The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Life in the Boarding House: Elizabeth Dorr’s Diaries

During a recent search in our online catalog, ABIGAIL, I came across two subject headings that caught my attention – “Single women” and “Boardinghouses—Massachusetts.” These struck me as familiar since during my first years in Boston as a single graduate student I lived in something similar to a boarding house just a few minutes’ walk from the MHS. Six floors of 160-square-foot rooms housed over one hundred single women, mainly students and young professionals, with the occasional resident who had lived there for decades. In my circle of friends, the building is commonly referred to as “the convent” – after all, that’s what it once was and retains traces of with its still-used chapel and a scattering of Catholic iconography, figurines, and crucifixes throughout. 

Like you might expect, living in the convent came with its fair share of rules – no visitors allowed beyond the first floor common areas, shared kitchens close at 10:00 PM, shared bathrooms must be kept tidy, no food allowed in certain areas, no alcohol, no candles, quiet hours must be respected, etc. Even with its rules, living in the convent was a privilege – central location, affordable rent, and—perhaps my favorite part of all—a community of fellow residents from a variety of backgrounds who held a range of unique interests and skills.

I was fascinated to read in Elizabeth Dorr’s 1845-55 and 1859 diaries (where the aforementioned subject headings of “Single women” and “Boardinghouses” led me) about the diarist’s day-to-day activities and interactions while living in a 19th-century boarding house. Elizabeth Dorr, who worked as a tutor and never married, first describes her Dorchester lodgings and fellow boarders in a diary entry on Saturday, 3 June 1854:

This day I arrived at Mr. Hiram Shephards, Winter St. to take up my abode for the present. MGL and I having a joint right in a very small bedroom and a not very large parlor with pleasant windows to the North, East, & South – two to each point. The family consists of mine host, his wife, a little son of five years rejoicing in the pretty name of Walter, a little motherless niece of Mrs. Shephard’s just three years old who answers to Alice and calls father & mother with Walter. Our fellow boarders are two German gentlemen named Ansorge. Charles the elder somewhere between thirty and forty. Organist at Mr. Hall’s and director of the music there on Sundays & teacher of German & Music. Alfred the younger brother may be about nineteen. Both speak English intelligently & the former is a man of evident culture & general knowledge which promises an agreeable prospect for our hours of eating – a serious consideration to a dyspeptic this pleasant chat at feeding times.



Elizabeth Dorr, [photograph] [19--]

Copy photograph of a daguerreotype of Elizabeth Dorr. Taken by an unidentified photographer.


While she doesn’t indicate any rules or conditions of occupying her rooms (of course, she wasn’t living in a convent), Elizabeth fills the pages with delicately transcribed accounts of social visits from friends, invitations to tea, and remarks on the weather. Some days are filled with three or four social visits (she could have friends over!) and outings to the Academy or a stop at Thornton’s for soda. Other entries reflect a different pace: Monday, 7 November 1859, “Too entirely exhausted to go to tea at Mrs. Rodman’s”; Sunday, 13 November 1859, “Dull. at home all day.” I learned from her 1854 diary that Friday, 21 July 1854, was “Too warm for action” and the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1859 was “almost summerish.”

The final page stood out from the rest as I read Elizabeth Dorr’s 1859 diary – the latest in the collection. She begins with one of those lines in a diary that transports a reader out of an individual’s personal life and solidly reminds one of the greater context in which this person lived – Friday, 2 December 1859, “Returned by Belleview road, bells ringing at the African church as we returned on account of John Brown’s execution.” The final lines of the diary, written two days later, absorb the reader back into Elizabeth’s daily routine of omnibus excursions and social visits, ending aptly with plans “to see a friend.”

If you are interested in viewing Elizabeth Dorr’s diaries yourself, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for assistance.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 19 January, 2018, 12:00 AM

No Mere 'Adventurer': P. T. Barnum, Iranistan, and the Swedish Nightingale

March 7 1882


I send Cards as you 
request. I am too full
of elephants to command
much sentiment. All my
thoughts & cares at present are
locked up in two trunks - one of
which belongs to Jumbo & the
other to Little "Bridgeport." 
If both trunks arrive in
New York and our citizens
possess the keys - a world
of treasure will be exposed
to public view.

Truly yours
P.T. Barnum


This letter by P. T. Barnum – showman, businessman, politician, and promoter extraordinaire - to an unidentified recipient illustrates the melding of his whimsical, magical world with the reality of his business and ventures.

As a forerunner of modern marketing, Phineas Taylor Barnum redefined what the world knew as entertainment. In an era when stars were born through broadsides, newspapers and posters, Barnum revamped the entertainment world with publicity campaigns that inundated the public, so much so that the audience already loved his performers before they ever graced the stage or entered the ring.

