While searching the online collection and archives of the MHS for objects and stories to share on social media, I find myself going down rabbit holes when I find slight hints of an interesting story. Recently, this happened with a historical figure of note that I had never heard of, despite having done theater in my youth and being familiar with US history and art. That man was William Dunlap.
William Dunlap (1766–1839) is touted as the father of American theater; he was also influential in art, literature, and design. He is perhaps most famous for his play André, which depicted George Washington on stage for the first time after the United States became a nation. On opening night in 1798, the play caused a bit of a scandal. It tells the story of the British spy Major John André, who Washington executed during the American Revolution. One of the characters in the play is a soldier in the Continental Army. He becomes furious with Washington over the execution and tears the black cockade from the hat he was wearing and throws it to the ground. The audience erupted in fury at such desecration of a sacred Federalist symbol. They booed vociferously and then rioted after the play finished, forcing Dunlap to change the ending.
Charles Frances Adams wrote in his diary of two occasions when he saw the Dunlap play, The Stranger, in 1833 and 1837, although the note in 1837 reveals he had seen the play in 1825 and 1834 as well. Adams wrote this about the play, “This is a piece I never can see without feeling it. Indeed I am more touched by it than by any. If this is the test of a good piece it certainly is good, but I require rather more. I feel the inconsistencies in the character of the heroine, and the affectations of sentiment, it contains.”
Despite having lost an eye to an errantly thrown rock by a school friend as a boy, Dunlap was also a trained artist. He was mainly a portraitist, and the MHS holds a portrait he painted in New York City in 1811 or 1812 after his Park Theatre closed in 1805. The portrait is miniature watercolor of Elizabeth Oliver Lyde. When viewed up close, it shows great attention to the lines of her face, the shadowing and light on her cap and clothes, and the depth of emotion in her eyes.
Previously on the Beehive, a colleague of mine described the early 20th-century diaries of Robert E. Grant, a policeman in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston. The MHS also holds the papers of another policeman, Lieut. James Bruce, a contemporary of Grant’s who lived and worked in Everett.
James Bruce was born in Scotland in 1869, immigrated to the United States in the late 1880s, and was naturalized a few years later. He and his wife (also a naturalized citizen from Scotland) lived at 10 Russell Street in Everett and had four daughters and two sons: Walter, Margaret, Janet, James, Mary, and Emily. Janet died as an infant.
When Lieut. Bruce was patrolling its streets in 1920, Everett’s population was 40,120. According to printed sources, the city was home to many immigrants, primarily from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada, as well as 1,129 African Americans.
Bruce’s collection at the MHS consists mostly of volumes documenting his police work, including two diaries, 1921-1922; a precinct arrest log, 1904-1924; and a memoir he wrote called Tattlings of a Retired Police Officer, printed in 1927. Some events described in Tattlings correspond to the log, although Bruce used pseudonyms for publication.
The arrest log, in particular, is a mine of information. Its pages are arranged into columns listing date, full name, nationality, “assisted by” (that is, who assisted Bruce in the arrest), offense, and disposition, or consequence for the arrestee. The first thing that stands out is how many people were arrested for drunkenness—so many that Bruce just used ditto marks to save time.
Other offenses included assault and battery, disturbance of the peace, larceny, breaking and entering, weapons charges, non-support of dependents, destruction of property, automobile violations, probation violations, and false fire alarms. Rare but still present were a few incidents of manslaughter. Some people were arrested for being ‘idle and disorderly” or “stubborn and disobedient,” “exposing his person,” or gambling on a Sunday. Adultery was also an arrestable offense.
And of course, those being the days of Prohibition, there were arrests for the manufacture and sale of liquor, though not as many as I expected.
Some entries are amusing: “vile, indecent & profane language in the street,” “indecent language near a dwelling” (which was worse, I wonder?), “lewd & lascivious cohabitation,” and “feeding [a] horse on [a] public st without an attendant or the wheels being locked.”
Many are disturbing: “two warrants for assault with intent to carnally know & abuse two juvenile females also one warrant for having in his possession obscene pictures for the purpose of corrupting the morals of the young.” Bruce also dealt with cases of incest, neglected children, mental illness, and animal cruelty.
When an arrestee was African American, Bruce indicated their race in a note next to their name. One Black man from the West Indies was arrested for “not having [a] registration card,” and another was AWOL from military service. I was also intrigued by some of the items that were allegedly stolen. Cash or a diamond ring, I understand, even “five hens,” but “four baby carriage wheels”?
