A New Way to Look at an Old (and forgotten) Story

By Peter Drummey

We have just opened a new exhibition, The First Seasons of the Federal Street Theatre: 1794-1798, that complements a larger exhibition, Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History, at the Boston Public Library. The controversy over a public theater that raged in Boston in the 1790s, an old and largely forgotten story, now has been brought to life through the efforts of Professor Paul Lewis of the English Department of Boston College and his very able students. Thanks to the audio production services of Boston College, it also is the first time that the Society—and the Boston Public Library—have used QR codes in an exhibition. QR codes, the ubiquitous matrix barcodes that appear everywhere in advertisements, now are used increasingly in museum settings so that smartphone users are able to call up additional audio information about what is on display. 

The First Seasons of the Federal Street Theatre will be on display, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, through July 30, but more than twenty items from the MHS exhibition also are on “virtual” display at the Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s History website, www.bostonliteraryhistory.com. The online version of the First Seasons section of the Forgotten Chapters exhibition will reach a wider audience than those who are able to visit the MHS and be available for a longer period of time, but it also is an informative and engaging introduction to the original materials on show at the Society.

The Joy of Discoveries: Answering a Visitor’s Question

By Elaine Grublin

It is always fun to make a connections in surprising places.  It is even more fun when those connections are made as a result of a question asked by a visitor to the MHS.

Last week, a visitor to our current exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, asked a simple question that I could not answer.  The question, was Stephen Perkins — a soldier featured in the exhibition — related to the Perkins that was the namesake of the Perkins School for the Blind

Unable to answer the questions off the cuff, I promised to research the relationship and provide an answer via email. This lead me on a serendipidious mission.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) — one of Boston’s most successfull China trade merchants — was an early benefactor of the the school, selling his own home (which had housed the school for a year) and donating the funds so that the school could be moved to a larger location as enrollment grew. The MHS holds a large collection of Perkins’ personal and business papers (see a guide to the collection here), which is where I started my search. But I was unable to determine a clear familial connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen Perkins there.  So I changed my search strategy and turned to our online catalog, ABIGAIL, for assistance. 

Through ABIGAIL I discovered that the photograph of Stephen Perkins featured in our exhibtion was the only item we held credited to Perkins himself. So I kept digging through the entries for the various Perkins family members until discovering the generic subject heading “Perkins Family” which brought me to a catalog record for an item that seemed to have promise in terms of revealing a clear answer to the question at hand: a large broadside title The Perkins Family of Boston.  Dashing to the stacks to view the broadside, I was delighted to see that it  was a large genealogical chart which revealed there was a connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen G. Perkins, killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in the Civil War. 

Looking at the chart I could see that Thomas had a brother named Samuel, who was born in 1767. Samuel had a son, who he named Stephen, in 1804.  That Stephen also had a son named Stephen, born in 1835.  That Stephen, the grandson of Thomas Handasyd Perkins’ brother Samuel, was the Stephen pictured in our exhibition. 

I was happy to be able to reveal the answer to the exhibition visitor as well as to build for myself a little extra knowledge to share with future visitor to the MHS. 



Web Presentation Launched Today: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862

By Peter K. Steinberg

In connection with the exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, the Massachusetts Historical Society has digitized a number of letters, photographs, and broadsides from its collections to present online. Available are small and large high resolution images as well as transcriptions of letters to facilitate reading where the handwriting may be difficult to discern.

Image of web page banner

The pages in the web presentation represent a subset of the documents in the exhibition, narrating micro-stories of some battles which took place in Virginia (Ball’s Bluff, Peninsula Campaign, Cedar Mountain) and Maryland (Antietam). Regimental units were formed based on networks of friendships and alliances, and the featured materials convey the close connections between many of the soldiers. Each page highlights at least one of Massachusetts’s fallen sons, providing both a photographic image of a soldier and, in most instances, a letter which provides contextual information about a particular battle and/or a soldiers’ actions in the war and in death. Among those individuals featured are William Lowell Putnam, James Jackson Lowell, Richard Goodwin, Richard Cary, and Wilder Dwight. 

The launch is particularly timely as today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a battle explored in both the exhibition and the accompanying web presentation. 

In addition to this web presentation, please visit the The Massachusetts Historical Society Commemorates the Civil War subject portal to find additional online content, including our monthly presentation of a Civil War document from 150 years that month, a timeline, selected publications, classroom tools, and a list of past and future events held at the MHS.

Pardon Our Appearance….

