Making Gingerbread, The 1796 Way

By Hannah Elder, Assistant Reference Librarian for Rights and Reproductions

Happy December! As I write this, Thanksgiving has passed, we are part of the way through Hanukkah, and with Christmas and New Year right around the corner, we are well and truly in the holiday season. For me and my family, the holidays have always meant sharing recipes and baking together. Every year, we make a treat from my great-grandmother’s arsenal of recipes – her doughnuts, tossed in cinnamon sugar, are a perennial favorite. We experiment too, trying new recipes we find online or shared by a friend.

This year, as the holidays approached, I began to wonder what people in the past baked and how they got the recipes. With the collections of the MHS at my fingertips I knew I could find an answer. I started, of course, with our catalog AIBGAIL. Using the subject headings “Cooking” and “Cookbooks” and a simple keyword search for “recipe,” I was able to find a number of interesting titles in our collection. They ranged from manuscript volumes of family recipes, to a collection of recipes used in the kitchen of King Richard II, to published collections of community recipes, lovingly gathered and distributed.

Manuscript recipes for Almond Cheesecake and A Citron Pudding. The pudding recipe covers most of the cheesecake recipe
Recipes from Anonymous recipe book, ca. 1800, ca. 1800
A ca. 1850 pamphlet cookbook, decorated with a woodcut of a cow
Cover of Ladies’ Cooking Assistant and Family Friend
Recipes the utilize alternatives to wheat flour. Includes a table of wheat flour alternatives and recipes for oatmeal muffins, prune and nut bread, and New England Brown Bread, among others.
Fifteen Recipes for Wheat Flour Substitutes and Cereals, a WWI era guide to alternative ingredients

Through browsing these titles, I got a pretty good idea of what people cooked and baked. I also started to understand that recipes spread in the past much how the do today; through word of mouth, passed on to next generations, or found in published cookbooks, written by authors of varying authority. But I wanted to take it a step further. What were early American cookbooks like? Where did the recipes come from? What was the first “home grown” cookbook, written by an American author and published in the United States? For that, I turned to the experts.

In their book United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook, Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald provide answers to all of those questions and more. As the title suggests, the book explores the creation and significance of the first cookbook published by an American author in the United States: American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796.

Before American authors began publishing their cookbooks, American home cooks looking for recipes used British (and some French) sources. According to Stavely and Fitzgerald, Simmons’ cookbook is largely a collection of recipes borrowed or copied verbatim from previously published British cookbooks.[1] Of the 192 recipes in American Cookery, only 44 of them (23%) have no obvious precedent in print. The rest were either copied directly from British cookbooks, heavily borrowed from them, or were traditional British dishes.[2] The dishes the Simmons plagiarized were likely already familiar to American audiences, as they came from cookbooks that had been reprinted and circulated in the United States prior to Simmons’ publication. Simmons drew from the cookbooks that struck a balance between refinement and simplicity, a balance that appealed to early Americans. These familiar recipes, combined with the use of American terms such as “molasses,” “cookie,” and “slapjack” as well as foods unknown in Europe such as johnnycakes, argue Stavely and Fitzgerald, are what makes American Cookery a truly American publication.[3]

Title page of American Cookery. The text reads: American Cooke or the Art of Dressing Viands, Poultry and Vegetables and the best modes of making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all kinds of Cakes from the imperial Plumb to Plain Cake Adapted to this Country, and all grades of life by Amelia Simmons, an American Orphan. Published according to act of Congress. Hartford: Printed by Hudson & Goodwin. For the Author. 1796.
Title page of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

By now, all of this research was making me hungry and left me itching to try out a recipe or two. After considering a few cookbooks and recipe collections, I decided to try one from the original: Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery. Since I was originally drawn into this rabbit hole by my family’s tradition of baking at the holidays, I decided to try my hand at one of Simmons’ sweet recipes. Luckily, there were plenty of them. As Stavely and Fitzgerald observe, “there are more cakes in American Cookery than any other type of food.” [4] At first, I was drawn to a recipe for “Another Christmas Cookey,” but had to rethink my plans when I reached the end of the recipe, which instructs to baker to place the “hard and dry” cookies into “an earthen pot, and dry cellar, or damp room,” after which they will be “finer softer and better when six months old.”[5]

Since that option was out, I decided to make another seasonally appropriate treat: gingerbread. Simmons includes five different recipes for gingerbread in her book and I chose one of her gingerbread cake recipes, titled “Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans.” In its entirety, the recipe reads:

No. 2. Rub three pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, into four pounds of flour, add 20 eggs, 4 ounces ginger, 4 spoons of rose water, bake as No. 1.

Text from American Cookery, mostly the recipe for Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans.
Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans, taken from a facsimile edition of American Cookery

I did not want enough gingerbread to feed an army, so I reduced the measurements and quartered the recipe. With the help of some internet calculators, I ended up with these measurements:

1 2/3 cup sugar
2 sticks butter, softened
3 1/4 cup flour
5 eggs
1 oz ginger
1 tablespoon rosewater

A picture of flour, an egg carton, sugar, butter, grated ginger, rose water, and a loaf pan sitting on a grey-speckled counter.
Assembled ingredients, photograph by Hannah Elder

My ingredients gathered, I got to work! Although the recipe is light on technique, I used some previous knowledge and baking logic to construct my gingerbread. I started by creaming together the butter and sugar (by hand, with a wooden spoon, the way Amelia would have). Once they were as well combine as I could manage (my arm got tired), I added the flour and “rubbed” the butter and sugar mixture into it.

A picture looking down at the contents of a mixing bowl. It is mostly flour, with chunks of butter and sugar. Measuring cups and other ingredients are visible in the background
Mixing the gingerbread, photograph by Hannah Elder

At this point I must confess something: I don’t know how much flour I added. I was using a ¼ cup scoop to measure my flour and at the time I thought I had counted correctly. Looking back, I’m not sure whether I measured out 2 ¼ or 3 ¼ cups of flour. If I did use 2 ¼ cups, it was not a fatal flaw.

Once the unknown volume of flour was incorporated and had a texture a bit like damp sand, I added all of my wet ingredients. I gave it all a good mix and wound up with a thick, glossy batter. I plopped most of the batter into a pie pan (I abandoned the idea of the loaf pan but I don’t have a proper cake pan) and shepherded it into the oven.