James Bruce was injured in a fall in 1924 and retired from the Everett police force. He died in 1932.
In my research for this blog, I uncovered evidence of a shocking family tragedy. According to the Boston Globe, on 26 February 1922, James Bruce was handling his gun at home, apparently unaware it was loaded. The gun discharged, and the bullet struck his daughter Mary, a 17-year-old student at Everett High School. She died at the hospital six days later.
When I looked through Bruce’s collection for anything that might shed light on this incident, I found no reference to it, except by omission. The last entry in his 1922 diary was written on 24 February, two days before the shooting. The rest of the volume is blank.
With Black History Month upon us, I wanted to investigate items in our collection related to the Black experience in Massachusetts. One item is a pamphlet written by David Walker, titled “Walker’s appeal in four articles: together with a preamble, to the colored citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly to those of the United States of America.” Walker’s pamphlet addresses his fellow Black citizens, encouraging them to work against slavery, and calls attention to the racism in the abolition movement.
Born in North Carolina, David Walker relocated to Boston, where he operated a clothing shop and served as an active member of Boston’s Black community.1 Walker was a founding member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), a Black-led abolitionist organization which argued for equal rights, fighting against slavery and segregation. The MGCA was active in Boston, and later became more broadly known for merging with the New England Anti-Slavery Association in 1833.2 Published in 1830, the abolitionist pamphlet is a powerful piece of writing that exhibits Walker’s and the MGCA’s views on slavery and the need not only for abolition, but for equal rights.
The pamphlet is divided into four parts, covering the consequences of slavery, the religious aspects of slavery, and the problems of the colonization movement, which was active during this period. Walker wastes no time in airing his grievances, calling slavery the “curse to nations”3 that makes his fellow Black Americans the “most degraded, wretched, and abject” beings4. Grounding himself in his Protestant Christian faith, he asserts the evils of slavery and the humanity of African Americans using his language in the pamphlet. Walker repeatedly refers to African Americans as “citizens.” While Black Americans did not legally possess citizenship until after the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868,5 Walker uses the word to emphasize a key point in his argument – the importance of their humanity. “You are men, as well as they”6 he asserts. He further discusses this by citing the bible and calling out white Christians particularly for their lack of equality. Elaborating on the reluctance of white Christians to accept Black Americans as equal in humanity, Walker challenges white readers to support not just the abolition of slavery for their own consciences, but for the equal rights of their fellow humans.
The pamphlet showcases Walker’s education and classical knowledge – providing biblical and classical examples against slavery throughout his argument and writing in dialogue with racist founders like Thomas Jefferson and contemporaries like Henry Clay. Using biblical examples of the Israelites enslavement by the Egyptians, he elaborates that even while they were enslaved, they were treated with more humanity than the enslaved in the 19th century United States.7 Not only does he showcase his education through his writing, he also argues for the importance of education, calling to educated African Americans to enlighten their “ignorant brethren.”8 Walker sees the need for education as connected with the need for freedom and encourages his readers to seek it out for themselves and others.
Walker concludes the article by printing an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, and highlights to readers the hypocrisy of the document, asking “Do you see your declaration, Americans!!!!!! Do you understand your own language?”9 He tasks white Americans with raising the enslaved to the condition of “respectable men,” and further stating that they must “make a national acknowledgement to us for the wrongs they have inflicted.”10 With dramatic use of exclamation points and capital letters, Walker crafts his language to display his anger and to emphasize the importance of his argument. His fiery language reminds us today of the weight of slavery, and the responsibility that comes with perpetuating it, and gives us a glimpse into the Black participation in the abolition movement.11
For the upcoming Papers of John Adams, vol. 24, I have been working to identify a group of women who sent Pres. John Adams a petition in 1799 or 1800 (the exact date still needs to be further researched; maybe I will discuss the process of redating documents in a future post!). These 72 women wrote this petition on behalf of men charged with crimes of “sedition and misdemeanors” for their participation in Fries’ Rebellion in March 1799. The rebellion started in resistance to a new federal tax law and other federal laws including the Alien and Sedition Acts. If you are interested in reading the whole petition alongside the women’s signatures, it is available on the American Philosophical Society’s website. The women wrote as “mothers and wives petitioning for fathers for husbands and for children” acknowledging that while it was uncommon for women to send such a political petition in their position as mothers and as wives they were not “overstepping” their role. In many ways, they embodied the ideal of Republican Motherhood, which you can read more about in my last blog post.