Such is the true story of Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale.” Considered by many to be the greatest singer of the 19th century, Lind toured the United States with Barnum in 1850.

Programme of Mademoiselle Jenny Lind’s concert: with the words of the airs in Italian, German, Swedish and English. Tremont Temple, Boston, October 1850


Lind donated to charity her earnings from that tour. Mr. Barnum was less-known for his philanthropy and seemed more interested in the flow of money in the other direction, as one might surmise from the title of his book, How I made millions: the life of P. T. Barnum/written by himself; to which is added the art of money getting; or, golden rules for money making; nearly one hundred illustrations. Perhaps purposely titled to attract readers, the book is an anecdotal autobiography from which the reader learns little about the “art” of making money, but a great deal about Barnum’s life, experiences and thoughts. Included in the book is the story of Lind’s arrival in Boston, the subsequent performance, and just why she agreed to tour the country with P. T. Barnum:


The night after her arrival in Boston, a display of fireworks was given in her honor, in front of the Revere House, after which followed a beautiful torch-light procession by the Germans of that city.

On her return from Boston to New York, Jenny, her companion and Messrs. Benedict and Belletti, Stopped at Iranistan, my residence in Bridgeport, where they remained until the following day. The morning after her arrival, she took my arm and proposed a promenade through the grounds. She seemed much pleased and said “I am astonished that you should have left such a beautiful place for the sake of travelling through the country with me.”

The same day she told me in a playful mood, that she had heard the most extraordinary report. “I have heard that you and I are about to be married,” said she “now how could such an absurd report ever have originiated?”

“Probably from the fact that we are ‘engaged,’” I replied. She enjoyed a joke, and laughed heartily.

“Do you know Mr. Barnum, that if you had not built Iranistan, I should have never come to America for you?”

I expressed my surprise and asked her to explain.

“I had received several applications to visit the United States,” she continued “but I did not much like the appearance of the applicants nor did I relish the idea of crossing 3,000 miles of ocean; so I declined them all. But the first letter which Mr. Wilton, your agent, addressed me, was written upon a sheet of letter headed with a beautiful engraving of Iranistan. It attracted my attention. I said to myself, a gentleman who has been so successful in his business that as to be able to build and reside in such a palace cannot be a mere ‘adventurer’ So I wrote to your agent and consented to an interview, which I would have declined if I had not seen the picture of Iranistan!”


Iranistan, an oriental ville (near Bridgeport, Connecticut) [graphic]/Lith. Of Sarony and Major, N. Y.

Indeed Iranistan was impressive! Designed by Leopold Eidlitz in 1848 and called “the oriental Palace of America” by the New York Herald, Barnum’s dream mansion drew throngs of tourists daily and was beautiful enough to bring the greatest singer in the world to America. Sadly the mesmerizing palace succumbed to fire less than a decade later in 1857.

The 2017 movie The Greatest Showman by 20th Century Fox is putting the spotlight back on P. T. Barnum, the Father of the Circus, where he is portrayed as a singing, dancing dreamer; although the real Barnum is so much more fascinating! In addition to the items shown above, the MHS houses many additional items related to P. T. Barnum and his amusements, most of which have already been digitized and are available online, like our Object of the Month for May 2017, When the Circus came to Boston: in Honor of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Final Tour. To find more, take a look through our online catalog, ABIGAIL, then consider visiting the Library!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 11:49 AM

A Midwinter’s Tale


At eight o-clock on a January morning in 1891, and a world away from the ice-caked streets of his native New England, 52-year-old Henry Adams leisurely began to go about his day. Armed with coffee, he surveyed the two-room cottage that he had rented in Apia, Samoa, with the artist John LaFarge. Eager to skip the worst heat of the day, he puttered inside, answering letters and reading Homer. Often, Henry unearthed his 24-tube watercolor set and “whacked great daubs of color on paper,” creating a lush portfolio of postcard views of the local paradise. Just before dusk, Henry paddled out in a small, rough-hewn canoe. On some evenings he kept to the harbor and stared down the Pacific Ocean’s crashing walls of surf. Other nights, Henry rowed right on past, idling in the refuge of Matafangatele’s deep bay. A cozy dinner on the veranda, with strong cigars and a full stack of new novels, followed next. Local residents, laughing and chatting their way down the grass path, hailed the American historian lounging between the coconut palms: “Alofa, Akamu!” (“How are you, Adams”). “Such a life,” Henry Adams wrote home, “seems pleasant enough, especially in Beacon Street in winter, but a true traveller should be restless, and I am qualified in that particular to be high in the profession.”