A pale, glossy batter sits inside an aluminum pie plate which is resting on the top of the gas burners of a stove.
Gingerbread batter before going into the oven, photograph by Hannah Elder.

While Simmons provides a baking time (15 minutes), I had to guess on the temperature. I tried 375°F, hoping to have the oven hot enough that it would cook in a reasonable time, but not so hot as to scorch my creation. As it went into the oven, I was most nervous about the thickness of the batter (very) and the lack of leavening agent. I was afraid I would end up with a tough, rubbery disk of ginger-flavored putty.

I checked it after 15 minutes, and while it wasn’t done by any means, it looked much more promising than I anticipated. I gave it another 10 minutes and was rewarded with something that looked and smelled great, far better than I ever imagined it could.

The batter is now cooked. It is no longer glossy and is now toasted around the edges. It looks like it would be vanilla flavored.
Baked gingerbread, photograph by Hannah Elder.

I gave it some time to cool and dug in. This gingerbread has a unique texture, more like a cornbread or another quick bread than the gingerbread cakes of today. It’s also much lighter in color than most would expect, owing to its lack of molasses. The rosewater adds a nice, unexpected floral note that balances the sharpness of the ginger. I used grated ginger from a tube that was likely much fresher than anything Amelia Simmons or her contemporaries would have used, but I think it is still a balanced cake and the ginger is not overwhelming. In all, I call this experiment a success!

If you’ve enjoyed this exploration of old-fashioned recipes, I encourage you to  check out previous posts on this blog by other MHS staff members Alex Bush, who tried to make bread pudding, and Emilie Haertsch, who tried Benjamin Franklin’s recipe for milk punch.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

[1] Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), 2.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 204-206.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Amelia Simmons, American cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables : and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves : and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake, adapted to this country, and all grades of life (Hudson & Goodwin, 1796), 35.

Being Thankful

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

For this Thanksgiving Day, I scoured our catalog for material related to the holiday that hasn’t been covered on the Beehive before, but nothing grabbed my attention. It occurred to me that I might write something about gratitude in general, but all I turned up were printed sermons on the subject and personal correspondence thanking people for gifts. However, keyword searching led me, serendipitously, to abolitionist Thankful Southwick, so I thought I’d use this Thanksgiving Day to introduce you to this remarkable woman.

Thankful Southwick
Photograph of Thankful Southwick, Photo. #81.590

Now, the name Thankful is nothing new to archivists and historians in New England. We see a lot of these “virtue names,” mostly given to girls. Faith, Hope, and Charity are all very well, but my least favorites are definitely Silence and Submit.

Thankful was born in 1792 in Portland, Me., the third daughter of Samuel Fothergill Hussey and Thankful (Purinton) Hussey. (You couldn’t make these names up! One author calls Thankful Hussey a “quite unreasonable but none the less interesting name.”) Samuel was a prosperous merchant in Portland, and the elder Thankful was a well-known Quaker minister. Both were heavily involved in anti-slavery work. Legend has it that Samuel helped freedom seekers escaping on ships from the West Indies to get to Canada.

In 1818, the younger Thankful married Joseph Southwick, a tanner. The couple had three daughters in quick succession, Abigail, Sarah, and Anna. In 1834, the family moved to South Peabody (now Danvers), then to Boston in 1835.

The 1830s were a time of exponential growth in the abolitionist movement, and the Southwicks were in the thick of it. Joseph was one of the original subscribers to William Lloyd Garrison’s fiery Liberator, as well as a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, serving alternately as president and vice-president for its first 15 years.

Joseph Southwick
Photograph of Joseph Southwick, Photo. #81.589

Thankful, not to be outdone, was herself a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, president of the society several times in the 1840s, and a proponent of women’s rights. All three of her daughters became anti-slavery activists, including Sarah Hussey Southwick, who got involved in the movement at the age of 13. The Southwick home was also part of the Underground Railroad.

Thankful was a participant or an eyewitness at several notorious incidents during the antebellum period, including the attack on William Lloyd Garrison by a Boston mob in 1835. She was also present at what’s been called the “Baltimore Slave Case” or the “Abolition Riot” of 1836.

The case began when Eliza Small and Polly Ann Bates, two Black women, arrived in Boston on a ship from Baltimore. Although they may have carried documents proving their status as free women, they were nevertheless captured by agents of enslavers to be returned to the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. The case was heard in court two days later. Apparently after a prearranged signal, the crowd surged up and bustled the two women out past their captors and to safety. You can read a detailed description of this fascinating incident here.

The rescue of Small and Bates was enacted almost entirely by Black men and women, whose quick thinking and literal solidarity won the day. Playing crucial roles were Samuel H. Adams and Samuel Snowden, both African American men, and an African American woman who physically restrained the deputy sheriff. Thankful was also in the courtroom and probably helped to plan the action. Lydia Maria Child, in her obituary of Thankful, included this anecdote from that day:

The agent of the slaveholders standing near Mrs. Southwick, and gazing with astonishment at the empty space, where an instant before the slaves stood, she turned her large gray eyes upon him and said, “Thy prey hath escaped thee.”

Thankful (Hussey) Southwick died in 1867. She was so well-known at the time of her death that none other than William Lloyd Garrison delivered her eulogy. Frederick Douglass would call Thankful and Joseph “two of the noblest people I ever knew.” She had lived long enough to see the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the first of the Reconstruction Amendments. However, she would undoubtedly agree that the struggle for true equality was and still is far from over.

The pictures in this post are reproduced from the MHS’s fully digitized collection of portraits of American abolitionists, which includes photographs of some of Thankful’s other relatives. The MHS also holds a copy of Sarah H. Southwick’s Reminiscences of Early Anti-Slavery Days, privately printed in 1893, and a manuscript volume of correspondence of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1834-1838.

National History Day: Debate & Diplomacy in History

By Kate Melchior, Assistant Director of Education

The National History Day annual theme logo, which shows white lettering over blue lines in an abstract design with a purple background. Text reads National History Day 2022, Debate & Diplomacy in History: Success, Failures, Consequences.
National History Day 2022

We’re now halfway through the fall semester and Massachusetts students are hard at work on their National History Day® projects! National History Day (NHD) is a year-long historical research and inquiry project for students in grades 6-12, and the MHS is proud to be the affiliate coordinator of NHD in Massachusetts. Every year NHD frames students’ research within a historical theme with a broad application to world, national, or local history. This year’s theme, Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences, seems particularly relevant as students explore important historic moments during which multiple perspectives either clashed or came together for the common good.

