The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

The Bostonian and the Bard

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an organization in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England which oversees the historic home in which the William Shakespeare was born. Through the centuries, millions have visited this 16th century abode in order to pay their respects to the Immortal Bard. 

A few weeks ago, I was greeted one morning with a reference question from the staff of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The question focused on the oldest guestbook that the Trust holds in their archives. The item dates to the year 1812 and the first recorded visitors are a TH Perkins of Boston, and Joseph Curwen of Philadelphia.

DR185/1 Shakespeare's Birthplace Visitors' books, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

 

The question coming from Stratford was whether this TH Perkins is Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a prominent Boston businessman and successful merchant of the China trade. Here at the MHS we hold the Thomas Handasyd Perkins papers, 1764-1854 and the folks at the Shakespeare Birthplace were looking for confirmation that these were the same person. So, I started digging to see what I could find about Mr. Perkins' travels in the early 19th century.

Within the collection is a “Journal of Reminiscences of England and Wales, 1 July 1812,” which seemed promising for answering this question. I scrolled through the microfilm looking for keywords that would jump out at me and, sure enough, about thirty frames in I saw mention of Stratford, so I slowed down and started paying attention. As I read, more and more pieces slid into place.

Altho’ I had before visited Stratford, yet it gave me great pleasure to have an opportunity of passing a few more hours here…

When here before, I went to the house, and into the room where the Poet was born, but as Mr. Curwen had not visited this place before, I passed thro’ the town with him and visited, both the house and the church with him…

Perkins then goes into some detail about the people residing in the house

It is now occupied by a Butcher, who hangs up his mutton at the windows of the front room, and whose wife who is a very loquacious sort of a woman, shows you all the Relics which are said to have been the property of the bard.

He continues to describe some of the rooms in the house, making special mention of some walls which were whitewashed and then covered over in the penciled scrawling of visitors, signing their names and leaving messages to show their passage through.

When I was here before, I asked the woman why she did not keep a Book, in which persons who came to visit the house might subscribe their names, as the walls were full. She said she had frequently thought of getting one, and had been often asked if she had one, but that she had no one to prepare it for her; at that time I was much hurried, but determined that if I ever again passed thro’ Stratford I would purchase one and give it to the woman. I now put my resolution into execution by buying a quarto blank Book containing about four quires of paper, and giving to be applied to his purpose I ruled it, making a column for the date, another for the name and a third for the Residence__and having written in the beginning of it “Tribute of Repsect to the Memory of the Bard of Avon” and furnished the woman with an ink stand and some pens, I subscribed my name, and wished her to deliver the Book when filled to the Librarian of the town, who is to deposit it in the Library, and furnish another blank Book in its stead.

 

When taking on this reference question I was fairly confident that the "TH Perkins" in the guestbook would be the same as the man whose papers we hold. However, I was tickled when I read this passage and learned that our Perkins was actually the person who purchased and inscribed the guestbook, even going so far as to provide instructions for its preservation. Perhaps in another life this businessman will make a good librarian.

comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Friday, 23 December, 2016, 12:00 AM

An Anxious Christmas

Christmas 1798 was an anxious one for the Adams family. President John Adams faced a new congressional session and the continued threat of war with France, a presidential cabinet of unknown loyalty, and a fiercely partisan Congress. The situation in his personal life was scarcely more cheery—John marked the day alone in Philadelphia as his dearest friend, Abigail, recuperated from a life-threatening illness in Quincy, and winter weather making her joining him unsafe. Moreover his youngest son, Thomas Boylston, was overdue to arrive in a winter voyage across the Atlantic home to the United States after over four years in Germany.

John had already written to Abigail once on Christmas morning, but picked up his pen a second time later in the day. While the upcoming volume of Adams Family Correspondence will include the first of these letters as it is more detailed and substantial, this second letter will be omitted. In his brief second letter, he told her about the ride he took through what he describes as a picturesque winter wonderland around Philadelphia on a sunny day. He also tried to reassure Abigail from afar that there was no need to worry if no news of their son’s arrival had yet reached her:

I have rode in the Coaches with Mr [William Smith] shaw over Grays Ferry and round by Hamiltons Woodlands over the Upper Ferry home, about ten miles [James] Kiggin says. more beautifull Slaying never was seen. The snow not as with you excessively deep, but enough to cover all the Earth and deep enough to afford a very smooth path and beautifully white as Innocence itself. Yet the sun melts the snow and it runs from the Roofs and fills the air with a Chilly Vapour which destroys the Comforts as well as beauty of Winter in this place.— How soon a warm rain and thorough Thaw may happen to break all up & make the Roads impossible, none can tell.