While the petition does not contain the names of the men, we do learn that these women wrote on behalf of more than thirty men imprisoned in the “Gaol of Philadelphia.” General William MacPherson who led the federal forces against the rebellion returned to Philadelphia with 31 prisoners, who were potentially the subjects of this petition.[i] The text of the petition says that they included a list of the prisoners and their punishments, but that document did not seem to survive. They asked John Adams to pardon the prisoners for their crimes, sentences, and fines.
This document is unique in that it is signed by over seventy women, whose names often do not make the history books. Over the past few months, I have started the process of identifying these women and what brought them together to write and sign this petition.
Searching for these women in traditional sources has proved challenging for a number of reasons. First, women’s names were often not recorded in censuses or city directories in the late eighteenth century, unless they were widows. Second, for birth and death records, I need to account for whether the women were married or single at the time they signed this petition. Most married women changed their last name when they got married. My strategy has been to start with the more unique names since I have a greater chance of identifying them.
For example, one of the petitioners signed her name “E. Vredenburgh.” While she did not provide her first name, her last name seemed unique enough that a limited number of results would appear when searching her name. I first searched the Philadelphia Directory for both 1799 and 1800. While she did not appear in either directory, someone named Isaac Vredenburgh was listed at 74 Market Street. I then searched newspapers to see if she was mentioned anywhere. There was an advertisement in the Philadelphia Dunlap’s Daily Advertiser, 19 September 1795, announcing that she was moving her shop from one address to 74 Market Street and provided her first name, Esther. Now that I had her first name, I turned to Ancestry.com to see if I could find out more about her. Isaac Vredenburgh’s will, which was on the website, listed Esther as his wife. I was also able to locate her grave on Ancestry.com and found out she died on 25 July 1810. These are some of the most helpful sources when trying to confirm the identity of these women. I am still trying to figure out how this petition came to be and how it brought this group of women together.
As I was finishing up this blog post, I came across another blog post from the American Philosophical Society on this petition and their journey identifying these women. Hopefully between these two projects, we will successfully be able to identify all 72 women and give them their place in the history books.
I hope to update you all here in a few months where my research has taken me and how much more I have learned about these women.
The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding of the edition is currently provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute.
[i]Newman, Paul Douglas, “The Federalists’ Cold War: The Fries Rebellion, National Security, and the State, 1787–1800,” Pennsylvania History 67 (Winter 2000), p. 29.
Elizabeth Susan Hill (1871-1957) and Susan Putnam Hill (1878-1935) were sisters and teachers with a keen interest in the natural world. The daughters ofMary Susan McIntire and Charles Henry Hill, a farmer and produce dealer, they grew up in Groton, Mass. with six other siblings. Little documentation of their early lives survives, but both went on to become teachers, Elizabeth in Groton and Susan in Lancaster, about fifteen miles from her hometown. This blog post will focus on Susan Hill, and a Part II will focus on her sister.
Around 1907, Susan Hill became the director of a school gardening program, which encouraged children to tend their own small garden plots and carefully observe the cycles of growth and harvest, as well as the intricacies and curiosities of animal life around the gardens. This program was situated within the wider “nature study” movement in the United States, which by the time Hill began to teach was a fully-fledged pedagogical approach. Scientists and educators such as Louis Agassiz, Lucretia Crocker, Wilbur S. Jackman, and Anna Botsford Comstock had been among those at the forefront of the late-19th-century effort to incorporate experiential learning and the study of natural science into American public schools. The desire among members of the cultural establishment to develop an educated voting populace, their anxiety over increased urbanization, and their impulse to Americanize the many new immigrants to the United States all contributed to the educational policy environment in which nature study flourished.
The MHS holds several notebooks related to Susan Hill’s gardening program, most kept by Hill herself. Through these notebooks, we can see the depth of care Hill had for the program and the extent of her knowledge of gardening and botany; it seems likely that much of her expertise and enthusiasm stemmed from her upbringing as the daughter of a farmer. Describing three new school gardens begun in Lancaster, Hill writes,
“The children were very interested and enthusiastic. Each child had a note book and kept a record of his garden – telling when things were planted [–] when up – when blossomed – when first eaten. In this way they find out for them selves how long it takes for the various things to be ready for the table. […]
School gardening does not teach how to grow vegetables merely, but it gives the children a sense of ownership […] He is taught that that little garden is his and he will do his best to make the most of it.”
