The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: An Introduction

In my previous post, I explored the world of early twentieth-century travel by train. Inspired by the glimpse into another era the diary behind that post evoked, I went looking for other travel diaries from the same era and found an anonymous diary kept by a Boston woman while on a steamer cruise up the Nile in Egypt.

Intrigued by the notion of an American tourist riding donkeys out to explore Egyptian archeological sites and having tea at British colonial resorts while Europe was at war, I have decided to use this diary as a jumping-off point to write a series of posts this winter placing this diary, and the adventure it describes, in broader historical context.

The diary begins abruptly on 25 November 2014 with our diarist already en route up the Nile by steamer. The author begins each day with the date and writes a few lines about her daily activities -- notes on where and how she and her party traveled, the sites visited, as well as where and when she had breakfast, lunch, and tea. Even without detailed information about the author’s identity and the personal context of her foreign travel, her written record of progress up the Nile can serve as a catalyst for a number of historical questions.

We might explore, for example, what the diary can tell us about the history of travel, and particularly the history of women travellers. Her story is part of a long history of Anglo-American fascination with Egypt and the Middle East that bears unpacking -- by virtue of her anonymity her experience may shed light on the experience of everyday, rather than famous (or infamous), Americans abroad.  We might ask what her narrative can tell us about the materiality of travel, about human interaction with the natural and built environment. We can also note the silences and erasures within her narrative: those aspects of Egypt which she may or may not see, but certainly doesn’t write about.

Stay tuned for the second post in this series, coming in February, in which we will delve into the timeline of our diarist’s journey up the Nile and some of the activities she did record along the way.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 1:00 AM

A Vacation of the Mind

I went to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) this morning. The flight from Boston normally costs upwards of $1,000. Flight time, with layovers, averages 24 hours. However my trip to Ceylon did not cost me a dime or any flight time. I went on a “mind vacation.” The concept sounds a little quirky but a mind vacation is a great way to visit another place or time without actually spending the money for a flight or inventing time travel. (Although if you are currently devising time travel, I want in.)

My mind vacation materialized as I read Reverend James Cordiner’s Description of Ceylon. In these two volumes, Cordiner recorded his experiences in Ceylon while serving as chaplain to the garrison of the capital Colombo from 1799 to 1804. The first volume contains descriptions of the island’s geography, resources, inhabitants and climate. When I first read the climate description of Colombo, thoughts of the brisk January temperatures in Boston today -- and the approaching blizzard -- simply melted away.

With great detail, Cordiner contrasts the climate of Colombo with the nearby British trading port of Madras (modern day Chennai, India).  “…with the arid plains, withered vegetation, scorching winds, and clouds of burning dust, which, for several months in the year, cast an inhospitable gloom around the vicinity of Madras. There in, the month of May, 1804, Farenheit’s thermometer appeared above ninety degrees before nine o’clock in the morning, and, in the course of the day, rose in many houses to one hundred and nine degrees.” Cordiner considers this port’s climate to be lacking. I also think Madras is a little too hot and dusty for a comfortable mind vacation.

I find his description of Colombo comparatively restorative to read in the middle of January. “The smallest inconvenience from heat is never felt within doors at Columbo. Even passing through this moisture under the full blaze of the meridian sun, the air is ten degrees cooler that than of Madras … There is then always a fresh breeze from the sea, which greatly lessens the effects of the sun’s power.” Colombo is a tropical vacation compared to dusty Madras -- and snowy Boston!  With temperatures in the 80s and a sea breeze, who would not want to visit?

Do you need a mind vacation this week? I encourage you to visit our reading room (although check our homepage, as we may close due to snow) for a mind vacation to plenty of local and distant destinations throughout the centuries available in our collections.  I would love to hear your adventures.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 26 January, 2015, 12:00 AM

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution

Amendment XVIII

Section 1.

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2.

The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.

 

The 18th amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by Congress on 18 December 1917. About thirteen months later, on 16 January 1919, Nebraska signed on as the 36th state approving the amendment, thus ratifying it as law. For the next 14 years, the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal in the United States.

