The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

It is a fairly quiet week at the Society this week, but that does not mean it is uneventful!

First up is a special member event taking palce at 6:00PM on Wednesday, 11 June. MHS Fellows and Members are invited to "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country Preview Reception." The evening will begin with remarks by Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey, followed by a reception and exhibition viewing. Registration is requried at no cost. Please RSVP.

On Thursday, 12 June, "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War" opens to the public! From the Society’s extraordinary collection of women’s recollections, this exhibition features photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia related to Margaret Hall and Eleanor (Nora) Saltonstall, Red Cross volunteers in France. The exhibition will highlight Hall’s large-format photographs of the battlefront on loan from the Cohasset Historical Society. Both women were keen observers of the climactic months of the war and depicted what they witnessed in vivid detail. The exhibition celebrates the forthcoming MHS publication Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The exhibit is on display Monday through Saturday, 10:00AM to 4:00PM, until 24 January 2015. There is no cost to enter the exhibit and it is open to the public. 

And on Friday, 13 June, stop by at 2:00PM for a special public program titled "Lost Boston." Historian, author of sixty books, and MHS Fellow Anthony Sammarco explores some of the sixty-eight houses, churches, libraries, clubs, squares and baseball fields that have been lost by demolition, fire, or neglect since the 1870s. His new book, Lost Boston, is a nostalgic journey back in time to visit some of the disappeared buildings and spaces in all their grandeur. This event is free and open to the public so come on by and listen in!

Finally, on Saturday, 14 June, drop in at 1154 Boylston for "The History and Collections of the MHS," a free tour of the Society's historic home. This 90-minute docent-led tour explores the public space in the building, touching on the art, architecture, history, and collections of the Historical Society. The tour is free and open to the public. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact the MHS prior to attending a tour. For more information please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 8 June, 2014, 12:00 PM

Guest Post: Unlocking the Story of a Real-life Robinson Crusoe

Tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society Library are two small, leather-bound volumes printed nearly 300 years ago. These small tracts, titled Ashton’s Memorial, reveal an incredible story -- the first-hand account of a Massachusetts fisherman named Philip Ashton who was captured by pirates in 1722 and then escaped and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island for nearly two years. Ashton’s Memorial is a rare description of a voyage aboard a pirate ship during the peak of Atlantic piracy and it reveals rich new details about the crew, captures, and nearly-fatal mishaps.

The Society may hold the only surviving copy of the original 1725 printing of Ashton’s Memorial in Boston. There are original editions from a second printing of Ashton’s Memorial, published in London in 1726, at both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the British Library. The second printing is nearly identical to the first, except the title page uses the descriptor “An Authentick Account” instead of “An History” and includes three lines of text that were omitted from the Boston printing, apparently due to a typesetting error.

Ashton’s narrative was compiled by his minister, John Barnard of the First Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The fact that the book was published in London a year after it was printed in Boston speaks to the popularity of the story at the time. In fact, Ashton’s Memorial may have been read in London by Daniel Defoe, who had a lifelong interest in piracy, castaways, and the maritime world. A leading scholar of Defoe’s work, Manual Schonhorn, has compared Defoe’s writings before and after Ashton’s Memorial was published and concludes that Defoe incorporated new details from Ashton’s story -- never published anywhere else -- in his next novel.

Barnard compiled Ashton’s Memorial shortly after Ashton returned home to Massachusetts from his three-year odyssey, but the book is written in the first person and reads as though Ashton wrote it. Barnard notes in a short introduction that he met with Ashton on several occasions to record the narrative and subsequently verified its accuracy: “I have taken the minutes of all from his own mouth, and after I had put them together, I have improved the first vacant hour I could to read it over distinctly to him that he might correct the errors that might arise from my misunderstanding his report. Thus corrected, he has set his hand to it as his own history.” In researching Ashton’s story, I found that a number of significant events recounted in Ashton’s text were supported by other sources.