Hill seems to place equal weight on the knowledge and skills of gardening on the one hand and the lessons of personal responsibility and respect for property on the other, making for an interesting combination of innovative pedagogy and traditionalist, conservative messaging.
The politics of education aside, one doesn’t need to take Hill at her word that the children were enthusiastic about their gardens. Alongside Hill’s eleven extant gardening notebooks, two children’s notebooks are held at the MHS that communicate the students’ investment in learning in their own unique ways.
The first notebook, kept by a child called Mary L., shows how Hill guided younger children in their learning. The back of the notebook contains a series of questions about the basics of botany in what appears to be Hill’s handwriting and their answers carefully written by Mary.The call-and-response nature of the questions, as well as the way they build on and branch out from one another, recalls the form of a catechism.
“1. What is Botany?
Botany is the study of Flowers.
2. What does even the smallest seed contain?
Even the smallest seed contains a Little Plant.
3. What is this Little Plant called?
4. What are the Leaves of a seed called?
The leaves in the seeds are called Cotyledons.
5. What is the bud between the Cotyledons called?
The bud between the leaves is called the Plumule.”
The majority of Mary’s notebook is comprised of entries for different species of plants and animals, each accompanied by another series of questions written by Hill and (usually) dutifully filled in by her student. In the below entry for a blackberry plant, Mary fills out the required answers to Hill’s many technical questions (Size? Shape? Petals? Sepals?) and then writes in the “Remarks” field, “very prickly.” From what we can tell from her notebook, Mary seems to have been a bright and curious student.
The other, anonymous child’s notebook appears to have been created by a student a little older than Mary, and whose study of nature was more self-directed. Rather than a structured series of questions written by Hill and responses penciled in by the student, this notebook takes the form of a journal. The student was clearly a dedicated gardener, as an anecdote about visitors to the school plots demonstrates:
“July 22. Two boys from town came to visit our gardens and our teacher asked them to judge our gardens, they were very severe I got 99%, I had one weed in my garden.”
A reader can also tell that the student was keenly observant and had a genuine interest in the natural world. There are several instances in the notebook in which the student describes taking home a moth or leaf with eggs on it to observe more carefully. In one entry, they vividly capture the drama of a flying ant attacking a spider, with intricate drawings of what appear to be the three stages of the flying ant’s life on the page opposite. The student writes,
“I saw a large flying ant trying to carry a live spider away. It was too large and bungling to carry it frontways so he walked backwards dragging it along after him.”
Susan Hill’s collection of gardening notebooks allows us insight into a distinctive trend in American education, and also provides a window into the ambitions and projects of a teacher in small-town Massachusetts at the beginning of the twentieth century. My personal favorite aspect of the collection, though, is how it keeps alive the curious minds of Hill’s students and the tiny, intricate details of nature, like a blackberry flower’s five white petals or the mortal struggle of a captured spider, so often unnoticed and even more often unrecorded.
 Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. “Nature, Not Books: Scientists and the Origins of the Nature-Study Movement in the 1890s.” Isis, Vol. 96, No. 3 (2005), pp. 324-352.
If you are like me, you’ve taken online quizzes that pull questions from the written citizenship tests to see how much you know about your own history. As a historian, I have always done well, so I decided to explore other ideas of what American citizenship means. I choose the 1920 children’s book I Am An American by Sara Cone Bryant as an example. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started to explore the online copy linked in the MHS’ catalog entry. What I found was a highly-propagandized retelling of the history of the United States. The book has a particular focus on WWI, and on ideas of cleanliness. It was interesting to read with the context of another hundred years and knowledge of WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the Cold War. There are countries that did not even exist yet and others that have fallen in the century since this book was published. The world is so different, and yet so similar.
The particular narrative presented in the text is one that does not match with the experience of every American. One part that really struck me was the chapter about the flag and how the flag had no “black pages” or “marks of tyranny” on it. Elsewhere in the book, Bryant discusses slavery as a bad thing and briefly references its negative reflection on the United States, but stops short of truly engaging with the legacy of enslavement, including sharecropping and rampant racism. It startled me how little the book, published a little over 50 years after the end of the Civil War, discussed abolition. It is interesting to me as well that Birth of a Nation, a 1915 racist film classic screened to much acclaim in Woodrow Wilson’s White House, was less than a decade old. In 2024, I would certainly consider chattel slavery and the protection of the right to own another person to be a black mark on the flag though apparently Mrs. Bryant does not. And I am far from alone in that thought, as discussions about monuments indicate.