Christmas is arrived but I dont hear of T. B. Adams’s Arrival at Newbury Port. I hope you have before this: but if you have not dont be anxious—long Passages very long are very frequent at this season.

Although the Adamses did not celebrate Christmas the way it is commonly celebrated today, it was still a day that brought a short respite from work if not from worry with an eye toward an approaching new year.


 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 12:00 AM

“A fearful time for old Boston”: The Great Fire of 1872

It was with extreme surprise and pain that I learned on going out onto the street yesterday morn of the extensive conflagration sweeping th[r]o the business part of Boston. It seemed impossible that fire could get such headway among those solid granite buildings which one would think were almost fire proof.

This passage comes from a letter in the new MHS collection of Hatch family papers. It was written by Charles H. Hatch in St. Paul, Minn. to his brother Edward on 12 November 1872, two days after the Great Boston Fire devastated much of the city’s financial district. Edward worked for Allen, Lane & Co., dry goods commission merchants on Devonshire Street. He wasn’t hurt in the fire, which broke out shortly after 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, but Allen, Lane & Co. lost $250,000.

Here’s a map of the affected area from The Story of the Great Fire, published by Shepard & Gill in 1872, and an artist’s rendering from Russell H. Conwell’s History of the Great Fire in Boston (1873).

 

 

 

 

Charles Hatch was suffering from an unspecified illness, possibly consumption, and had only recently left Boston for the Midwest. He regretted being so far away from his older brother Edward, affectionately nicknamed “Boz.”

The fire & its results form the chief topic of conversation here and all manifest the deepest sympathy for suffering Boston and take the greatest interest in the reports as they come. […] I wish I had been there during the fire Boz and wish I was even now. It must have been a grand and terrible sight.

Eager for news and frustrated by “somewhat conflicting and very vague” accounts, Charles wrote again at 8:00 a.m. the following day.

Dear Boz I can hardly realize that the best part of the business centre of Boston is a pile of smouldering ruins. The news comes so contradictory and uncertain that I scarce know what to believe. It is a terrible blow to Boston and it must take a long time for her to recover from it. […] I am waiting most anxiously a letter from you to know how and to what extent you will be affected by it.”

Other MHS material related to the Great Fire includes letters in the Higginson family papers II. On 10 November, James J. Higginson in New York wrote to his father George, “I scarcely know what to say to you in face of the horrible tidings that the news-boys are shouting in one’s ears.” The next day, he complained, “The most alarming rumors were spread around here yesterday, and even late in the evening very little seemed known accurately.”

Some of the most detailed descriptions of the fire and its aftermath come from the journals of merchant William Gray Brooks. Unlike Charles Hatch and James Higginson, he wrote as a first-hand witness to what he called “a fearful time for old Boston.” His entry for 16 November 1872 reads: “One week this evening since the great fire. What a week! The ‘burnt district’ is still smouldering and smoking and the walls are being taking [sic] down.”

 

(These three photographs are taken from the Wigglesworth family photographs II. The third depicts Devonshire Street, the street on which Edward Hatch worked. See also our before-and-after stereoviews of Pearl and Washington Streets.)

While laborers worked to clear the rubble and relief efforts got underway, residents feared the fire’s return. In fact, two additional fires did break out, one on 19 November near the Custom House and another the next day in Cornhill, very close to Brooks. He wondered in his journal if Boston was a “doomed city.” However, the streets thronged with visitors, and the financial district was soon rebuilt.

