More Secrets of the Seals

By Daniel Bottino, Rutgers University and MHS Society of Colonial Wars in Massachusetts fellow

Read an earlier post about the Secrets of the Seals at the MHS.

A notice printed in the Boston Gazette dated December 13, 1736, reads, “Lost a silver seal from a man’s watch, coat of arms on one side, CMH cypher and sloop cut into other side.”[1]  Perhaps it slipped from its attachment to a watch chain during a walk or horseback ride through the city streets.  We do not know if this small item was ever located or returned to its owner—it may be that it still lies where it was lost, waiting for a future archeologist to unearth it and return it to public sight.

This misplaced item, referred to as a “silver seal,” is a stamping instrument or “seal matrix” used to create an impression in wax or paper.  Although thousands of colonial era New England seal impressions, usually in wax, have survived to the present day, surviving colonial seal matrices are much rarer.  This makes sense, for one matrix could produce hundreds of seal impressions.  Furthermore, wax seals are attached to documents—legal papers and letters—which have often been preserved for their written content.  Conversely, personal seal matrices are small, as they were meant to be used by hand, and thus easily lost or destroyed over the passage of centuries.  As the practice of sealing began to fall out of fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is possible that many of these colonial era matrices, once carefully passed down through the generations, were discarded as useless relics of a bygone era.

Yet, to gain a full understanding of the material history of sealing in colonial New England, matrices must be studied as well as seal impressions. The collections of the MHS hold many surviving matrices—illustrated below is a matrix bearing the arms of Cotton Mather, certainly an illustrious resident of Boston.  Yet this particular seal was made by silversmith Nathaniel Hurd (1730-1777) who was born after Mather’s death in 1728.  Perhaps this seal was fashioned by Hurd for one of Mather’s relatives.  Like the seal in the lost notice, this seal is a fine and valuable piece of jewelry, its handle made of ivory and its design carved in silver.  Besides serving its basic purpose in creating seal impressions, such a precious object was likely also a status symbol and marker of wealth.  After its owner’s death, a seal made skillfully of silver or gold stood a good chance of preservation as a family heirloom before, perhaps, an eventual donation to an archive or museum. 

Color photo of a gloved hand holding a small, rounded object showing the arms of Cotton Mather.
Matrix bearing the arms of Cotton Mather
Seal matrix

On the other hand, most colonists in New England clearly could not afford to purchase precious seals made by prominent artisans.  Their humbler matrices likely were made of more common metals such as brass, their handles perhaps made of wood rather than ivory.  I have not found any of these more “ordinary” seals during my research at the MHS thus far—it is likely that few, if any, have survived through the centuries, although I remain hopeful. 

For those colonists who desired a cheaper option, their own fingers could serve as matrices.  While prominent New Englanders such as Cotton Mather and John Adams almost certainly would not have wanted to forgo their finely made matrices and instead press a finger into hot wax, I have nevertheless discovered many wax fingerprint impressions in the MHS’s collections.  All of these “fingerprint seals” date to the 18th century.  I believe it likely that most employers of fingerprint seals were of lower social status than those sealers who used metal matrices.  Confirmation of this hypothesis will require research into the identities of the hundreds of individual sealers in the documents I have encountered—I hope to complete this project in the coming months.

Image of a handwritten document with three red wax seals in the lower right corner. Names appear next to the seals.
Fingerprint seals

There is no evidence that the legal authority of fingerprint seals was ever looked down upon by colonial society.  Indeed, as a seal’s primary purpose was to serve as a unique symbolic representation of its possessor, the fingerprint seal can be seen as the perfect seal.  As was undoubtably understood by colonists, each person’s fingerprints are unique.  Accordingly, when used as a matrix, a sealer’s finger produced an impression unique to the sealer, created not by a skilled engraver but rather by their own body. Ultimately, no matter what form they took, matrices were an integral part of the ritual of sealing in colonial New England, and a close consideration of their materiality will prove to be of great value in the historical study of colonial New England society.

[1] My thanks to James Kences for finding this notice.

Fancy Types: The typeface specimens of Rand & Avery 

By Susanna Sigler, Library Assistant 

Happy spring, Beehive readers! Taking a departure from my usual blog posts spotlighting WWII-focused materials, I wanted to focus on a fun item that’s been on my mind for a while now. 

Over the summer, a researcher put in a request for a 19th-century book of typefaces. I took a peek at the book before the researcher examined it, and was delighted by its contents.  

Called Rand & Avery’s Specimens, this book was published by Rand, Avery & Company, a book- and map-printing company in Boston in the mid- to late-19th century.  

The book is exactly what a good business owner back then would have for their customers: a collection of specimens, or samples, of the different typefaces that the customers could order for their printing. 

(Prior to writing this post, I did not know the difference between a typeface and a font. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, a typeface is a set of letters, numbers, etc. of a particular design, for example Times New Roman, while a font is the particular size and style of a set of letters, for example Times New Roman italic, size 12). 

What drew me to this book was not only the artistry of the typefaces themselves, but the sense of humor displayed in the sample text. You can guess just from the fake names the speciality of most of these businesses – “Jackplane & Broadaxe” (a carpentry firm), “Quadrant & Logline” (navigators), “Hopp & Ginger” (brewers), “Rains and Sunshine” (gardeners), and “Professor Lightheel” (a dancing instructor), to name a few.  

