The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Research Published

Discovering the New England Watch and Ward Society

One aspect of working at a research library that I enjoy immensely is seeing the fruits of our researchers’ labor in the form of published works. I recently had the pleasure of reading historian Neil Miller’s recently published history Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010). This slim volume chronicles the activities of the New England Watch and Ward Society, a private organization with considerable political influence in the Boston area and throughout the region, between 1878 and 1967.

Part of Miller’s research took place here at the MHS, where we hold the Godfrey Lowell Cabot Papers. Cabot was a prominent member of the Watch and Ward, to which he began donating funds in the early 1890s. He joined the Watch and Ward in 1900, served as treasurer from 1915 to 1940, and remained active into the 1950s [1]. Of the 73 boxes of material in the Godfrey Lowell Cabot papers, only two boxes are directly related to the Watch and Ward Society between 1913 and 1921. Yet those two boxes offer researchers a wide range of documentary evidence concerning the Watch and Ward’s activities during this period. My own perusal of the collection this week turned up a few documents that hint at some fascinating stories.

For example, there is an invoice from The Morgan-Boylston Detective Agency for expenses related to “Case 1172” during the fall of 1917. These expenses included taxi hire, car and boat fares, a railroad trip from Boston to New York City, room at a hotel, and unspecified “entertainment.” $10.00 in cash was also paid out to a Mr. H.

A more descriptive report from the same case is found in another folder, and it becomes clear that the investigators are seeking out information concerning the activities taking place at a certain hotel where “it is claimed many high jinks times used to occur.” The author of the report (“Operative #38”) observes, “I attended a banquet on business one night in almost the same room pointed out by Mrs. Moore, if not the same one, when girls in pink skin tights danced the ‘Hoochy Koochy’ on the dining table.”

The Watch and Ward was not only interested in illegal activities, but also in monitoring the efforts of “good people” and institutions involved in public health. On 16 April 1918, J. Frank Chase, the secretary of the Watch and Ward, wrote a letter describing his visit to the Old Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. for a screening of “Fit to Fight,” a propaganda film that was part of the military’s attempt to combat “the Social Diseases.” While he approved of the general effort, Chase was critical of certain aspects of the film:

Realizing the difficulties of the subject and how mistakes are inevitable and the diversity of opinion even among good people as to the details and the methods of doing this necessary work, I am loathe to criticize the work accomplished. Yet, I must urge one criticism of the method. It concerns the unwisdom [sic] of putting on exhibition at the very beginning or at all the picture of a nude woman of full front view, as is done in this film.

While he acknowledges the “nude” is, in fact, a statue of Venus, he argues that its manner of display is troubling. It “does not declare itself as a statue until after such a time as gives the mind a chance to conclude ‘Here is the picture of a naked woman,’ and to gasp at the boldness.”

It is unclear from the existing correspondence whether anyone in the War Department was similarly offended by the film, or whether Chase’s objection to it had any effect on future screenings.

These are just a few examples of the primary source materials to be found in the Cabot papers related to Watch and Ward efforts. You can read more about the Watch and Ward in Miller’s new book, Banned in Boston. The Geoffrey Lowell Cabot papers are open and available for research in the Library’s reading room.

[1] Neil Miller, Banned in Boston, 47.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 February, 2011, 8:00 AM

New on our Shelves: American Insurgents, American Patriots

It's no exaggeration to say that you could fill a shelf with books coming out this fall which draw on collections or publications of the MHS. I'll be highlighting some of these in a series of posts, beginning with this one.

T.H. Breen's American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Hill and Wang, 2010) uses as the centerpiece of one very interesting chapter the "Correspondence in 1774 and 1775, Between a Committee of the Town of Boston and Contributors of Donations for the Relief of the Sufferers by the Boston Port Bill," published in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4th Series, Volume IV (1858), pp. 1-279. This volume of the Collections can be read online via Google Books (here) or of course you're welcome to read the volume here in the library. The original Boston Committee of Donations letterbooks remain in our collections as well; you can see the catalog record for those here.

