Secrets of the Seals

By Daniel Bottino, Rutgers University

The MHS’s numerous collections of family papers contain folder after folder of 17th- and 18th-century legal documents, often described in collection guides as “estate papers”, “financial papers,” or “deeds etc.” Preserved here are the details of thousands of long-ago business transactions. In comparison with some of the MHS’s high-profile manuscripts—the letters of John and Abigail Adams, the journal of John Winthrop, the papers of Thomas Jefferson—these prosaic documents may seem at first glance to be of little historical value and, frankly, boring. 

Image of a list of signatures and red wax seals. The image is bordered in green.
The seals of multiples grantors on an early eighteenth-century deed. William Hickling Prescott Papers, Box 22, Folder 14.  Deed of 1729

My recent research at the MHS has approached these documents from a new perspective: their wax seals. Throughout the entire colonial era and into the beginning of the nineteenth century, legal records required the imprinting of personal seals for validity. In theory, the imagery of every seal was unique, providing a foolproof verification of identity. This colonial practice of sealing possessed a long historical pedigree—a quick trip down the street to the Museum of Fine Arts reveals examples of ancient Mesopotamian seals more than three thousand years old imprinted into clay. A sealer in colonial New England possessed a stamping instrument or “matrix” into which the image of their seal was carved. In the process of sealing, this matrix would be pressed by hand into hot wax onto the paper, usually next to the sealer’s signature or mark. Matrices could be elaborate pieces of jewelry, carved of gold or silver and adorned with precious gems, carried attached to a watch or as a ring. Or, for people of more modest means, the simplest matrix was free—their own fingerprints. 

Detail of a handwritten document showing a name on the left and a red, wax seal with a fingerprint on the right.
A seal made in the form of a fingerprint. William Hickling Prescott Papers, Box 22, Folder 15.  Deed of 1734.

Why have I chosen to study these seals, finding and photographing as many as I possibly can?  Looking through hundreds of folders of legal records has revealed how integral the practice of sealing was to colonial legal culture, and by extension, colonial society as a whole. The ephemera of sealing culture is ubiquitous in the manuscripts I examine—pieces of broken and decayed seals often fall out when I open a folder, and stray splashes of sealing wax sometimes mark documents, evidence that a sealer’s matrix was impressed with force on an adjacent paper centuries ago. Seals are, of course, an inherently visual medium, their symbology capable of being interpreted even by illiterate colonists unable to read the text of legal documents. Their usage testifies to an often-overlooked element of New England colonial society—the fact that, into the 18th century, especially in rural areas, illiteracy was widespread. In such a society, very different from our own hyper-literate world, visual imagery, the materiality of objects, and ritually spoken words all played vital roles in legal transactions. Paying attention to how seals were used will enrich our understanding of this pre-modern society.

Close up of a black, wax seal that depicts a bird standing over a next.
The seal of Rebecca Winsor of Boston. Barker-Edes-Noyes Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 1.  Deed of 1679.

I am also intrigued by what seals can tell us on a more personal level.  The design of each seal was specifically chosen by its owner to represent him or herself. What can these choices reveal about how colonial New Englanders understood their identities? Early in my research, I was struck by the imagery of Rebecca Winsor’s firmly impressed seal on a 1679 deed. At first, I was puzzled by what this strange looking bird could represent. But I am now confident that this seal portrays a mother pelican piercing her breast to shed blood for the nourishment of her offspring. This mythical behavior of the pelican is an ancient Christian symbolic representation of the sacrificial nature of motherhood. Rebecca Winsor was a mother of eight children whose husband had died shortly before this deed, in which she sold property to one of her sons. The symbolism of the sacrificial pelican is quite fitting for her life experience and was likely chosen by Mrs. Winsor herself. The seal’s black wax, rather than the normal red, is another touching piece of symbolism, for I believe it represents Mrs. Winsor’s mourning of her husband.

This seal is one of thousands in the MHS’s collections, hundreds of which I have photographed so far.  Every seal has a story to tell, and if these stories can be unlocked, we will open a valuable window into a rich world of symbolism, ritual, and beliefs previously hidden from view.

Beginning the New Year on thin ice: A 1909 Rescue Report from the Humane Society of Massachusetts records

By Jacob Savory, Processing Assistant

Predating the animal welfare organization of a similar title, the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was established in 1786 to rescue shipwreck survivors and ships in distress. The Humane Society existed functionally as a precursor to the United States Coast Guard for the shores of Massachusetts and would even reward individuals unaffiliated with the organization who saved others from shipwrecks. As the Humane Society moved through time, it would expand its efforts from lifesaving seashore tasks to financially supporting mental health care facilities and maternity care facilities. Eventually, its recognition of good deeds would transform into rewarding individuals for heroic personal rescues. 