Sample text for different fake businesses showcasing the variety of typefaces on offer.

For some of the larger typefaces, there is less space to work with, and oftentimes the placeholder text is just nonsense phrases. Some veer into the poetic, while others often struck me as humorous (if you’re like me and find random words set in very large fonts amusing).  

Some of the phrases found in the book. 
We’re running out of space!

Aside from the textual content, the actual typefaces themselves are beautiful, ranging from simple and elegant to detailed and intricate. Some are ones that are still in use today, but many are not. Oftentimes the sample text will correspond to the qualities of the font itself–there’s a special typeface in the shape of snowballs, for example, and one proclaiming “tulip beds” that looks to be itself blooming.  

Is this the typography version of onomatopoeia?

In addition to the typefaces, there are also small drawn icons and other logos that can be incorporated into a customer’s design. My personal favorite is this one of Boston, with tiny ships. 

Boston, but make it maritime.

I’m not a pessimist, or someone who thinks that creativity and beauty in graphic design is long gone, but styles in the mainstream nowadays all seem to have a similar corporate look. Minimalism has rendered interiors completely boring at best, and terrifying alien spaceship at worst. I think they could take a page from Rand & Avery, and try to have a little more fun.  

The Geo. C. Rand & Avery typeface book can be viewed at the MHS. The MHS also holds additional materials on typefaces and printing specimens, found under the subjects “Type and type-founding” and “Printing – Specimens” in ABIGAIL. 


“Font.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Accessed March 21, 2023. 

Rand & Avery, Rand & Avery’s Specimens (Boston: Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1860).  

“Typeface.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Accessed March 21, 2023. 

Disability in the Archive: Insanity & Institutions

By Meg Szydlik, Visitor Services Coordinator

Trigger warning: use of outdated but period-typical language to describe disabled and mentally ill individuals and includes descriptions of abuse.

In my last post, I looked at disabled people in the circus. For this post, I’m looking at how people deemed “insane,” “idiots,” or “feeble-minded” were treated. Like those of the previous post, the voices of these people were also missing in my searches of the MHS archives. What we do have, however, are records that help paint a picture of what life was like for someone “insane” and how abled people perceived them.

Insanity and feeble-mindedness cover a wide range of behaviors. In addition to mental illness and probable psychosis, developmental disorders, and neurodivergence are also included under this label. While the sources had different treatment plans, all of them used a “one size fits all” approach to these disabilities. However, modern practice is that individual treatments that center the person’s dignity are best.

Image of a page of an application to the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. The application asks questions ranging from basic demographic information to more invasive questions about how the person’s disability manifests itself. Questions about overall health, mental difficulties, and physical disabilities are included.
Application for placement in the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded

In the pre-Civil War era when the materials I used were written, there were essentially two options for people considered insane. They could stay at home with family, or they could enter an institution. Poorhouses, hospitals, and even jails were used to house those the state deemed insane.

Whatever the caretakers of these places thought they were doing, Dorothea Dix’s Memorial: To the Legislature of Massachusetts demonstrated their actions were abusive. Originally delivered orally, her testimony was published and made its way into the MHS collection. It features page after page of stories of people being beaten, chained, and deprived of food, bathrooms, and clothing and even light or shelter. The abuse is horrifying to read and must have been even worse to hear about. However, I’m glad Dix was clear and explicit about the harm, as she says herself, “the condition of human beings reduced to the extremest states of degradation and misery, cannot be exhibited in softened language, or adorn a polished page.” You can read her words yourself by visiting the MHS or by reading an online copy.

Image of a page from the MHS copy of Dix’s Memorial. This page discusses some of the abuse that occurred to individuals on a town by town basis, as well as Dix’s thoughts on the treatment.
Page from the MHS copy of Dix’s Memorial: To the Legislature of Massachusetts

In addition to Dix’s more personal words, the MHS has government documents on the topic, including a copy of the Report on insanity and idiocy in Massachusetts by the Commission on Lunacy under resolve of the Legislature of 1854. This report looks at how insane persons were counted and treated in Massachusetts, starting with the complications involved in getting an accurate count of these populations because of the shame associated with the diagnosis. Their review revealed interesting things, including a fairly even gender split, a belief that lunacy is curable, and disproportionate numbers of “aliens,” or non-Americans, receiving treatment in institutions. The treatment of non-Americans was especially interesting, with the writers pre-answering critiques by countering that these “generous provisions for the alien lunatics will not be questioned here, for not one of these thus provided for should have been neglected. Indeed, it is the great honor of our Commonwealth that it has built…these institutions for the relief of the suffering.” Though lacking in many areas, this report and the men who created it seemed to have the dignity of the people they were serving at the core, which was comforting. Despite these positive elements, these documents are still primarily about abled people’s responses and responsibilities. The voices of the “insane and idiots” are not present in the text.

