The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Transcendental Tracings of Christopher Pearse Cranch

The last two times I wrote for the Beehive (here and here) I spoke about the important interplay that goes on between the library staff and researchers. In both cases this interplay revolved around the parties sharing information about and exploring collections relevant to a particular topic. Recently, though, one of our regular researchers casually asked me whether I saw a collection of sketches and drawings with which he was working. Since I did not see them before, prior to returning the material to the stacks I decided to have a peek.

The first thing that I saw was a drawing I recognized immediately and which I remember seeing in a textbook in high school, showing an eyeball raised on long, spindly legs and wearing a top hat, striding through an unembellished countryside. The “transparent eyeball,” a facetious illustration of Ralph Waldo Emerson remains a popular image.

Christopher Pearse Cranch was a transcendentalist artist and poet. Born in 1813 in what is now Alexandria, VA, he eventually made his way to Boston to study divinity at Harvard in 1835. Though Cranch was never ordained, he served for a time as a missionary in New England and the Midwest. While at Harvard he became associated with the New England Transcendentalists. Through his life, Cranch published several volumes of poetry, served as an editor and contributor for James Freeman Clarke’s Western Messenger, wrote frequently for various periodicals, published a pair of children’s books, and did a blank verse translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Despite all of this, it is his drawings for which he is most remembered, most of which were not published until they were rediscovered by F. DeWolfe Miller in 1951.

What struck me first as I looked through the drawings was how much his sketches called to mind images from other artists from very disparate times and places. The first thing conjured up by some of these drawings are the works of the 15th-16th century Dutch painter, Hieronymous Bosch, especially his famous triptych "The Last Judgement."


Beyond this first impression I was intrigued by the breadth of styles that Cranch employed and delighted in the strange doodles he created. Some of them are funny and slightly satirical, others are repetitive depictions of people in profile. Many of these profiles, as well as some other creatures he drew, remind my very much of the style employed in the Beatles’ animated movie Yellow Submarine, especially the Victorian-esque profiles:

Another image I found, depicting a cloaked and somewhat shadowy figure, looks like it would be right at home in a collection of drawings by the Massachusetts illustrator Edward Gorey:

"Oh: Charly is my darling, my darling."

Also present were little pieces of satire, sometimes aimed at specific people or situations, and some, like this one, aimed at Americans in general:

"Some of them beautiful Merry-kins."

In addition the types of images you see here, Cranch also did some serialized cartoons that followed themes. One series of drawings was made up of imaginitive illustrations of lines from various works of Shakespeare. Another series of several images showed the "Miseries of Landscape Painters."

"Miseries of Landscape Painters.
No 3."

Despite all of the whimsy present in many of Cranch's drawings, and despite the "misery" of the form, he also showed talent with landscape images:


While Cranch’s drawings are nothing new to many people, without a casual interaction with one of our researchers I might never have seen them in this way. This is just one more example of how important and how beneficial it is for us as librarians to interact with our researchers. What do you think about Cranch's drawing?



- Christopher P. Cranch drawings [graphic]

- Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds. 1999. American National Biography. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press.



comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 27 June, 2014, 3:55 PM

This Week @ MHS

This week is the great calm at the MHS as there are no public programs scheduled. However, keep in mind that our exhibitions space is open to the public at no cost, Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM. Currently on display is "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War," an exhibition which celebrates the forthcoming MHS publication Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall.

And on Saturday, 28 June, come by at 10:00AM for The History and Collections of the MHS, a 90-minute docent-led tour of the public spaces in the Society's home at 1154 Boylston Street. The tour, free and open to the public, touches on the history, collections, art, and architecture of the Society. 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 or

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:00 PM

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch Diary, Post 33

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Wednesday, June 1st, 1864

The Convention of Ultra-Republicans has met at Cleveland, & nominated Fremont for president. While thinking him the most brilliant man we have, I have not that confidence in his sound discretion, & what the Romans would have styled his fortunes, to think him the right man for the office. Mr. Lincoln is my choice, & will, I think, be that of the nation, unless possibly a brilliant victory gives Grant the preference.

