MHS News

The Father of His Country Returns to Boston Opens at the Massachusetts Historical Society on October 24

An exhibition of paintings, accounts, and other memorabilia assembled to commemorate the 225th anniversary of George Washington’s visit to Boston


George Washington portrait by GullagerTwo hundred twenty-five years ago, during his first year in office, Pres. George Washington embarked on a month-long tour of New England including a ten-day visit to Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Historical Society is commemorating this visit with the exhibition The Father of His Country Returns to Boston, October 24, 1789. The exhibition is open in the Treasures Gallery of the Society through December 31, 2014.

In Boston, the president was met by a great procession that paraded beneath a triumphal arch designed by Charles Bulfinch. Young John Quincy Adams observed the great excitement of people everywhere: “At the present moment they indulge themselves in sentiments of joy, arising/resulting . . . from the gratification of their affection in beholding personally among them, the friend, the benefactor, the father of his Country.” To set the scene, the exhibition includes a map of Boston, an engraving by Samuel Hill showing the triumphal arch, and a broadside describing the welcoming procession along with a painting of State Street in 1801 by James Brown Marston.

Featured in the exhibition is one of six portraits of Washington housed in the Society’s collections. The portrait is a life study by Christian Gullager painted during the New England tour. Gullager began his portrait of the president in October, 1789.  Jeremy Belknap, the minister of Federal Street Church in Boston and founder of the MHS, noted Washington's visit and Gullager's effort to portray him in his diary: "While he was in the chapel, Gullager, the painter stole a likeness of him from a Pew behind the pulpit." Belknap added, "Gullager followed Gen W to Ports[mouth] where he sat for 2 – hours for him to take his portrait wh[ich] he did & obtained a very good likeness after wh[ich] he laid aside the sketch wh[ich] he took in the Chapel wh[ich] however was not a bad one."

Also on display are designs of copper buttons made to celebrate Washington’s inauguration, the Bowdoin Bishop Cup from which Washington is said to have drunk punch, a lock of hair that Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton, and a walking stick presented to George Washington by Gov. James Bowdoin. Martha Washington returned the cane to the Bowdoin family after her husband’s death in 1799.

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Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country Opens at the Massachusetts Historical Society on June 12

An exhibition of letters, photographs, and other memorabilia assembled to commemorate the centenary of the first World War

Photograph of Margaret Hall and a soldierTo commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, the MHS has organized the exhibition Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, focusing on two of the hundreds of women from the Commonwealth who went to France as members of the U.S. armed forces, the Red Cross, and other war relief organizations. From the Society’s extraordinary collection of women’s remembrances, this exhibition features photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia related to Margaret Hall and Eleanor (Nora) Saltonstall, Red Cross volunteers in France. Both women were keen observers of the climactic months of the war and depicted what they witnessed in vivid detail. The exhibition is open at the MHS June 12, 2014 through January 24, 2015.

Nora Saltonstall was 23 when she sailed for France in October 1917 to work in Paris with the Bureau of Refugees and Relief, a division of the American Red Cross, which provided lodging for refugees. In November, she transferred to an American Red Cross dispensary in Paris and, after the new year, to Mrs. Charles Daly's Auto-Chir No. 7, an American Red Cross hospital unit attached to the French army. The Auto-Chir was a mobile hospital which followed the troops, serving as the primary medical unit after the first aid station. Later, she was the chauffeur while the Auto-Chir served along the western front in France, the site of the German offensives in the spring of 1918.  It was for this service that she earned the Croix de Guerre that is on display in the exhibition along with a selection of her letters home and a portrait of Nora by Frank Weston Benson.

In August 1918, a Massachusetts-born woman named Margaret Hall boarded a transport ship in New York City that would take her across the Atlantic to work with the American Red Cross in France. The year she spent abroad was eye opening. When she returned stateside, she compiled a typescript narrative from the letters and diary passages that she wrote while overseas and illustrated it with roughly 275 photographs and illustrative items. Her words offer a first-hand account of life on the Western Front in the last months of the war while her photographs depict the soldiers, canteens, and extensive destruction following the war. That narrative, "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918-1919," is a manuscript in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) and will be on display. The exhibition will highlight a selection of Hall’s large-format photographs of the battlefront on loan from the Cohasset Historical Society.