Stay tuned for more of this fall's new books, and of course watch our events calendar for all the upcoming author talks and discussions.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 September, 2010, 1:10 PM

Just Published: Mather's "Biblia Americana"

We received a long-awaited and much-anticipated package in today's mail: a copy of the first volume of Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana, just published by Mohr Siebeck/Baker Academic. This volume (of ten) marks the first publication of this weighty and important work, edited by a team of extremely dedicated editors headed up by Reiner Smolinski, Professor of English at Georgia State University.

The manuscript of Mather's Biblia Americana, which comprises some 4,500 pages over six volumes, is in the collections of the MHS, so understandably we're thrilled to see this project bear its first fruits in this volume, which covers Mather's commentary on the book of Genesis. It and the future volumes will certainly be a great help to us here in the library as well as to the scholars around the world who will now have access to a well-edited, carefully-annotated version of the text.

Mather's work is, as Smolinski describes it in his erudite and thorough introduction to the volume, "the oldest comprehensive commentary on all the canonical books of the Bible to have been composed in British North America" (p. 3). It "represents one of the great untapped resources in American religious and intellectual history," Smolinski writes, as Mather's "scriptural interpretations reflect the growing influence of Enlightenment thought in America as well as the rise of the transatlantic evangelical awakening."

This is hardly your run-of-the-mill biblical commentary. Mather poses rhetorical questions about the verses he annotates, and uses a stunningly broad range of source texts to explore the topics at hand. As Smolinski notes, this often leads Mather far beyond "the more conventional concerns of biblical philology and academic theology," as he tackles questions of natural philosophy and particularly topics of specific interest to American readers (such as religious customs, cultural practices, and medicinal treatments). Having sifted through "literally hundreds of different tomes" (a list of which Smolinski provides), Mather intended his work to be a "clergyman's personal encyclopedia (in the absence of a college library), a one-stop shop where educated readers could interface with Pagan antiquity, Newtonian science, and Old-Time Religion" (p. 6).

Alas, and despite years of trying, Mather never found a publisher to take on the project, though certainly not for lack of effort on his part (a process recounted ably by Smolinski in his introduction).

A hearty congratulations to Reiner Smolinski and his team for their hard work on this volume (and on those to come)!

If you're interested in the editorial project, you can learn more at the project website.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 2 September, 2010, 4:31 PM

Research Recently Published

A few of the recent publications by research fellows and/or friends of the MHS which involved use of our collections or publications:

- Adam Cooke, "'An Unpardonable Bit of Folly and Impertinence": Charles Francis Adams Jr., American Anti-Imperialists, and the Philippines." New England Quarterly 83, no. 2 (June 2010), 313-338.

- Margery M. Heffron, "'A Fine Romance': The Courtship Correspondence between Louisa Catherine Johnson and John Quincy Adams." New England Quarterly 83, no. 2 (June 2010), 200-218.

- Jane T. Merritt, “Beyond Boston:  Prerevolutionary Activism and the Other American Tea Parties,” in Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, ed. Beatrice Hohenegger (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2009), 164-175.

- Francesca Morgan, "Lineage as Capital: Genealogy in Antebellum New England." New England Quarterly 83, no. 2 (June 2010), 250-282.

- L.A. Norton, Captains Contentious: The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine, (University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

- Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton University Press, 2010).

- Karyn Valerius, "'So Manifest a Signe from Heaven": Monstrosity and Heresy in the Antinomian Controversy." New England Quarterly 83, no. 2 (June 2010), 179-199.

- Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, "The Cabots of Salem & Beverly: A Fondness for the Bombé Form." Antiques & Fine Art (Spring 2010), 166-174.

- Walter W. Woodward, Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 20 May, 2010, 11:58 AM

Wood a Pulitzer Finalist

We'd like to congratulate MHS Fellow Gordon S. Wood, whose book Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) was named a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in History. The winner in that category this year was Liaquat Ahamed, for Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. Joining Wood as a finalist was Greg Grandin, the author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:33 PM

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