At the MHS, we’re excited about the possibilities of this year’s historical theme. MHS’ Hannah Wilson in Library Reader Services created an incredible resource list highlighting different themes of Debate and Diplomacy within MHS collections, including debates over the ratification of the Massachusetts constitution, protest and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, conflict over women’s suffrage, and the papers of senator and diplomat Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Students are invited to explore questions such as “What are the strengths and limits of diplomacy?” and “Whose voices are included in debate, and who might be left out?” Our partners at the Boston Athenaeum, the Gibson House, and the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center and many other organizations have also created theme pages to help NHD students explore Debate and Diplomacy in their collections. You can find these pages and many others on our National History Day Massachusetts website.

Portrait of Abigail Adams as a young woman. She is wearing a blue dress with a lace trim and wears white pearls around her neck, and has a serene expression with a small smile on her face.
Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blythe

This year’s theme also offers the chance to highlight the continued resonance of another important figure from the MHS collections, one who just celebrated her 277th birthday! Born on 22 November 1744, Abigail Adams was the second First Lady in American history. Adams played a key role as advisor, diplomat, and public figure alongside her husband John Adams throughout his political career and presidency. In 2019, MHS John Winthrop Student Fellow Ella Amouyal created an online exhibit exploring Adams’ diplomatic work in France and England from 1784-88 and its impact on Adams’ views on patriotism, economics, and education. We anticipate that the Adams Family Papers at the MHS will serve as another rich resource for our NHD students as they explore the role of Debate and Diplomacy in the early years of US History.

Penmanship. . . and the Revolution?

By Heather Wilson, MHS Library Assistant

You never know what you’re going to find in the archives! While digging into a collection of papers belonging to Edmund Munroe, a 19th century merchant, on the behalf of a long-distance researcher, I came across his 1794 mathematics example book from his boyhood days. (The schoolmaster asked practice questions that struck my eyes as somewhat forceful. One such question for subtraction stated, “A man was born in the year 1709. I demand his age in the year 1767.”)

After looking at one late 18th century schoolbook, I became eager to see more. Happily, the MHS has quite a few! I read through Sally Parkman’s 1787-1788 floral-covered cyphering book (her teacher asked similar questions Edmund’s asked him, but in a less demanding style); her 1795 French exercises, which I was helpless to read; and, her (undated) penmanship book in which she copied rather humorous templates for letters to various imagined acquaintances and relations.  In a 1799 penmanship book, Ann Sprague of Boston, MA, practiced cursive letters and copied poems. An 1832 alphabet practice book I read surely belonged to a toddler – in pencil, little Eleanor Davis wrote slanting lower-case ‘l’s, backwards ‘j’s, and  ‘o’s of varying roundness. The book was kept “for her dear father” and was less than three pages long. Surely, Eleanor had more engaging activities to occupy her time!

The Heath Family Papers contain multiple generations of girls’ penmanship and copybooks. Elizabeth Heath Howe’s (b. 1769) penmanship books proved to be the most individual of the bunch. One page also held an unexpected surprise—and had me scrambling to brush up on my Revolutionary War knowledge.

As a child, Elizabeth Heath Howe, then known as “Betsey,” attended the Brookline School. In 1781-1782 she kept a penmanship and copybook. The cover of her book is plain—the faded, splotched, brown paper does not even bear a title, or her name. Inside, however, Betsey’s personality shines through. At the bottom of each page, after copying lines, Betsey saved space for doodles. She always wrote her name, sometimes her school and the date, and then she added her flair.

On 3 July, twelve-year-old Betsey copied lines of “The living know that they must die” and then got to doodling, adding merry faces into two of her swirling lines.

Howe copybook
Elizabeth Heath Howe penmanship and copybook, 3 July 1781

On 9 August, she added squiggly lines, flashes of red ink amongst the black, and her school and the date crammed inside of a heart.

Howe copybook
Elizabeth Heath Howe penmanship and copybook, 9 August 1781

My favorite was when she misspelled her own name. On 19 October, Betsey was so engaged in doodling, she had to add a (^) for the “T” in her name. On the opposite side of the page, she didn’t even notice the missing “S”.

Howe copybook
Elizabeth Heath Howe penmanship and copybook

The doodling, however, was not the only unexpected find within Betsey’s book. On each page, above the doodles, Betsey copied down an aphorism, often one that rhymed. Many gave general advice on how to live a good life—according to the values of wealthy, white Anglo-Americans (“Every moment spend unto some useful end”; “Money makes some men mad many merry but few sad”), while also reflecting on mortality (“He that would die well must live well”). Others focused on youth (“In days of youth mind the truth”; “Monuments of learning are the most durable”), and some strike me as clearly gendered (“A handsome face is a letter of recommendation”; “Politeness consists in being easy yourself and making others so”). A few are easily recognizable today (“Necessity is the Mother of Invention”; “Virtue is its own reward.”)

The lines Betsey copied on 26 October 1781, however, were different. “Liberty, peace & plenty to the united states of America,” she wrote. The previous day’s lines had included the book’s only explicit Biblical reference (“Uriahs beautiful wife made King David seek his life”) and then the next day took on a distinctly patriotic tone. This was the only entry from her entire school year that was not a piece of wisdom, or advice. But, why?

Howe copybook
On October 25, 1781, Betsey Heath copied “Liberty peace & plenty to the united states of America” into her Brookline School penmanship book.

On October 19, 1781, in Yorktown, VA, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington. American and French forces had surrounded British troops in the port town since early in the month, and the siege had cut off the British army from supplies of food and ammunition. Cornwallis agreed to Washington’s Articles of Capitulation, and British troops marched out of Yorktown that very day.

The Revolutionary War did not come to an official end until almost two years later, when the Treaty of Paris was signed on 3 September 1783. The surrender at Yorktown, however, ended any hopes the British had for winning the war. Although historians agree Americans did not fully appreciate the significance of Yorktown at the time, the surrender was widely celebrated.