These heroic personal rescues take the form of saving individuals from house fires, drownings, and a number of other scenarios, and those rewarded by the Humane Society would often receive medals and sometimes even financial compensation from the Society. The cover of each accident report, featured below, gives loose criteria, stating that only extraordinary acts of service qualify for recognition by the Humane Society. 

Printed text on  yellowed paper
Detail of a printed Accident Report form, included in each Case and Rescue Report.

One of the first projects assigned to me as a member of the digital production team at the MHS was digitizing Case and Rescue Reports of the Humane Society of Massachusetts records. Spanning 1899 to 1909, the reports most frequently contain a formal accident report, detailed witness testimonies, accompanying newspaper articles, and on rare occasions drawings, pictures, or postcards of the scenario, ship, or location involved. 

Case No. 1025 stands out to me among the records, as its file’s contents contain one of those rare instances of an accompanying drawing, this one being written by the rescuer himself.

On 1 January 1909, twenty-one-year-old Boston College student Owen J. McGaffigan and friends were ice skating on the frozen Neponset River near the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, Mass. In a passing glance, Owen saw the hands of a young boy, Albert F. Donahue, age six, sticking up from the icy river, the boy struggling to stay afloat. Though not knowing the boy, Owen immediately threw off his overcoat and dove into the water to his rescue. 

Typed text on yellowed paper
From McGaffigan’s account of the rescue.

With this struggle, Owen was able to deliver Albert to safety thanks to the crowd ashore. Due to the weight of Owen’s skates, however, Owen found himself in the same dangerous position from which he had just saved Albert. Other young men playing hockey nearby fortunately came to McGaffigan’s rescue, successfully pulling him from the frigid waters.

line drawing with handwritten labels showing plan of land, water, and ice
McGaffigan’s drawing of the scenario.

The drawing Owen submitted to the Humane Society clearly depicts the scene, the depth of the waters, the movement of the current, and the danger of the situation. Though McGaffigan and the boy came out of the situation with their lives, McGaffigan wrote to the Humane Society that he was taken sick from Monday, 4 January until Wednesday, 20 January.

The case file also contains correspondence suggesting the other boys involved in pulling Albert to shore should be recognized and compensated, but ultimately the Humane Society deemed McGaffigan as the primary hero in this scenario, having risked his own life by jumping into the freezing water while wearing heavy skates and getting extremely ill for half a month’s time as a result. 

The Case and Rescue Reports of the Humane Society of Massachusetts records are almost entirely digitized and are freely available for online viewing through the collection guide. Due to the nature of these reports, it is extremely important to note the sensitivity of information the records contain – not every rescue produced positive results, and instances of mental health crises, tragic childhood deaths, devastating loss, and detailed descriptions of death permeate this collection. 

Exploring the Mysteries of Time and Space

By Meg Szydlik, Visitor Services Coordinator

One thing I love about the collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society is the incredible range of different subjects contained within. So as the granddaughter of a particle physicist, I wanted to check out some science-based items and stumbled across The Mysteries of Time and Space, an astronomy book written by Richard A. Proctor in 1883. It promised diagrams and illustrations, and as someone who loves to learn about the stars and the universe, I thought it would be a promising choice for a blog post. I would never claim to be an expert on the mysteries of time and space, but perhaps that is precisely the right mindset to present this fascinating book to you.

Black background with 5 grey comet images. From left to right: Comet 1 has a circular head with a tail that starts thin and gets wider and ends in a forked tail, Comet 2 has a triangular head with a tail that starts wide and then narrows, Comet 3 resembles a sword with a hilt, Comet 4 has a teardrop head and a tail that is thinner on the ends and wider in the middle, and Comet 5 has a circular head and a tail where the size is consistent but parts of the tail are missing.
Illustration of Pliny’s Comets from The Mysteries of Time and Space

The text itself was much less dry than I expected. Although there were many footnotes and lots of technical language, Proctor never had any problem slipping sly comments into his narration and that made the experience much more interesting than the content alone. One of my favorite pieces of commentary was in his section on comets and the end of the world, where he noted that “the year 1001 began, and still the world endured, with every sign of continuing.” His attitude towards astrology and predictions was interesting, because while he frequently raised an eyebrow at these beliefs, and he went through the process of breaking down any links between comets (commonly seen as harbingers of doom) and predicted events, he also seemingly acknowledged that astrology was not inherently wrong. This is a sentiment I have a hard time envisioning my own grandfather echo. It makes me wonder if he was alone in this, or if his contemporaries had similar views and if so, when they shifted.

