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Retail and Romance: Boston's First Department Store

Behind this façade
lies a story – the romance of a great
New England institution
It is worth telling. It should be
worth reading
In the hope that the public 
may find it so, it is
here set down


In reading this verse and examining the accompanying sketch, you may be surprised to learn that the “great New England institution” referenced is, in fact, a department store. Strange as it might seem today, department stores were highly influential in shaping urban spaces and changing how the consumer industry was run in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. By incorporating an unprecedented variety and quantity of apparel, home goods, and entertaining diversions, and showcasing these items in vast, high-ceilinged and well-lit halls, department stores lent glamour to the middle-class shopping experience.

The above inscription is an excerpt from the book, Retail and romance, which recounts the history of Jordan Marsh & Company, the first, and for a long time, the most prominent department store in Boston. Struck by the intriguing title and the compelling case made by its author, Julia Houston Railey, I decided to explore the history of Jordan Marsh.


Railey’s story begins in 1841, when Eben Jordan, the founder of Jordan Marsh, established his first store at the age of 19. At this time, Jordan also conducted his first sale, which consisted of “one yard of cherry colored hair ribbon,” sold to Louisa Bareiss, a young girl, who, according to Railey, was just as breathless with excitement over the purchase as Jordan himself (9). This story is depicted pictorially in this publication as well as the centennial Tales of the Observer by Richard H. Edwards, published in 1950. Jordan’s famous sideburns are present in both imaginings.

In 1851, Jordan partnered with Benjamin L. Marsh and in 1880, they established Jordan Marsh’s Main Store at 450 Washington Street, where it would remain for the next 100 years. An 1884 article in the Boston Post referred to this establishment as “the most colossal store the world ever saw, surpassing by far anything that had been attempted either in New York or Philadelphia” (The story of a store, 4).

Railey’s book also discusses the continued philanthropic efforts of the Jordan family, particularly those of Jordan’s son, Eben Jordan, Jr., who was particularly active in the arts community. Jordan, Jr. built the Boston Opera House, founded Jordan Hall for the New England Conservatory, and installed art exhibits at the Main Store on Washington Street (22).

Whereas Retail and romance focuses on the romantic aspects of Jordan’s humble beginnings and subsequent charitable endeavors, The story of a store, published by the Jordan Marsh Company in 1912, captures the glamorous nature of early department stores. This publication is filled with glossy black-and-white photos and descriptions of the innumerable goods contained in each department of Jordan’s store.


This set of images showcases several large glass display cases in the women’s department, containing from top to bottom: handkerchiefs, gloves, laces, and neckwear. However, commodities of all kinds were sold at Jordan Marsh. To name a few: umbrellas, children’s apparel, jewelry, silverware, eyeglasses, toiletries, books, leather goods, upholstery, rugs, stationary, luggage, kitchen goods, hardware, garden tools, and toys.

Like some of the best department stores of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jordan Marsh also offered a variety of services for patrons, including store credit (a new concept at the time), personal services like a Post Office, Telegraph and Cable Station, and Waiting Rooms, complete with “easy chairs, writing materials, newspapers, check-rooms, lavatories, and other necessary conveniences for customers” (28)


Today, 450 Washington Street, formerly the site of Jordan Marsh’s Main Store, is occupied by Macy’s. Although the Jordan Marsh Company continued to thrive and expand throughout much of the twentieth century, it was eventually bought out and replaced by the larger company entirely by 1996.

This story is not an uncommon one in the business world. Massachusetts Historical Society has a number of records that provide insight into the former business and commercial world of Boston. Perhaps you may discover a former company or store, similarly overlooked or forgotten today.




comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 24 June, 2016, 10:28 AM

Transcription Challenge, Round 2

A few weeks ago here on the Beehive I posted an image of a medieval document (here and here) with the hope that someone out there would be able to make sense of it and provide us with some information. What I thought would be a longshot turned out to be a wonderful display of crowdsourced transcription and translation, thanks in no small part to the Boston Globe, who took the image and ran with it. We even got responses from the UK which provided geographic context for the contents of the item. All in all, it was a great result!

So now I am back with another challenge. This time, the document is written in Spanish and the penciled date written by a cataloger here at the MHS at some time in the past is "1474? Jan. 12."