Throughout the text, there is an emphasis on the innate goodness of America that I found ahistorical. Continually insisting that Americans are the best, bravest, and most free people in the world at a minimum suggests an untrustworthy level of bias and propagandizing. It gives off the same energy as my mother insisting that her children are the best, but where I can forgive my beloved mother her love for her children, I have a much more difficult time with Mrs. Bryant. American history is full of fights on the Senate floor, political intrigue, and corruption, none of which is acknowledged in the text. The United States is not perfectly pure! Nor would I expect it, or any country or state, to be. But in the immediate aftermath of what we now refer to as World War I and the Red Scare, it would have made sense to shore up support wherever possible and schoolchildren make excellent targets for what reads an awful lot like indoctrination.
The children reading this text in school grew up just in time for World War II, where American nationalism reached a fever pitch yet again. While I do not doubt that there were many factors involved, I suspect that this kind of messaging played a role. The American exceptionalism of the text is still taught in schools today, or at least was when I was an elementary student. That message of exceptionalism is now interwoven with complications – slavery, racism, child labor, women’s rights, and poverty are all part of the story. American history is filled with complications and citizenship should be too, even in times of triumph.
By Kathryn Angelica, PhD Candidate in History, University of Connecticut
On December 14, 1899, the Massachusetts Historical Society received a collection of papers donated by Boston-born reformer Caroline Dall. An abolitionist, intellectual, suffragist, educator, and writer, Dall had a formidable reputation for speaking her mind. At the age of seventy-seven and living in Washington D. C., she sealed a number of trunks containing her life’s achievements. “At least I have lived to do this,” she wrote in her journal, “whether I shall finish the autobiography is doubtful.”[i] She included several volumes relating to her public career, reams of correspondence, copies of her published works, and “three trunks containing typewritten material, of which no public use [was] to be made until fifteen years after her death.”[ii] Plagued by ill-health, tragedy, and uncertainty for the majority of her life, she took an active role in ensuring the preservation of her life’s accomplishments.
Dall in fact lived another thirteen years until 1912, and although never completing her autobiography, was nonetheless able to curate the archive of her life. The Caroline Healey Dall Papers today span twenty four boxes and eighty-one volumes.[iii] Hidden within the collection are a series of annotations that do much to shape the narrative. On correspondence written between June 1834 and February 1863, for example, Dall made sixty-one annotations ranging from brief notes to paragraph-length reflections. One letter from 1842, written to the students of West Parish School while she taught in Washington D.C., contains notes dated 1878 and 1896. Footnotes on this selection of material are dated from 1856 to 1899, suggesting Dall routinely pored over correspondence from decades past, drawing different conclusions.[iv]
Dall’s careful curation of her personal papers reflects her belief in the historical significance of her activism. She debated writing an autobiography for decades. Referring to Julia Ward Howe’s Reminiscences as evidence of “self-conceit,” she was wary of the potential ramifications of revealing her innermost thoughts.[v] Many of her annotations control the narrative of her life. Dall ripped, destroyed, and crossed out material she deemed “uncharitable parts unnecessarily preserved” but once added to the remainder “may it be used if my life is ever written.”[vi] In July of 1869, she indicated that she had censored a collection of letters from 1843-1844 concerning her marriage. Later, she wrote, “I never want my life written – till it can be written as a warning. I despise long lives in general – don’t ask to have any written – only it must be, truly, if at all.”[vii] Dall believed a biography would be written with or without her consent. The proactive decision to send her papers to Boston herself, rather than trust an executor, illustrates how she inserted herself into the archival process.
