The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The New Look of Science....260 Years Ago

Between 1752 and 1756 in Paris, Jaques Fabien Gautier, or Gautier d'Agoty (1717-1785) published a six-volume, 18-part set titled Observations sur l'histoire naturelle, sur la physique et sur la peinture... While such publications were not uncommon at the time, what set this one apart was that it contained plates printed in color, the first science periodical to ever do so. He employed a well-established intaglio printmaking process known as mezzotint, a method of engraving in tone.1 

The Society holds two volumes in one of d'Agoty's Observations sur l'histoire naturelle. In addition to observing specimens of natural history, like plants, mammals, birds, and humans, d'Agoty also included obeservations on physical science as well as art and painting. Below are some of the striking images that appear in the work. Enjoy!

[Disclaimer: If you got squeamish when dissecting a frog in high school, be aware that there are a couple of images of internal anatomy of humans and animals.]











1. Osborne, Harold, The Oxford Companion to Art, Oxford University Press, 1970.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 5 March, 2016, 3:45 PM

“The most exquisitely drawn tragical character in the whole compass of the drama”: John Quincy Adams’ love of Hamlet

In an 1839 letter, John Quincy Adams stated his view that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was “the Master Piece of the Drama ... I had almost said the Master Piece of the Human Mind.” He then gave an analysis of the play sufficiently scholarly and insightful that his letter and his correspondent’s reply were published as a pamphlet in 1844. A copy of this item is among the holdings of the MHS.

The front page of John Quincy Adams’ published interchange of correspondence with James Hackett, regarding the character of Hamlet.

While this publication may be the culmination of John Quincy’s preference for Hamlet, it is certainly not the only evidence of it: his admiration for the play is long-standing.

According to his diary, he saw the play at least seven times, and recalled the productions well enough to contrast the performances of different actors in the leading role. He wrote entries about attending performances on 16 May 1790; 30 November 1792, when the lead actor was “superior to my expectation”; 21 April 1794; 5 October 1797; 18 October 1799, when the lead acted “not well”; 17 April 1809, when the lead actor had “the promise of great powers”; and 13 August 1822, when he judged that the lead actor played Hamlet “indifferently.”

It is notable that the April 1809 Hamlet was the first play that John Quincy and Louisa Catherine took their sons George and John to see, at ages eight and six respectively. A challenging play for children to understand, it is not surprising that the boys had many “remarks and questions” during the performance.

Later that same year, John Quincy and his family took a tour of the Baltic, and he created the following ink and watercolor picture of Cronburg Castle–better know as Shakespeare’s Elsinore.

Kronburg Castle, Helsingør, 2 October 1809, ink and watercolor picture in John Quincy Adams, Miscellany 5, Adams Papers.

It is unclear at what age John Quincy himself first saw Shakespeare on stage, but he had already read some of the works by the time he was ten. An avid reader, he reported to John Adams in October 1774, “I read my Books to Mamma.” While reading aloud was presumably for educational benefit at this point, in adulthood it was instead a form of entertainment—and what better to read than Hamlet? John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that he read Hamlet aloud in 5–6 October 1799, 3–9 August 1802, 16–18 January 1804, and 3–4 March 1823. As the date ranges show, these play readings would extend over several nights, like a mini-series. Twice John Quincy was the only reader, but in 1799 and 1823, he was one of two readers. One wonders how he would have reviewed his own performance...



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 2 March, 2016, 12:00 AM

Second to None: Secondary Sources and a Well-Rounded Research Process

I usually like to employ my blog space to share newly discovered (by me) primary sources from our manuscript, pamphlet, photograph, or artifact collections. I focus heavily on visually  intriguing or mysterious pieces, striving to draw connections  between discoveries, or explore an element of American history about which I previously knew little.

But this week I’m going to do something a little different.

When sitting down to write this post, I realized that all I wanted to share were these fascinating secondary sources I had had my nose buried in all week. After banging my head against a wall  trying to track down primary sources that would give me an excuse to wax poetically about these more...contemporary publications, I caved and re-focused my efforts.