Since my Spanish is slightly better than my Latin I decided to take a stab at transcribing this one as best I could. Below is what I came up with along with a couple of images of the document. Words that appear in [brackets] are words that I am unsure about. Spots that only contain underscoring _____ are words that I had no clue about. 

While I think I made a decent go of it, the writing style and letter forms, along with possibly outmoded means of spelling, made it difficult. This is a sloppy transcription, at best, so please be gentle!

Can anyone out there step up and help us out this time? If you think you can fill in any blanks - or correct my many errors - please do! You can leave any comments at the bottom of the page or e-mail us at, using the subject line Spanish Blog.


Front of the Document [Hold Ctrl and press + to zoom in]

Muy ynclito duque nuestro muy caro primo  Nos 
la princesa de castilla y de leon Reyna de _____ princesa de aragon. 
[Vos enbiamos] mucho sa-

ludat como aquel {that one} que mucho amamos y preciamos por pero 
ocho a [debeci] nuestro vasallo y _____ dela nuestra villa de bilbao 
que es encl nuestro condado 

senorio de viscaya nos es fecha relacion que encl mes de otubre 
proximo pasado. llego con [vna nao] suya y de sancho yuanco de laris 
patron della encl 

puerto de la abdat de genoua el dicho sancho yuanes detaris su 
cun~ado. la qual [yua] cargada de atun y de otras 
mercadurias para las descargar en la 

dicha [abdat]. A que en la dicha nao yuan fusta nouenta  
[onbres] marcantes asi mesmo vasallos nuestros. los quales como` 
llegaron encl puerto y muelle 

dela dicha abdat. luego en continente entraron en la dicha nao las 
____ della poderosamente y prendieron al dicho patron sanchoyuanes de 

y lo enbiaron preso [avucstro] poder y que lo teneys preso y que esto 
asi fecho [sacaron] dela dicha nao las velas y vergas todos los otros 
a [parclos] armas

y artilleri`a que en ella [ama] y lo lleuaron ala ducha abdat de 
genoua con mas las mercaderias cayas ropas armas y prouisiones 
[provisions] que en la dicha nao esta

uan. Creo nos fecha saber que la causa por que eso [sefizo] y con ___ 
fue por que ___ de la ____ prendio [dossesenderos] vuestros y que 
fusta aquellos [secr]

libres ___ entendeys de soltar al dicho patron ___ menos restituyr 
les la dicha nao con las cosas suso dichas O si esto asics nos 
maravyllamos mucho

que por esta razon nuestros vasallos ayan deseer veyados y 
[purificados] de tal manera mayor mente leyendo el dicho vohan de las 
cano de la pro-

vincia de [grypusova]de quien continua mente nuestros vasallos del 
dicho nuestro condado y senorio de viscaya son fatigados y mal 
tratados yndemida-

mente. O por que nestro deseo ha leydo y es de vos agradar y con 
plazer en todo lo que pudieremos y que los genouesesy otras personas 
estrangeras de 

vuestras tierras que al dicho nuestro condado v____ gran honreados 
bien tratados y favorecidos como es razon. Por [endo] afectuosamente 

rogamos que por contenplacion nuestra delibreys al dicho patron 
sancho yuanes de la prision en que esta y [la fagayo] enteramente 
restituyr la 

dicha [nao] con todas las cosas suso dichas que enella yuan. O asi 
mesmo [hemyenda] y satisfacion de todos los [dapnos] y costas que por 
esta causa ___

les han _____ de manera que el que de satisfecho y contento do todo 
ello lo qual sin duda vos ternemos en singular ___ de cimiento i nos 

por ello ___ para mirar con toda buena voluntad por el honor i favor 
vuestro i de todas vuestras cosas por queeste es nuestrodeseo de la 
muy noble

_____ de seg__  __ XI dias de enero del xx mi anos

Back of the Document -- Note the clear watermark of a down-turned hand and star.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 June, 2016, 11:46 AM

Commemorating War, Promoting Peace

What is the best way to remember our wars? What kinds of public commemorations are appropriate after peace has been achieved? What effect do such commemorations have on our relations with allies who were once our enemies? These were questions that concerned Noah Worcester (1758-1837), Revolutionary War veteran, Unitarian minister, and one of the founders of the Massachusetts Peace Society.