The calls for prohibition and temperence were nothing new. In fact, Massachusetts already had experience dealing with prohibitory laws. In 1855, a law passed that forbade the sale of all intoxicating liquors (including beer, wine, and cider) as a drink or medicine, except when sold by certain agents of the State. Appeals for a more lenient license law were constant until 1875 when the new Governor Gaston recommended repeal of the law. As it turns out, not everyone was strictly abiding by the law while it was in place, a problem that was endemic during the national prohibition decades later

Here at the MHS, we have documents relating to these issues going back a century before the 18th amendment became law. Much of the material here is in support of prohibition and is pro-temperance. In some cases, women involved in the suffrage movement tried to combine forces with the temperance movement, encouraging suffrage so that the temperance movement could have more votes. Francis Parkman, a temperance advocate, disagreed with the strategy:


 

However, among all the 19th century voices condemning the consumption of alcohol, there were still those opposed to full prohibition, even some that were members of the clergy:

 

After just a few years, there were claims that Prohibition and the 18th amendment were already failing. One such example comes from Joseph Curtis who wrote a pamphlet simply titled Prohibition is a Failure in 1924. Prompted by an article stating that stricter enforcement of the law was soon to come (embodied in the Volstead Act), Curtis recounts reading a statement by Dr. C.W. Eliot calling for such enhanced enforcement and how he felt that his "life, liberty and happiness, and that of every other american citizen was going to be imperiled if Dr. Eliot's views should prevail. For without liberty and happiness, life isn't worth living..." 

To find out what else the MHS has regarding temperance and prohibition, try searching the terms in our online catalog, ABIGAIL. Then raise a glass to the liberty and happiness of Mr. Curtis which make life worth living!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 16 January, 2015, 4:17 PM

Homegrown Gifts: George Washington’s Locks

Our exhibition Father of His Country Returns to Boston closes today as the holiday season wraps up. The exhibition commemorates the 225th anniversary of President George Washington’s month-long tour of New England in October 1789. One of the most interesting items on display as part of this exhibition is a lock of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton worked closely with Washington throughout the American Revolution and their political careers. Hamilton was born the second illegitimate child of James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien on 11 January 1755 or 1757 in Charlestown on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He worked as a clerk until he traveled to the British North American colonies for education. In New York, Hamilton became increasingly involved in the rumblings of Revolution during his studies at King’s College before responding to a call for recruits in 1776. Washington appointed Hamilton to the position of aide-de-camp at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on 1 March 1777. Washington mentored Hamilton as he did with all his aides-de-camp until a parting of ways in February 1781 when Hamilton resigned from Washington’s staff position over insult. However, their working relationship did not end there. Washington later appointed Hamilton as first Secretary of the Treasury in  September 1789 just before the President’s tour of New England commenced in October.  The circumstances surrounding the gift of Washington’s hair to Hamilton however remain undocumented.

The practice of gifting hair seems particularly strange to the 21st century observer. Nowadays people share photographs of themselves and their families in holiday cards or digitally through social media. Portraiture remained the primary way individuals shared images of themselves prior to the invention of the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s. But the gift of hair also held considerable value. Hair was often woven and incorporated into rings, bracelets, and other jewelry throughout the 18th century. Lovers, friends, and family often exchanged locks of hair as mementos.   Vestiges of hair traditions remain even today when parents save locks of their children’s hair.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has not just one but two separate locks of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton. Mrs. Charles Mason donated the first singular lock to the Society on 11 May 1876. The second lock of Washington’s hair is framed together with a lock of Hamilton’s own hair. The son of Alexander Hamilton, James A. Hamilton of Nevis, gave these locks to Eliza Andrew, wife of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, on 27 October 1865. The Society later received the locks from Andrew’s children, Edith and Henry Hersey Andrew in December 1920.