The Massachusetts Historical Society also holds the papers of John Barnard, including his Autobiography and three other volumes of his sermon notes. These papers provide additional insights into the adventurous life of one of New England’s more prominent Puritan ministers during the early eighteenth century -- but they reveal nothing more about Philip Ashton or Ashton’s Memorial. It is striking, in fact, that Barnard was compelled to record Ashton’s story not for the sake of history, but because he believed it conveyed important religious themes to an audience that was, in his mind, lacking in faith. This was quite common, in fact. Religious leaders during this era -- including Barnard’s former teacher, Cotton Mather -- frequently exploited pirate captures, executions, and other dramatic events to issue dire warnings against what they saw as a rising tide of drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, church skilling, and other transgressions in Boston and throughout colonial New England. As interesting as Ashton’s voyage was, for Barnard the true message in the story was “God’s ability to save” an ordinary fisherman from death and disaster.



Gregory N. Flemming is the author of At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, published in June. He will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society at 12 noon on Thursday, June 19, 2014. The event is free and open to the public.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 3 June, 2014, 1:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

Entering the month of June we have a couple of special programs on offer this week at the Society.

First up, on Monday, 2 June, the MHS is co-sponsoring "Never Done: Interpreting the History of Women at Work in Massachusetts." Join us at the Hogan Campus Center, College of the Holy Cross, for a thought-provoking day examining women in Massachusetts history. At this, the tenth annual Mass History Conference we will welcome the many small historical organizations that preserve, interpret, and deepen the exploration of Massachusetts history. The stories of lesser-known women change-makers get lost in the larger narrative of industry, politics and conflict, but the timing is right for an examination of their tales of great and compelling variety, of lives lived with courage and determination. This conference for Massachusetts history organizations is presented by Mass HumanitiesMassachusetts Historical SocietyUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst Public History Program, and the University of Massachusetts Boston Public History and Archives TrackThe Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and Elizabeth & Ned Bacon. The conference begins at 9:00AM and will feature as Keynote Speaker Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University. For more information--including a detailed schedule of the day, or to register for the conference, visit the Mass Humanities website:

On Wednesday, 4 June, stop by the Society at 1154 Boylston Street for a Brown Bag lunch talk. In this week's installment, Sara Georgini, Adams Papers and Boston University, presents "Creating Adams Family Values." This project is a history of religion in the Adams family of Massachusetts from 1583 to 1927. Most Adams family members accepted organized religion as a public good, but they filled letters and lives with the effort to answer one query: What was it good for? As men and women operating at the heart of the nation, prevailing notions of Christian citizenship laid out duties for them to fulfill, and the Adamses repeatedly sought out God for help. Drawing on the public and private papers of several generations, this project explores the “cosmopolitan Christianity” that the Adams family developed over time. The talk begins at 12:00PM and is free and open to the public. 

Also on Wednesday, 4 June, there is a special evening program as the society welcomes the Archivist of the United States for "A Conversation with David S. Ferriero." Join us for a pre-talk reception beginning at 5:30PM, followed by the program which begins at 6:00PM. Registration is required for this event at no charge. Click here to register online, or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.

Finally, please note that the library is closing at 3:00PM on Thursday, 5 June


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 1 June, 2014, 12:00 PM

Visiting Dyer Memorial Library

In “The McKay Stitcher,” I presented a letter from Henry H. Warden of the Russell & Company trade firm in Shanghai to colleague John Cunningham about potential shoe business in China. In response to my post, Joice Himawan, Director of the Dyer Memorial Library in Abington, Mass., kindly invited me to see an early wooden model of the McKay machine held there. Abington resident and inventor Lyman Blake created this particular model.  


The Georgian architecture of the Dyer Memorial Library really caught my attention with its pleasing symmetry and order. The building, a trove of genealogical and historical information of the residents of Old Abington (modern day towns of Abington, Rockland, and Whitman), sits atop a slight hill on Center Street. Though this elevation makes the two-story building appear perhaps imposing, I enjoyed how the centered five-bay façade threshold with aligned windows drew in my eye and invited my curious mind to enter.