With the time it took news to travel, it seems many Americans in the northeast first learned about the surrender around 25 October 1781. A search in ABIGAIL, our online catalog, for the subject “Yorktown (Va.)—History—Siege, 1781” sheds some light on this. A sheet printed by John Carter in Providence is titled, “Providence, October 25, 1781. Three o’clock, P.M. [microform]: this moment an express arrived. . . announcing the important intelligence of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army, an account of which was print this morning at Newport. . .”  Another, “Colonel Tilgham, aid de camp to His Excellency George Washington, having brought official acounts [sic] of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis” was printed in Philadelphia dated 24 October 1781.

Thus, it seems likely, that Betsey Heath and her classmates copied “Liberty, peace & plenty to the united states of America” into their books just as many people throughout New England were learning about the surrender at Yorktown. They may not have known the war was over, but they—through their teacher—knew it was a day worthy of commemoration.

Looking to do some of your own hands-on research on girls’ education, the Revolutionary War, or any other topic of interest? The MHS is open to researchers on an appointment-only basis. Please read about our Covid-19 resources here and fill out this form to make a research appointment.

For more on the surrender at Yorktown and the end of the Revolutionary War, see:

The Story of Mary J. Newhall Breed, Part I

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

I recently stumbled on a fascinating document in the collections of the MHS that I’d never seen before, and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a twelve-page family history, written neatly in thick pencil, called “A True Story of happenings of The life of John B. Ireland And Others of his folks From 1800 or earlier to 1889 and The Present Time, 1933 As written by his Grand Daughter Mrs. Mary J. Newhall Breed.”

Mary J. Newhall Breed's account of her grandfather's life
A True Story of happenings of The life of John B. Ireland And Others of his folks From 1800 or earlier to 1889 and The Present Time, 1933 As written by his Grand Daughter Mrs. Mary J. Newhall Breed.

Mary Breed wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, recounting events out of order, often circling back and repeating herself, which makes reading this manuscript feel like sitting on a front porch listening to her talk. Some of the details are sketchy, but her family’s story is moving and at times tragic. I’ll do my best to summarize it here.

Mary J. Newhall was born in Lynn, Mass. on 27 February 1869, the daughter of Sarah Agnes (Ireland) Newhall and William George Newhall. William worked variously as a fisherman, as a field hand, and in the spice mills of West Lynn. He died in 1881, leaving Sarah with three children to bring up. Mary left school at 15 or 16 (she’s inconsistent on this detail) to work at the Lynn shoe factories and support her mother, whose health was bad. When her mother died in 1905, Mary kept house for her younger brother George until his death in 1927. Five years later, at the age of 63, she met and married Mayo Ramsdell Breed.

Mary had apparently lived all her life in Lynn, but her family’s ties to Boston went back generations. In her narrative, she mentions her great-grandfather, a street lamplighter; her grandfather John, a blacksmith and wheelwright; and she describes incidents in both her mother’s and her father’s lives and those of her in-laws.

I was particularly struck, though, by the story of her grandmother Nancy, which sounds like the plot of a BBC period drama, albeit told in Mary’s inimitable voice. Here is the relevant section (I’ve added paragraph breaks):

At the age of seven, my grandmother was bound out to a woman who kept a Sailor Boarding House near the old South Church in Boston. […] Nancy Jennins was one of five children who was brought over from England on the Sailing Vessel. Her Father followed the Sea as a Ship Rigger fixing the sails. She remembered when her mother left her with the Woman to keep her until she was 18 years of age. And she saw her mother go away with her little Brothers and Sisters, and she never saw her mother again.

Then one day the big Ship came into Boston Harbor. And little Nancy went to see her father, as she had done before when his Ship came in. But that last time she saw her father way up in the rigging fixing the sails and as she looked up she saw her father fall from the place where he had been at work into the water, she saw the sailors bring her father onto the shore dead. She ran home and cried. So she had nobody to love and care for her.

The Mistress of the Sailor Boarding House was not kind to Nancy. She made her work hard in the kitchen where she learned to cook everything. The Sailors were mostly bad men they carried swords and pistals [sic] in their belts, and she said some of them were kind to her, and they would give her presents, and some of the sailors were cross and wicked, she was afraid of them, but she had to wait on them or get a beating.

One day, Nancy was working in the kitchen and overheard her mistress, as Mary calls her, tell a neighbor that the following day was Nancy’s eighteenth birthday—in other words, the day she was a legal adult and free from her indenture. The mistress confided to the neighbor that she was keeping this fact from Nancy because she didn’t want to lose such a good servant.

Apparently Nancy didn’t know her birthday, or perhaps hadn’t understood that she was free to leave at eighteen. So she rose early the next morning, packed up everything she owned, and walked out of the house. Her mistress tried to stop her, but “Nancy told her that she was going to get work and take care of herself.”

She took a job as a cook for a family in Boston, as this was “the only work that she ever learned.” She married an Englishman named Barrily, who died in a shipwreck. She married again (I think this was Mr. Jennins), but was abandoned by this second husband after two or three years. And if all that wasn’t enough…

She had a pretty little baby boy by him, she carried him around in a covered basket, he was so little. […] But Nancy had to go to work and earn her living. So one day A Minister came along and he saw the baby boy. So he told Nancy how that his wife had a baby boy, and it died. He asked her if she would let him adopt the baby for his wife so she gave her consent to let the baby go and have a good home. The Minister and his wife were so pleased with the baby that they loved him and gave him everything a boy could wish for. But the boy only lived to be thirteen years of age he was all ways delecate [sic] and they felt badly to loose [sic] the little fellow.

Sometime in the 1830s, while working as a cook at the Relay House in Nahant, Nancy met the eponymous John Bemis Ireland, who became her third husband.

He rode to Lynn and Nahant on a white horse with a tall hat on, as men wore those days, to get her good dinners, that she used to cook. He liked her cooking so one day he asked her to marry him. She did.

John’s first wife had died, and he had five school-aged children. It’s a little unclear in Mary’s telling, but it seems that John lied to Nancy and told her his children were dead. Well, she married him and became “a good stepmother” to them. She and John would have one daughter together, Sarah Agnes, Mary’s mother.

I’ll pick up Mary’s story again here at the Beehive, so stay tuned!