In early 1825, when Worcester heard that newly elected U.S. Rep. Edward Everett would be delivering an address on the fiftieth anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, he decided to reach out. Of course, 1825 was not only a Revolutionary War anniversary year; it was also just ten years out from America’s more recent war with England.

A draft of Worcester’s 16 March 1825 letter to Everett was recently acquired by the MHS. It reads, in part: “The manner in which Anniversaries of the Revolution have too commonly been conducted, has been to me a source of much regret. The prejudices excited by war are apt to be too strong and durable. When a treaty of peace has been made between two nations, which had been at war, Christianity, prudence and magnanimity unite in requiring that nothing should be done by either party to perpetuate the spirit of animosity. On the contrary, all that can be done should be done, to abate prejudices, and to cultivate friendly feelings between the parties. The practice of rehearsing the wrongs of Britain, and boasting of our own successes in the war, appear to me of a very injurious nature, and perfectly inconsistent with the Christian principles of love, forbearance and forgiveness.”


Most Americans undoubtedly celebrated these Revolutionary anniversaries with patriotic pride, but Worcester was disturbed by their emphasis on triumphalism over reconciliation. While he “sincerely rejoice[d]” in America’s victory, he felt that blame for the conflict “was not all on one side” and that the colonists “had less cause of complaint than we imagined” at the time. He warned against rehashing old resentments and encouraged Everett to promote “a new and pacific character to our Anniversaries of the Revolution,” even quoting some of Everett’s own pacifistic words back to him.

Worcester’s letter definitely made an impression. In his diary, Everett wrote with some contempt: “Shortly after my appointment to deliver the Oration at Concord was announced, Noah Worcester wrote to me to caution me against any thing which could look like encouraging War; said America had no great reason to revolt; that the motives & feelings of the Soldiers (of whom he was one) were not good &c. I did not answer his letter. Today he sends me a number of the ‘Friend of Peace,’ in which he has quoted some remarks from my book[…]; from which sentiment he deduces, by inference, the impropriety of commending & celebrating warlike exploits.”


And Everett’s Concord address was scathing. While he did not name Worcester publicly, he devoted several paragraphs to rebutting Worcester’s arguments in tones of muscular nationalism: “There are those, who object to such a celebration as this, as tending to keep up or to awaken a hostile sentiment toward England. But I do not feel the force of this scruple. […] A pacific and friendly feeling towards England is the duty of this nation; but it is not our only duty, it is not our first duty. America owes an earlier and a higher duty to the great and good men, who caused her to be a nation. […] I am not willing to give up to the ploughshare the soil wet with our fathers’ blood; no! not even to plant the olive of peace in the furrow.”

Everett called “abject” any person who would “think that national courtesy requires them to hush up the tale of the glorious exploits of their fathers and countrymen.” But Worcester hadn’t suggested that we forget the past; he just took issue with the way we remember it. This mischaracterization of his position may have been what Worcester meant when he annotated this draft of his letter: “The above letter was sent to Mr E. soon after its date. The effect it had on his mind, as it appeared in his subsequent oration, was to me a matter of deep regret.”


Next Friday is Bunker Hill Day here in Massachusetts. On 17 June 1825, a ceremony was held in Charlestown, Mass. and the cornerstone laid for the Bunker Hill Monument. Worcester, who had fought in the battle as a teenager exactly fifty years before, did not attend the dedication ceremony and declined to subscribe to the monument. Instead, he wrote a poem called “Solitary Commemoration.” Here’s an excerpt:

In every conflict of the martial kind,

Each party thinks he sees the other blind;

But neither sees how hatred on his part,

Deforms the soul while rankling in the heart.

Hatred to whom he knows not, but to those

Who chance to bear the general name – his foes.

Alas! tho' fifty years have passed away,

Since on that Hill was seen the bloody fray –

On that same ground, lo! myriads celebrate,

Those mournful deeds of horror, death, and hate!