On 26 November 1872, Mayor William Gaston appointed a commission to investigate the cause and management of the fire, as well as factors contributing to its spread. The commission’s report begins:

The fact is painfully familiar, that on the 9th of November last, on a calm and mild evening, a fire broke out in the building numbered 83 and 85 Summer Street, and raged without control till the afternoon of the following day, spreading through the best business portions of Boston, covering sixty-five acres with ruins, destroying 776 buildings, assessed at the value of $13,500,000, and consuming merchandise and other personal property estimated at more than sixty millions of dollars. (p. iii)

Unfortunately…

To the more important question how the fire began, no answer can be given. There is no evidence whatever criminating any of the occupants of the building, nor is there anything to show that it caught from the furnace or the boiler, except the fact that it began in that portion of the building. (p. iv)

Brooks probably spoke for many Bostonians when he wrote in his journal on 30 November 1872, “The last day of November, a month that will mark an era in the history of Boston. What a different city it is since the beginning of the month.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 12:00 AM

Christmas with the Poets: Traditions and Superstitions

Now that it's December and Thanksgiving is long behind us, we're hopefully in the clear to indulge in Christmas songs. To get in the holiday spirit, I pulled out our copy of Christmas with the Poets, a selection of “songs, carols, and descriptive verses relating to the festival of Christmas, from the Anglo-Norman period to the present time,” edited by Henry Vizetelly and published in 1851. 

 

Along with the traditional carols celebrating the birth of Jesus and festivities of the season, the collection includes lesser-known songs and poems with their own weight of tradition. One section I found particularly interesting is aptly titled “Boar’s Head Carols.” The editor notes, “There is no more interesting, and, by the way, no more hacknied, feature connected with the celebration of Christmas in the olden time, than the custom of bringing in the Boar’s Head with minstrelsy.” Regal banquets served the boar’s head ceremoniously as the first course, a tradition which is said to have originated at Queen’s College, Oxford.

 

Another unusual selection of poems falls under “Superstitions regarding Christmas Day.” Vizetelly introduces two poems from the same Harley manuscript at the British Library with the note, “The following poems are, perhaps, more curious than interesting.” As Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, here is a superstitious warning for us:

 

If Christmas day on the Sunday be,

A troublous winter ye shall see,

        Mingled with waters strong ;

Good there shall be without fable,

For the summer shall be reasonable,

        With storms at times among.

 

Though this may sound somewhat ominous—and bringing up the notion of a “troublous” winter in New England is probably a dangerous thing to do—these are mild predictions compared to the superstitions that follow. I won’t get into the details, but the succeeding verses throughout the week involve increasingly harsh weather, shipwrecks, pestilence, sickness, and death.

Vizetelly’s collection of poems ends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year.” Throughout the poem, a personified “Old year” lies dying as the poem’s speaker reminisces on his fading friend. The final stanza reads:

 

His face is growing sharp and thin.

            Alack! Our friend is gone.

Close up his eyes : tie up his chin :

Step from the corpse, and let him in

            That standeth there alone,

                        And waiteth at the door.

                        There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,

                        And a new face at the door, my friend,

                        A new face at the door.

 

Visit the library to read carols, poems, and songs from Christmas with the Poets and similar books in full, and best wishes for a festive final month of 2016 before the year comes to a close!

 

 

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 December, 2016, 12:00 AM

Margaret Russell’s Diary, December 1916

 Messianic Era (1919) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Boston Public Library.

 

Today, we return to final month of 1916 in the line-a-day diary of Margaret Pelham Russell (1858-1924). You can read previous installments here:

January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November

The final month of 1916 ends on a quiet and rather somber note for Margaret Russell. She remains close to home and although she enjoys a regular schedule of social calls and cultural events she also struggles with a “bad throat” and worries about the health of an ailing friend Mrs. Hodder. Interspersed with notes about botany lessons and concerts and club activities is the terse notation, “Paper says Germany suggests peace.” The newspaper was reporting on a public offer to negotiate made by Germany and her allies in early December. The war would continue for almost two more years until the armistice of 11 November 1918 finally brought an end to the fighting.

Margaret spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at charity events -- a tree at the House of the Good Samaritan on the 24th and another at Massachusetts Eye & Ear infirmary on the 25th. She attended church services both days and dined with family and friends.