Though it was clear to me that many advancements have been made since then, I loved reading through the thought process at the time and comparing it to what my understanding is. The creation of far more powerful telescopes, advanced imaging, and of course the launching of spaceships have all dramatically impacted our understanding of the universe in a way Proctor and other scientists of the 1800s could never have imagined in their wildest dreams. The diagrams and images in this book, as beautiful and interesting as they are, can hardly compare to the colorful photographs that were in my textbooks, even in elementary school. Proctor proposes theories about comets and the surface of the sun that I know the answer to! The intervening 140 years have radically changed what we recognize to be true, and yet the scientific process is roughly the same.

Black background with grey stars on it. There is a small domed building on the bottom left side of the image. The foreground of the image is a streaking comet with a round head and a tail that starts narrow and gets wider. The tail is very long and fades towards the back.
Illustration of the Comet of 1843 from The Mysteries of Time and Space

Despite the knowledge gap, I think that the spirit of The Mysteries of Time and Space is one I want to emulate. Proctor’s slight irreverence does not detract from his largely solid scientific inquiry. And certainly, as evidenced from the title, there was a sense of wonder at the universe and space that is really stunning and truthfully, a bit inspiring. To quote Proctor once again, “science tries to explain everything, and we must not be too precise in such matters.”

Take a Hike!: Adams Advice for the New Year

By Gwen Fries, The Adams Papers

Every January we’re bombarded with advertisements for the sneakers, the stationary bike, or the protein shake that’s going to transform our lives. The strange New Year’s cocktail of hope and shame leads many to splurge on workout gear and gym memberships only to abandon them a week or two later. If that’s you, you’re in good company. In 1756 John Adams admitted to his diary, “I am constantly forming, but never executing good resolutions.”

May I suggest you look to the Adamses rather than advertising executives as you plan your 2023? The Adamses were concerned with their health too, but they took a simpler, more attainable approach that didn’t cost a dime. John Adams wrote.

“Neither medicine nor diet nor any thing would ever succeed with me, without exercise in open air: and although riding in a carriage, has been found of some use, and on horseback still more; yet none of these have been found effectual with me in the last resort, but walking.”

Over the years John and Abigail Adams suggested walking as a cure for headaches, stomachaches, weight gain, weight loss, anxious hearts, tired eyes, overwork, and the winter blues.

“Our Bodies are framed of such materials as to require constant exercise to keep them in repair, to Brace the Nerves and give vigor to the Animal functions. thus do I give you Line upon Line, & precept upon precept,” Abigail wrote to her son John Quincy in 1787. “A Sedantary Life will infallibly destroy your Health,” she cautioned her eldest son, “and then it will be of little avail that you have trim’d the midnight Lamp. In the cultivation of the mind care should be taken, not to neglect or injure the body upon which the vigor of the mind greatly depends.”

Part of a handwritten letter on yellowed paper. Several lines of text and the closing of the letter are visible.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 December 1798 (Adams Family Papers)

Walking on a treadmill will benefit the body, but a walk in the fresh air will benefit the soul. “Exercise and the Air and smell of salt Water is wholesome,” John Adams wrote in his diary. “Take your fresh Air, and active Exercise regularly,” he encouraged his son. Even in the middle of winter, walking outside can bolster the spirit. “Cold clear Air” had the ability to give “a Spring to the System,” Adams believed.

Whatever you choose to do this year, be gentle with yourself. Let the tender advice John Adams gave his son serve you as well:

“Take care of your Health. The smell of a Midnight lamp is very unwholesome. Never defraud yourself of your sleep, nor of your Walk. You need not now be in a hurry.”

You’ve got all of 2023 before you. You need not be in a hurry.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding of the edition is currently provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute.

The Life and Loves of Amy Lee Colt, Part 3

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Book opened to show two pages of handwritten text.
Page from the diary of Amy Lee Colt in the Joseph Lee papers

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on the diary of Amy Lee, I told you about her teenage years, her crushes, her friends, her thoughts on life, and the death of her mother in 1920. I’d like to finish her story by looking in depth at the last three entries in the volume, which pick up when Amy was probably 18 or 19 years old.

All three entries are undated, but the first is titled “Chis,” which was the nickname of her future husband Charles Cary Colt.

It is hard to know where to begin in describing him, the task is so big that my mind balks and becomes dazed. […] Somehow when he smiles I don’t see anything particular, I just feel happy and like throwing my arms around his neck.

Amy gushed about Chis’s charisma, courage, sense of humor, ambition, and intelligence. She loved him, but also admitted parenthetically, “(I’m scared to death of him),” and even asked her recently deceased mother, “Dear mother please tell me if I should say yes just yet.” It’s likely Chis had proposed, and Amy was using her diary to work out her feelings. Her ambivalence is very relatable, I think, as she ponders her future with a series of unanswered questions.