“My dear Daughter”: John and the other Abigail Adams

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

The first extant letter from John Adams to his daughter was written on 19 Sept. 1774, when Nabby was nine years old. He opened the letter by praising the “Improvement in your hand Writing and in the faculties of the Mind” but quickly transitioned into talking about her brothers, filling the page with advice he wanted Nabby to convey to them.

We don’t have any evidence of how Nabby may have reacted to this snub—if she perceived it as such—but John Adams’s next extant letter provides some clarity. In it, Adams encourages his daughter to be “more attentive than ever to the instructions and examples of your mamma and your aunts. They I know will give you every assistance in forming your heart to goodness and your mind to useful knowledge, as well as to those other accomplishments which are peculiarly necessary and ornamental in your sex.”

Aha. Adams had suggestions of books to fill his sons’ time and of virtues to fill their heads. He was consciously raising lawyers and future statesmen to take over the governance of the nation he was trying to build. But when it came to a quiet nine-year-old girl, he was stumped. What was her future? To become a wife. What advice could he give her? Take after your mother.

He even seemed to have had trouble finding things to correct in her character. “I shall not lay down any rules for your behaviour in life,” he wrote on 2 Dec. 1778, “because I know the steadiness of your mind, your modesty and discretion.” John’s inability to think up advice for his daughter led to some painfully dry letters like this one from 1777 where he described attending a Scots’ Presbyterian Church service. (This may interest scholars of religion. It probably did not interest an eleven-year-old girl.)

Abigail Adams Smith, miniature portrait on porcelain tile by an unidentified artist, [18--]
Abigail Adams 2d, known to her family as “Nabby.”
On the rare occasions he saw an opportunity to correct Nabby, he overcompensated, like in this 26 Sept. 1782 letter in which he overreacts to Nabby asking for a small present. “Taste is to be conquered, like unruly appetites and passions, or the mind is undone,” he wrote. “There are more thorns sown in the path of human life by vanity, than by any other thing.”

His message was taken to heart. In her next letter to him, Nabby wrote, “I assure you my Dear Sir that I have suffered, not a little mortification, whenever I reflected that I have requested a favour of you that your heart and judgment did not readily assent to grant. Twas not that your refusal pained me, but the consciousness that there was an impropriety, in my soliciting whatever you should consider incompattiable to comply with. It has rendered me so througherly dissatisfied with my own oppinion and judgment, that I shall for the future take care to avoid the possibility of erring in a similar manner.”

Even John Adams knew he had overreacted, backpedaling with, “I know your disposition to be thoughtful and serene, and therefore I am not apprehensive of your erring much in this way” and closed the letter by assuring Nabby of his “inexpressible tenderness of heart” for her.

Ironically, it was his daughter, the person he seemed to find it hardest in all the world to advise, to whom he gave the best advice: “To be good, and to do good, is all We have to do.”

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

 

Wet-Plate Photographs, a Towel, and a Grieving Widowed Mother in Boston

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

It may not seem likely that a wet-plate photograph, a towel, and a grieving widowed mother in Boston have Abraham Lincoln in common, but the following stories from the MHS collection, along with a Boston ghost story, may change your mind. Although I enjoy tales of the gruesome, grotesque, and ghostly, I know it is not for everyone: the following discusses the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and focuses on his bodily remains and his afterlife. If you choose not to read on, please have a happy Halloween!

Sitting President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. by John Wilkes Booth on 14 April 1865. After Lincoln was shot, three doctors in the theatre rushed to his side and did what they could to make him comfortable as they knew the wound was mortal. They decided to carry him across the street, as a carriage ride to the White House, a fair distance from the theatre, would be too difficult for him. Several men gently lifted the president and carried him to a private house across the street from the theater. One of the men that carried Lincoln was Augustus Clark, a War Department employee, who wrote a letter to his uncle S. M. Allen of Woburn, Mass., describing what happened and enclosed within the letter a towel stained with the blood from Lincoln’s wound. Although Lincoln was shot in the head, he did not pass until 7:22 AM on 15 April 1865, the morning after he was shot.

Towel fragment
Fragment of a towel stained with the blood of Abraham Lincoln.
Letter from Augustus Clark
Letter from Augustus Clark, one of the men who carried President Lincoln to a secure location after the he was shot in the head, to S. M. Allen, 16 April 1865.

After Lincoln passed, those around him collected pieces of cloth, hair, and other artifacts. People collected these items from Lincoln’s deathbed in part as recognition of his accomplishments as a politician and as the president, and in part because of the awareness of the historical nature of the incident. The MHS has an example in a locket made with Lincoln’s hair. This locket was donated to the MHS in 1895 from Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, a Massachusetts congressman, who received the locket 20 years previous from a friend. The hair was collected by one of the attending physicians at Lincoln’s death and was then given to Hoar’s friend, who made it into this locket.

Locket
Locket with hair cut from Abraham Lincoln, postmortem.

All so far has been somewhat normal in this recounting of the first assassination of a sitting president. However the following is much more of a ghost story. It begins in Boston with William Mumler, a Boston engraver and amateur photographer. Mumler dabbled in photography, but he is now known as being a famous spirit photographer. He first discovered the process in the early 1860s when he double exposed a glass plate while taking a self-portrait. A girl appeared behind him in the resulting print.  He saw the potential in the figure, a mostly see-through specter, as if it were a ghost, and started passing it around to his friends and colleagues, saying the figure behind him was actually a cousin who had died. This story was spread around Boston, and people began to come to him for their own spirit photographs after losing a loved one.

In the 1860s many people started believing that communication with the dead was possible. The movement was called Spiritualism, and mediums, those who could “channel” the voices of, or be possessed by, the dead, would hold séances for groups to be able to witness the presence of, and hopefully communicate with, the spirits surrounding them. This form of religion gained a lot of followers in the 1860s as the Civil War escalated and the number of grieving families rose. It was especially popular in Boston and among the Boston Brahmins, as séances were known to be held in Beacon Street homes. It gained so much popularity that it also created detractors, those who would attend the séances to figure out the trickery behind them and prove the medium false.

Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady in the 1860s, was a Spiritualist. From 1850 to 1871, Mrs. Lincoln experienced what can be considered an excessive amount of death close to her; three sons, three brothers, her stepfather, father-in-law, a brother-in-law, and her husband. Seven of those deaths were during a nine-year period from 1862–1871. Despite being a lifelong Christian, she turned to Spiritualism after the death of her son, William, in 1862. She was inconsolable and looking for a way to manage her grief; she began attending séances and felt they were so comforting that she hosted séances in the White House.

By 1870, after being tried for fraud for his spirit photographs and then acquitted, Mumler had gained fame when Mrs. Lincoln came to Boston and sat for a Mumler spirit photograph. The resulting print showed a shadowy figure who looked like President Lincoln standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders. Peter Manseau, author of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, had this to say about Mrs. Lincoln’s reaction to the photograph: “No one could dissuade her that it did not mean that Abraham Lincoln was still by her side.”

Photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln looks at the viewer while seated, wearing her regular black clothes to show she is in mourning. Behind her are two transparent figures, one of which clearly looks like Abraham Lincoln. He stands directly behind her with his hands on her shoulders and looks to his right at the other figure, meant, perhaps, to be her son, William?

Although detractors, such as P. T. Barnum, had proven that there were many chemical and mechanical ways to create photographs with “ghosts”—with Mumler recognized today as a purveyor of hoaxes—and Spiritualist mediums were mostly proven to be false tricksters, could Abraham Lincoln have been standing with his beloved wife who had seen so much tragedy and death in her life? I like to think that Mrs. Lincoln’s photograph was perhaps the one true photograph of a ghost that Mumler captured.

If you’ve read to the end, thank you for taking this journey through Lincoln’s assassination and afterlife, and I hope you enjoy Halloween!

“It was a big mistake, acknowledging this doll.”

By Viv Williams, Processing Assistant and Library Assistant

Hello again, Beehive readers! As I prepared to write this blog, knowing you would see it during peak spooky season, I wondered what other seemingly nonthreatening items in our collection I could relate to a terrifying bit of horror pop culture. If you’ve read the title, you’ll have already tracked my conclusion.

This week we’re moving away from literature and heading straight to the big screen to discuss one of the 2000’s most popular horror movie franchises, The Conjuring. The film series is very loosely based on a famous Ed and Lorraine Warren case involving an “inhuman spirit” that tricks two young women into allowing it to possess a Raggedy Ann doll named Annabelle. Yes, you read that correctly. The adorable red-yarn-headed doll character from Johnny Gruelle’s 1918 book, Raggedy Ann Stories became the culprit of nightmares in 1970 when the doll, gifted to a 28-year-old nursing student by her mother, allegedly began moving on its own and leaving notes for the girl and her roommate. The activity would eventually become hostile, and Ed and Lorraine Warren would be called in to investigate. As terrifying as the story is, this doll will probably be the least threatening-looking doll I mention. In fact, the original Annabelle is so unassuming, the makers of The Conjuring film chose to give her a new look. They were concerned she wouldn’t be scary enough as is.

Annabelle side-by-side comparison
Side by side of the original Annabelle from the Ed and Lorraine Warren investigation (pictured on the right) and the Hollywood rendition (pictured on the left).

Now, as far as I know, none of the dolls in the MHS collection are inhabited by otherworldly entities or are guilty of unexplainable animation, but we are often unnerved by them regardless. Which begs us to echo the question from my previous clown blog– When did they become so menacing in the public eye? Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian Magazine article (which I highly recommend reading) argues that dolls set off a paranoia in us because they look human, but simultaneously we know they aren’t. “Our brains are designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions and potential threats…However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat, seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic human instincts.” The more realistic dolls have become over time, the more unsettled we find ourselves.

With that in mind, I’m starting with the least life-like doll, and you can decide if its lack of humanoid features makes it more or less creepy.

Francis Parkman doll
Painted Bark Doll

This “Painted Bark Doll” would have belonged to a Native American child but was donated to the MHS from the study of American historian Francis Parkman. It’s unclear how Parkman came into possession of the doll, but we do know he spent some time living with a Sioux tribe in the 1840s, so perhaps he acquired it then. The painted piece of bark seems to depict a mother carrying a child, and I think that makes the doll rather endearing. However, upon sharing an image of this doll with a friend sans context, he still found the faces to be unnerving, responding simply, “That’s horrifying.”

John Leonetti, director of Annabelle, argues that dolls are the perfect vehicle for horror because they emulate human features, but lack emotion. It’s this inability to decipher the humanoid face that scares us and becomes a perfect empty slate for something more sinister.

This next doll from [1910] named “Mama” belonged to Hilda Pfeiffer, daughter of Rachael and George Pfeiffer whose papers can be found in the Hartwell-Clark family papers. Rachael Pfeiffer passed away in childbirth to Hilda which is likely the reasoning behind the doll’s unusual name. That connection alone is enough to unsettle me, personally. The doll is made from fabric and canvas and stuffed with cotton. Parts of her oil-painted face are missing, and the back of her head is completely bare. I wonder if these imperfections bring you more comfort or alarm?

doll belonging to Hilda Pfeiffer
Hilda Pfeiffer’s 1910 doll named “Mama”

I close this blog with one of the MHS’s most well-known dolls, Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. None of the previous dolls can hold a candle to the features of this doll our Object of the Month post refers to as “charming.” I find this doll to have the most in common with the Hollywood Annabelle in terms of spook factor (that’s a technical term), and after a verbal survey of a few friends and coworkers, we unanimously found this doll to be downright creepy.

doll
Rebeccah Codman Butterfield doll

Take a moment to stare into those perfect brown glass eyes pressed in the aged papier mache face and tell me, honestly, that you don’t feel the least bit unsure of yourself. She is the most life-like of all the dolls and by far the tallest at 81 cm in height. That’s about half as tall as Danny DeVito… Imagine waking up to a doll of that stature standing next to you. No, thank you. And to top it, she arrived with her own note written in first person. Did I mention that Annabelle left the girls notes?

I can feel your shoulders tensing through the screen. Relax, I’m just teasing. The note was written by Ellis Phinney Taylor, her previous owner and it details as much of the history of the doll as we know. If you’d like to learn more about Rebecca and where she hails from, be sure to check out her Object of the Month page.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, or you just really like dolls, we have more! Check our online catalog, ABIGAIL, or consider using the Library’s virtual reference services!