Image of a page of text from the “Report on Insanity.” The text discusses why people considered insane might not be kept at home and instead be in an institution.
Page from the “Report on Insanity” by the Commission on Lunacy

The final materials I examined were ephemera and reports from The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. Archivist Susan Martin wrote a wonderful blog post about the collection, so I won’t rehash everything, but I did find it interesting how these materials fit with the other documents the MHS has about idiocy and insanity. The reports are focused on how well students are progressing, as well as the work and value of the school. It operated significantly more like modern schools for severely disabled people than anything else I looked at, which is striking given that the documents are still pre-Civil War. Still, there is no element of the student voice anywhere in the ephemera, which consists largely of information on how to enroll and what to bring rather than content produced by students. Once again, abled people are telling disabled people’s stories–no matter how well-meaning they are.

Image of the cover page of the “Circular of the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind.” The page has text in a decorative border.
Cover page of the “Circular of the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind.”

Reading about the treatment of what was deemed idiocy and insanity was a deeply upsetting experience that required breaks. There’s so much dehumanization in the sources and even Dorothea Dix’s testimony, the source that focused primarily on their humanity and victimhood, highlighted that dehumanization. The treatment of these disabled people is, quite frankly, horrifying. In many ways, I see echoes of that treatment in the present with things like #FreeBritney and Disabled Day of Mourning.

Tune in next time, when I will look at some of the ways disabled veterans are represented in the archive.

Remarkable Women in MHS Collections

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist 

I’d like to use the blog today to highlight two manuscript collections that recently crossed my desk, collections that document the work of two very impressive and accomplished women.

The first is the papers of social workers Dina D’Alto Malgeri and Francesco P. Malgeri. During the early and mid-twentieth century, the Malgeris, both immigrants from Italy, devoted themselves to the Italian immigrant communities in their adopted homes of Boston and Chicago. The collection consists mostly of papers of Dina Malgeri, who survived her husband by 49 years.

Image of a yellowed newspaper clipping. There a large text title at the top with two columns of text and an image of the upper body of a woman in an oval. The woman has dark hair, and is wearing a large necklace and a collared top.
Clipping from vol. 2 (image 57), Dina D’Alto Malgeri and Francesco P. Malgeri papers, 30 April 1937

Dina Malgeri worked tirelessly to help immigrants access educational and employment opportunities, government and medical assistance, and recreational activities. She taught English, Italian, and citizenship classes; organized clubs for children and adults; translated and interpreted; led cultural tours and outings; delivered lectures; and even wrote and directed plays. It seems wherever she saw a need, she stepped up.

One of the nice things about the Malgeri papers is that the MHS’s crack digital team has digitized the collection in its entirety, and you can access these images through our collection guide. There you’ll find papers of many of the associations with which Dina was affiliated, as well as papers documenting her efforts to help individuals arrange medical care, straighten out legal matters, and become U.S. citizens.

Literally the same day I cataloged the Malgeri papers, I also cataloged the papers of M. Virginia Morrissey McDermott of Medford, Mass., a woman described in her obituary as “a pioneering lawyer, businesswoman and activist for women’s equality.” After graduating second in her high school class, McDermott told her parents she wanted to attend law school. As she described in a 2007 newspaper article, “My father stared out the window for 10 minutes. Then he said, ‘Well, if you want to, I think you have the brains. Go do it.’” In 1939, she proved him right by graduating second in her class again from Portia Law School, now the New England School of Law.

McDermott was the first female secretary of the Newspaper Guild union, treasurer and president of the Newman Club, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Business and Professional Women, nominating committee chair for the National Foundation of Business and Professional Women, member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, and Boston’s Woman of the Year. And this is only a partial list. She not only achieved personal success, but devoted her professional life to boosting other women. She fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and was still working as a lawyer in her nineties.

When asked why she didn’t marry until the age of 50, she explained,. “I was just too busy doing everything else to think about it.”

Her papers at the MHS consist mostly of printed matter related to her professional activities. However, the collection ended up having an unexpected personal connection to yours truly. Leafing through miscellaneous clippings from the 1950s and ‘60s, I noticed one in particular that made me stop.

Image of a yellowed newspaper clipping showing a picture of three women with a text caption. The women are positioned side by side. The person in the middle holds a piece of paper and the women on the sides look down at it.
Clipping from the M. Virginia Morrissey McDermott papers, [January 1953]

The woman in the middle is Virginia McDermott. The woman on the left is my great-aunt Beatrice Corliss!

“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March”

By Emily Petermann, Library Assistant

If your name is Gaius Julius Caesar (and it’s 44 BC…and you’re the tyrant of Rome) you may want to stay home today. For everyone else—are you ready for the Ides of March?

The Ides is the 13th or 15th day of the month in the Roman calendar. It is the third of three named days in the Roman month: the first is the kalends, or first of each month, and the second is the nones, the 5th or 7th day of each month. The Ides of March is a particularly famous Ides—it’s the day the tyrant died. On thisday in 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated by 22 Roman senators. You may know his final words—according to Shakespeare—as “et tu, Brute?” or “and you, Brutus?”

To celebrate this year’s Ides, I decided to look through our holdings for Caesar and for Latin related items.

The first item that drew my attention was this 1826 volume of Shakespeare’s Works, which has some beautiful engravings. The engraving pictured below appears at the beginning of the play Julius Caesar and depicts that fateful Ides in 44 BC.

Image of a page from a book. There is a name at the top of the page and text at the bottom. In the middle is a black and white image of several standing male figures and one person lying on the ground.
The grisly final moments of Caesar, taken from this 1826 edition of “The dramatic works of William Shakespeare,” published by C. Whittingham. This volume is from our Dowse Library, which you can read more about here!