By Anne Bentley, Curator of Art

Pardon our appearance while we prepare for our new gallery in the second floor lobby…

We are about to install the first of a series of changing exhibitions in our new MHS “Treasures Gallery,” an intimate space designed to highlight the extraordinary materials in our collection.  The art and sculpture have been cleared from the area and the Saltonstall Gun, our noble War of 1812 cannon, and “Paul and Virginie,” our pair of 18th century polychrome lead garden statues, have been moved across the landing in preparation for painting and the construction of display walls.

How does one move a 1,200-pound cannon and lead sculptures with fragile antique wire armatures?  Very gingerly.  A four-man team from U.S. Art Company, Inc. carefully positioned the cannon on heavy plastic before cinching it with straps and slowly hauling it across the marble floor to position it against the stair rail. Levers, shims, protective foam, and blankets all came into play as each phase of the move was planned and executed.

The MHS staff has moved the garden statues several times in the past: an unnerving experience which convinced us that they are best left to the professionals.  The U.S. Art team shrink-wrapped each sculpture base to its wooden plinth, then eased the heavy plastic sheet under the plinth and secured it to a winch attached to a marble column. 

With guardians to monitor the sculpture for any untoward movement, each statue was slowly pulled across the room, inch by inch, until the crew could position the sculpture by hand and lever out the plastic sheet.

After rehanging the front stair art, the crew was done and our space cleared for the next step to prepare the gallery for the first of our Treasures exhibitions, “’Like a Wolf for the Prey’: The Massachusetts Historical Society Collection Begins,” scheduled to open in the fall. Keep your eye on our website for more details.

Photography Fun @ the MHS

By Elaine Grublin

This week members of the MHS staff had fun playing in our daguerreotype studio.

Come on in and join the fun by visiting History Drawn with Light: Early Photographs from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, an exhibition currently on view at the MHS.  

The exhibition is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.   Bring your camera and strike your own pose.  




History Drawn with Light

By Carol Knauff

Seth Eastman on Dighton RockIn 1840, almost as soon as photography arrived in America, the Massachusetts Historical Society began to collect images of notable figures, artifacts, and landscapes recorded with “the pencil of nature.” Examples of these early photographs will be on display through 3 June, 2011 in the Society’s exhibition, History Drawn with Light: Early Photographs from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Visitors can view one of Boston’s oldest photographs, taken of the Old Feather Store by MHS Member Francis C. Gray, together with portraits and views by early daguerreotype artists such as Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, and the later work of professional and amateur photographers who documented 19th-century American history as it unfolded. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday through Saturday, 1 PM to 4 PM.

Read more in a recent review of the exhibition History Framed by New Technology by Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe.

Quincys Take Center Stage

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our fall exhibit, Josiah Quincy: A Lost Hero of the Revolution officially opens on Saturday, and we hope you’ll come by and see what we have on display. The show will be open to the public without charge, 1:00-4:00 p.m., Monday-Saturday, 23 October 2010 – 22 January 2011, except from 24 December 2010 – 1 January 2011, when the Historical Society is closed for a brief holiday season respite.k

Our October Object of the Month complements the exhibit: it’s a watercolor of Col. Samuel Miller Quincy (1833-1887) in his Civil War uniform. Col. Quincy was the great-grandson of Josiah Quincy, Jr. “The Patriot,” and edited his ancestor’s legal notes (while stationed at Port Hudson during the Civil War, as Peter Drummey notes in the Object essay). He later served as “acting mayor” of New Orleans.

The exhibit celebrates the publication by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts of the final two volumes of Portrait of a Patriot: The Major Political and Legal Papers of Josiah Quincy Junior, edited by Daniel R. Coquillette and Neil Longley York, the first modern edition of the complete works of Josiah Quincy, Jr. (1744-1775). A brilliant young attorney – he was only twenty-six when, with John Adams, he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials – Quincy was an ardent spokesman for the cause of liberty in Revolutionary Massachusetts, although his early death has made him less familiar today than many of his contemporaries.

The exhibition focuses on the Historical Society’s manuscript sources for the new Colonial Society volumes, including Quincy’s political and legal commonplace books, travel journals (he was a harshly critical observer of slavery in the American South), and the law reports that his great-grandson, Samuel Miller Quincy edited. In the exhibition, Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s personal papers will be shown in the context of the MHS’s enormous archive of Quincy family papers–letters, diaries, drawings, artifacts, and paintings that document eight generations of this extraordinary family–including the watercolor portrait of Samuel M. Quincy on display as our Object of the Month.


