

William Lloyd Garrison and several other prominent Boston abolitionists are the subjects of the Society’s current exhibition, Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land": Boston Abolitionists, 1831–1865. Manuscripts, portraits, broadsides, and artifacts from the MHS collections illustrate the role of Massachusetts in the national struggle over slavery. Among the most fantastic objects on display are John Brown’s Colt revolver, first editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and the imposing table on which Garrison set the type for The Liberator, which has not been displayed at the Society in many years.

The exhibition closes Friday, 24 May 2013, so come down to 1154 Boylston Street as soon as you can. It’s free and open to the public from 10 AM to 4 PM, Monday through Saturday.

And for those who can’t make it to Boston, you can explore the exhibition’s companion web feature, Boston Abolitionists, 1831–1865.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 May, 2013, 10:00 AM

When Catholic Easter Was Unknown in Boston

We recently celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter Sunday is fast approaching – both holidays that are widely honored in Boston, which has a reputation for being heavily Catholic. It is hard to believe, therefore, that there was a time when openly practicing Catholicism in Boston was illegal. But prior to the American Revolution, the city laws prohibited public worship by Roman Catholic priests. Anti-Catholic sentiment was so widespread, in fact, that there was a holiday in New England called Pope Night, which took place on November 5, when often violent, riotous participants paraded effigies of the pope, his cohorts, and the devil through the streets before they burned them (to learn more about Pope Night read this earlier post).

After the American Revolution, George Washington ordered an end to Pope Night, as it was undermining relations with Canada, and when the Massachusetts Constitution took effect in 1780 it became legal for Catholics to practice publicly. The Rev. Claudius Florent Bouchard de la Poterie, a former French naval chaplain, established the first Catholic parish in New England in 1788 on School Street in Boston, and he celebrated the first mass there on November 2, the Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day.

So exotic was Catholic worship to Bostonians when the parish opened that La Poterie felt it necessary to write an explanation of Catholic practices in order to show that there was nothing to fear. In 1789 he published a pastoral letter titled “The Solemnity of the Holy Time of Easter: The Order of the public Offices, and of the Divine Service, during the Fortnight of Easter, in the Catholick Church of the Holy Cross at Boston,” a copy of which the Society has in its collections. His explanation begins with Palm Sunday, continues through Holy Week, and finishes with Easter Sunday. He writes of the “paschal duty” of Catholics to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and the subsequent availability of daily confession to Catholics throughout Holy Week. La Poterie also illuminates the ritual surrounding Holy Thursday mass, including the washing of the “feet of 12 lads, between 10 and 14 years of age; the poorest will have the preference.” The 12 boys represented the 12 apostles, who had their feet washed by Jesus in the Gospel. La Poterie also describes the importance of the Easter Vigil mass as the time when new Catholics are welcomed into the Church through baptism.

The Holy Cross parish did not appear to have money available to pay its musicians for Easter Sunday mass. La Poterie writes, “The gentlemen musicians of this city are earnestly requested to continue to give testimony of their goodness and of their generosity, the congregation reserving themselves for more happy times to prove their gratitude and good wishes.” He indicates that a collection would be taken up at mass and the musicians would receive the results of it afterward.

Despite his efforts to demystify the perception of Catholics in Boston, by both explaining the events that would take place during Holy Week and indicating the humble nature of the parish, the letter backfired. La Poterie was rebuked by his superior, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, who wrote that many parts of the letter were “highly improper for publication in this country, & of a tendency to alienate from our Religion & disgust the minds of our Protestant Brethren.” La Poterie was suspended and left Boston in 1790, but the openly Catholic presence in the city of Boston remained and only grew into the 19th and 20th centuries.

The MHS itself has a connection to the first founder of a Catholic parish in Boston. MHS founder Rev. Jeremy Belknap mentions having seen La Poterie “dressed in his toga” at a religious lecture. Later, after La Poterie was disciplined, Belknap wrote in a letter to Ebenezer Hazard, “He is, I believe, but a speckled bird” (James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States [New York: Oxford University Press, 1981], 78-79).

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 8:00 AM

Making Music, Making History

Over the last four hundred years Boston has nurtured the creation and performance of numerous musical genres. Distinguished by the breadth and intensity of its musical life, Boston has been home to talented and influential composers, conductors and performers; world-class orchestras and conservatories; and community music societies representing a broad range of musical genres. Located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, the MHS is literally surrounded by several premier musical institutions. In addition to sharing walls with two of these institutions, (Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory) the MHS also counts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory, the Handel and Haydn Society, and Boston University School of Music as its near neighbors. Over the next several months the MHS will offer several public programs that bring Boston’s history makers and music makers together, using music as a lens to investigate Boston’s history.

Our goal is to introduce fans of music to the history behind some of their favorite songs, venues, and performers, and to the local, national, and even global historical context of specific musical moments. We also want to expose our devoted corps of intellectually curious adults to a new way of investigating Boston’s past. We will begin with two programs in spring 2013. On 13 March, prize-winning author Megan Marshall will offer insights from her newest book Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, her biography of the 19th-century heroine who spent her last years in Rome and Florence as a war correspondent covering the early stages of Italy’s Risorgimento. Folk ensemble Newpoli will be on hand to conjure the vibrant music that Fuller came to love as emblematic of Italy. Together with the audience, Ms. Marshall and Newpoli will discuss what music can tell us about Fuller’s life in Italy and how Italian history was presented and commemorated in nineteenth-century America.

On 29 May, we will collaborate with Berklee professor Peter Cokkinias and the Boston Saxophone Quartet to explore the music of the Civil War era. This two-hour program will feature familiar tunes from the 1860s that were sung around the parlor piano, as well as songs written specifically for the newest instrument of the era: the saxophone. The Quartet will also perform several pieces composed by Patrick Gilmore, the band leader who established the concert band as an American institution and removed music from the home and concert hall to the parade ground and bandstand. In the early years of the Civil War, Gilmore’s band became attached to the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, accompanying the troops to North Carolina in 1861–1862. Audience members will sing along to familiar camps songs and discuss the role of musicians in the Civil War.

Planning is also underway for a third program, which will take audiences out in the field to experience musical venues in the fall of 2013. Our “Tempos of Turbulence” walking tour will immerse participants in the music of the Society’s Back Bay neighborhood. We will focus our tour narrative on stories that demonstrate how the creation and enjoyments of music in early twentieth-century Boston were intertwined with larger, political, cultural, and social issues. For example, at Berklee College of Music, participants will learn about the founding of the institution in 1945, and why its creator, composer Lee Berk, chose to focus on training musicians in jazz, blues, and other forms of American popular music in the years after World War II. At Symphony Hall, we will hear examples of works by German, Austrian, and Hungarian composers, which dominated the repertoires of symphonies in cities like Boston in the years prior to WWI, and explore (visually and aurally) American responses to this music in the years during and after the war.  Just across the street from Symphony Hall, a block of jazz clubs dominated Massachusetts Avenue in the 1940s.  We will use these “lost” venues to discuss the influence of black culture on the music scene in mid-century Boston, as well as the moment when jazz music began to spread from the African American community to clubs attended by an ethnic and economic cross-section of the population.

You too can experience theses musical moments at the MHS! Visit our web calendar to learn more about upcoming events and how to reserve your spot on the guest list. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 1:00 AM

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

older posts