May I, as one preserved in that dread scene,

Ask what these pompous celebrations mean?


comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 June, 2016, 12:00 AM

Margaret Russell’s Diary, June 1916

Today, we return to the line-a-day diary of Margaret Russell. You can read previous installments here:






June begins with the Russell household’s seasonal relocation from Boston’s Back Bay to Swampscott. Between 1870-1940, many prominent Bostonian families maintained summer estates north of the city. Dorothy M. Anderson, in her book The Era of the Summer Estates (Swampscott Historical Society, 1985), describes the preparations that took place before summer residents arrived:

“The unpredictable devastation of rugged winters and howling storms along the seacoast often necessitated considerable exterior house repair work such as roofing, shingling, chimney repair, and painting. Copper screening, subject to salt damage, often needed replacement. Also, wooden shutters had to be removed and stored, blinds opened, windows washed, and awnings obtained from storage and set in place. … Room after room, inch by inch, had to be treated appropriately to ensure total cleanliness and attractiveness before the ‘family’ arrived. …This ten-day to two-week indoor and outdoor undertaking using two and often several employees was crowned, as it were, by the arrival of the maids who set the bedding, china, linens, silver, and sundries in readiness. With a midweek arrival of the owner and spouse, the ‘family’ was ‘in residence’ for the season. And of course it was understood that, in many instances, the household would become two or three generations with the closing of schools and the onset of summer itself” (78).

Margaret Russell oversaw the packing (see the end of May), remove, and unpacking as the household shifted, and these activities appear to have taken time and energy -- though did not curtail her amateur botany, afternoon drives, and social appointments. On the 20th she packed once again and was on the train down to Asheville, North Carolina, to visit friends and enjoy the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Splendid view, azaleas wonderful.”

* * *

June 1916

1 June. Had movers for move to Swampscott. Mama less tired than other years. Servants & [illegible] A.M. Me at 2.15.

2 June. Friday. Unpacking. Went to Lynnfield bay & found Bug [illegible] in flower & to Marblehead for S. Stellata which was in flower.

3 June. Saturday - Went over & lunched with the H.G.C’s at Nahant. To salem for errands.

4 June. Sunday. Walked to church & back without fatigue.

5 June. Monday - to town for Hosp. meeting & errands. Lunched at Mariner.**

6 June. Tuesday. [illegible] in my room [illegible]. Moving. Lovely drive to Beverly & Hamilton.

7 June. Wednesday - Arranging my room. Took long drive to Beverly & Hamilton.

8 June. Thursday - To town for Chilton meeting - errands & to see Aunt Emma. Cold & Drizzling.

9 June. Friday - Raining & blowing very cold. To Lynn for errands. Rested after lunch & went to Nahant to see Mrs. L. Leukerman & the H.G.C’s.

10 June. Saturday - Pouring all day. Went to N. Andover to lunch at Mifflins. The H.G.C’s  Mrs. James Lawrence.

11 June. Sunday - Cleaning - Walked to church & back P.M. Raining again.

12 June. Went to town for errands - Mary - last visit to Dr. S. Lunched at Mariner. Pouring again.

13 June. Tuesday - Sunny day. Walked to church & back. Went to see Charlie [illegible] & then to drive. Cold east wind.

14 June. Wednesday--

15 June. Thursday - Town all day - Hosp. to see Murray girl. To see Hattie Loring also.

16 June. Paper says this is the 9th day of rain. Baby went home. Paid calls at Nahant.

17 June. More rain than ever. Lunched at Nahant with H.G.C’s. Down to Marblehead to see Edith & the baby.

18 June. Walked to church. Family to dine - C gone to Canada for fishing.

19 June. Went to town for errands. Lunched at Mariner. Packing in P.M.

20 June. Packed & went to town. Had meeting of E[ar] & E[ye] comm. Then to take 1 o’c to N.Y. spent night at Belmont.

21 June. Wednesday - Took a walk & did a few errands. Lunched at Penn. station. Left at 1.08 for Asheville. Comfortable weather.

22 June. Arrived A-- at twelve. After lunch rested & then took walk up in the woods. Lovely as ever here.

23 June. Friday - Walked up to see the Howington’s [illegible]. All so glad to see us & we them. Stayed on piazza P.M. Looked showery.

24 June. Saturday - Took all day trip in motor with lunch for Mt. Pisgah. Splendid view, azaleas wonderful. Thunder storm & bad roads coming home.

25 June. Sunday - went to St. Mary’s. In P.M. drove to Mountain Meadows. Organ concert in the evening. Lovely weather.

26 June. Monday - I stayed home and Miss A-- went to see Howingtons. P.M. drove to Swann[illegible] valley. Moving pictures every evening.