Monday, June 13th

Our good president Lincoln has been re-nominated, by the Union Convention, with Johnson of Tennessee for Vice; - a good choice, as a tribute to the union men of the South, & I trust in other respects. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 20 June, 2014, 1:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

As we ease into the latter days of June there is a lull in activity here at the Society with only two programs on offer this week. 

First up, on Thursday, 19 June, stop in at 12:00PM for "At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton." In this talk, author Gregory N. Flemming ( discusses his latest work, based largely on a rare copy of Ashton's 1725 account. Flemming also drew on a wealth of other materials from the collections of the MHS, including hundred of colonial newspaper reports, trial recrods, and the hand-written logbooks and correspondence from the British warships that patrolled the Bay of Honduras and fought with the pirates of Captain Edward Low. Flemming is a former jounralist who holds a Ph.D. from the Unviersity of Wisconsin-Madison. This event is free and open to the public. 

And on Saturday, 21 June, come on by at 10:00AM for a free tour of the Society's building at 1154 Boylston St. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led tour that explores all of the public space in the building, touching on the art, architecture, history, and collections of the MHS. 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 or

Finally, while there are only these two public programs on the calendar this week, please remember that our newest exhibition is now on display! "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War" is free and open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 12:00 PM

Sarah Checkley’s Spirituous Liquor License, 18 July 1764

It is the season of graduations, celebrations, and toasts. My personal social network bubbled this past weekend with images of familial celebrations, beach weekends, and - of course - spirituous liquors. Many a photo popped up of friends in drinking establishments, and I became curious about the history of taverns as a result. I browsed our online catalog ABIGAIL and discovered a liquor license issued to Sarah Checkley of Boston on 18 July 1764. Naturally it piqued my interest for several reasons. The license states:

We the Subscribers Selectmen of the Town of Boston do approve of Mrs. Sarah Checkley’s being a Retailer of Spirituous Liquor, at the House where into she has lately removed and now dwells, in Hanover Street near the Mill Bridge Boston, and recommend her a Person of sober Life and Conversation, and suitably qualified and provided for the Exercise of such an Employment she having for many years past been a Retailer in this Town and behaved to good acceptance.

This document is peculiar for what it is not. The license is not the oldest item pertaining to liquor petitions in the Society’s collections. The honor of oldest liquor petition goes to Samuel Walton of Woburn, Mass. who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court on 30 March 1665 to sell "strong waters.” How strong, the document does not specify. Checkley’s 1764 petition is not even the only liquor license in the MHS collections granted to a woman! A quick glance among retailer’s licenses, tavern licenses, and innkeeper’s licenses shows the custom to issue such documents to women not unusual for the late 18th century.

The Suffolk County Court and Boston Selectmen approved retailer and liquor petitions from widow Elizabeth Pittson on 7 June 1767, widow Rachel Masters on 21 July 1767, and widow Mary Rose on 8 July 1773. The court also approved a petition from Mary Vinal to sell liquor on 30 July 1771. The petition did not designate Mary Vinal a widow unlike the aforementioned ladies. Her father suffered from palsy and could not provide for his family. Thus, Mary Vinal required a means to make an income as did the widows. In their petitions to the selectmen, the women granted these licenses all clearly stated a similar problem in their personal situations: a lack of income from male earners. Sarah Checkley’s petition lacks detailed information about her familial or marital status. This lack of information does not imply that she was not a widow or did not care for aging or sick male members of her family, but the petition is more interesting to me without these details. This absence lets me rosily imagine Sarah Checkley as a robust purveyor of spirituous liquors of her own accord.

For those of us celebrating graduations, petitioning for prospective employment, or just enjoying summer fun, we all know the important role income plays in our lives. May your summer be fruitful in your endeavors, but spirituous in fun! And remember to tip your bartenders.



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 13 June, 2014, 8:00 AM

older posts