While none of these books will appear in the Society’s 225th celebratory MHS Madness bracket, or be displayed in our image gallery of 225 Items from our Collections, they nonetheless help to broaden the understanding of our more acclaimed collections’ people, places, and historical context.

Much like winning the Tour de France, the study of history is often an independent endeavor that can only be achieved with the help of a team. Our understanding of the past is shaped by the creative exploration of primary sources and vigorous debate about those sources with other historians. This discussion, refutation, and revision plays out in journal articles, monographs, and edited anthologies, and perusing those publications is an integral part of the research process.

It’s also just plain fun.

So here is what has captured my attention lately:


Women Who Kept the Lights: an Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers, by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford (2000).


I discovered this book while answering an (unrelated) reference question and it was the impetus for this blog post. Hundreds of women are documented as operating lighthouses from 1776-1947, including Hannah Thomas, who took over the Gurnet Point Light Station at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor from her husband when he enlisted to fight in the Revolutionary War. (While we hold the records of Hannah’s husband, John Thomas, Hannah’s place in the collections is described only as the recipient of his letters.) This book follows the careers of 32 of these women and includes some wonderful manuscript, photographic, and cartographic sources from local and national archives throughout the United States.


Shipping & Craft in Silhouette, by Charles G. Davis (1929).


Coincidentally, I found this at the same time as Women Who Kept the Lights and it was actually related to a reference question that had driven me to the V section of our library stacks. Though Shipping & Craft ultimately proved unhelpful in answering the question, I thought the unique use of the silhouette style to identify vessels deserved a wider audience.



I may have stumbled upon the seafaring...fare, listed above, but I actively went searching for this final work.


U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825-1861, by Etsuko Taketani (2003).


My historical interests tend heavily towards the intersection of female and colonial identities and Taketani’s book is one of the few secondary sources in our library dedicated to that particular Venn diagram. Building off of work I have done examining German women’s expressions of colonial identity (both with and without the physical colonies in which to play out those identities), I was interested to see how American women articulated and shaped similar ideologies.

While admittedly not planned, the three works I chose to share here demonstrate the versatility of secondary sources within the research context. Sometimes you seek them out to inform your understanding of a historical discussion; sometimes you stumble upon them and they catch your eye for a moment; and sometimes they send you careening off on an entirely new path of inquiry. Regardless of purpose or happenstance, secondary sources are worth a primary place in your research process.

You can explore our library collections in greater depth by searching for a favorite topic in our online catalog, ABIGAIL, or by stopping in for a visit

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 1 March, 2016, 9:41 AM

This Week @ MHS

As we enter a new month this week there are several public programs on offer for you to sate your appetite for history. Here's what's on tap:

- Tuesday, 1 March, 5:15PM : First up this week is an Early American History seminar featuring Abigail Chandler of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "'Unawed by the Laws of their Country' : The Role of English Law in North Carolina's Regulator Rebellion" explores the use of English legal and political traditionsin the three-year Regulator Rebellion of North Carolina in the 1760s. Hon. Hiller Zobel of the Massachusetts Superior Court provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 2 March, 12:00PM : Join us for a lunchtime Brown Bag talk given by long-term research fellow Wendy Roberts, University at Albany, SUNY. "Redeeming Verse: The Poetics of Revivalism" offers a post-secular account of British North America poetry through the everyday poetic practices of 18th century evangelicalism. This talk is free and open to the public so pack a lunch and stop by!

- Friday, 4 March, 2:00PM : "Fellow Laborers: The Friendship of Thomas Jeffeson and John Adams" is a gallery talk given by Sara Sikes, Associate Editor, and Sara Georgini, Assistant Editor, of the Adams Papers. The talk looks at the long and dynamic relationship between these two founding fathers and what it meant to them. 