Am I sure enough and is he sure enough is it love that makes me so bewildered, at times so weak, almost sick? […] I stammer and stutter when I am with him, I do not trust myself. Is it love or is his will surplanting [sic] my own? […] Where am I falling shall I try to climb back or shall I jump and make it quick – but where would I land? Would Chis be always there – Does he love me or his idea of me – could I keep up the bluff?

The next entry in the diary was written after Amy had accepted Chis’s proposal. But she was still intimidated by the prospect of marriage, writing “the popular fancy held at least by most young girls, that love is a door into a blissful, carefree peaceful paradise is decidedly an illusion,” and wishing sometimes that she could run and hide. She described herself as “frightened and shaking” and prayed to God for help.

Amy’s ideas about the role and duties of a wife were shaped by her day and age. To be the ideal wife required, as she put it, “stiff self-training,” including “much reading” to keep up with Chis’s intellectual interests. Parts of this entry are written in the second person; Amy lectured herself, “You’ve accepted a gigantic undertaking – you can not let it down one inch.” (Throughout her diary, in fact, Amy switched her audience in interesting ways, sometimes addressing her reader, sometimes herself, and sometimes a third person.)

The final entry in Amy’s diary was apparently added in early December 1924, one year into her marriage and one month after the birth of her first child. Amy was very happy; her husband was patient and helpful, and even got along with his father-in-law! But she was especially rapturous about the arrival of Charles Cary Colt, Jr.

His eyes are still kitten eyes and give him a most helpless look that goes right to the heart. He seems very bewildered to be suddenly (not so very suddenly at that) ushered into this strange world, and not so awfully pleased.

Particularly moving is her description of the physical and emotional sensation of feeding her baby for the first time. Her frankness is rare in historical manuscripts.

When he first put his little cupid mouth to my breast to drink I felt a great longing to cry out against the inconquerable march of time. Like all mothers since Eve it filled me with sadness to think how soon he would be independent of me – be where I couldn’t protect him. My little tiger tugs at my breast with the most concentrated business-like air. […] Sometimes his little feet kick my side and his flowerlike hands rest on my breast.

On Thanksgiving day 1924, the Colt family moved into a new home, and Amy said she had “never been so utterly happy in all my life.” Records indicate that she would go on to have at least seven more children. Amy died in her nineties on 6 January 1996 and was followed by her husband nine months later.

During my research, I discovered that the MHS holds a book about Amy’s mother, Letters and Diaries of Margaret Cabot Lee, printed in 1923. While this book, of course, focuses on Margaret, I did find this reference to Amy in a letter Margaret sent to her sister in 1919, which made me smile: “I am glad you appreciate my child, you must n’t appreciate her too much but she is quite winsome.”

That book also contains a reproduction of this lovely photograph of a young Amy with her mother.

Black and white photograph of a woman and a child. The child is standing on a box and is looking up at the woman.
Amy Lee and her mother Margaret at their home in Cohasset, Mass., printed in Letters and Diaries of Margaret Cabot Lee

The diary of Amy Lee Colt is part of the papers of her father Joseph Lee here at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Silhouettes vs. Photography

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

I love when different aspects of history intervene with each other. As my specialty is art history, I’m especially curious when developments or movements in art affect the ones preceding them—as seems to have happened when photography’s advent and popularity coincided with the waning of silhouettes as a popular form of portraiture.

Silhouettes came into fashion in the 18th century. Those skilled in the art form would travel around making silhouettes mostly for people who could not afford painted portraits. They were popular regardless of income and many wealthier people would commission silhouettes. A silhouette—a “shade” or “profile”—could be made in any media: painted, drawn, sewn, or cut from paper, this last method the most popular. The sitter’s image could be made freehand with scissors cutting paper, or by using light to trace a shadow. The cut out paper shape would then be pasted onto contrasting paper to make it stand out. What made this type of portraiture so popular was its convenience—almost anyone could do it in a few minutes—and at low cost. However, the same could be said of photography, even early photography. Although there was an initial set up cost to purchase or make a camera, the chemicals to develop the images were inexpensive and widely available. A photographer could take many portraits in a day. Photography, though, also had the irresistible advantage of capturing a person’s true likeness.

The MHS has a great collection of silhouettes, a few of my favorites shown below. I’ll start with the Adams Family which features silhouettes from 1829 of Louisa Catherine Adams (1775–1852), John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), John Adams (1803–1834), Mary Louisa Adams (1828–1859), Mary Catherine Hellen Adams (1806–1870), Abigail Smith Adams (1744–1818), and Mary Roberdeau (1774-?).  