The day before New Year’s Eve, Margaret Russell goes down to the Boston Public Library at Copley Square to view the latest murals painted by John Singer Sargent, works that would eventually become part of his piece Triumph of Religion (1890-1919). “Messianic Era,” depicted above, is one of the ten sections installed in 1916.

 * * *

December 1916*

 

1 Dec. Friday - Church. Errands. Took a drive & paid some calls.

2 Dec. Saturday. The H.G.C’s went with me to Worcester to see Art Museum & lunch at the Bancroft. Nice day.

3 Dec. Sunday. Church - took walk with Georgie. Lunched H.G.C’s. Mr. Woods came to see me. Family to dine, all but Nellie who is ill.

4 Dec. Monday - Hosp. Meeting, Mary, lunch with Marian. First botany lesson then walk with Miss A--.

5 Dec. Tuesday - First Friday Club Meeting. Left early & went to hear Morton P. lecture. Walked home with F. P.

6 Dec. Wednesday - Went out to see Steve[illegible] & then a few other calls. Throat suddenly hurt me.

7 Dec. Thursday - First meeting of lunch club here. Felt poorly & stayed at home.

8 Dec. Friday - Had Dr. Smith who says I have a bad throat & took culture. Feverish & uncomfortable.

9 Dec. Saturday - Better but ready to stay on couch. Throat clearing.

10 Dec. Sunday - Better but not feeling like myself. Family to dine.

11 Dec. Monday - Still in the house but improving. Raining hard. Botany lesson. Fine day.

12 Dec. Tuesday - Raining hard. Dr. came for last time. Paper says Germany suggests peace.

13 Dec. Wednesday - Went out to dine & glad to be out.

14 Dec. Thursday - Chilton Meeting, walked home. Lunched early & went to Swampscott. Old stump has fallen.

15 Dec. Friday - [illegible], errands in the morning & to see Aunt Emma. Fine concert. Edith lunched & went with me.

16 Dec. Saturday - Errands, quite deep snow. Broke mud guard. To see the The Great Lover with Annie & Horatio.

17 Dec. Sunday - Church - lunched at Mr. Chapin’s with the H.G.C’s & Dr. Bigelow & Mrs. Sears. Family to dine.

18 Dec. Monday - C.D. Meeting where Nellie P. was elected. Lunched at Mariners. Botany lesson & did not go out again.

19 Dec. Tuesday - Went to the Bazaar for the first time. Tuesday Club met here.

20 Dec. Wednesday - Errands - Mrs. W’s lecture. Went to Swampscott & Nahant with bundles.

21 Dec. Thursday - Meeting at South End - lunch club at Jennie’s.

22 Dec. Friday - Wonderful concert! Light symphony with chorus & Paderewski (Schumann Con.) Frances P. went with me.

23 Dec. Saturday - Lunched at Edith Wendell’s. Delivering presents.Cold & windy. Wonderful concert with Paderewski. Mrs. Sears went.

24 Dec.Sunday - Church. Lunched at H.G.C’s. Tree at Good Samaritan at 4.30 & service. Miss Ahler went. Family to dine.

25 Dec. Christmas. Tree at E. & E. Infirmary  at 10. Beautiful service at the Cathedral afterwards. Lunched with Marian, dined at C’s.

26 Dec. Tuesday - Mary - Miss Harmen came to play. Out to see Aunt Emma & to Mabel Walker’s tea - to see Lyman children.

27 Dec. Wednesday - Raining & freezing. Walked downtown for errands. Mrs. Ward’s lecture. Lunched at club. So slippery I stayed P.M. at home.

28 Dec. Thursday - Went to Sampscott. Easy going & not cold.

29 Dec. Wednesday - Snowing & high wind - errands for a little while & then home for the rest of the day - dined with Mrs. Sears & went to the theatre.

30 Dec. Saturday - To see new Sargent pictures at the Library - out to S. Framingham to see Mrs. Hodder who is quite ill & I am worried about her. Cold.

31 Dec. Sunday - Miss A-- went to the Cathedral with me. Lunched at H.G.C’s. To call on Perrys. Family to dine but only three.

 

* * *

I hope you have enjoyed this year in the life of Margaret Pelham Russell. If you are interested in viewing the diary in person 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.

 

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 7 December, 2016, 12:00 AM

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