27 June. Tuesday - All day trip in motor to Hickory Nut Gap. Saw fox & cub. P.M. visiting & then another lovely walk.

28 June. Wednesday - Stayed at home in A.M. Miss Holman arrived about two. Drive her to see Miss H’s eyes. She seems to enjoy seeing the hotel & people.

29 June. Miss H-- left after breakfast. Miss A went again to see Mrs. H-- & I packed. Hot. Left at 2.35 it soon cooled off.

30 June. Arrived in N.Y. hours late so lost our train. Crowds so great that could get no seats. Took 4 o’c & at New Haven got into parlor car. Home about 11.30.


* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.

**In previous installments of the diary I have transcribed this word as “Marian’s” but in this instance the word looked unmistakably like “Mariner” and I have adjusted my transcription accordingly throughout this entry.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 3 June, 2016, 12:00 AM

Pondering Paleography and Soliciting Transcriptions, p. II

When I published a post last week here on the Beehive (see here) about a medieval document in our collections, I thought that it would be quite some time before we got to the bottom of it. Boy, was I wrong! By chance, my post was picked up by Steve Annear at the Boston Globe and, just like that, we were off and running with many people providing insights. 

To summarize, I was wrong about the language of the document. It turns out that it is medieval Latin, not Middle English. However, to vindicate my assumption ever so slightly, one commenter asserts that it is written using "stereotypically English-looking letter forms." He goes on to note that the document is heavily abbreviated. 

A few people commenting on my post even provided transcriptions and translations of the document, while others provided background on the geographic area and surnames mentioned in the text. All within just a couple of days!

Based on the input from commenters, I think we have a rough transcription here. For anyone that wishes to contest this transcription, please keep a couple of things in mind: all commenters who provided input are working only from a low-resolution image contained in my original post; and that I may have mis-typed some of these Latin terms and so some error may rest with me. 

"Omnibus Christi fidelibus ad quos presens scriptum pervenerit, Willhelmus, filius Agathe de Bromlegh saluten in domino. Novertis me concesse, dimisisse, et in perpetuum de me et heredibus meis qui quietum clamasse Johann de Wylmschurst heredibus suis et assignatis totum jus et damnum quod habui ut aliquo modo habere potui in sexdecim acris terre cum pertinentiis in Bromlegh quas Ricardus de Bylinghurst dedit Agathe filie sue. Ita quod ego dictus Willhelmus heredes mei, nec aliquis per me vel nomine nostro aliquid juris vel clamium in praedictis sexdecim acris terre cum pertinentiis exigere clamare vel vendicare non poterimus in perpetuum. In cuius rei testimonium huic quiete clamntie sigillum meum apposui. Hiis testibus Johanne de Stondebrig, Ricardo de Grimyngfelde, Ricardo de Rykhurst, Johanne de Loxhie, Willelmo Govebrok, et aliis. Datum apud Bromlegh, die Jovis in festo Ascensionis domini, anno regni Regis Edwardi tertii a conquestu undecimo."

This Latin text translates, approximately, to

"To all the faithful of Christ to whom the present writing shall come, William son of Agatha of Bromlegh wishes health in the Lord. Everyone should know that I am conceding, demising, and in perpetuity for me and my heirs quitclaiming to John dy Bylingehurst and his heirs and assigns all the rights and claims I have, or might be able to have at any time, in 16 acres of land with appurtenances in Bromlegh, which Richard de Bylinghurst gave to Agatha his daughter. Therefore I the said William and my heirs, or anyone acting in my name, give up the right to make any claim to the 16 acres and its appurtenences, or any right to sell it. In which statement I posiiton my seal to this quitclaim. These witnesses: John de Stondebrig, Richard de Grummyngfelde, Richard de Rykhurst, John de Leghe, William Govebrok, and others. Dated at Bromlegh, on the Thursday after the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, in the 11th year of the reign of King Edward III after the conquest."

So, it looks like we have a fairly common land transfer captured in this document. For more about the land in question and the names involved, please refer to the comments in the original blog post to see what our readers have to say. If, at some point, I attempt to summarize all of the information provided, it will show up here on the Beehive.

Finally, thank you to the Boston Globe, and especially to all who showed such quick interest in this little piece of vellum! We now have just a little bit more knowledge about our collections and about medieval writing samples. Stay tuned for more medieval mysteries from the MHS. Cheers!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 1 June, 2016, 12:00 AM

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