Color photograph of white paper discolored with age. On the paper are seven black cut outs of human profiles. Details that can be seen around the outside of the cut out are clothing outlines, chins, lips, noses, foreheads, hair, and hats. Six are adults, three in a row vertically side by side, with one child between the top four. Beside each one in black handwritten ink is a name.
Family of John Quincy Adams, Master Hankes, 1829.

I also find this silhouette of Mrs. John Chadwick and two daughters endearing as the figures are full-bodied, showing off their fashionable clothes. It’s also touching that Mrs. Chadwick and her daughters appear to be holding hands. Another thing I love about this silhouette is that its creator lightly embellished the black cutout with a whitewash to highlight some of the details. You can see those details when you enlarge the online image here.

Color photograph of white paper discolored with age. On the paper are three figures cut out in black paper in silhouette. One adult woman and two girl children, one on each side of the woman. Details that can be seen around the outside of the figures is clothing, hair, hats, bows, glasses, nose, forehead, chin, lips, and feet. On top of the black paper are very light white details on the clothing, hair, shoes, glasses, and arms. In the upper left corner of the white paper is written in pencil, “Mrs. John Chadwick + daughters. 1833”
Silhouette of Mrs. John Chadwick and daughters, black paper with Chinese white details and ink wash on white cardstock, unidentified artist, 1833.

And the last silhouette I’ll share is part of the ongoing exhibition, Our Favorite Things—a silhouette of Lucy Flucker Knox from 1790. Of course, the towering hairdo and gravity-defying hat make this image stand out from the other more traditional silhouettes in the MHS collection, which is why I want to share it.

Color photograph of white paper discolored with age. On the paper is a single cut out figure on black paper. She is a woman from what can be seen of her hair, clothes, chin, lips, nose eyelashes, forehead, and she is seated on a chair. Over the black paper is a white wash that gives details to her hair, arm, and clothes. Her hair is strikingly tall, and a hat isn’t resting on her head, so much as placed on top of her hair.
Silhouette of Lucy Flucker Knox, circa 1790.

To see more silhouettes in the MHS collection see this search here.

Why is Early American Literature So Sad?

By Emily “Em” Gates, Georgia State University

Historical Cases of Melancholia and Their Relationship to American’s Literary Beginnings

My dissertation project, entitled “A Young, Sad Country: Melancholia in Colonial New England and Its Impact on Early American Literature” investigates the relationship between historical cases of melancholia, an early name for depression, and the creation of an American literary tradition. I chose this topic because I noticed that in early American scholarship there was less focus on mental afflictions than those affecting the body, and that the general tone of many works of early American literature was very sad in nature, featuring either melancholic characters or tragic plotlines. For this project, I felt it was extremely important to link literary works with archival documents in order to demonstrate how context from the world an author lives in can shape the fiction they write.

I am very grateful to have received the NERFC fellowship, as it gave me access to a treasure trove of archival documents related to the eighteenth-century understanding, treatment, and experience of living with mental illness. The method I use to organize my dissertation anchors works of early American literature to their real-life counterparts through close-reading and comparative analysis, using eighteenth century medical and religious documents to help typify early American literature as narratives exemplifying love and/or religious melancholia1. The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) was particularly useful because it provided sources that relate directly to the literary works I am examining.

One work I explore is Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836), the main character of which is based on Reverend Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody of York, Maine. Moody was a minister prone to bouts of melancholy and Hawthorne effectively captures in language the darkness that surrounded Moody, basing his story on a period where Moody wore a handkerchief over his face, an act that concerned and confused his parishioners. At the MHS, I read Philip McIntire Woodwell’s Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, which provided effective biographical insight and allowed me to read Moody’s diary in his own words. It is clear from Moody’s diary that religious melancholy pervaded his life, causing him to doubt his self-worth, mental stability, and most importantly, the state of his soul. Moody uses negative language to describe himself, saying he is “of a very inconstant mind2”, feels as though “all my religion has very nearly vanished3” and that his soul is “So deeply insensible4” and “wretched5.” Interestingly, Moody’s language and choice of imagery echoes other historical cases of religious melancholia I’ve encountered, notably Benjamin Lyon of Connecticut and the Reverend Edward Taylor of Westfield, MA, whose diaries and sermons help corroborate my theory of melancholia being a prevalent affliction in early America.