Annotations offer insights into Dall’s changing relationships with contemporaries like Ednah Dow Cheney, Paulina Wright Davis, and Theodore Parker. Dall and Cheney met in their childhood years, but by 1878, experienced a rift in their friendship. “No act of mine is the cause of Mrs. Cheney’s late demeanor to me. I am told it is caused by envy & jealousy,” Dall scribbled on the back of a letter from Cheney she ultimately discarded, “Alas! what does she envy?”[viii] On a letter from Davis, she admitted that its contents were “discreditable to Mrs. D” but advocated for its preservation regardless. Dall also marked letters to and from Parker with the date ‘May 28, 1898,’ suggesting her intention to organize, review, or publish her exchanges with the radical abolitionist and lecturer. Her annotations reveal her perspective of the era and serve as guidelines for future biographers. She identified letters of “an historic bearing and interest” and remarked on feminist and reform concerns.[ix] On December 5, 1899, days before she sealed the final trunk bound for Boston, Dall penned, “The letters enclosed throw light on my own life from 1849 to 1869 during many dark & doubtful days, when I stood alone as few women ever do … No one may ever care to read them – but they show how groundless many women have been & I think best to preserve them.”[x]
Historians of the nineteenth century rarely get the opportunity to commune directly with their subjects. The annotations within Caroline Dall’s papers offer a glimpse into what she herself viewed to be the pivotal achievements, tragedies, and challenges of her life. Her commentary transforms her writings into multidimensional documents transcending decades and reflecting both her immediate reactions and retrospective reflections. Furthermore, they create an immortal dialogue with the imagined reader. In this way they are living documents, offering both tantalizing possibilities for historical discovery and stark warnings to the intrepid biographer.
[i] Caroline Dall, Journal Vol. 42, December 7, 1899, Caroline Healey Dall Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
[ii]Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series Vol XI 1896-1897 (Boston: Published by the Society, 1897), 333; Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series Vol. XIII, 1899-1900 (Boston: Published by the Society, 1900), 310; Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings October 1909 – June 1910, Vol. XLIII (Boston: Published by the Society, 1910), 38; Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings October 1912 – June 1913, Vol. XLVI (Boston: Published by the Society, 1913), 379. In addition to her personal papers, Dall donated a “rail cut by Abraham Lincoln” and a cabinet table.
[iii] An additional 11.5 boxes, 5 photograph folders, and 1 folio folder of Caroline Dall’s papers are held Harvard’s Schlesinger Library.
[iv] Caroline W. Healey to the Teachers of the West Parish School, September 17, 1842, Correspondence, Reel 1, CHD Papers.
What are paste gems made of? Seemingly self-explanatory questions like these pop up all the time in archival research. And this one I’ll bet you haven’t given too much thought, unless you spend a lot of time thinking about historic jewelry. The answer may seem obvious, and in a sense, it is – paste gems are made of paste. (Sorry to have lied to you in the title). But there is a trick! “Paste” in this context is a certain kind of glass. I will freely admit I did not know this until a few weeks ago. I, until then, perhaps embarrassingly, perhaps understandably, thought paste stones were made of some sort of hardened glue or resin compound. (Please don’t tell my archaeology professors.)
Paste jewelry isn’t just made from any glass; the base of paste is always leaded glass, the same as antique and vintage crystal. The lead both softens the glass, allowing it to be hand cut and shaped, and makes it more refractive, so it can sparkle in aristocratic candlelight. While leaded glass has been used jewelry since at least the 1600s, Georges-Frédéric Strass, eventual Jeweler to the King of France, launched paste stones into Western fashion’s mainstream in the 1720s. 1, 2, 3
The origins of the term “paste” are debated, but the process and recipes are known. A trade book printed in Philadelphia in 17954 describes the process in roughly these steps. 1. Put three ounces of lead in water, draw out the water and use it to wet a pipkin. 2. Dry minimum and mix it with the dried lead, calcined crystal, and copper filings. Pulverize them together and put them in the pipkin lined with lead water. Cover and leave in a glass furnace for three to four days. “At the end of that time you shall find you have got a very fine white paste, which you may cut as you like.”5 The book goes on to describe recipes to imitate what must be nearly every type of gem in nearly every color. In this way paste stones absolutely allowed more creative and economic freedom to jewelry designers and makers.
There’s a modern urge to think of “imitation” jewelry purely in economic terms – of creating a cheaper product for the non-elite. While there’s certainly an economic component to glass stone production, the primary driver of their success seems to be innovation and aesthetic appeal rather than industrialization.6, 7 The King of France doesn’t need cheaper gems – but he does need novelty to impress his peers. (As much as the motivations of the aristocracy can ever be separated from their economic status.) We now think of paste stones as “imitation gems” or “false diamonds,” relegating them in our minds to the status of knock-offs for non-elite pretenders. In the 18th century these concepts weren’t mutually exclusive. One Thousand Valuable Secrets describes “how to make white sapphires to imitate true diamonds”8 and how “to counterfeit diamonds”9 but also details the rich color and beauty of these paste stones10, likening them to the highest European fashions.11
In the 18th century paste stones were cutting edge, used to experiment with the known forms of jewelry. The softness of paste allowed it to be cut and formed in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with small, near invisible settings impossible to achieve with real gems. Uses of paste stones were varied, from elaborate necklaces to smaller items like buckles and shirt buttons.
