The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

Reminder: The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 30 May, in observance of Memorial Day.

As we slide into the summer months here at the MHS, our programming slows down just a little bit compared to the past few weeks. But don't let yourself think that there is nothing going on! Here is what we have on tap for our holiday-shortened week:

- Wednesday, 1 June, 12:00PM : The first Brown Bag talk of the month features Kevin Waite of the University of Pennsylvania. His project tracks proslavery activity in California and Southerners' attempts to capture the Pacific trade, highlighting the centrality of the Far West in the nation's road to disunion. His talk, titled "The Slave South in the Far West: California, the Pacific, and Proslavery Visions of Empire, 1800-1865," is open to the public free of charge. Pack a lunch and check it out!

- Thursday, 2 June, 6:00PM : Join us for "The Road to Concord and Stamp Act Stamp Unveiling." This combined author talk/public program features author and MHS Fellow J.L. Bell, proprietor of, sharing highlights from his recent book The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, and how the Society's collections provided vital clues to this untold story. As a special treat, the U.S. Postal Service will join us for the Massachusetts unveiling of a new stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of the end of the Stamp Act crisis, the first act of the American Revolution. This talk is free and open to the public but registration is required. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM.

- Friday, 3 June, 12:00PM : The second Brown Bag talk this week is "'A Just and Honest Valuation': Money and Value in Colonial American, 1690-1750." Come in and listen to Katie Moore, Boston University, whose project argues that colonists mediated economic change within existing moral and social frameworks by re-imagining the origins and nature of value as extrinsic, a conceptual shift reflected in their use of paper money. This talk is free and open to the public. Won't you join us?

Note: The Library closes early on Friday, 3 June, at 3:00PM.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 12:00 AM

Pondering Paleography and Soliciting Transcriptions

Recently, I was in the stacks retrieving an item from the Charles Edward French autograph collection. The item I was looking for comes from the 17th century in Massachusetts, but when I opened the box that holds it, I was immediately stricken by the first folder, which had a date range written on it of 1337-1545.

While I was aware that the MHS holds some medieval manuscript materials, they are primarily small unidentified fragments, or bound religious texts like breviaries and books of hours. Typically, these manuscripts are done in either Latin or medieval French. Here was something completely different.

The item in question (Hold down Ctrl and press + to zoom in)

This vellum item is small, only about 3.5"x9.5", and contains only about eight lines of text. The writing is neatly ordered and still very clear. I am certainly not any sort of expert when it comes to language, but I can often recognize, at least vaguely, some European languages from the Renaissance period to the modern day. This text, though, I had never seen. 

Written on the back of this little document, at a much later date, is "2d Edward III May 27, 1337". So now I have a date and perhaps even an author. Still, this doesn't translate the material for me so I am left with no context for the item or any understanding of the text itself. 

I did a quick search online to see about the history of the English language and found that the variety of English used during the period covering, roughly, 1150-1500 is considered Middle English.

Now I have an assumed author and date, potentially the language of the text, and still no idea what the document may be about. What to do?

I shared my finding with the researcher whose document I was originally seeking and she clued me in to a couple of places that I might go for help, places where paleography (the study of ancient and historical handwriting) is common practice. Perhaps, even, to get a translation of this item. 

If you are hoping for closure in this blog post, I am afraid that I have to let you down. I started to put feelers out to see what help I can get, and that is where the situation stands at present. 

Are you familiar with Middle English writing? Can you identify anything about the document in the image above? If so, please leave a comment below and help us fill in some gaps!

comments: 20 | permalink | Published: Friday, 27 May, 2016, 12:00 AM

Beyond John and John Quincy: Thomas Boylston Adams’ Letters and Diary

Thomas Boylston Adams, John and Abigail Adams’ youngest son, spent the majority of his life in the shadows of his father and his eldest brother, John Quincy. In part because of this—and much like his other brother, Charles—writers often overlook Thomas Boylston. Yet he might have been the most interesting of all.