Boy, was I curious! I learned that the library opened its doors to the public in 1930 by the will and trust of resident inheritress Marietta White Dyer (1853 – 1918). Her uncle Samuel Brown Dyer (1809-1894) amassed quite a fortune as an international banker in France and bequeathed this inheritance to his niece, Marietta White Dyer.  As part of her will, Dyer established the Dyer Fund to construct and maintain the Dyer Memorial Library, leaving $80,000, land, and personal estate to the fund upon her death in 1918. Today the library collection focuses on local history with a concentration on materials by and about people connected to the area known as Old Abington.

As Old Abington's history deeply involved the 19th century shoe industry, the inclusion of Lyman Blake's early model of the McKay shoe stitcher to the library's collections makes perfect sense. I would like to thank Joice Himawan of the Dyer Memorial Library for the invitation to visit. What a great gem of 19th century shoe production history!

The library is free and open to the public. I encourage all readers to plan a visit this special library.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 30 May, 2014, 1:00 AM

Oliver Lofts: Mapping the Traces of a Music Publishing Empire

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved across town from one former streetcar suburb-turned-neighborhood of Boston (Allston/Brighton) to another (Jamaica Plain). A paltry three mile journey as the crow flies, since we live without a car and get around on foot, public transit, or bicycle, this has meant learning new pathways to all of our usual destinations -- including the Massachusetts Historical Society. Along these new routes stand traces of Boston’s past, if only you keep your eyes open and know where to look for them.

Bicycling home from work along the Southwest Corridor Park, from Symphony Hall to Jackson Square, last week I happened to notice the brick facade of an old factory building turned residential lofts that announced in the stonework “Oliver Ditson Co.”

Who, I wondered, was Oliver Ditson, and what had his factory once produced? Fresh from reading Alexander von Hoffman’s history of Jamaica Plain, Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), I knew the Heath Street area had been known for its breweries. Perhaps, I thought, our Mr. Ditson was a brewer. Happily, I work at a place where such questions can often be answered by searching our catalog and going on a historical treasure hunt! A few keystrokes and call slips later, I had discovered that Oliver Ditson and his company were not brewers but, instead, music publishers and retailers here in Boston. Ditson, born in Boston in 1811, began his career working at a bookshop on Washington Street, under the employ of Samuel H. Parker, before launching into the music publishing business in 1835. In 1858 Oliver Ditson & Co. began publishing Dwight’s Journal of Music, one of the most highly respected music journals of the nineteenth century, and was soon expanding into the Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York markets.

In 1918 a history of the music scene in Boston, published by the Oliver Ditson Company, foregrounded the company’s sparkling new ten-story retail building that still stands today on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, overlooking the Boston Common. “The focus on modern Boston’s shopping activity is at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, where converge the currents of vivid life from hotels, theatres, and subways,” writes William Fisher in Notes on Music in Old Boston. “Within a stone’s throw of this teeming corner … is the splendid new home of the Oliver Ditson Company” (79). From its state-of-the-art heating plant in the sub-basement to its Tiffany show windows, “Victor Talking Machines” department,” and opulent meeting rooms, the Tremont Street headquarters was the company’s public face.


The building that would become Oliver Lofts in 2011 meanwhile, was a late arrival into the company’s holdings. The property did, indeed, begin life as a brewery -- though unassociated with Ditson. According to Historic Boston, the Highland Spring Brewery occupied the site until Prohibition brought the American beer industry to its knees. The Oliver Ditson Company then purchased the storehouse, built in 1912 and once used to house casks of ale and porter, and used the building as a print shop and warehouse into the mid-twentieth century.

Thus, one single rehabilitated industrial building I pass by on my evening commute holds within its walls traces of two centuries worth of Boston development.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 8:00 AM

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