The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

From Russia with Love: LCA’s Journey from Russia to France

This month marks the 200th Anniversary of Louisa Catherine Adams’s six-week and nearly 2,000-mile trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, France. Travelling by carriage across a war-torn Europe and in the midst of Napoleon’s Hundred Days after his escape from his exile on Elba, trying to reach her husband, John Quincy, who, negotiating an end to the War of 1812 in Ghent, she had not seen for a year, Louisa’s story is an amazing one.

Louisa’s journey began on Sunday, February 12, 1815—her fortieth birthday—setting out with her seven-year-old son, Charles Francis, and a few servants she didn’t know if she could entirely trust. Despite what she knew would be an arduous and dangerous journey, Louisa started out in hope and expectation as she wrote to her husband:

I am this instant setting off and have only time to say that nothing can equal my impatience to see you some of my business is necessarily left undone but I hope that you will forgive all that is not exactly correspondant to your wishes and recieve me with as much affection as fills my heart at this moment for you. I could not celebrate my birthday in a manner more delightful than in making the first step towards that meeting for which my Soul pants and for which I have hitherto hardly dared to express my desire but in the full conviction that the sentiment is mutual.

During her trip, Louisa faced poor lodgings, broken down and lost carriages, and news of murders on the roads she was travelling. Still she recalled the scenes she passed in her retrospective Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France: “The Season of the year at which I travelled; when Earth was chained in her dazzling, brittle but solid fetters of Ice, did not admit of flourishing description, of verdant fields, or paths through flowery glebes; but the ways were rendered deeply interesting by the fearful remnants of mens fierry and vindictive passions; passively witnessing to tales of blood, and woes.” Finally, as she approached Paris, a unit of soldiers loyal to Napoleon, seeing that her carriage was of Russian origin, threatened to seize and kill them. Louisa, fluent in French, was able to show them her passport and explain that she was an American and diplomatically shouted, “Vive Napoleon!” to appease the troops and guarantee her safe passage. At last, late in the evening of March 23, a “delighted” John Quincy reunited with his wife and child.

You can read more of Louisa’s recollections in A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams.

Images: LCA to JQA, 12 Feb. 1815; LCA’s French Passport issued 10 March 1815; and the first page of LCA’s Narrative of a Journey


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 February, 2015, 9:58 AM

This Week @ MHS

As we endure yet another snowstorm here in Boston, we are entering a shortened week again, this time thanks to a holiday. Please note that the Society is closed on Monday, 16 February, in observance of President's Day. If you plan to come in for any of our upcoming events, please check our website or call the Society before your visit to ensure that the event is proceeding as scheduled. 

First up this week on Tuesday, 17 February, is a midday author talk featuring Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate - Carnegie Endowmentfor International Peace. Join us at 12:00PM for his talk entitled "The Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks Come to Terms with Genocide, Memory, and Identity." This talk is free and open to the public. 

The event scheduled for Wednesday, 18 February, "Comic Books in the History Classroom," is POSTPONED. Contact the education department at or 617-646-0557. To inquire about rescheduling. 

And on Thursday, 19 February, come in for the third program in the Adams Family Series. This time, independent author Rosanna Wan presents "The Culinary Lives of John and Abigail Adams: A Cookbook." Registration is required for this event at a cost of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members). Please call 617-646-0578 to register, or click here. There is a reception that begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. 




comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

All the Single Ladies: Deliberate Spinsterhood in the 19th Century

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, I thought I'd take a closer look at some letters related to courtship and marriage that recently caught my eye. The Fay-Mixter family papers at the MHS include correspondence by the very witty Maria Denny Fay (1820-1890) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a letter to her brother Joseph Story Fay on 15 Nov. 1846, Maria began by discussing their mother's health and the recent death of Salem merchant Dudley Leavitt Pickman. Speculation about the marriage prospects of Pickman's children, Eliza and Dudley, prompted Maria to remark:

I agree with you in thinking it desirable for every body to be married, and I should be the first to set the example if I were not an only daughter as it were, and if I was not assured that having been created entire, I need not expect a better or worse half.

Maria Denny Fay was the sixth of seven children of Samuel P. P. and Harriet (Howard) Fay. She did, in fact, have two sisters, but all of her siblings were married by this time, and Maria was the last still living at home. Was it solicitude for her parents that compelled her to stay single? It's impossible to say for sure, but her breezy dismissal of matrimony (and not-so-subtle dig at married couples) suggests a deliberate choice. At 26, she was, by all accounts, attractive and accomplished, and she must have been under some pressure to find a suitable husband. But she had other priorities. Her mother Harriet had written to Joseph the previous year about Maria's romantic apathy:

Maria has her new piano which is a source of endless pleasure to her, and she is also very much engaged in the study of the german language. She therefore stays at home, goes to no parties, and enjoys her music and study more than the conversation of beaux.

The less generous among us may wonder if she lacked for offers. Apparently this was very far from the case. Just three months after Maria's letter, her mother passed along this juicy gossip:

We have had a little variation to our domestic affairs by a love affair of Maria, except, as is always the case with her, the love was all on the other side. I mention the circumstance lest you should think her remaining single was on the principle of “sour grapes.” The case in question would offer a most unexceptable [i.e., unobjectionable] connexion, if she had the least disposition to marry. The gentleman is a resident in Cambridge, of suitable age, a scientific man and is one of the most prominent literary men of the day, has sufficient property and a good income, has urged his suit with great zeal, and renewed his offer after an interval of several days, in the hope to gain her consent. But she is very decided, and declined giving him any encouragement. I do not mention his name, because his conduct was very honorable and frank, and it would therefore be wrong to expose him to the mortification of having it known that he [has] been refused.[...] I presume there is not another lady in Cambridge would have refused so eligible an offer. Maria has no wish to marry and therefore a man must have great attractions to win her heart.