In the next volume of Adams Family Correspondence, however, Thomas Boylston is a central figure. Thomas Boylston wrote fantastically detailed letters to family members. He also wrote to prominent Americans, including editor Joseph Dennie Jr. and U.S. diplomat Joseph Pitcairn. He offers detailed commentaries on not only Franco-American relations and the Quasi-War, but also on the French Revolution, the pageantry and partisanship of domestic politics, print culture, George Washington’s deification, and the intricacies of eighteenth-century travel, all of which he does with a certain panache not typically associated with the Adams men. When discussing allegations of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death on 2 March 1799, he noted, “I believe, nor care a whit about it.” In September 1799, after being presented with German documents, he told John Quincy: “I will never decypher a page of German writing without payment or the prospect of it. It begins to cost me money merely to profess myself a lawyer and I should very soon be insolvent if I practised it without reward or the hope of it.”

His diary is similar. It’s neither as comprehensive nor as prolonged as other Adams diaries, but it’s just as detailed and it’s written in the same style as his letters. Taken together, Thomas Boylston’s writings offer readers a unique picture of elite life in late eighteenth-century America.

On February 22, 1799, for instance, Thomas Boylston noted in his diary that he attended an event to commemorate “the birth day of ‘Columbia’s pride & boast,’” that is, George Washington. On 1 March, Thomas Boylston offered his father a brief summary of the event. He described himself as “animated by the glow of patriotism” and noted that he delivered a toast to “Miss Nelly Custis,” who had recently married Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. His diary, however, contains a far more effusive description, and, unlike in his letter, he detailed how many people were at the event and, more important, where it was held. Adams noted that about 250 people descended upon Concert Hall in Boston for “a Splendid entertainment.” The occasion was so “Splendid,” in fact, that he had “Had two very unaccountable falls in going home from Concert hall.” More than seventeen “national, spirited & well assorted toasts” were delivered that evening; it’s not hard to guess why he twice lost his footing. “Quer. The cause,” he ended the entry.

Most of Thomas Boylston’s letters and diary entries are similar—wonderfully written, full of personality, imagination, and memory. Perhaps upon the publication of the next Adams Family Correspondence volume, someone interested in Thomas Boylston Adams might put him in the spotlight.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 2:08 PM

This Week @ MHS

It's tough to be believe that we are almost at the end of the month, but here we are hurtling toward Memorial Day. Before the summer unofficially begins, come by the MHS for some history! Once again, we have a week that is heavy with Brown Bag talks, along with a couple other items of note. 

- Monday, 23 May, 12:00PM : Karen Weyler, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, kicks off the week with her Brown Bag entitled "Serendipity and Literary History: The Problem of 'Firstness' in Histories of the American Novel." Weyler discusses how some of her findings here at the MHS might challenge traditional inception points for literary histories of fiction in British Ameria and the early United States. As always, Brown Bag talks are free and open to the public. 

- Tuesday, 24 May, 6:00PM : Join us for a conversation with Joseph Bagley, Boston Archaeologist and Author, who will talk about "A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts." As a result of the Big Dig and the artifacts it unearthed, Bagley uncovers a fascinating hodgepodge of history that will surprise and delight even longtime residents. This talk is open to the public free of charge, though registration is required. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the program starts at 6:00PM. 

- Wednesday, 25 May, 12:00PM : The second Brown Bag talk of the week is "'For the Good of the Country': Captive Trade Networks in the Colonial Northeast, 1630-1763." Join Joanne Jahnke Wegner, University of Minnesota, as she discusses her project which examines the commodification of captive peoples who were trafficked in the colonies, across imperial borders, and into the Atlantic world. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 26 May : This is your last chance to view The Private Jefferson, our current exhibition. The exhibit will close for good at 4:00PM on Thursday. Be sure to come in for a look before it's gone!

- Friday, 27 May, 12:00PM : To round out the trifecta of Brown Bag talks this week, stop by on Friday for "From the Partisan Press to the Political Procedural." This talk features Mary Hale of the University of Illinois - Chicago, whose project considers the development of a new post-Civil War genre of political novels specifically by looking at Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age and Henry Adams' Democracy.  