About the publication

The MHS will publish Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall on July 14, 2014, as part of its commemoration of the beginning of World War I. Modern readers will be transported by this first-person account of a woman’s life in the Great War. The book augments Hall’s written story with several dozen of her striking and never-before-published photographs, selected from those she included in the archived typescript.

Margaret Higonnet, the volume’s editor, opens up the text for readers with a suite of supporting materials: an introduction, headnotes on key related topics, a biographical key identifying the people who appear in the text, a geographical key of significant locations, a timeline of relevant World War I events, and glossaries of period and French terms.

About the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society is one of the nation’s preeminent research libraries, with collections that provide an unparalleled record of the vibrant course of American history. Since its founding in 1791, the MHS has fostered research, scholarship, and education. With millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, broadsides, artifacts, works of art, maps, photographs, and prints, the MHS offers a wide-ranging perspective on the United States from the earliest beginnings of the nation to the present day. Exhibition galleries are open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

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David McCullough to Receive John F. Kennedy Medal

The MHS is pleased to present its highest award to award-winning author and historian David McCullough at a celebratory event at the Society on 7 May, 2014.

Kennedy MedalOn 7 May, the Society will present the John F. Kennedy Medal to MHS Fellow, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning historian David McCullough. Awarded to persons who have rendered distinguished service to the cause of history, it is the highest award given by the Society. Shortly after President Kennedy’s death, the MHS received several gifts designated to perpetuate his memory as an active member of the Society and a great friend of historical scholarship. A medal was created in his name, and eminent artist and MHS Fellow Rudolph Ruzicka was commissioned to design it. The following historians have received the Kennedy Medal: Samuel Eliot Morison (1967), Dumas Malone (1972), Thomas Boylston Adams (1976), Oscar Handlin (1991), Edmund S. Morgan (2002), Alfred DuPont Chandler, Jr. (2003), Bernard Bailyn (2004), John Hope Franklin (2005), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (2006), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (2009), and Gordon S. Wood (2012).

MHS President Dennis Fiori remarked, "the Kennedy Medal was created to honor those who have rendered distinguished service to the cause of history. As an award-winning historian, popular author, and a great champion of history education, David McCullough has dedicated his career to the cause of history. It gives us great pleasure to bestow this award upon such a great friend to the Society and to add his name to the list of prominent recipients."

David McCullough has been widely acclaimed as a "master of the art of narrative history," "a matchless writer." He is twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize and twice winner of the National Book Award, and, he has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. 

Mr. McCullough’s most recent book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, the number one New York Times best seller, has been called "dazzling," "an epic of ideas . . . history to be savored." His previous work, 1776, has been deemed "a classic," while John Adams remains one of the most praised and widely read American biographies of all time. Mr. McCullough’s other books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, and Truman. His work has been translated and published in 15 countries around the world, and, in all, more than 10,000,000 copies are in print. 

A gifted speaker, Mr. McCullough has lectured in all parts of the country and abroad, including at the White House. He is also one of the few private citizens to speak before a joint session of Congress. He is presently working on a biography of the Wright brothers.

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Tell It with Pride Opens at the MHS 21 February

Tell It with PrideOrganized by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. and in cooperation with the MHS, Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial will open at the Society 21 February and be on exhibit through 23 May. The exhibition celebrates Augustus Saint-Gaudens's magisterial Shaw Memorial (1883–1900). The monument commemorates the 18 July 1863 storming of Fort Wagner. The Civil War battle was waged by Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African American military units raised in the North. Although the 54th was defeated at Fort Wagner and almost a third of the regiment was killed or wounded, the battle was seen as a turning point in the war: it proved that African Americans’ bravery and dedication to country equaled that of the nation’s most celebrated heroes.

When Saint-Gaudens created the monument, he based his likeness of Shaw on photographs of the colonel, but for his depiction of the other soldiers, he hired African American men to pose in his studio. This exhibition seeks to make real the soldiers of the 54th represented anonymously in the memorial. It brings together vintage photographic portraits of members of the regiment and of the men and women who recruited, nursed, taught, and guided them. To represent the variety of soldiers in the 54th, Saint-Gaudens searched for models in New York and Boston. In all, he sculpted some 40 heads over the course of several years, 23 of which he incorporated into the final relief. The exhibition showcases 5 heads on loan from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, N.H., cast from the artist's clay sketches, which illustrate Saint-Gaudens' great sensitivity as a portraitist.