All That Glitters: Coins & Medals on Display

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our new exhibit, “Precious Metals: From Au to Zn” opens today (Monday, 2 August), with public hours from 1-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday through September. Special guest curator John W. Adams and MHS Curator Anne E. Bentley have mounted this show to highlight many of the rare and unique pieces in the collection. A sampling of what will be on view includes the New England three pence and shilling, the 1776 Massachusetts Pine Tree copper penny, a piece of original Massachusetts Bay stock, the February 1690/1 Massachusetts Bill of Credit, the full set of Washington-Webster silver Comitia Americana medals, Indian Peace Medals of colonial and federal issue, a number of Washington medals from the Baker series, and some fascinating pieces from the Vernon medal series.

“Precious Metals” is designed to complement the American Numismatics Association’s World’s Fair of Money, to be held 10-14 August at the Hynes Convention Center. 

I had the chance to view the exhibit this morning, and it’s really something to see (not to mention by far the shiniest exhibit I’ve ever seen at MHS). Do stop by and take a look.

Coming Attractions

By Jeremy Dibbell

We’ve got a full calendar of special events over the next month or so, which I thought I’d just highlight so you can mark your calendars. We hope to see you often!

On Monday, 22 March our new exhibit opens: “‘A More Interior Revolution’: Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and the Women of the American Renaissance” will be available for viewing Monday through Saturday from 1-4 p.m., and will be up through 30 June. Guest curator Megan Marshall has selected letters and journals written by Fuller and Peabody, together with writings and works of art created by other women who participated in the literary renaissance in New England between 1830 and Fuller’s death in 1850. The exhibition draws upon the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Concord Free Public Library. You can find more information on the exhibit here.

Some events associated with the show include a special preview of the show for MHS members and fellows (more info here), and two public gallery talks: “The Lost Letters of Margaret Fuller” by Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey will be held on Saturday, 27 March, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. as part of the MHS Annual Open House.  On Friday, 23 April, at 2 p.m., Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library, will give a talk entitled “‘No Worthless Books'”: Elizabeth Peabody’s Foreign Library and Bookstore, 1840-1852.” The MHS also will sponsor a three-day conference, Margaret Fuller and Her Circles, 8-10 April 2010.  For information on the conference program, please visit the conference webpage. The opening keynote for the Fuller conference, “‘The Measure of my Footprint’: Margaret Fuller’s Unfinished Revolution” will be delivered by Mary Kelley at 6 p.m. on Thursday, 8 April, and is free and open to the public.

I mentioned the Open House above: we do hope you’ll join us on Saturday, 27 March from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. for the exhibit talks (11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) or for guided tours of the MHS building (10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m.). You can learn more about MHS programs and events, become a member, and enjoy some special refreshments.

And if you’ve been following along with John Quincy Adams’ tweets from Russia (or even if you haven’t) we hope you’ll join us for a talk by author Michael O’Brien on Wednesday, 31 March. Mr. O’Brien’s new book is Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) about Louisa Catherine Adams’ trek across Europe in early 1815. Refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m., and the talk will start at 6 p.m. Reservations for this event are requested; please go here for more information or to submit a reservation.


Remembering John Brown

By Jeremy Dibbell

On the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s execution (2 December 1859), a reminder that you can visit our current exhibition, “John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist – Or Both?” through 23 December, Monday – Saturday from 1-4 p.m. The exhibit includes personal papers, photographs, broadsides, engravings, weapons, and artifacts that illuminate Brown’s life together with evidence of the continuing arguments about the morality and meaning of his actions.

And since there are a number of interesting columns about Brown and his legacy in the newspapers today I thought I’d link to those: at History News Network, David Blight’s essay “‘He Knew How to Die”: John Brown on the Gallows, December 2, 1859” examines the difficult lessons of Brown’s life and actions, concluding “John Brown should confound and trouble us.  Martyrs are made by history; people choose their martyrs just as we choose to define good and evil.  And we will be forever making and unmaking John Brown as Americans face not only their own racial past, but the ever changing reputation of violence in the present.”

In the New York Times, Tony Horwitz calls Brown’s raid “The 9/11 of 1859,” and points out parallels he sees between Brown’s raid and the attacks made on 11 September 2001 (and between Brown’s trial and the upcoming trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed).

Also in the Times, David Reynolds argues in “Freedom’s Martyr” that Brown should be remembered as an “American hero,” and suggests that Virginia governor Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama should posthumously pardon Brown.