Who was the disappointed suitor? I wasn't able to identify him, but I hope Maria let him down easy!

Maria's cheerful and confident self-sufficiency is very refreshing. Not exactly “conscious uncoupling,” but maybe “conscious never-coupling”? I found no sign of resignation, despair, or loneliness in her letters. The 19th-century author Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote in her novel Hope Leslie (1827), “Marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman.” Sedgwick was not only one of the most popular authors in America during the first half of Maria's life, but also another “spinster.” The MHS holds an extensive collection of Sedgwick's papers, including a large amount of correspondence devoted to her ideas on marriage and “maidenly independence.”

As a child, Maria Denny Fay had been educated at the Ursuline convent in Charlestown before it was burned in 1834. As an adult, she traveled widely, eventually returning to Cambridge and living in the family home, known as Fay House. This became the first building owned by Radcliffe College when Maria sold it to the school in 1885. A scholarship was also endowed in her name after her death.

Here's to Maria Denny Fay, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Esther Howland (“Mother of the Valentine”), and all of the other “singular” ladies of the 19th century on this Valentine's Day.


comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 11:03 AM

This Week @ MHS

Assuming that we are not affected by another snow storm, there are a few events happening mid-week here at the Society. 

Kicking things off on Tuesday, 10 February, is an Environmental History Seminar. Beginning at 5:15PM, Katherine Johnston of Columbia University presents "An Enervating Environment: Altered Bodies in the Lowcountry and British West Indies," an examination of the interactions between humans and the environment in the eighteenth century. Conevery Bolton Valencius of the University of Massachusetts - Boston provides comment. This event is free and open to the public, though RSVP is requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

On Wednesday, 11 February, join us at 6:00PM for an author talk with Maureen Meister as she presents "Arts and Crafts Architecture: History and Heritage in New England." Registration is required for this event with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members). Click here to register. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM.

And on Thursday, 12 February, we are doubling-up on the events, though both are off-site. First, beginning at 5:30PM is a History of Women and Gender Seminar. "Her Hat Will Not Down: Sumptuary Laws and Consumer Rights in 1890s Chicago" is presented by Emily A. Remus of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with Ardis Cameron of the University of Southern Maine providing comment. Please note that this event is taking place at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. The seminar is free and open to the public, RSVP required.

Also on Thursday, there is a special event that is open only to MHS Fund Giving Circle Members. "Everday Life in America: Behind Closed Doors" begins at 6:00PM with a reception, followed by a gallery tour led by Curator David Wood. Please note that this event is taking place at the Concord Museum in Concord, Mass. Space is limited. To reserve, please call 617-646-0543.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 7 February, 2015, 4:01 PM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Cairo to Aysut

As Boston digs out from yet another heavy snowfall this week, it warms my imagination to return to our anonymous journey up the Nile by steamship -- a pleasure cruise documented in the diaries of an anonymous American traveler during the winter of 1914-1915. Our diarist’s narrative begins shortly before Thanksgiving, as she and her travel companions board the steamer Egypt, likely in Cairo.

 * * *

Nov. 25. Steamer Egypt, sailed at 10 a.m. & we went on board earlier with Mrs Phelps &  daughter also from our hotel. Had lunch early at 11.30 & right after started out on donkeys - first to site of ancient Memphis saw two statues of Ramses II lying down & a new sphinx discovered in the summer by Prof. Petrie. Then rode to steps pyramid of Sakkara on by Mariette’s house to tomb of Thi then the Serapheum with 24 sarcophagis. Got back to ship at 5:30 & had tea on deck.

Nov. 26. Saw beautiful sunrise from my window. Made no stops today, but several times stuck in the sand. Nothing of especial interest but very beautiful sunset with color on the water.

Nov. 27. Thanksgiving. Went on shore - soon after breakfast at Benihasan. Rode donkeys to  rock temple of Speos Artemidos, temple of Goddess Pekhet, then on further & climbed hill to tombs of Benihasan hewn in the rock. [...illegible phrase…] back just for lunch. On boat in p.m.

Nov. 28. Boat got stuck in forenoon & it took over two hours to get it started so made us later at Assuit. Had [...illegible phrase…] trek to get there & arrived about 4 p.m. Took donkeys & rode out through the town to a large rock  tomb of a Prince Hapzefai. Then on a hill & a fine view from there over Assuit then rode back through the bazars to ship in time for tea. Very dusty ride. Met “Arabia” at Assuit. 

Nov. 29. Beautiful sunrise. Spent morning sewing in my room. Sailing all day.

Nov. 30. Boat got stuck on sand before ten & would not move for fully five hours. Dr. Hodson conducted services [...illegible phrase…] at 10:30. Did not land.

* * *

This initial week of entries sets the tone for our diarist’s record: We are appraised of distances covered and modes of transportation, the time and place of meals, details of the weather, and provided with a list of archeological sites visited. One of the most basic observations to make about our traveler’s account is that her encounter with Egypt is a highly curated on. In its record of ancient sites, her amateur travel narrative hews closely to a number of commercial guidebooks. The table of contents to Cook’s guidebook The Nile(1901) provides entries for most of the sites, and its description of the country isalmost entirely mediated by archeology and ancient history.

I find myself wondering, though, how our diarist’s narrative compares to published travel narratives, of which there were many, covering the same ground. In six weeks’ time we will take a comparative look at several such narratives, alongside the next seven daily entries from our own narrator.

Note: My rough-and-ready transcriptions of the diary entries are not authoritative; if you seek to use this source in your own work, I recommend contacting the MHS for reproductions of the original. Some English-language spellings of Arabic place-names have changed since 1914. I have retained the diarist’s spellings throughout.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 4 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

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