In my dissertation, I also analyze William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), a dramatization of the scandalous affair between politician Perez Morton and Boston heiress Francis “Fanny” Theodora Apthorp6, and Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794), which are both examples of seduction novels. Each major historical case I look at shares a fictionalization in early American literature that adds to the mythos passed down through the American media and word of mouth, perpetuating melancholia as a key theme in our earliest works. Additionally, I argue, the subject matter of each narrative also points us towards the need for a closer examination of melancholia as a prevalent affliction across all demographics in multiple colonies—an important context I scrutinize using evidence from medical practitioners’ account books and diaries and religious authorities’ sermons and journals across New England. There is still much more material to sift through and many ideas left to develop, but I am confident, thanks to my time at the MHS and the other NERFC member institutions I visited, that my project will demonstrate the high prevalence of melancholia in New England and its influence on the creation of our nation’s earliest literature.

Notes

1. The types of melancholy used in this dissertation, as well as their definitions, come from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

2. Moody, Joseph. Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, edited byPhilip McIntire Woodwell. 3 Apr. 1721. Massachusetts Historical Society.

3. ——————. Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, edited byPhilip McIntire Woodwell. 14 Apr. 1721. Massachusetts Historical Society.

4-5. ——————. Handkerchief Moody: The Diary & The Man, edited byPhilip McIntire Woodwell. 6 Apr. 1723. Massachusetts Historical Society.

6. Morton and Apthorp were brother and sister-in-law and their affair rocked Boston in 1788. The affair resulted in an illegitimate child and led to Apthorp’s suicide. Fanny Apthorp’s suicide note to Perez Morton is available at the MHS and I was able to read it during my time there in August 2022.

One Librarian’s Objects of the Month

By Hannah Elder, Assistant Reference Librarian for Rights & Reproductions 

Let’s face it: the MHS has a lot of cool stuff. As the assistant reference librarian for rights and reproductions, I get to see some of that stuff as I pull it for researchers in the reading room and further afield. When something catches my eye, I get out my phone and take a photo of it to share with friends, family, and my fellow librarians. As the year comes to a close, I was reflecting on some of those photos and wanted to share them with you. Here is a compilation of some of the wonderful collection items I saw this year.

January: Binney family mourning bracelet

A gold bracelet, with a large covered octagon at its center, engraved with script and curlicues. It rests in a box on top of an MHS callslip.

This bracelet was made ca. 1847 to commemorate Amos Binney and his mother, Hannah, who both died on 18 February 1847, but on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The central chamber holds a miniature portrait of Amos and a lock of hair that may have been Hannah’s.

February: Tide chart for Boston from the 3 June 1763 edition of the Boston Evening-Post

A printed chart displaying the times for high tide, sun rise, and sunset from Monday-Sunday. Surrounded by other newspaper text, including advertisements and a printer's statement.

Having grown up on the coast, I was delighted to see this tide chart for a week in the summer of 1763. It’s also interesting to note the times for sunrise and sunset. Since we as a society did not yet practice daylight savings, the times for both sunrise and sunset are much earlier than we are used to.

March: Baby’s first photograph in Henry P. Binney’s baby book

A black and white photo of a sleeping baby, encircled by printed sketches of cherubs. Manuscript notes indicate that the photo was taken 19 January 1911.

I found this baby book while including Binney’s 1922 diary from my March blog post and was immediately enchanted by it. Other pages included descriptions of baby’s first outing, clippings from his first haircut, and other photos of Henry’s first years of life. The love of his parents is evident on every page.

April: inventory of chairs from Elizabeth R. Child’s estate

A manuscript list of items, written in pencil, within a lined notebook. The list is headed by the underlined word "Chairs"

I found this list while working on a reproduction order and was struck by the number of chairs in a single house. I think my favorite is the old rocking chair.

May: Printing plate for The Congress voting independence

A framed print of revolutionary gentlemen having a discussion hangs above a copier. In the foreground is the mirror image of the same work, engraved into a copper plate.

When I pulled this plate for a researcher in the reading room I thought it looked familiar, and for good reason: the print hangs in the library! Having both the printing plate and the final print feels special and is a great opportunity to learn more about printing history.

June: a scrap of paper from the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts

A single scrap of paper sits in a folder. It is approximately 1 inch by 4 inches and has small manuscript numbers written in the upper left hand corner.

 I found this scrap of paper while searching for an inventory in the Jefferson papers. It is simply labeled “strip of paper w/ numbers” and is undated. I’m not sure why this scrap remained with the collection, but I’m glad it did!

July: The Irish in America by Carl Wittke

Book cover with the text "The Irish in America / Carl Wittke"

One of our printed resources, I found this in the stacks and photographed it to share with a friend.

August: Fred’s Breeches

Comical drawing of a man with mustache and receding hairline, whose breeches extend up to his neckline. He holds a top hat in his left hand, a riding crop[?] in his left. Not signed.

