The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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“To the Women of Boston…”

Like many New Englanders, I followed the recent Market Basket labor strike with near-obsessive interest. Of course, a small, selfish part of me was irked that my “More for Your Dollar” shopping had been temporarily suspended. But beyond that, I was inspired by the employees’ bravery and revolutionary spirit. After weeks of negotiations and uncertainty, I was pleasantly surprised that the workers had triumphed over the CEOs. I’d noticed two important things while following the story; first, that many of the employees who were protesting “on the front lines,” as well as the consumer advocates who boycotted the store, were women. And secondly, that in the news media, many labor activists discussed the "record breaking" strike as distinctly unique to Massachusetts. These two facts are not particularly startling, given the state’s strong history of labor organizing and activism, much of which began with Massachusetts women.

In the 1830s, more than fifty years before labor movements became popular throughout the United States, the Lowell Mill women began organizing and striking, forming the first union of female workers in the United States. Over the next few decades, the same radical spirit picked up momentum and moved to the city of Boston. 

In 1874, forty-six years before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, a group of female business owners in Boston formed the Business Woman's Mutual Benefit Association, which published circulars in Boston newspapers to advertise its services.

This circular, dated 27 February 1874, explains that “the object of [the] association [was] threefold:”

1st. To provide a fund from which a certain sum shall be paid to any member in case of sickness.

2nd. To provide a fund from which members in case of extreme need can obtain small loans, without interest, said loans to be returned by installments, in such sums and at such rates as shall be agreed upon.

3d. To provide respectable burial to deceased members.

To include as many people as possible, the Association established two tiers of membership: beneficiary members paid yearly dues and were subsequently entitled to all of the aforementioned benefits. Honorary members paid a one-time fee and received a certificate, but did not gain any benefits from the association. Men were “cordially invited to become Honorary members,” but the Board of Directors was comprised entirely of women.

Although women’s rights were not supported by the majority of Bostonians, the Association did have some allies. For instance, in its 2 April 1874 issue, The Index: A Weekly Newspaper Devoted to Free Religion, introduced the Association’s statement by writing:

We have been requested…to give a ‘word of notice’ to the following circular; but we find it so excellent that it seems proper to publish it in full in THE INDEX, with our heartiest approval of the organization and its object. Similar ones ought to be everywhere established; and the attention of all friends of the cause of women is called to one of the best plans yet devised to further it.

Nineteenth-century society provided independent women with very few legal and social rights, so these Bostonian businesswomen decided to organize and unite to protect themselves (and each other). Their circular states:

The constant complaint among women is that nothing is done to help them, pecuniarily, as a body, in case of need. The constant response of men is, that women will not unite as do men to help each other…by becoming members of, and thus supporting this association, women will not only effectually disprove the charge, but they will by this simple method do more to defeat the evil effects of unjust wages to women…

This last point seems particularly poignant and timely given that in mid-September, the United States Senate yet again blocked the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would have strengthened equal pay protections for women. Despite the valiant efforts of these pioneering ladies, women are still fighting to be paid equal wages, one hundred and forty years later. Perhaps we should look to these revolutionary nineteenth-century women for some twenty-first-century inspiration in our continued fight for gender equality.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 23 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

“I can do nothing without you”: The 250th Anniversary of John and Abigail Adams

This month we celebrate the 250th wedding anniversary of John and Abigail Adams. Their marriage endured through separations, long in distance and time, war, partisan politics, and family hardships. Their distance and struggle became our treasure, because it is through their incredible correspondence that we obtain such an intimate look inside their lives—lives that in so many ways, are not so alien to our own.

     

About a month before their 25 October 1764, wedding, John Adams wrote to Abigail Smith movingly describing how important she was to him:

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my Justice, or Discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.

Abigail was that and more for John. His counselor and confidant, the one that even at the age of 61 and President of the United States, he could “do nothing without,” Abigail, while managing his beloved farm and caring for family, provided him with local news and gossip, advice, and a sympathetic ear. Likewise, for Abigail, when faced with trials of her own, she looked forward to a reunion with her dearest friend, where “I come to place my head upon your Bosom and to receive and give that consolation which sympathetick hearts alone know how to communicate.”

When Abigail died on October 28, 1818, just days after their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary, a heartbroken John wrote to his son John Quincy Adams, “My consolations are more than I can number. The Separation cannot be So long as twenty Separations heretofore. The Pangs and the Anguish have not been So great as when you and I embarked for France in 1778. . . . Love to your Wife. May you never experience her Loss.”

If you would like to learn more about this great American love story, the Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth, MA, is holding a multi-day celebration and conference including remarks from Sara Martin, the Series Editor of the Adams Family Correspondence series, on October 24–26, 2014. Click here for more information.

 

 

Images:  Abigail Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.026; John Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.027

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

“The Moonlight Is Wasted”: Not So Quiet on the Western Front

The stacks of the MHS are filled with innumerable letters written by soldiers serving in U.S. wars to their families back home. This year marks both the sesquicentennial of the penultimate year of the Civil War and the centennial of the first year of World War I. It’s a disheartening fact that we rarely lack for war-related anniversaries to commemorate, but these letters are an invaluable resource for a true understanding of U.S. wars.