Martha Rapp’s Travel Diary, 1920-1921

by Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

“We here and now christen this book with the good old razor that Martie – and then Dick shaves with-
Signed ‘Martie’ Rapp ‘Dickie’ Bostwick. Oct 23 , 1920-”

First page of Martha Rapp's Travel Diary
Martha Rapp’s Travel Diary, 1920-1921

Martha A. Rapp was a young woman from Brockton who travelled to New Zealand in 1920-21 with her parents, Walter and Annie Rapp. The Rapp family traveled from Boston through Canada by train, and finally boarded the passenger ship S.S. Niagara in Vancouver, CA to cross the Pacific ocean with a quick stop in Honolulu, Hawaii. Martha was on a fascinating journey across the ocean to a very distant land, with so much to explore. Luckily, Martha kept a diary of the entire journey and included details of life on board ship, stories of fellow passengers, storms, and descriptions of the many places and people she met and saw in New Zealand. The diary transports you back to not only life on a passenger ship in the early-20th century (naturally the soundtrack of the movie Titanic is playing in my head) but also directly into Martha’s world of non-stop adventure and exploration. There are days that she did so much that I was exhausted simply reading about it! She was quite a spunky woman and her humor comes across in her words.

Below are excerpts from the diary to give a taste of Martha’s journey. Please be mindful that these are ‘rough and ready’ unverified transcriptions.

Two pages from Martha Rapp's travel diary
Martha Rapp’s Travel Diary, 1920-1921

Nov. 10
Vancouver

Reached here at 10, foggy so couldn’t see any of the place until noon when the sun broke thru- Believe me I got into a bath as soon as I could – Ye gads how I eat- received some mail- lovely long letter from Ros- took a walk in the afternoon- Edith H. came over at night. It will seem good to sleep in a real bed again – boat doesn’t come until Friday..”

Nov. 11
Vancouver

This is armistice day. At eleven o’clock traffic of all kinds were stopped for two minutes. A gun that works by electricity was fired- Had trouble with our waitress at breakfast- found a sweet tea room..”

Nov. 13
Vancouver

“Went down and looked the ship over- its surely a huge boat- saw our state room where I expect to spend many a sick hour…”

Nov. 17
Vancouver At Sea

Pushed off at 7:15- reached Victoria at one- drove around town-saw a wild [?] right near the street left at 5- 10- Boat started to roll quite a bit- have met a lot of people – at night Mrs. Augila and Mrs. Miller and myself walked a bit – some one has a vector so we listened to it for a while…”

Nov. 18
At Sea
Thurs.

“ye gad’s [?] this boat rolls- Not many up to-day – I slepted all afternoon – got up for dinner but shot down here afterwards. Man at our table is drunk all of the time. Thru up- I wish I was back home-“

Nov. 19
At Sea

“Stayed in bed until 10- went to the Library- Sat on deck with Mr. Miller and another man- fought the League of Nations with them- Played quoits after luncheon it was bed for me- the boat is like a cork it bounces so – mother still in bed-“

Nov. 20
At Sea
Sat

“Stayed in bed all day- we’ve been in a dreadful storm all day- Haven’t made any progress- just rode the waves- nearly everyone sick- Dad peaked his face in just long enough to say he wasn’t feeling so good – the waves look like mountains from my bunk- they bang against the port-hole with such force I’m frightened it will break- Sighs from mother – it’s the last sea trip she’ll take she says-“

Nov. 21
At sea
Sunday

“Oh what a night- people yelling- women frighten and crying –

Got on deck today- sea is much quieter and we are going right along. Mother still under [illegible] at our table does not look so well-

Good time at night- crowd of us around a Vector …”

Nov. 22
At Sea
Mon

Enjoyed myself a great deal today – Played tennis three times also quoits- went to a sport meeting and was elected to the entertainment committee- like to get a hold of the one who did it – Calcutta (stales) on to-night – also DANCE- I never in my life saw such dancing – Maine has them stopped a while – In the smoking room with Mr. Dyer afterwards – lovely day and sea was very quite- I wish I was in New Zealand tho’

(Skipping ahead a few days)

Nov. 24   Wed
Honolulu

Sharks and boys diving

At ten we sighted land. Did my best to read my book but was pulled into quoits and tennis – after landing a party of eight of us went to the top of a mountain and such wonderful sights- this is a heavenly place – then we went out to the Mano hotel at Waikiki for dinner – Met Betty and two yanks god love em we went out on the water in a rig-canoe and rode the waves in – then danced and what heavenly dancers- the boys brought me lays-wreaths and flowers- kissed them all good bye- maybe I haven’t had a wonderful time

Hawaii page from Martha Rapp's travel diary
Martha Rapp’s Travel Diary, 1920-1921, Hawaii page

(Skipping ahead)

Dec. 6
Auckland
Mon-

Good lord what a day – awoke to find ourselves in a heavy fog with the old horn blowing for all it was worth- went way out of our way- got turned about and finally anchored as we were [?] into shallow water- rumor started we were stuck on a sand bank- that raised hell of course- finally got in at seven but did not get off the boat until nine [?] – Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary with us- [??]

Dec. 7
Auckland
Tuesday

This morning Dad and I went to the boat- Bank of New Zealand- American Counsel Office-and P. Office- I bought some strawberries that are wonderful. This afternoon we took a ride all over – wonderful country- went to the race track and what beauty- grounds are kepted beautifully- tonight we went to a lecture on spiritualism by Sir Conan Doyle- he is a wonderful speaker- but he hasn’t converted us.

Dec. 8
Auckland
Wed

Another busy day- spent the morning in the hair dressers- I [?] just as I was going to have my hair cut- had luncheon with the Mayor and his wife and a Mr. Buck- very nice- met a old friend of mother’s at 2:30 – at four we went to tea at Mrs. Roache’s house- her husband is a cousin of mother’s – stayed in at night- while writing this down one is playing [?]

Dec. 9
Auckland
Thurs-

Went and did some shopping this morning- shot a movie this afternoon which was very poor- received a wire from Mrs. Davis asking us for the weekend- folks aren’t going but I am- leave tomorrow at noon- went to call on Aunt Mary’s people at night – very nice- wonderful old lady

Dec. 14
Rotorua
Tuesday

Up at 5:30 and away at 6:30 with Mr. Cheney for Auckland. The trains here are so funny- after fussing about Auckland a bit my train left for here at ten- Beautiful ride but eight hours on these trains isn’t my idea of a good time- Dad and mother met me- we’re staying at the Grand- very nice hotel- the poor (?) Mrs. Dadd is here – we walked over to the bath houses – Beautiful park- boiling springs and they say that they’re apt to go up in smoke anytime –

Dec. 15
Rotorua
Wednesday

What a day this has been- at ten which started off with a Mr. Simpson in our party to see Wairoa – Lake Tarawera and Rotomahana – this is all volcanic and we saw the remains of a hotel that the roof was carried 130 miles away when the Waimangu geyser crate blew out. Went over a boiling lake after we had walked three miles – the lake was once a sand flat- It’s 600 feet deep – It was all so weird and yet wonderful to see the hot steam coming out of the side of hills and to see the boiling rivers and pools

Dec. 19
Taumarunui
Sunday

Four of us took a long walk this morning- went for a motor ride this afternoon. After our return a fire broke out across the way and off we flew – girl fainted so I took charge of her – went down and watched the men fish- had to cross a swinging bridge- when we came back Clarice and myself went and got some whiskey for the Mrs- put the empty bottle in the door shed

Dec. 21
Pipiriki
Tuesday

Up at 5:30 oh Lord and off once again down the river to this place – Poor dying Murai got on- her brother taking her home to die- very cold for a while – reached here in time for luncheon – great place – Mother sick- played cards walked this afternoon also had a tennis set with Clarice – she plays a wonderful game- we played cards and the piano till night- sleeping in Clarice’s room to-night-

Dec. 22
Waurramia
Wednesday

Ye Gad’s what a day up at 4:30 and on board the dirtiest old tub at 5:30 with a gang of Maori – hit a rock going down the rapid- broke two blades of the paddle and poked a whole in the bottom …”

Martha A. Rapp
Photo of Martha A. Rapp
removed from Travel Diary, unidentified photographer ca. 1920-1921

Are you interested in reading the diary in person? The MHS is open to researchers on an appointment-only basis. Please read about our Covid-19 resources here and fill out this form to make a research appointment.

Excavating the MHS’s Musical Treasures

By Nym Cooke, NERFC fellow, choral conductor, independent scholar

I worked at the MHS for several weeks on a New England Regional Fellowship Consortium (NERFC) grant which is allowing me to inventory all the pre-1821 American materials containing sacred music, both printed and manuscript, in a number of New England libraries (next up: 27 different Harvard libraries, and the John Hay Library at Brown University).  My NERFC project is part of a larger enterprise, the creation of a detailed inventory of all sacred-music sources in a large number of repositories in the Northeast.  I’ve already inventoried the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, the Phillips Library of the Essex Institute, the Congregational Library and Archives, the Boston Athenaeum, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Watkinson Library at Trinity College, and a number of small-city and town historical societies.  I’m paying special attention to the unique contents of the sources I work with: variant issues of printed items, ownership and other inscriptions, and (especially) manuscript music.  Many hundreds of printed American tunebooks contain handwritten supplements of tunes and individual vocal parts, and I’m recording key information about every manuscript entry that I find.  My “union inventory” is already being converted into a searchable database, which I’ll host on the web.  Further, the inventory project–an attempt to look at absolutely everything that’s out there–will richly inform my next book, A Joyful Noise: Sacred Music in New England, 1620-1820.  Among other uses, the data from my inventory will illuminate the practice of manuscript music copying and the varieties of musical literacy in early America to an unprecedented extent.

As might be expected, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s holdings of early American sacred music are fabulously rich.  With the help of several MHS librarians, I unearthed 177 sacred-music sources produced in America and dated (or datable) to the period before 1821.  Most of these were printed oblong tunebooks or “tune pamphlets,” but there were also manuscript books and booklets, hymnals with printed tune supplements, musical periodicals, a Haydn oratorio in its first American printing, and a piece of sacred-texted sheet music.  My 72-page inventory describes all these sources in detail.  The MHS owns no fewer than five copies of William Billings’s remarkable tunebook The Singing Master’s Assistant (several eds., 1778-1781).  It also has a manuscript music booklet compiled by one Lucy Brooks; this small pamphlet, dated 1779 and 1784, contains 54 entries, 17 of them by Billings and are included (in identical versions) in The Singing Master’s Assistant.  This circumstance suggests strongly that Brooks owned a copy of the Billings book; she may even have attended one of the many singing schools taught by Billings.

One sacred music item in the Society’s collections–a printed tunebook with a large manuscript supplement–especially caught my attention.  This was a copy of the 4th edition of The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony (1792) that belonged to a 17-year-old named William Bowditch, the younger brother of mathematician and oceanic navigation pioneer Nathaniel Bowditch.  William’s name and the dates “January 25 1793” and “1798” may be found in the volume.  In another inscription (dated “Christmas 1889”), on a slip pasted inside the book’s front cover, Nathaniel’s son Henry Ingersoll Bowditch writes, in part, “This Book found among many others, old & dilapidated, which had lain unknown for over half a century, & had been in two ancient trunks without keys….  It was owned by Fathers brother William….  The book was terribly worn[;] I have partially repaired & cleaned of dust &c.  William was Fathers [well?] beloved – They were both fond of music & of mathematics.  I have little doubt that a little less than a century ago they sang together from it – ”  Will Bowditch was clearly a musical youth; he copied 55 of his favorite pieces onto leaves tied inside the book’s back cover (at least 25 of these may be found in Samuel Holyoke’s 1791 tunebook Harmonia Americana, suggesting, as in the case of Lucy Brooks and the Billings tunebook, that William may have attended a singing school taught by Holyoke), and he made changes or corrections to a number of The Worcester Collection‘s printed tunes.  William Bowditch died on an ocean voyage at Trinidad in 1799; he was 23 years old.

Here as elsewhere, it’s the human stories that these centuries-old sources tell (or touch on) that help make historical research so rewarding.  I’ve been fortunate to come across a number of these stories, and many more tiny glimpses into past lives, in my sacred music inventorying.  I invite anyone who’d like to know more about this project, or who has a collection of pre-1821 American sacred music to bring to my attention, to e-mail me at nymcooke@gmail.com.