The text of the frame states:

“The above is the hair of my Father
Alexander Hamilton, presented
by me to Mrs. Andrew
Octo. 27 1865
James A. Hamilton”

“The above is the Hair of “The Father
of his Country” Geo. Washington pre=
sent to his friend Mrs Andrew by
James A. Hamilton
Nevis
Oct 27 1865”


Marble bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1794

Their working relationship tempered by respect endured any snarls. Washington’s death on 11 December 1799 came as a great loss not only to the country he fathered but also to his former mentee. In a letter to Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear on 2 January 1800, Hamilton wrote, “Perhaps no man in this community has equal cause with myself to deplore the loss. I have been much indebted to the kindness of the General, and he was an Aegis very essential to me.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 January, 2015, 1:00 AM

Equality in Incarceration: The Push for Women’s Prisons in Massachusetts

For my inaugural Beehive post I delved into the world of female incarceration, attempting to better understand the creation of women’s prisons in Massachusetts, and the codified societal controls imposed on women in the 19th century.

In 1874, Emory Washburn published “Reasons for a Separate State Prison for Women” and with impassioned rhetoric, called out the systemic inequalities leading to women’s imprisonment, and called for a shift in focus from punishment to reformation.

While I initially read his publication expecting a paternalistic discourse, what I found was a sharp commentary on women’s power for self-determination and democratic participation.

But for what we are bound to suppose wise reasons, the voice of only one sex can be heard at the ballot-box, while the other must content themselves with humbly making known their wishes to the legislature, that something may be done to relieve the Commonwealth from this inequality in the administration of justice in the case of the two sexes. It is not overlooked, that not a few of those who would be the inmates of such a prison as is here advocated, have become so from causes with which those whose votes help to settle questions of this kind have had much to do [emphasis added].

Crime is a form of social action; the criminal justice system a type of social control; and the arc of women’s history is inexorably linked to both. In puritan New England, women were predominantly brought up on charges of fornication and adultery, and even crimes such as murder, were often the result of secretive abortions, or desperate acts of infanticide. Punishment was evocative and public. As concrete expressions of social control, it served dual purposes as both a lesson to the female perpetrators and an establishment of boundaries for the women waiting in the wings.

Within our collections, there is a smattering of “last words” of colonial-era women convicted and punished for felonious crimes. Secondary sources, such as N.E.H. Hull’s Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts deftly explicate the female experience in colonial courts, but women’s first-hand accounts of the 19th century justice system prove maddeningly elusive.

In his call for sex-segregated prisons, Washburn is speaking to a society in which women are jailed in the same institutions as men, yet offered no means with which to train or educate themselves.

Reformers saw the harsh conditions of men’s prisons as hardening and detrimental to women, with the lack of educational and vocational trainings failing to prepare them for a productive life beyond their incarceration. With no prospects independent of crime, recidivism among women was high, and the cycle of crime in the mid-19th century rarely broken. By advocating for separate women’s reformatories, Washburn saw a chance to break women free from this cycle. So long as the women had sufficient time to internalize the reform.

The process of working to reform in such prisons must, at best, be slow, and the attempt to do it in the period of a few months practically hopeless. Such sentences have reference to disposing of bad subjects for the time being, and not to the reforming of them (6).

To better understand the women’s prisons that arose from this movement, I found the 1888 report to the Massachusetts Commissioners of Prisons detailing the first year of the  Reformatory Prison for Women at Sherborn. The report echoes Washburn’s call for longer sentences and the necessity for access to education and vocational training. But it also complicates our understanding of female incarceration - detailing the all-female prison staff tasked with monitoring, controlling, and reforming the women under their care. This staff included a chaplain: Eliza L. Pierce, a physician: Eliza M. Mosher, and superintendent: Eudora C. Atkinson.

In its first year the prison held 794 women. 143 of the inmates were sentenced for acting “idle and disorderly”; 147 for being a “common night-walker”; and the most, 161, for being a “common drunkard” (161). While the women’s financial backgrounds are unclear, it was recorded that the majority, 54%, were foreign born.

Fom this tableau of sources, we see the beginnings of a rich context into which the experiences of women as gatekeepers, educators, protectors and prisoners can be woven. Questions abound as to the concrete changes these women pursued; the dynamics between domestic and foreign-born inmates; and the support these prisoners received after their release, specifically from institutions such as Temporary Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners.

These are just a selection of the MHS’s offerings pertaining to women’s incarceration. Researchers interested in engaging further with these sources, or our broader manuscript and print collections, are encouraged to contact the library or stop by for a visit.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 30 December, 2014, 1:00 AM

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