We also hold quite a few non-Shakespearean works related to Julius Caesar. The most relevant is written by Caesar himself: the MHS holds a few editions of his work Hoc uolumine continentur haec. [C. Iulij Caesaris] Commentariorum de bello Gallico...”  The title translates to “These chapters contain G. Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War…” This volume is Caesar’s account of multiple wars that he was involved in, with the most famous being the Gallic War.

Color image of a book spine and the hand holding it. There are book shelves in the background.
A small edition of Caesar’s “Commentaries,” published by the Aldine Press in 1519. This book is the perfect size to hold in your hand!

Pictured above is an edition of Caesar’s work published by the Aldine Press, a company started by Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer responsible for creating the italic typeface. Manutius also notably put out small and affordable editions of Latin and Greek texts, like our copy of Caesar’s work, which is the perfect size to hold in your hand.[i] Open this copy of “Commentariorum de bello Gallico…” and you can use the map of part of Western Europe to follow Caesar’s campaign through Gaul as you read!  

Image of a book open to a map that spans both pages.
A map of ‘Gaul’ printed in 1519.

We also hold quite a few (55!) Latin primers and readers: books intended to teach Latin to students. Quite a few of them claim to teach in new and innovative ways. I’ve taken several years of Latin, so I’m always looking for “new” ways to learn the language. My favorite of the primers is titled “A Demonstration How the Latine Tongue May be Learnt With Far Greater Ease and speed then Commonly It Is.” This primer was published in London in 1669 by Arthur Brett. Brett begins his primer with a complaint that the “older” ways of teaching Latin negatively affected student’s health. He said of the old way: “Least pouring on hard Rules should crack their brains, impair their health, and make them to nauseate all kind of knowledg[sic].”

Image showing two pages of a pamphlet. Text fills both pages.
Pages 2 and 3 of Brett’s 6—page pamphlet on the ‘best’ way to learn Latin.

To the modern eye, Brett’s Latin is also likely to crack our brains – he expected students to know to write “What wouldst thou have” (“What would you like?” in 17th century English) as “Nihil moror quid objicis,” instead of the apparently obviously incorrect “Quid tibi vis?” (which he translates as “What wilt thou to thee?”) It took me a few passes to figure this sentence out, thanks to 354 years of language changing- I’m glad I wasn’t learning Latin from Mr. Brett!

Finally, I thought I would look for some familiar Latin phrases-like “et tu, Brute?”- in the collection. I was excited to find  a volume titled, “Adagiorum chiliades Desby Erasumes Desiderius, which contains Latin adages and explanations for those adages broken down by the century they were common in.

Image of a hand pulling an old book from a shelf. There are two similar books to the right.
The “Adiagorium” is a large volume, sitting on the shelf. Unlike Caesar’s “Commentarium” this is a two-handed sort of book

One of my favorites from this collection is “Elephantum ex musca facis” or “you are making an elephant out of a fly.” This adage sounds a lot like our contemporary phrase, “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”

If you’re not supposed to stay inside today (looking at you, Caesar), consider visiting the Reading Room to check out some of our materials on Caesar and the Latin language. You can find out more about visiting the Reading Room here, and can request an appointment here.

[i] Kuiper, Kathleen, “Aldus Manutius” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, updated Feb. 2, 2023.

A Keen Eye Towards Literary Figures: Annie Adams Fields and Her Descriptions of Authors – Part 1

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Annie Adams Fields (1834‒1915) was an author and social reformer who made her home at 148 Charles Street the center of literary Boston. Her circle of friends included authors published by her husband, James T. Fields, of Ticknor & Fields, as well as European writers visiting Boston. The MHS holds Annie Fields correspondence, travel and other diaries, translations, and a scrapbook on Charles Dickens.  

Image of a black and white photograph surrounded by a gold frame. The woman's back is toward the viewer and she has her head turned in profile. She has dark hair that is pulled back and is wearing a lace collar and a dark dress.
Annie Fields, 1853, the year before she married to James T. Fields. Daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes.

Fields made a number of literary friends during her travels in Europe, 1859‒1860, and these writers later came to her salon in Boston along with New England and other US authors. What makes these friendships of particular interest today are Fields’s descriptions of the writers, penned with a keen eye. For example, she hosted a dinner on 21 November 1867, that included Charles Dickens. Afterward, she wrote about Dickens in her diary:

“Dickens bubbled over with fun & I could not help fancying that Holmes bored him a little by talking at him. I was sorry for this because Holmes is so simple and lovely but Dickens is sensitive, very. He is fond of Carlyle, seems to love nobody better and gave the most irresistible imitation of him. His queer terms of expression often convulsed us with laughter and yet it is difficult to catch them as when in speaking of the writer of books always putting himself, his real self in ‘which is always the case,’ he said ‘but you must be careful of not taking him for his next door neighbor.’”