Another item requested by a researcher, this charcoal, chalk, and crayon drawing amused all of the library staff.

September: The Castorland Journal

A manuscript volume sits open on a book rest, mid-imaging. The pages have watercolor sketches of rivers on the left side and text in French on the right.

This journal, written in French by Simon Desjardins, describes the journey of the New York Company, a group of French emigrants who settled in New York in 1797. This page is a part of the topographical survey of the land.

October: Voltaire’s An essay on universal history

Antiquarian books on a shelf. Volume three is labeled, but volumes one and two are missing labels and are secured with book tape, a cloth ribbon.

This set of volumes caught my eye in the stacks one day. I appreciate their various conditions, and the places you can see where volumes one and two would have matched volume three.

November: recipe for Thanksgiving Pudding from the Frances A. Frothingham recipe book

A manuscript recipe for Thanksgiving Pudding, attributed to Annie L. The top half of the page contains the recipe, while the bottom is covered in splatters from long-ago cooking.

Thinking back to my gingerbread blog post from last year, I decided to check out some other cookbooks in the collection. Many pages in the cookbook were covered in splatters like the ones on this page. I love the signs of use and hope that Frances and her loved ones enjoyed many Thanksgiving puddings.

December: Edgecomb (Maine) tax list, 1795-1796

A manuscript list of names, accompanied by the taxes they owe for the year.

My family came to visit the library a couple of weeks ago, so I pulled one of the items in the collection related to our home town. We had fun looking for names that we recognized, from local landmarks and from local families. For instance, Moses Davis is the namesake for Davis Island in Edgecomb.

I hope you enjoyed this look back with me! If you want to see any of these items, or any other items from the collection, come visit us in the library in the new year!

Year in Review: The Most Popular MHS Social Media Posts of 2022

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

What do a circus tent, a snowstorm, players from the 1967 Red Sox players, and a submarine have in common? They were all featured in some of our most popular social media posts of 2022. Let’s look back at these and other 2022 social media posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

On Twitter, our most popular post of the year was a video featuring Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, MHS’s award winners for excellence in historical writing. The event is also available as a podcast.

Screenshot of a Twitter post. It reads “Massachusetts Historical Society @MHS1791 Nov 22 New video available online! @HC_Richardson in conversation with @jbf1755 on items from MHS collections youtu.be/cj7H86USZR4 #MHS1791 #Award #History” At the left is an image of two white women in front of computer screens smiling.
Twitter post featuring a video of Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman.

Our second most popular post of the year on Twitter was an “On this day in history” post—#OTDH—about the 1776 Liberty Bell and the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.

A screenshot of a Twitter post. There is text at the top and an image of a large metal bell with a crack going halfway up the bell. It is suspended between two metal poles holding a wooden board. In the background is a two-story federal style brick building with a statue to the left and a grassy area closer to the bell.
Twitter post featuring an image of the cracked Liberty Bell.

The third most popular MHS Twitter post of the year was an image featuring a circus tent. A painting of a P.T. Barnum circus tent on the very spot where the MHS building now stands.

A screenshot of a Twitter post. There is text at the top and an image of a color painting at the bottom. The painting is of a large white circus tent with many flags flying from the top. It is set up in a grassy area between two dirt roads and there are wagons and people around the tent. There is another white tent in the background, and further in the distance are buildings. To the right is a large brown rectangle and a smaller black rectangle.
Twitter post featuring a painted image of a circus tent.

On Facebook, our most popular post of the year went viral, reaching 2 million people! It told of a snowstorm that day, along with a photograph from the MHS collection of a snowstorm in New York City in 1888. Many people reminisced in the comments about the famous Blizzard of 1978 that resembled the image, with its blanketing of snow. And they equated it to the Children’s Blizzard, which happened in 1888 in Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and eastern Dakota Territory.

Screenshot of a Facebook post. There is text at the top and an image at the bottom of an unidentified boy leaning against a tall wall of snow. On the opposite side of him are buildings. The area has been dug out around the building.

Facebook post featuring an image of a boy leaning against a dug-out wall of snow next to some buildings in New York City.

Our second most popular Facebook post from 2022 featured a blog post about a very sick John Quincy Adams traveling by coach, boat, and private carriage to give the keynote address at the opening of the Cincinnati Observatory in 1843.

Screenshot of a Facebook post. There is text at the top with a color photograph of a brick and white stone building with a rounded top or cupola at the bottom. There is manicured grass and many trees around the building.
Facebook post with an image of the Cincinnati Observatory on Mount Adams, named after John Quincy Adams.