Some of them were written to anxious parents by very young soldiers, barely out of high school and full of bravado. Others come from older, battle-hardened men who write wistfully to their children while shells fall around them. Sometimes a soldier breezily anticipates the upcoming battle in which we know he will be killed, or has an eerie premonition of his own death. While it’s impossible for most of us to comprehend the realities of war as experienced by those in the thick of it, little details speak volumes. I always find it interesting how the ordinary things we take for granted are perceived in radically different ways by a soldier on the front lines.

Take moonlight, for example. Lovers serenade in it, poets write about it, dreamers gaze up at it. Moonlight is one of the universally acknowledged beauties of life, right? Well, not if you’re digging trenches in northern France in 1918. William F. Wolohan, serving with the American Expeditionary Forces, 103rd Engineers, Co. E, explained in a letter to his mother on 30 Nov. 1918 that he and his fellow soldiers had a different perspective:

Night work was the hardest as this country over here is positively the blackest place I have ever been in at night. Our night work consisted mostly of barbed wire work. A funny thing, still we over here can not realize the jokers regarding Beautiful-moon light nights. One mother wrote to her son who is sleeping in here with us, said that outside a beautiful moon was shining down, how much she enjoyed these moon light nights and she could always think that this same old moon was shining down on him. Yes Henry said the same moon shines but I wish the moon would die or never come out. You see on moonlight nights these big bombing planes come over and drop everything from pins to rail road engines, including boocoo bombs….So on moon l[ight n]ights we are always careful and we figure th[at] the moonlight is wasted. I wish I could remember some of the funny expressions I have heard when we did not know but the next minute we would be blown to atoms.

Henry had good reason to dislike the moon, it turns out. He had nearly been killed in a German bombing raid while working on a trench near the French town of Fismes on the Vesle River. Wolohan illustrated Henry’s story with this diagram of trenchworks. The sketch is in pencil, so it’s hard to make out some of the details in this reproduction here, but Henry and the “Bomb Hole” are marked by asterisks at the top. Below that, you can see the “Barb wire,” “no mans land,” and the “German wire.”

 

Wolohan wrote this letter to his mother shortly after the end of the war but before he was shipped home. In it, he proposed this theory for the Allies’ success:

As one of our fellows said the other night It was the American Smile that won this war, and I agree with him. Even in the darkest minutes you can always get a smile out of these A.E.F. wargoing Americans. I have seen men come back all shot up an[d] smiling to beat the band. One night when on a long march we were held up by our divisional train for four hours. So we gave a show right in the middle of the road.

The William F. Wolohan papers is one of our smaller collections at the MHS. It contains only three letters and three postcards, but the terrific content more than makes up for its small size. I particularly like this poignant throwaway line on the back of a postcard dated 6 Oct. 1918:

This is a French soldiers postal card. It was taken by the Germans off a captured French Soldier. We took it off a dead German soldier. Such is the fortune of war in both the big and little things.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

Mysteries of the Elisha W. Smith, Jr. Logbook: Part III

Research is a nonlinear process rife with search strategies and dead ends. While researching the inside front cover note and the scrapbook engravings of the Elisha W. Smith Jr. logbook, I remained curious about the scrapbooker’s identity. Several clues exist within the logbook to identify the individual. The efforts of penmanship practice garnishes the pages with the initials “E D F” and the names “Elbridge” and “Freeman.” While this clue offered a name as a place to start, I still found myself running into dead ends.

 

A plethora of physical and digital resources exist to help researchers locate genealogical information. I started with a physical resource research strategy that proved unsuccessful. I searched through family histories Freeman Genealogy and Genealogy of the Freeman Family for “Elbridge Freeman” and “William Freeman.” I assumed that the ship’s name, the schooner William Freeman, referred to a relative of Elbridge Freeman. I also surmised that Elbridge Freeman was born in the late 1850s to early 1860s because the scrapbooker pasted Gleason’s Literary Companion engravings in the volume. Gleason’s Literary Companion ran in publication from 1860 to 1870 so the individual who read the juvenile literary magazine was young. These names and time frame narrowed my search, but these criteria also narrowed my results to zero.

Moments of revelation for researchers occasionally come from other researchers’ insight or suggestion. I found a lack of answers in the physical resources, but Librarian Elaine Heavey utilized online databases to find Elbridge D. Freeman’s birth certificate from FamilySearch, a free, online tool for genealogists. Elaine provided the document that put all the pieces together!

William D. Freeman sailed with supercargo Elisha W. Smith Jr. on the schooner William Freeman to Jacmel, Haiti in 1857. Both men and the schooner originated in Wellfleet. William Freeman later served as acting master of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Navy yard. On 31 July 1861 William D. Freeman and Harriet A. Freeman welcomed their first born son Elbridge D. Freeman into the world. Somehow the logbook ended up in William Freeman’s hands after the voyage of the schooner William Freeman. Young Elbridge turned one of his father’s possessions, Elisha W. Smith’s logbook, into an eccentric scrapbook in the late 1860s.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 4 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

Marion’s Hidden Curriculum: Sexuality Education in the 1930s (Part Two)

In my last post, I highlighted the curriculum for a mid-twentieth-century course on “the family” located in the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers. The young woman who attended the course was eighteen-year-old Marion Howe, whose diaries from the period elliptically document her questions and anxieties about sexual desire. These diaries, read in counterpoint to the formal curriculum on family life, suggest a hidden curriculum of social constraint that shaped Marion’s experience of her body, her emotions, and the choices she would face in forming adult relationships.