While small (this buckle is only around 3 cm square), touches like these were often considered extravagant; especially to New Englanders with Puritan roots. Finery was almost always saved for evening or state events,12 but that doesn’t mean they were unpopular or uncommon for those who had the means. Advertisements for all kinds of paste jewelry from necklaces to buckles appear frequently in 18th century Boston newspapers.
I love items like these that give us small glimpses into technology, innovation, and cultural values of given time periods. And I hope next time you encounter paste jewelry you’ll take a moment to give it its due!
Bohm-Parr, Judith. “The Iconography of Colour: Exploring Glass as a Jewellery Medium,” 2008. James Cook University, MA thesis, (James Cook University, 2008). http://eprints.jcu.edu.au/9625. 81
Friedman, Wendy Ilene. “Exquisite Paste | Who Needs Diamonds?” T Magazine, 21 July 2009, archive.nytimes.com/tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/21/exquisite-paste-who-needs-diamonds.
One Thousand Valuable Secrets, in the Elegant and Useful Arts: Collected From the Practice of the Best Artists, and Containing an Account of the Various Methods of Engraving on Brass, Copper and Steel. Of the Composition of Metals … And a Variety of Other Curious, Entertaining and Useful Articles. 1795. Microform. Massachusetts Historical Society, Evans Fiche: 29242, 2. 76-77
Bohm-Parr, Judith, “The Iconography of Colour,” 15.
I’m happy to report that the records of the Algonquin Club of Boston have been processed and are now available for research. The Algonquin Club was a social club founded in 1886 “for the purpose of maintaining a club house and reading room in the city of Boston.” For most of its existence, the club was located at 217 Commonwealth Avenue, a beautiful Renaissance Revival limestone building in Back Bay designed specifically for the club by noted architects McKim, Mead & White in 1888.
The club served as a gathering place for members (originally only men), including politicians, businessmen, lawyers, judges, financiers, academics, ambassadors, and other movers and shakers in Boston and surrounding towns. The name of the club appears in countless “who’s who” biographies. Prospective members were nominated by existing members, subjected to a vetting process, and approved by the Executive Committee.
The clubhouse offered a number of amenities. Members could play cards or pool; smoke cigars or pipes; read in the library; enjoy a meal in one of several restaurants; attend a talk, party, or other event; and even reserve a bedroom for an overnight stay. Members also had the benefit of reciprocal relationships with similar clubs in other cities and countries.
The Algonquin Club records contain a small amount of older material documenting the club’s early years, such as a book with the signatures of original members, a volume of Executive Committee meeting minutes from 1898 to 1927, a visitors register kept from 1917 to 1921, and a time capsule compiled in 1936 and opened for the club’s centennial in 1986.
Unfortunately there’s a gap in the collection through the middle of the 20th century; most of the extant papers date from about the 1980s to the 2000s. That being said, the collection is a great resource for anyone researching elite Boston clubs, as well as other subjects. For example, foodies might enjoy the specially designed dinner menus printed for club events. And anyone interested in the building itself should appreciate the oversize architectural plans and details.
Processing this collection proved challenging for a few reasons. The first was the sheer size of it. The final collection measures approximately 46 linear feet, and that’s only after I weeded out eight cartons of duplicate documents. The bulk consists of 63 manuscript boxes containing almost 3,000 member files. That’s 3,000 individual folders that needed alphabetization, weeding, refoldering, and labeling by hand. (Because of privacy concerns, these member files have been closed until the year 2041.)
Secondly, the papers came to us with about 70 pieces of digital media, both 3.5 inch floppy disks and CDs. These media and the files they contained—files in a variety of formats, many obsolete—needed to be assessed by the Digital Processing Archivist, reformatted as necessary, then incorporated by me into the arrangement and description of the collection.
It’s not news to any of the archivists out there that repositories are acquiring more and more “born digital” records alongside (or even independent of) paper documents. Just think of your own files: you probably have texts, emails, Word documents, spreadsheets, digital photographs, videos, etc., not to mention social media content. Many files probably exist only in the cloud, but others may be on hard drives or backup drives.
In the fall of 2021, the MHS purchased the digital preservation system Preservica, and the digital preservation team has been developing policies and procedures for ingesting, processing, preserving, and providing access to these records. Each collection will probably require its own unique approach, but when Preservica goes live (eta: spring 2024), researchers will be able to link to digital material directly from a collection guide.