Many visitors found Fields to be a sympathetic listener and confided in her, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his visit with Fields on 6 December 1863, following a funeral, she wrote this passage about him:

“As the sunset deepened Mr Hawthorne talked of his early life. His grandfather bought a township in Maine and at the early age of eleven years he accompanied his mother and sister down there to live upon the land. From that moment the happiest period of his life began and lasted until he was thirteen when he was sent to school in Salem. While in Maine he lived like a bird of the air so perfect was the freedom he enjoyed. During the moonlight nights of winter he would skate until midnight alone upon the icy face of Sebago Lake with all its ineffable beauty stretched before him and the deep shadows of the hills on either hand…. All the long summer days he roamed at will, gun in hand through the woods and there he learned a nearness to Nature and a love for free life which has never left him and made all other existence in a measure insupportable. His suffering began with that Salem school and his knowledge of his relatives who were all distasteful to him. He said, how sad middle life looks to people of erratic temperaments. Everything is beautiful in youth—all things are allowed to it.”

Fields also observed Hawthorne on his way to the funeral on 4 December 1863, and wrote, “He says in it ‘pleasure is only pain greatly exaggerated’ which is queer to say the least if not untrue. I think it must be differently stated from this. He was as courteous and as grand as ever—and as true. He does not lose that all saddening smile, either.” This last sentence leads the reader to surmise that Hawthorne always had a “saddening smile.”

The descriptions Fields wrote about her literary friends were used by her husband to create essays on Hawthorne and Dickens, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871 and in his book Yesterdays with Authors in 1872.

You can read Fields’s transcribed diaries in the online edition of The Brownings’ Correspondence.

Wompatuck’s Lease: Tribute, Tobacco, and Land in Colonial Massachusetts

By Nathan Braccio, Assistant Professor, Lesley University

“A pound of Tobacco yearly to be paid.” Starting in 1657, for the next one-hundred years, this is what Richard Thayer and his heirs owed the Massachusetts sachem, Josiah Wompatuck. The payment was due on “the first or second day of the first month.” 

Image of six lines of handwritten text on sepia-toned paper.
JosiahWompatuck, Thomas Thayer, [Lease of Land to Richard Thayer], 1657, A.E. Roth Collection, MHS. The deed was likely written by Thomas Thayer or John Niles, who signed it. 

These lines were neatly written within a 1657 “deed,” now part of the A.E. Roth Collection of the MHS. Strikingly, Wompatuck was not selling land, but leasing it to Thayer with a number of stipulations. While stories, many true, often present manipulative colonists as cheating Indigenous people out of their land, Wompatuck was no naive negotiator and this was not his first land deal. 

Image of a sepia-toned page of handwritten text.
JosiahWompatuck, Thomas Thayer, [Lease of Land to Richard Thayer], 1657, A.E. Roth Collection, MHS. While this is a clerical copy of the original deed, it contains reference to some of the history of the document. This includes a “confirmation of this my lease” by Wompatuck and his “wise men.”

Josiah Wompatuck was a sachem (leader) of the Massachusetts people. Like his predecessor Chickabut, he was an ally of the colonists and over his life gradually sold settlement rights to colonists in the area that today makes up metropolitan Boston. Today, a state park in Hingham bears his name. A man who lived within twenty miles of the heart of the English colony of Massachusetts Bay for the majority of his life and regularly negotiated with the settlers was not likely to be duped by their machinations to seize land. 

Instead, in this deed and others, Wompatuck carefully worked to ensure that the document reflected a negotiation between aggressive colonial demands and the interests of his community and himself. Here, while Wompatuck did ultimately provide the colonists the land they sought for farming and settlement, he ensured that Richard Thayer produced a document acknowledging Wompatuck as his “land lord.” If Thayer, or his heirs, ever failed to pay, the lease would be “void and of none Effect.” This document, combined with the payment, created an unambiguous record of Wompatuck’s retention of political authority over the land. Sachems in New England had an established practice of collecting tribute from their people in exchange for rights to farm or hunt on land. The tribute was generally paid annually, and often in deer skins. This established a reciprocal relationship between sachem and subject, reflecting the authority of the sachem. While not paying in deer skins, Thayer’s payment of tobacco fits into this Algonquian practice of tribute. Ultimately then, Thayer in this “deed” became a subject of the sachem Wompatuck and his heirs. In Algonquain political culture, Thayer’s ability to occupy the land relied on the continuation of Wompatuck’s sovereignty.

This is not to say that Wompatuck, like so many other skilled New England Indigenous leaders, was not a victim of colonial chicanery. Both during and after his life, colonists over decades slowly and steadily took land, reneging on agreements across New England when it suited them. Still, Wompatuck and other sachems creatively resisted and found ways to navigate a rapidly changing world. Wompatuck not only convinced colonists to acknowledge his rights in English documents, he made agreements with the English that benefited his community. For example, in the 1630s, he and his predecessors established an alliance with Massachusetts Bay in a long-running struggle with Narragansett sachems. Wompatuck’s deed stands as a testament to the persistent authority and importance of Indigenous leadership in 17th century New England.

The Reptilian Resident of the Reading Room

By Jenna Colozza, Library Assistant

There is much to admire in Ellis Hall, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Reading Room, but one of its most eye-catching features is the ornate fireplace on the southern wall. I have spent many days in Ellis for nearly the last year and a half, yet only recently did I notice the strange reptilian motif in the interior of the fireplace.

Color photograph showing a low brass fireplace grate. A reptile form is seen on a vertical surface behind the grate.
A close look at the reptile in the fireback (a term I learned for the purposes of this blog post, among several other fireplace-related words).
Ellis Hall in 1899, shortly after the MHS building was constructed. Photo from Massachusetts Historical Society Archives.]