The third most popular post on Facebook announced a new temporary exhibition at the MHS, “Impossible Dreamers: The Pennant-Winning 1967 Boston Red Sox.” It was on display August-September 2022.

A screenshot of a Facebook post. There is text at the top and an image on the bottom. The image is a black and white photograph of three baseball players from a view around their waists looking up at them. The three men are smiling and looking forward and not at the camera. Two are wearing Red Sox jersey’s, one is bare-chested. They each hold up their index and middle fingers, showing the back of their hands to the camera, the one on the very right is holding a baseball in the same hand. There is a microphone held up below them, close to the camera, and the background has a ceiling and pipes.
Facebook post with an image of three baseball players holding up two fingers each.

On Instagram the most popular MHS post of the year was a video of a temporary exhibition of love letters between John and Abigail (Smith) Adams before their marriage. These letters featured John Adams’s famous “Miss Adorable” letter to Abigail.

Black bars at the top and bottom of the image surround the beginning of a video–on this still is an orange background with a painting of a young man wearing a gray powdered wig, black vest and jacket with a white shirt and cravat. In red, words read “The Love Letters of John and Abigail Adams, Now on Exhibition! Visit the MHS to see them.”
A still of the Instagram Reel of a video panning across John and Abigail Adams portraits and a display case with several of their love letters.

The MHS’s second most popular Instagram post of the year was another “On this day in history” (#OTHD) featuring a 1789-1790 map of the Northwest Territory—part of present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—and related to Congress’s enacting the Northwest Ordinance, which allowed states to be formed free of enslavement in that designated area.

A color drawn map of the United States on a white background. The states and territories are different colors. The states are pink, territories are yellow, other countries are gray, and disputed areas are dark pink.
Map of the middle and eastern portion of the United States in 1789–1790, with the Northwest Territory featured.

The last post we’ll share today—MHS’s third most popular Instagram post of 2022—is both an “On this day in history” (#OTDH) and a blog post. It features the story of the first submarine used for warfare during the American Revolution in 1776.

A drawing of a man inside of a round mechanical device. There are many levers and pipes around him. Two propellers are on the left side and top of the device and a rudder is on the right side.
Instagram post of a diagram of the first submarine used in warfare during the American Revolution in 1776.

If you don’t already follow us on social media, now is a great time to sign up!

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

“Sharing with each other the sorrows as well as the joys”: the scrapbooks of Hannah London Siegel, Part II

By Susanna Sigler, MHS Library Assistant

In a blog post last week, we met Robert E. Siegel, a young man from the Boston area who was killed in combat during WWII. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the words of condolence from the Siegels’ many friends, family members, and colleagues, as well as those who knew Robert.

As a couple with wide personal and professional circles, there are letters in the collection from noted attorneys, politicians, and artists. Several, I would discover in my research, have Wikipedia pages, such as lawyer and activist Alfred Baker Lewis, minister John Haynes Holmes, and De Hirsh Margules, artist and husband of Hannah’s sister Blanche. But beyond these names, what pervades here is grief, the helplessness that anyone would feel trying to write to friends who have lost their only child and were unable to bury him. One gets the sense from these letters that the Siegels are people who often help others but do not often in return ask for people to lean on. Their friends are more than willing to offer that support.  

Letter from a friend of Benjamin Siegel.

Beside this grief rests the impression that Robert made on those who knew him. There are letters from young neighborhood friends of Robert’s and family friends who knew Robert since he was an infant. There is a short correspondence between Hannah and Bernice, accompanied by photographs of Robert and Bernice together, looking every bit the teenagers that they were.

One of the most affecting notes, in a collection full of them, is from Guy Sabaté, a French pen pal of Robert’s. It seems like Robert had spent some time in France when he was younger, and had been writing to Guy since before the war.

Now liberated from German occupation, Guy says that they can now write freely. “I spoke to USA boys,” he writes, speaking of American soldiers, “and we understand together too well.” He says he hopes this letter will reach Robert.

Letter from Guy Sabaté, Robert’s French pen pal.

Perhaps most heartbreaking is the letter from Benjamin Siegel to his wife, in which he talks about his own memories of the end of WWI and his hope that someday they may adopt a child. It was at this point, dear readers, that I was fully crying in the reading room.

Excerpt of a letter from Benjamin to Hannah.

In working with this collection, I find myself feeling that I am intruding on a family in their most private moments. But I see too that Hannah London so deeply wanted her son remembered that she carefully assembled these scrapbooks and gave them to the Society for care and preservation. I feel very privileged to be a part of that in this small way.  

Robert E. Siegel’s grave in St. Avold, France.

The Robert E. Siegel Papers can be viewed at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Robert’s letters and the papers of Hannah Ruth London are located at the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan.