The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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“He has so damnd himself to everlasting Infamy”: Alexander Hamilton and Abigail Adams

Between the $10 bill and a smash-hit musical, everybody seems to be talking about Alexander Hamilton. January marks not only the anniversary of Hamilton’s birth, and his resignation as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, it also marks the anniversary of the most famous, or infamous, insult hurled Hamilton’s way. It was on 25 January 1806 that John Adams memorably referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.”

John Adams’s hostility toward Hamilton late in life is well known and is usually attributed to the role Hamilton played in the Election of 1800, attacking Adams and contributing to his defeat. But the Adamses, both John and Abigail, had expressed distrust of Hamilton long before then, and Abigail was just as colorful as John was. In 1794 when opponents of his economic proposals condemned Hamilton, Abigail noted that while some of the criticism was unwarranted, it was not entirely unfounded. Alluding to William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Abigail cautioned John, “I have ever thought with respect to that Man, ‘beware of that spair Cassius.’”

The next few years did nothing to improve Abigail’s opinion. Hamilton was widely believed to have unsuccessfully meddled in the 1796 Election, attempting to keep Thomas Jefferson out of the vice presidency, even, or perhaps, especially, if it meant sacrificing John Adams’ candidacy. Hearing of Hamilton’s interference in December 1796, Abigail wrote, “I have often said to you, H——n is a Man ambitious as Julius Ceasar, a subtle intriguer. his abilities would make him Dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side. his thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept My Eye upon him.”

The revelation of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in 1797 was a breaking point for Abigail, leading to some of her most vitriolic comments. As the Quasi-War with France was building and the United States formed a new army, Abigail could not understand those who wanted Hamilton to be commander-in-chief. “That man would in my mind become a second Buonaparty if he was possessd of equal power,” she wrote to her cousin in July 1798. By January 1799, Abigail was increasingly heated. Learning that her son Thomas Boylston Adams who had been in Europe was to return to the United States on board the ship Alexander Hamilton, Abigail sneered, “I dont like even the Name of the ship in which he is to embark” and in letters written to John on 12 and 13 January, she railed against Hamilton. Abigail firmly believed that Hamilton’s failure to uphold his private marriage vow inevitably made any public vow he made suspect. In a Biblical allusion to King David, she warned that with Hamilton in charge of the army, “Every Uriah must tremble for his Bathsheba.”

While John’s acerbity is well known, Abigail Adams was no more timid in her remarks. Throughout the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton was on the receiving end of her barbs, even though Abigail maintained that she saw no “breach of Charity” in her observations.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 20 January, 2016, 12:00 AM

“. . . unidentified girl exercising with dumbbells”

That was the line in our online catalog that caught my eye last week. Sandwiched between portrait descriptions and mention of a family crest, this hint about a tintype dating to the 1870s in the Homans family photographs collection was too arresting not to follow up on.

I pulled the appropriate box from our photograph collection and sure enough, the second-to-last folder bore the title “four unidentified girls exercising, ca. 1870-1880. Photographer unknown. Tintype.” Four girls exercising? My interest was well and truly piqued.

Tintype of four girls lifting dumbbells, ca. 1870-1880. Found in the Homans family photographs.

Facing the camera, the four girls wear matching outfits, complete with white handkerchiefs tucked into their chest pockets and shiny black shoes. They appear to be in their mid-to-late teens and are standing straight-spined, each holding aloft two dumbbells.

In a collection of unremarkable individual and group portraits, this photograph raised a multitude of questions for me, chief among them being, why are these girls lifting weights? What group are these girls a part of that they are identically dressed and posing for this photograph? Was this common practice for Boston-area women in the 1870s? While common practice today, weight-lifting women were not always so familiar.

I took a two-pronged approach to answering these questions, first searching the Homans family papers, including the 1878 and 1881 diary of teenager Mattie Homans, to see if I could find reference to this type of exercise, and then looking at our collections more broadly for materials related to women’s gymnasiums in Boston and physical education for women.

The Homans family papers disappointingly failed to illuminate the context for this photograph, and so I moved on to other, related resources.

Ideas regarding health, fitness, and the role of physical activity for shaping personal and cultural character changed dramatically over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and this photograph illuminates the pervasiveness of these changes. Puritan beliefs that illness was an unavoidable and even expected aspect of their daily lives, gave way to the active promotion of health and hygiene through personal actions and environmental changes. 19th century Boston played host to a multitude of facilities, practitioners, and publications devoted to shaping the public discourse on physiology and hygiene, and middle class citizens, particularly women, were at the heart of this movement.

In Able-Bodied Womanhood: Personal Health and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Martha H. Verbrugge posits that

"[A]ntebellum health reform prescribed self-governance to alleviate the problems of urban life. The world seemed unmanageable to Boston’s middle class . . . [i]n an unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable world, [they] looked inward for stability. Self-control appeared to be the most reliable, perhaps only, mechanism for restoring order." (47)

While Bostonians believed that a person’s biological characteristics (like a weak heart), and their physical environment (like a drafty house) contributed to their health, or lack-thereof, they placed the greatest emphasis on the role of personal behavior in actively shaping their lives.