As an adolescent in the newly-constructed American youth culture, Marion’s experience of heterosocial was shaped by the social norms and expectations of her high school peers. Consider these snippets from the winter of 1934:

Johnnie snubbed me, and he and Charlie had another ‘argument.’ Gosh, I don’t know what to do. I like Charlie, I like Johnny, and I like Joe -- and I’m in love with one of them, and I don’t know who. I wouldn’t want to give up any of them -- Gee, I guess I must be awfully selfish. … I know I’m going to be called a ‘two-timer,’ but what on earth can I do about it? (3 January)

 

I can’t love Charlie. I might -- ! Wotta life! I wrote a note to Johnny, but I haven’t the courage to give it to him. But when I do, I’m gonna ask him if he’s going ‘steady’ with Elie. Gee, how I hate her, even tho’ I don’t know her! (5 January)

 

Got up rather late after raising Cain in bed with Shrimp and Dutch this morning. … Shrimp and I had a talk last night before going to sleep -- and we decided C, J, and I should all have an understanding. … I don’t know what Shrimp means when she says I haven’t learned my lesson yet. (13 January)

 

I guess I’m fickle, but as long as I’m gonna be an old maid, it’s okay. (23 February)

 

Charlie came up. Joe asked me if I would go to the movies. Though I liked Johnny. G[eorgie] G[lebus] asked me for a date. Helped prepare Ma’s party at church tomorrow. Cooked 100 or so cakes. (14 March)

As historian Beth Bailey has documented in From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), mid-twentieth-century youth culture differentiated between dating and “going steady.” Dating was nonexclusive and embedded one’s peer network whereas “going steady” meant exclusivity and a more serious intention to consider engagement or marriage. Yet in practice, where did one slide into the other? It’s clear in these diary entries that Marion is caught up in the pleasure of dating and fantasizing about the relationship potential of the young men who appear to be competing for her attention. Yet she also worries about being read as a “two-timer” for refusing to “give up” Charlie, Johnnie, or Joe. But Johnnie might be “going steady” with Elie -- and thus out of bounds for a casual date? Maybe it’s better just to be an “old maid” rather than navigate these uncertain waters.

Dating, and going steady, also meant negotiating physical intimacies -- something that Marion expresses a deep ambivalence about. Consider the entry from 1 April 1934:

After church at night Joe and I went for a ride. He let me drive. I’m glad he doesn’t try to get mushy. That’s the greatest trouble of boys of this age. Whenever they take you in their car, they expect you to start petting; and if there’s one thing only in this world that is sickening, it’s petting and the like. (Maybe it’s all right with the right boy.)

Is Marion’s “sickening” displeasure at getting “mushy” due to her own discomfort with relational sex, her disinterest in Joe (whom she will marry two years later), or tension borne of her social role as gatekeeper? It’s impossible to know -- likely a combination of all three. 

By her late teens, a job-seeking high school graduate whose parents resist her interest in attending college, Marion’s adolescent dating relationships take on a greater degree of seriousness and urgency as the year moves on. In August 1935 she writes of a flirtation with Jim, a lifeguard she has had a crush on, and then a series of entries are cut out of the volume. When the diary resumes, it seems clear she has had some sort of unsettling or violating sexual experience:

Got up about 8. All I could think of was what Jim would be doing. … I’d get thinking of Jim and then lose the sequence of the plot. I hate myself for falling for him. … [her close friend] Shrimp wanted to know more of the Experience Monday, so to oblige her, I told her some of it. The rest she doesn’t know, and so I won’t hurt her. At night it hurts most to remember. And I can’t forget, much as I try. (28 August)

Whatever lessons she has had about human sexuality have not helped her feel confident making sense of her the situation. Several days later, she reports that she’s “had the talk with Shrimp today about generation [and] realize how completely ignorant I have been” (1 September 1935). The details relayed by Shrimp, however, fail to relieve the anxiety she feels about sexual intimacy, and the following spring -- shortly after she and Joe commit “the indiscretion” together -- she screws up her courage and seeks medical advice:

I went to see a doctor, not so much because I’m afraid but because I am curious, and would like to end this lethal ignorance that always leads to worry. My greatest misery, however, lies in the fact that HE DOESN’T CARE if I worry…

The rest of the entry is ripped out, leaving the question of what constituted Marion’s worries unanswered, though we can make our educated guesses.

Diaries such as Marion’s shed invaluable light on the experience of Depression-era teens exploring their sexuality and emerging adulthood in an era where reliable sexual health information was often difficult to come by -- particularly for young women. If you are interested in exploring Marion’s story further, the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers are open for research and can be requested from offsite storage by contacting the reference department.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 3 October, 2014, 12:00 AM

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