In my last blog post I introduced one of the grandfather clocks (‘clock 007’) held here at the MHS, as well as its clockmaker, Joshua Wilder. In this next post we will explore some of the other craftspeople that contributed to the creation of this piece.
The process that goes into creating the finished piece is complex and involves many distinct types of artisans, of which the internal brass movements is only one contributing piece. The base components themselves involved purchasing brass casts from a local foundry, and sheet iron dial plates imported from Boston. So too the outer casing, iron weights, decorative painting, protective glass, and crowning metal finials must be outsourced and brought together to create the final clock, either by the clock movement manufacturer or as was sometimes the case by the cabinetmaker.
The wood casing that houses the clock movements is one of the more visible qualities in the final product. This particular one was attributed to Abiel White (1766-1844), a cabinetmaker from Weymouth, during the clock’s conservation and restoration in 2011-13. White was a long-time collaborator of Wilder’s, though he also worked with other clockmakers in the region in housing their brass clock movements in mahogany or pine. Attributions to him or his workshop, when not signed, are often based on construction techniques that are peculiar to him, such as using textured paper to seal together board-seams, double “dovetail” notches to attach the hood to the case, and a construction technique that uses numbered pieces fit together in a clockwise pattern. While currently hidden from view, these qualities were uncovered during its conservation and were very helpful in identifying White’s work.
To me, the most eye-catching feature is the mechanism set directly above the clockface. Here, a painted seascape in a semi-circle, or lunette, depicts a coastline with an old stone building situated on a grassy outcrop and what may be a small burying ground with three gravestones. Set in front of the scenery is an articulated three-masted frigate that teeters gently to and fro with the ticking of the seconds, an upper extension of the clock’s pendulum hidden behind the door of the case. The vessel waves a 13-star Cowpens variant of the US flag from its stern, and from its main topmast flies the first Naval Jack (the “don’t tread on me” rattlesnake, an anachronistic addition, is absent). These details seem to indicate that the moving dial is meant to represent a ship from the Continental Navy, though the exact design of both flags have contested histories of their actual use in the Revolutionary War. Rather, this is a 19th century vision of national origin-building, made more within the historical context of the War of 1812.
Likely imported from an artisan in Boston, the rocking ship dial is seen in multiple other examples from this period and region, with its popularity beat only by a painted disk that rotates through the phases of the moon. A brief look into the Boston ornamental painting business in the 1790s through the first three decades of the 19th century shows a small collection of highly specialist artisans who worked closely with and depended heavily on commissions from the much larger furniture and clock making industries. While much of the work remains unsigned, some individuals may be identified based on the clockmakers they were known to work regularly with. Names of Boston decorative artists such as John Ritto Penniman, John Minott, Samuel Curtis and Spencer Nolen are some of the more researched today, but certainly not the extent of the community in the period.
As for provenance, there is no official recording of when and from where the Society acquired this clock, other than its old MHS artifact number, 0979. Most of the MHS’s clocks were donated in the 1960s and ‘70s, with a couple coming to us in the early 1920s; the earliest recorded purchased from the manufacturer directly in 1857. Checking the piece itself for information proved equally fruitless. Other than a small clipping that outlines Wilder’s biography, no interior markings offer clues to its journey here. If we were lucky, the presence of ephemeral bills of sale or a creator’s name inscription would provide hints as to its past.
If you are interested in learning more on the inter-related industries at work in creating clocks in New England, a great starting point is Paul J. Foley’s “Biographies of Patent Timepiece Makers, Ornamental Painters, Cabinetmakers, and Allied Craftsmen” pp.207-339, in his monograph Willard’s Patent Time Pieces (2002).
Jobe, Brock, Gary R. Sullivan, and Jack O’Brien. Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850, University Press of New England, 2009. (Oversize NK2435.M34 J55 2009)
Forman, Bruce R. “The American White Painted Dial”. The Decorator: Journal of the Historical Society of Early American Decoration 50 no. 1 (Fall/Winter 1995-96): 7-24. 1995 Fall.pdf (hsead.org)
Foley, Paul J. “Ornamental Painters” in Willard’s Patent Time Pieces: A History of the Weight-Driven Banjo Clock, 1800-1900, Norwell, MA: Roxbury Village Publishing, 2002. 178-183. (NK7500.B35 F65 2002)