Attempting to break the monopoly men held over early gymnasiums, Bostonians such as Dr. Dio Lewis and Mary E. Allen, opened gymnasiums catering specifically to women and children. In 1860 Lewis opened the New Gymnasium, focused almost exclusively on promoting muscular development in children of both sexes, and his Family School for Young Ladies in Lexington, MA, which centered its curriculum around both intellectual and physical instruction.

Dr. Lewis’s Family School for Young Ladies. Sketch found in “Catalogue and circular of Dr. Dio Lewis’s Family School for Young Ladies, Lexington, Mass. 1866.”


Mary E. Allen continued this trend into the 1870s, opening the Ladies Gymnasium on Washington St. in 1877 and offering facilities for women and children to conduct slow, careful, and progressively more difficult physical exercise in the pursuit of “symmetrical bodily development”. In addition to providing a gymnasium, Allen also taught a so-called “Normal Class . . . for the instruction of those who intend to teach Gymnastics, either in public or private schools, or in Gymnasiums devoted to women and children, an urgent need of which exists in the larger towns and cities.” Not only training women to improve their own physiques, but to become teachers of such methods themselves.

“The Ladies’ Gymnasium. Eighth Year, 1885-1886”


This broadening emphasis on physical culture was deeply intertwined with changes in beauty and fashion standards, the roles of middle class women in the private and public spheres, and developments in science and medicine. Verbrugge’s work does a wonderful job of addressing the intersectionality of these varied forces, particularly within the sphere of Boston society.

Taking these sources in concert, it is no longer strange to have found the image of young women lifting dumbbells, particularly within the family photograph collection of a prominent Boston family. Unfortunately, I was not able to identify the women in the photograph, or establish their affiliation with a particular school or gymnasium. That will have to be a project for another day.

If 19th century dumbbells strike your fancy and you would like to see the Homans tintype in person, please feel free to stop in and visit our library. If you are interested in seeing what other materials we have related to physical education, you can browse our online catalog, ABIGAIL from the comfort of your own home.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 15 January, 2016, 12:00 AM

The Ekphrastic Fiske

On 30 January 2015, my colleague Dan Hinchen introduced our readers to Eben W. Fiske (1823-1900), a Civil War veteran and librarian as well as a talented amateur illustrator, in his post Ishpeming Illustrators. Dan discussed Fiske's artwork, which he broke out into two categories: Civil War drawings and other. The Fiske family papers (Ms. N-1227) also contains letters and compositions, as well as several volumes containing original pencil drawings.

Recently I was asked to review the collection to determine whether any of the drawings might be worth including in a forthcoming web project. I pulled Box 3, which houses "Volumes 3-6: E.W. Fiske writings, drawings," from the shelves. Volumes 3 and 4 contain newspaper clippings; volume 5 is a notebook with writings on the Bible. The folder with the intricate drawings was labeled "Volume 6: Pencil drawings. Illustrations to ?".


The small sketch book, measuring 16.2 cm x 17.8 cm, features highly detailed scenes that correspond to text that Fiske puts in quotes. Curious about the quotes, I learned from Dan's prior blog post that Fiske drew in response to the poem "On Lending a Punch Bowl" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. As other poems are quoted and illustrated, I searched for word strings in Google and was happy to discover most of the works from which Fiske drew inspiration. Here is a list of the groupings of drawings:

Pages 1-4 respond to the poem "On Lending a Punch Bowl" by the physician and poet (among other things) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894);

Pages 5-12 illustrate (pun!) Holmes's "A Song: For the Centennial Celebration of Harvard College, 1836";  

Pages 13-16 react to a lecture given at the Mercantile Library Association;

Page 17 draws on (pun, again!) Holmes's "The Stethoscope Song"; and

Page 18 takes inspiration from Holmes's "The Morning Visit".



There are also a few unfinished sketches and two instances where drawings were tipped in between pages.


Responding to a work of art using another form of art is called ekphrasis. It is most commonly seen when a poem is inspired by a work of art. See, for example, Sylvia Plath's poems "Conversation Among the Ruins (1956) and "The Disquieting Muses" (1958) and Giorgio de Chirico's paintings by the same names (the former1927 and the latter1916-1918). Those are just two examples; and it appears the term is flexible enough to include Fiske's reactions to the poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

While there currently is no finding aid to the Fiske family papers, please do not let that stop you from coming into the MHS to enjoy the collection.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 18 December, 2015, 12:00 AM

"The Sublimity of it, charms me!": John Adams and the Boston Tea Party

In the fall of 1773, three ships carrying a cargo of tea from the British East India Company were on their way into Boston Harbor. Subject to the Tea Act of 1773, allowing the tea to be unloaded in Boston would have meant the acceptance of the principle of Parliamentary taxation, an idea that Bostonians had been fighting for a decade. After Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the ship owners refused to prevent the ships’ landing, the Sons of Liberty decided to take action, and 242 years ago on the night of December 16, a group of patriots wearing Native American dress snuck on board the three ships and dumped their cargo into the harbor.