The Society is CLOSED on Saturday, 28 May, and Monday, 30 May, in observance of Memorial Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 31 May

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 12:00 AM

Natural Beauty

Spring has officially, if tardily, sprung here in Boston and researchers and staff alike are again staring distractedly out of the reading room windows at the green grass, new leaves, and vibrant sunshine.

To draw our wandering attention back inside, I decided to showcase a few examples of early Bostonians preserving and portraying the natural world in all its beauty.

While the MHS offers countless examples of artistic depictions of nature, I chose just two to share here: one for its pure beauty, the other for its scientific bent.

The first is a nondescript volume from the Quincy-Howe family papers. Labeled as “Flower paintings, clippings -- Eliza S. Quincy,” and dating to the mid-19th century, the volume is part scrapbook, part sketchbook, with newspaper clippings of familial news mounted opposite hand-drawn sketches of ornate flowers.

Colorful painting of a flower in Eliza S. Quincy’s 19th century album of flower paintings and clippings

The emphasis of this work is artistic, the mood of the drawings complements the clippings. They are at turns mournful and celebratory, with romantic lines and rich colors.

A painting of a somewhat mournful-looking flower sits opposite a 1867 poem on the life and death of J.W.R.

A delicately-colored painting of a flower in full bloom is unaccompanied by a newspaper clipping

From a similar period (1850s-1870s) the second example is far more scientific, although the beauty of nature is not lost on the viewer (or creator).

The cover of Ocean Mosses from 1872, owned, if not assembled, by Mrs. Edwin Lamson

Inside 3 bound volumes from the Lamson family papers are pressed clippings of “ocean mosses” and “ocean flowers” collected along New England coastlines. Some are identified with binomial nomenclature, others are left unlabeled. All are impressively well intact for being approximately one-hundred-and-fifty years old.

An unlabeled segment of ocean moss from a Lamson family volume entitled Ocean Mosses c. 1850

A labeled segment of ocean moss from Mrs. Edwin Lamson’s 1872 volume

Even though this collection tend towards a more scientific look at underwater nature, the elegance and beauty of these plants prevails.

Artfully arranged ocean mosses surround a poem in Mrs. Edwin Lamson’s June 22, 1872 volume

The poem wreathed by moss reads:


fanned by the

winds of a summer

parterre, Whose gales

are but sighs of an evening

air, Our delicate, fragile and 

exquisite forms, Were nursed

by the billows, and rocked

By the storms. 

Investigating a bit, this appears to be a slightly modified verse of a longer poem entitled “Seaweeds”:

Oh call us not weeds, but flowers of the sea,

For lovely, and gay, and bright-tinted are we;

Our blush is as deep as the rose of thy bowers,

Then call us not weeds, -- we are ocean’s gay flow’rs,

Not nurs’d like the plants of the summer parterre,

Whose gales are but sighs of an evening air;

Our exquisite, fragile, and delicate forms

Are the prey of the ocean when vex’d with his storms

I found several versions of this poem, although few bore official attribution. One version, attributed to a Miss Elizabeth Aveline of Lyme Regis, England, that I found most interesting was mentioned in a book by Patricia Pierce on Mary Anning, an English paleontologist whose early 19th century discoveries of Jurassic marine fossils helped shape our scientific understanding of the world. Pierce mentions how Anning scrawled this poem in an album under a clutch of dried seaweed. An eerily similar description to Lamson’s treatment pictured above.

While I found no reference to Anning amongst the Lamson volumes, this tentative, poetic link piqued my interest in the transatlantic discussions of scientific discoveries had by 19th century women. A topic I am sure to continue exploring.

If 19th century depictions of the natural world strike your fancy and you would like to see these volumes in person, please feel free to stop in and visit our library. If you are interested in seeing what other materials we have related to botany and the beauty of nature you can browse our online catalog, ABIGAIL, from the comfort of your own home.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 3:43 PM

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