The Society is pleased to have contributed to the national exhibition by providing a number of photographs, a recruiting poster, and a letter that Gov. John A. Andrew wrote to Francis Shaw offering command of the 54th to Shaw's son, Robert. 

Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the NGA, and Nancy Anderson, curator and head of American and British paintings at the NGA, are the curators of the exhibition, which is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog and a printed brochure.

Throughout the run of the exhibition, special programs are planned in cooperation with the Museum of African American History, Boston African American National Historic Site, and the Friends of the Public Garden.

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"The Cabinetmaker and the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections" Opens 4 October

An extraordinary opportunity to view nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from private collections in the greater Boston area.

BOSTON, August 2013—Boston has been the home of an important furniture trade since the mid-17th century. As part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration, the Massachusetts Historical Society presents an exhibition covering several centuries of a rich and varied furniture-making tradition. From 4 October 2013 through 17 January 2014, visitors will have the opportunity to explore nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from distinguished private collections in the greater Boston area. Ranging in date from the late-17th century to about 1900, these privately held treasures, generously lent by their owners, provide a look at the trajectory of cabinetmaking in the Hub. Supplemented with complementary materials from the Society’s collections the exhibition explores furniture as history and provides a look at Boston’s distinctive urban tradition.

Bostonians, and New Englanders at large, have long been responsible caretakers of the area’s history. The furniture in this show, gathered by passionate and knowledgeable collectors in the last few decades, complements the incomparable manuscript collections of the MHS, whose stewardship of the written record has been so significant since the late-18th century.  

The exhibition begins with a constellation of the earliest surviving furniture made in Boston.  Fashioned by joiners, turners, and chair makers from the 1680s to about 1730, these sturdy early objects in the Anglo-American tradition are evocative of “the world we have lost,” as phrased by the historian Peter Laslett. The display includes a rare high chest of drawers with “japanned” decoration, an interpretation of true Asian lacquer that was popular in Boston at this time.

The show continues with an extraordinary array of Boston’s finest colonial furniture in the late baroque, rococo, and early neoclassical styles. Bostonians’ taste—before the Revolution but after the war as well—remained firmly indebted to English modes.  Case furniture in the blockfront and bombé (or swelled) modes, both characteristic of Boston shops, along with several pieces attributed to John Welch, Boston’s most important specialist carver of the period, will be on display. Desks and desk and bookcases—the work stations of Boston’s 18th-century merchants and ministers, are featured prominently. A cluster of four card or gaming tables provides evidence of the more relaxed social mores of the Georgian era.

Next, visitors are presented with late neoclassical or Empire-style furniture, when stylish Bostonians looked to the designs of ancient Greece, Rome, and occasionally Egypt for inspiration. The objects on display are mainly by Isaac Vose and Son and Emmons & Archbald, two of Boston’s most important shops in the early Republic. A little cabinet, an unusual form attributed to the Vose firm, may have been used by a collector to store miniatures, coins, medals, jewelry, or other small precious items.

The exhibition continues with examples of the eclectic, imaginative styles of the mid- and late-19th century, including the Gothic and rococo revivals, and an example of innovative patent furniture. The adjacent Dowse Library serves as the show’s “period room.” New information, discovered in the course of preparing the exhibition, has identified Edward Hixon as the source of the room’s woodwork and furnishings in 1857. The show concludes with a few masterpieces from the arts and crafts movement of the late-19th century, a design reform impulse in which Boston took a leading role.

Furniture tells us much about the past—about social customs and human interaction, about the relationship between Americans and the world, about the changing nature of technology and the evolution of aesthetics, among many other topics. By providing a snapshot of Boston’s furniture tradition, this exhibition provides another lens through which to examine the city’s long and distinguished history.

A full-color, extensively illustrated catalogue written by guest curator Gerald W. R. Ward and published by the MHS will be available and can be purchased online or at the Society. 

About Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture
Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Historical Society and ten other institutions that features exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations and publications to celebrate the Bay State's legacy of furniture-making. Visit  

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