I immediately set out to answer some burning questions about this mysterious reptile. A closer look at the reptile reveals flames coming out of its mouth and surrounding it, suggesting it must be a dragon. Certainly apt for a fireplace decoration! But what else can we discover about the dragon’s design and origin?

The MHS moved into its current home at 1154 Boylston Street in 1899. The structure was built specifically for the MHS, designed by prominent New England architect Edmund M. Wheelwright. Wheelwright’s design for the new building was somewhat contentious. At first, many Members found the plans at odds with the Society’s needs, not to mention cost-prohibitive. One influential figure in the Society even called the plans for the new building “snobbish.”[1] Nonetheless, after sharing their feedback, they were able to come to an agreement with Wheelwright on the designs, and 1154 Boylston was completed in 1899.

During the construction of the Boylston Street property, the Society was forced to hold meetings in temporary quarters, which MHS President Charles Francis Adams bemoaned as a “dreary, sunless tomb.”[2] The members must have been relieved to move their meetings to Ellis Hall, with its beautiful decoration and plentiful natural light.

Ellis, originally used for meetings of the Society, is enclosed in panels of stained American oak. The mantle and overmantle of the fireplace are of the same wood, ornately carved with botanical and animal designs, the overmantle featuring a carving of the Society’s beehive seal. Rams’ heads are carved into each leg of the mantle, and matching brass andirons also decorated with rams’ heads sit within the fireplace. Like many others in the nineteenth century, the decorative fireback featuring our dragon friend appears to be cast iron.

So who is responsible for the design of the fireplace? Invoices in the MHS Archives show that in January 1899, the Society contracted a company called the Murdock Parlor Grate Co. to lay the terrazzo floor (currently covered by carpet) in what is now the Seminar Room, and also purchased a fireplace grate for use in Dowse Library from them. This company specialized in various aspects of fireplace construction, both practical and ornamental, so it was likely also contracted to install the fireplaces in the MHS building. In the same month, the Society paid John Evans & Co. for interior wood and stone carving, meaning he must have carved the ornate wooden mantle and overmantle.

Another fireplace on the first floor has a cast iron backing similar to the one in Ellis, but its decoration is a custom design with the initials “MHS” surrounded by laurels. Since this design was custom-made for the Society, it is possible the dragon motif was a standard design used by Murdock Co.

Color photo of the left page of an account book. There are lines of handwritten text set up in columns.
The MHS’s account book for January 1899, showing payments made to Murdock Parlor Grate Co. and to John Evans & Co. MHS Archives.
Image of a black and white advertisement. There is text at the top and bottom of the page. In the middle is a depiction of a brick fireplace and mantle.
An advertisement for Murdock Parlor Grate Co., Boston Directory (1897).]

I began to wonder how recently the fireplaces may have been used. Today, we wouldn’t dream of lighting a fire in the Reading Room or anywhere else in the building, no matter how cozy we imagine it would be on chilly days. Imagine the risk to our collections it would pose! Not to mention the question of fire safety and, well, the minor issue that the fireplaces in our building are no longer usable…

In fact, by the mid- to late-19th century, most large buildings were heated with furnaces or boilers, not stoves or fireplaces. The MHS building was heated with a coal furnace until the Second World War. The fireplace may have been used during meetings to promote a friendly, comfortable atmosphere, but it was certainly not the primary heat source in the building. We know that MHS leadership was quite concerned with the aesthetics and coziness of their permanent home. Nevertheless, the fireplace has likely served more of an ornamental purpose for most of its existence.

In the beginning, Ellis was a meeting space used by the MHS and by other organizations, such as the American Philosophical Society, to whom the MHS rented it out. It was then a museum space from 1924 until 1960, when it became the Society’s Reading Room. An arrangement of firewood and kindling can be seen in a 1960 photograph of the fireplace, but a suspiciously similar setup appears in a photograph over thirty years later, in 1991, suggesting those logs were never meant to be set aflame—perhaps were merely set dressing for the photographs.

Black and white photograph showing a fireplace with an ornate wood carving above the mantle and a fireplace grate holding logs.
The fireplace in 1960, the year Ellis Hall was converted into a Reading Room. Photo from MHS Archives.
Black and white photograph of a large room with several wood tables set up in rows. There are people sitting at the tables looking at papers.
Ellis in 1991. Hey, that configuration of logs looks awfully familiar… Photo from MHS Archives.]

Though none of the fireplaces are usable now, surprisingly, the chimney to the Ellis Hall fireplace was not capped until around the early- or mid-2000s. One day, MHS staff could hear chirping coming from the fireplace, and when they opened the flue, they discovered a nest of juvenile hawks in the chimney! Staff members who were there at the time remember a whimsical, though chaotic, scene of the birds flying around Ellis in the process of freeing them. Needless to say, after this incident, it was determined that the chimney needed to be blocked off at the top.

In a building that holds so much history, there is a lot to notice, so I forgive myself for not noticing the fireplace dragon sooner. It goes to show that even an obscure detail of interior design has a story to tell!


Highland, Margaret. “Cheerful and Bright (and Smoky): Staying Warm in 19th-Century American Homes.” Mansion Musings (blog). November 15, 2018.