- Saturday, 5 March, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS Tour is a 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

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

Archivist as Detective

When cataloging manuscript collections here at the MHS, I sometimes get the opportunity to play detective. The library recently acquired an anonymous 19th-century diary, and I was tasked with (hopefully) identifying its author. Since the diary came to us as an individual item rather than as part of a collection of family papers, I had no external clues to go on. There was nothing to do but start reading and see what details emerged from the text itself. 


The diary dates from 1818 to 1827 and was kept in Boston by a young man working as an apprentice in some commercial business. I scanned the pages looking for names, places, and other reference points. I saw a lot of repeated surnames, but their relationship to the writer was unclear. First names were most likely those of siblings or close friends, but what 19th-century Boston family didn’t have a William, a James, and a Mary Ann? And like a lot of diarists, this one tended to use initials for the people most familiar to him. How thoughtless.

I perked up when I saw his entry about marrying a Sarah Barnes in 1827, but I couldn’t find a record of the marriage, possibly because of inconsistencies in the way names were spelled. The diary also includes notations of other marriages that, from their context, I suspected were those of siblings or cousins. In fact, I had a lot of specific biographical clues that should have been more helpful than they were. I knew the date of my diarist’s marriage, the name of his wife, the date of his mother’s death, and exactly when he was born. He wrote on 16 December 1821: “This is the 21st anniversary of my birth.”

From the number of Smiths that make an appearance in his diary, I got the idea that my mystery man might be a Smith. Alongside the Smiths, he often mentioned members of the Messinger family. This family connection turned out to be the breakthrough I needed.

Using online resources, I built a Messinger family tree and—voila!—found a Mary Ann Smith who married Daniel Messinger. The way my diarist wrote about Mary Ann, I guessed she was his sister, and the dates were right; she was born the year before him, in 1799. Mary Ann’s parents were Benjamin and Dorcas (Silsbee) Smith. The Silsbees figure prominently in the diary, as do the related Lorings, so I felt I was finally on the right track. And sure enough, among Benjamin and Dorcas’s other children was one Benjamin, Jr., born in 1800!

I was fairly confident I’d found my man, but I wanted to be sure. This diary entry for 1 January 1823 confirmed it: “This Day [I] commenced business at No. 13 Commercial Street with Mr. Cornelius Nye […] under the firm of Smith & Nye.” The Boston Directory for that year lists, as traders in West India goods at 13 Commercial Street, none other than Cornelius Nye and Benjamin Smith, Jr. 

The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place when I searched our online catalog ABIGAIL and discovered we had a small collection of Smith family papers. This collection consists primarily of papers of Benjamin Smith, Sr. and Captain William Smith—the father and brother-in-law, respectively, of my diarist. William was a shipmaster who sailed for Calcutta in January 1818, an event noted on the first page of this very diary.

A family bible and other genealogical material in the Smith family papers completed Benjamin, Jr.’s story for me. I learned that Sarah Barnes was actually his second wife. He first married on 23 April 1823 to Jane Barnes, who died just six months later of tuberculosis. Benjamin described Jane’s illness and death in heart-breaking detail in his diary: “In losing my dearest wife I feel as though all happiness, all hope had gone with her. […] She was my life, my all on earth.” Jane’s sister Sarah helped to care for her during her illness, and Benjamin wrote that Sarah was “very kind & attentive to me & I shall never forget it.” Clearly he didn’t—he married Sarah four years later, and the couple had two sons, Benjamin III and Charles.

Benjamin’s life also came to an early and tragic end. On 12 June 1832, when he was 31 years old, he and several friends drowned in Boston Harbor during a fishing trip in a boat called the Bunker Hill. The accident and its aftermath are recorded in his father’s diary, including Benjamin, Sr.’s rush to the harbor and desperate attempts at resuscitation.

It’s not always possible to identify the authors of diaries and other personal papers that are donated to us, but it’s very satisfying when it happens!

comments: 6 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 10:56 AM

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