The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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

This Week @ MHS

There are no public programs scheduled for this week, but there are a few things to take note of:

- The library closes at 3:30PM on Monday, 19 December, and the building closes at 4:00PM.

- The library is closed from Friday, 23 December, through Monday, 2 January. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 3 December. 

- Exhbition galleries are open Tuesday, 27 December through Friday, 30 December, 10:00AM-4:00PM. Stop by to check out Turning Points in American History

Please check our online calendar for a full listing of our upcoming closures. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 18 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

This Week @ MHS

This week is your final chance to take part in some public programs here at the MHS for the year 2016. Please note that the library closes at 3:30PM on Monday, 12 December. Here are the progams ahead:

- Monday, 12 December, 6:00PM : Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development, is an author talk with Susan Maycock and Charles Sullivan, centered on their book Building Old Cambridge. In this talk the authors explore Old Cambridge’s architecture and development in the context of its social and economic history; the development of Harvard Square as a commercial center and regional mass transit hub; the creation of parks and open spaces; and the formation of a thriving nineteenth-century community of booksellers, authors, printers, and publishers that made Cambridge a national center of the book industry. This program is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.

- Tuesday, 13 December, 5:15PM : The final seminar of 2016 is a panel discussion from the Environmental History series. "Recreation and Regional Planning" features Elsa Devienne of the Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense and Princeton University, and Garret Nelson of Dartmouth College. Brian Donahue of Brandeis University provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. 

- Wednesday, 14 December, 6:00PM : Join Tamara Thornton of SUNY Buffalo as she discusses her new book, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers. Fleshing out the multiple careers of Nathaniel Bowditch, this book is at once a lively biography, a window into the birth of bureaucracy, and a portrait of patrician life, giving us a broader, more-nuanced understanding of how powerful capitalists operated during this era and how the emerging quantitative sciences shaped the modern experience. Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the program starts at 6:00PM. This talk is open to the public free of charge, registration required. 

- Saturday, 17 December, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 11 December, 2016, 12:00 AM

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