The next day, budding patriot John Adams wrote to his friend James Warren enthusiastically about the audacious stroke: “The Dye is cast: The People have passed the River and cutt away the Bridge: last Night Three Cargoes of Tea, were emptied into the Harbour. This is the grandest, Event, which has ever yet happened Since, the Controversy, with Britain, opened!” He added, “The Sublimity of it, charms me!”

“The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking.” he noted in his diary. “This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.” “The Question is whether the Destruction of this Tea was necessary?” he queried. “I apprehend it was absolutely and indispensably so.”

In his letter to Warren, Adams looked ahead as to what would follow this momentous affair. “Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, by the million, will be invented and propagated among the People upon this occasion. Individuals will be threatened with Suits and Prosecutions. Armies and Navies will be talked of—military Execution—Charters annull’d—Treason—Tryals in England and all that—But—these Terrors, are all but Imaginations. Yet if they should become Realities they had better be Suffered, than the great Principle, of Parliamentary Taxation given up.”

There were indeed serious consequences for the people of Boston in the form of the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts levied by Parliament in retaliation. The harsh punishment backfired however. Colonists grew more unified in sentiment, and the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774 was a pivotal step in the movement toward revolution and eventually, independence.

John Adams to James Warren, 17 December 1773, Warren-Adams Papers


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 8:51 AM

Cryptic Communique: Rebuses from Britain and the United States

[If you have trouble seeing the small details in some of these images, hold Ctrl and press + to zoom in on your browser.]


Whether as an educational tool, a creative form of political commentary, or a crafty way of targeting a chosen audience, rebuses have been used for centuries. Dating back to 1540 and the work of calligrapher and engraver Palatino, rebuses harness text, numbers, and images of recognizable objects as phonograms and hieroglyphics to convey meaning. I tracked down four examples from the MHS collections, and was surprised by the difficulty and intricacies of their presentations.

Rebuses rely on two primary usages for images: either as hieroglyphics or phonograms. Using hieroglyphics, authors can convey straightforward words by simply replacing them with an image that shows their meaning, such as   replacing the word “ship”. To express more abstract words, creators juxtapose letters and drawings that could be used as phonograms. When combined, these sounds build words, such as  representing the word “cannot”. In linguistics this is actually called the “rebus principle”.

Both techniques can be seen in Benjamin Franklin’s “The Art of Making Money Plenty in every Man’s Pocket” (circa 1848), Matthew Darly’s satirical publications from the American Revolution entitled “Britannia to America” and “America to her mistaken mother” (both published in London in 1778), and an unattributed educational publication of Mother Goose in Hieroglyphics (1849).

“The Art of Making Money Plenty in every Man’s Pocket”


As I worked my way through these puzzles I began to recognize a specific vocabulary of images, a vocabulary that I was surprised to discover took some serious investigation to fully understand. Even with full-text translations to reference it took the help of several colleagues to track down the names for all of the images pictured.

“Britannia to America”


“America to her mistaken mother”

Rebuses speak specifically to the historical context in which they were created. They rely on commonly understood imagery to convey meaning, and as I compared the rebuses I was able to construct a set of common images, always used identically. Because the content of the individual excerpts is different: Franklin’s lectures on personal fiscal responsibility, Darly’s speak to the British fear of a strategic partnership between the colonists and France, and Mother Goose telling a children’s fairytale, the overlap is limited, but that which does exist exemplifies a historical context that makes its interpretation by 21st century minds difficult.

Some common sounds represented identically across these publications include

  • (eye) = “i”
  • (an individual toe) = “to”
  • (yew tree)  = “u” (“you”)
  • (awl) = “all”
  • (bee) = “be” or “b”
  • (ewer) = your


While some of these images are easily recognizable even today (the bee, or a human eye), others are no longer commonplace in most of our lives, such as an awl, or a ewer.

Changes over time in storage, weight, and measurements have also disassociated other commonly used pictures, such as a cask  , from traditionally related terms like “butt,” a British unit of measure.

Just like Franklin’s and Darly’s works, Mother Goose uses the ewer, awl, toe, and butt images to convey a story, but unlike the others Mother Goose includes an introductory note as to the importance of the use of images within the text itself. The unknown author of the Mother Goose rebus introduces the work with the words “When the doctor sends for physic for a nervous little chick, make a mistake, and go to the bookseller’s and buy Mother goose in Hieroglyphics; that’s what is wanted -- a pretty book, written with pictures, as they wrote in Egypt a long while ago, when folks new something.” While Franklin uses the rebus structure to make sure readers are challenged to expend effort before obtaining answers, Mother Goose uses them as a teaching tool, bridging the gap between speech and textual understanding in children.

Mother Goose

To see an example of some unpublished rebuses, check out Susan Martin’s June 17, 2015 blog on Samuel W. Everett. Dating to the mid-19th century, Everett’s illustrations demonstrate that early Americans did not just consume these puzzles in printed form, but produced them for personal entertainment as well. If the rebuses in this   post strike your fancy, consider visiting our library to view them in person, or to explore any of our other collections in greater depth.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 12:02 PM

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