Massachusetts Historical Society archives, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Tucker, Louis Leonard. The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995.

With thanks to Anne Bentley and Peter Drummey for their assistance.

[1] Louis Leonard Tucker, The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995, p. 218.

[2] Tucker, Bicentennial History, p. 223.

The Backbone of the Collection: Bindings, spines, and wastepaper

By Klara Pokrzywa, Library Assistant

Like probably pretty much anyone that works in an archives, I love looking at old books and their lovely bindings! We have plenty of pristine old bindings here at the MHS – but just as interesting are the bindings in various states of wear and tear. Today I wanted to take a look at some books that are showing their age in one particular way: exposed wastepaper bindings.

An image of four old books on a shelf. The spine of one book has peeled away to reveal a binding lined with printed paper.
This book spine is starting to disintegrate, exposing the printed material originally used to reinforce the binding.

Wastepaper has been used in book bindings for centuries – essentially, it’s the practice of using scraps of used paper to reinforce or mend the bindings of newer texts. Most of the scholarly work on wastepaper bindings deals with fragments of medieval manuscripts, which are hand-scribed and generally produced on parchment. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating article on how researchers try to identify and reconstruct manuscripts found in the bindings of other texts. And if you’re interested in seeing some examples of what it looks like when a beautifully decorated manuscript is used as a binding, Princeton Libraries has a blog post with some very cool pictures. Finding a fragment of a medieval manuscript is a pretty big discovery, however, and it’s much more common for bindings to be reinforced with more modern printed paper. That doesn’t mean that these printed materials aren’t interesting!

An image of a book spine covered with cracked paper printed with English language text.
The spine binding has peeled off entirely on this book, fully exposing the page of text used to bind it. Note the title at the top and footnotes near the bottom!

Our copy of Volume 1 from The works of John Adams, written by his grandson Charles Francis Adams, is one such example of printed wastepaper. The series was published between 1850-1856. As you can see above, under the leather of the binding, there are scraps of printed English language text on paper. If you look closely, you can see that this paper is actually a page from another book, complete with footnotes at the bottom.

This one is interesting because only the first volume in this series has the binding paper exposed. Perhaps the first volume was bound less securely than the rest, or perhaps it saw more use over the years than the later volumes! If the spines on the other volumes ever disintegrate (which they hopefully won’t!), it would be interesting to see if they were all bound in paper from the same source.

It’s frequently difficult to read binding fragments, because the narrow strips of paper mean you only ever get a few consecutive words, and never a full sentence. In this volume especially, the binding paper has separated out into even narrower little scraps, which makes it even harder! From what I can tell, the binding here looks as though it’s a history text – I think the text at the top where the title of a book or chapter would be says “American Evolution,” and some of the body text talks about food, turkeys, and agriculture.

An image of a book spine covered with a strip of paper printed with German words in a gothic font
The exposed spine of our copy of Platonis dialogi is bound with the margins of a page from another book in German

This next book has only the edge of a page in its binding. There’s enough complete words to determine that it’s a German language text, which makes sense, seeing as this copy of Platonis dialogi : Graece et Latine (Platonic dialogues in side-by-side Greek and Latin) was published by the Berlin publisher Bekkeri. It dates a little earlier than the Adams text, likely between 1816-1818. Let’s take another view of the binding:

An image with a different perspective of the same book spine
Another view of the spine

I love the slightly Gothic font! There are also a few numbers in this text, which look as though they might be dates, although they don’t correspond with the dates of publication. I can’t read German, so it’s difficult for me to tell anything further than this – although I think one of the words I managed to identify was “murden,” German for “murder,” which piqued my curiosity. If anyone can make more sense of this, let me know!

A book spine with an exposed binding covered in a strip of newspaper advertising.
Read about American commerce and find a solution for chapping, chafing, and itching all in one place!

The last binding I want to talk about is from a book called A statistical view of the commerce of the United States of America : its connection with agriculture and manufactures; and an account of the public debt, revenues, and expenditures of the United States, by Timothy Pitkin. This was published in New York in 1817; I took a look inside while photographing it, and to be honest, it’s kind of slow reading! But the contrast between the very dry text of the actual volume and the commercial, upbeat tone of the binding is a little amusing to me, because as you can see, it’s bound with an advertisement for dandruff products.

These bindings are interesting because of the contrasts they occasionally draw with the content of the volumes they hold together, as with the Pitkin tome here, but also because it can tell us about what publishers did and didn’t value – these aren’t called wastepaper bindings for nothing! And while perhaps it isn’t particularly surprising that an old newspaper advertisement for dandruff cream was seen as waste, there’s also a tension here: it’s precisely because these scraps of paper were designated as disposable that they have survived.

“Liberty for Each, for All and Forever”

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

The Guardian, “America’s greatest race journal,” was a Black-owned newspaper published in Boston. The paper was founded in 1901 by businessman William Monroe Trotter and librarian George Washington Forbes. The MHS collection of Garrison family papers includes one full issue of The Guardian, dated 16 December 1905, the bulk of which is dedicated to commemorating abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison on the centennial of his birth. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of Black activism during the Jim Crow era.

Image of a page from a newspaper with the title at the top followed by a block of text spanning the page. Following the block of text, the rest of the page has images of people interspersed with text.
The Guardian newspaper, 16 Dec. 1905
Black and white image of a man's head and shoulders. It is a 3/4 view. The man has short hair and a moustache and is wearing a jacket and tie.
William Monroe Trotter, co-founder of The Guardian

The Guardian offices were located first on Tremont Row, but in 1907 moved to 21 Cornhill Street, the same office from which Garrison had published his famous Liberator. Trotter idolized the abolitionist, and that certainly comes through in his flowery prose. The masthead even features a Garrison quote: “Liberty for Each, for All and Forever.” But Trotter also didn’t pull punches when it came to those he opposed: segregationists and white supremacists, of course, but also Black accommodationists like Booker T. Washington.

On the 10th and 11th of December 1905, citizens of Boston paid tribute to Garrison with ceremonies, prayers, and concerts. This 12-page issue of The Guardian includes details of these events, transcriptions of speeches, and photographs of a number of the participants. I’d like to highlight a few of them here, but I encourage you to click on this link to see the whole issue, which includes about 40 more and has been beautifully reproduced by the MHS digital team.

Black and white image of a woman's head and shoulders. She has dark hair.
Pauline Hopkins, page 1

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930) was an author, editor, and lecturer whose ancestors fought at Bunker Hill. When she spoke at Faneuil Hall, she declared, “I am a daughter of the Revolution, you do not acknowledge black daughters of the Revolution but we are going to take that right.”

Black and white image of a man with short, dark hair and a moustache. He is wearing a jacket and tie.
Clement G. Morgan, page 4

Attorney Clement Garnett Morgan (1859-1929) was the first African American to receive both an A.B. and an LL.B. from Harvard. The list of his academic honors and achievements could fill up a blog post of its own! At a speech in 1890, he declared, “I am glad to be a Negro […] I mean to be a Negro. On the bottom of my heart is written Negro.”

Black and white image of the head and shoulders of a woman. Her hair is styled in an up do with a large curl in the center of her forehead.
Nellie B. Mitchell, page 8

Nellie Brown Mitchell (1845-1924) was a classically trained singer and voice teacher who performed throughout New England, including at both Black and white churches, as well as the west and south. She performed at Garrison’s funeral in 1879 and at the centennial.

Black and white image of a man's head and shoulders. He has dark hair and is wearing a jacket and bow tie.
J. Nathaniel Butler, page 8

J. Nathaniel Butler had worked with William Lloyd Garrison at the Liberator. He is described as “venerable” and “aged” in 1905, so he was probably the same man who had assisted at an attempted rescue of freedom seeker Anthony Burns 51 years before.

Other photographs in the paper depict clergy, artists, military men, individuals affiliated with the Niagara Movement, and many more. Among them are Mark R. DeMortie, Wesley J. Furlong, Eliza Gardner, Byron L. Gunner, Martin L. Harvey, Reverdy C. Ransom, William L. Reed, William H. Richardson, Hannah C. Smith, and John J. Smith.

Francis Jackson Garrison (1848-1915), the youngest child of William Lloyd Garrison, delivered a rousing speech that tied racism to other societal harms, including sexism, xenophobia, imperialism, and political corruption. If his father were still alive, he said, he would not only see the wholesale disenfranchisement of African Americans, but also…

He would find Negroes excluded from juries, from all town, city and state governing bodies, denied legal intermarriage with whites, restricted to Negro galleries in the theatres and Negro cars on the trains, subjected to excessive penalties for violations of law […] He would find women denied their full political rights in all but four states of the Union, and the Chinese […] still excluded as outcasts. He would view with amazement the spectacle of the United States seizing distant lands, slaughtering their people by tens of thousands, and establishing colonial government.

For a detailed blow-by-blow of the commemorations that took place on 10-11 December 1905, see The Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of William Lloyd Garrison, published the following year.

Apart from Garrison-related material, this issue of The Guardian contains several other items of interest. For example, multiple articles relate to the resignation of John Gordon as president of Howard University. Under Gordon’s leadership, the curriculum of the school had been changed to one focusing more on “industrial education.” Students considered this change an insult to their academic abilities and protested, eventually forcing Gordon out. One protest involved as many as 400 students.

Another article rails against a vagrancy law in Macon, Ga. that would allow police to arrest any Black person they deemed to be “loitering” or “idle.” According to the article’s author, some Black men had achieved a level of relative comfort that enabled their wives not to work. Chief Conner of Macon, to help the “suffering [white] housewives […] issued orders for all idle Negro women to be rounded up, and unless they can show that they have employment they will be sent to the chain-gang, there to cook without pay and clothed in stripes.”

Finally, I’ll draw your attention to this eye-popping headline: “Negro Has Legal Rights. Court Rules He Is Entitled to Protection Under Law Against Lynching—Great Decision.” This brief bulletin refers to the case of Thomas M. Riggins v. United States. Riggins had participated in the lynching of a Black man named Horace Maples, but argued that he had committed no crime because the protections afforded by the Constitution simply did not extend to African Americans. The Supreme Court ruled against him.

The Guardian closed up shop in either 1955 or 1960 (sources differ). I hope you’ll take some time to read through this fascinating newspaper or visit the MHS to check out the rest of the Garrison family papers.