Henry Adams (1838-1918), Harvard professor of medieval history and eponymous author of the provocative Education, spent most of his life on the road. Adams traveled widely, soaking up foreign experiences and reveling in aesthetic journeys through Europe, Latin America, Japan, and the South Seas. Throughout the 1890s, he saved his warm-weather destinations for Boston’s bitterest months. He steamed off to Samoa, Cuba, Mexico, and Tahiti with friends, books, lavish wardrobes, and prized watercolors in tow. Partly inspired by his late wife Clover’s photography, Adams spent the last decades of his life capturing the sights and scenes of the late Victorian world as he traveled through it. Like many Americans, Henry adopted the post-Civil War passion for watercolors as a way to document natural beauty. In letters sent from exotic datelines like Coffin’s Point, Dos Bocas, and Apia, Henry reveled in his amateur pursuit. “I slobber water-colors again,” he told John Hay. “I labor whole days to do the most prosaic field I can find, and at the end of the week I throw it away in despair,” he confessed to Elizabeth Cameron. Later that year, camped in “Yellowstone country,” Adams plied his brushes to make the views on display in our Yankees in the West exhibit, but thought his niece Mabel Hooper would have done a better job. “I wanted you there to sketch for me. I was quite sick in spirit that I could not catch a tone of the country, for it was American to the very snow,” he wrote to her on 6 October 1891. “I wanted awfully to be an artist to see if I could make anything out of the American ideal, which is like the American women–not suited to pictorial or plastic art.” (Learn about Mabel Hooper LaFarge’s art career–including her watercolor portrait of Henry–here, thanks to Houghton Library).


Henry, who honed his critical edge at the North American Review’s helm, was hard on his own artistic abilities. “I have passed my morning trying to finish a sketch, but my sketches here are more lamentable than ever, and break my heart with mortification,” he wrote of Mexico. “Ten thousand objects about us are crying out to be painted, but the simplest are too difficult for me, and the difficult ones are a chaos of lights and lines… If I could only do some of the ravines in the hills, with sides of rock, and with sunlight dropping down through a network of foliage, and lianas, on ferns and mosses, I could amuse myself forever, but one such sketch would need a year, if it attempted drawing. The greens here are the richest I ever saw, and as for the reds, the earth and sky glow with them.” Journey here for information on Henry Adams’ watercolors.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 12 January, 2018, 4:41 PM

Charles Cornish Pearson and the Great War, Part II

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to the MHS collection of Charles Cornish Pearson papers. Charles served with the 101st Machine Gun Battalion in France during World War I. We pick up his story in the village of Mont-lès-Neufchâteau in the early days of 1918.

Charles and the other men of the 101st spent three months immersed in intensive training at Mont-lès-Neufchâteau. They drilled with their machine guns and gas masks, marched long distances, and prepared for trench warfare. Charles didn’t have much time to write home, but he was learning a lot. He wrote to his brother Bill on 20 January 1918:

Hardly seems possible that it is six months now since I started working for the U.S.A. Don’t feel a bit richer and as far as being a soldier, well I guess I have got a h–l of a lot more to learn before I will be one. Still at the rate they are drilling us over here, why I may be one before I realize it.

Charles’ company was motorized and served as a mobile reserve unit that could be sent quickly into battle as needed. According to Philip S. Wainwright’s History of the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, the battalion’s vehicles “consisted of about fifty second-hand Ford ambulances. Great was the excitement on the day that these Fords were driven over from Neufchâteau.” (p. 25) This excitement is evident in some of the photographs that came to the MHS with Charles’ papers.



Mont-lès-Neufchâteau was about 64 kilometers south of the front line. On 8-9 February, the 101st piled into their vehicles, or “flivvers,” and headed northwest to Vregny, a reserve position much closer to the front. Vregny, a town in the Chemin des Dames sector, had seen some heavy fighting by that time. Wainwright’s published history includes a description of the area, but I like Charles’ version:

Went for a long hike this morning after the service, very interesting still depressing when one stops to realize what all this destruction & waste must mean. A whistle & a terrific roar, far away but impressive never the less. Would like the chance to describe my little walk in detail, but I suppose it would be censored so will wait until some later time.



Charles didn’t reveal his location to his family at home, or even let on that he had moved. He only told them not to worry if they didn’t hear from him for a while.

Charles saw action for the first time in late February and early March 1918, when his company was sent to support French infantry fighting in the trenches about 12 kilometers away. I’ll quote at length from Charles’ March letters, since they paint such a vivid picture. Here’s how he described his experiences to his mother:

Imagine you realized from my last few letters that we were getting ready for our first round of duty and you can rest assured that it is no picnic.

Came up here one dark night in our flivvers and it was some ride. No lights and every little ways we would stike [sic] a shell hole or something and you would get a nice little jounce. Of course, we weren’t in any danger but still under the conditions it kept you pretty well keyed up.

When we arrived at the point where we got out why our worthy comrades were shelling away and believe me it sounded like bedlam let loose. After getting out we had a nice ½ mile hike with our packs & the rest of our stuff thru a long trench, pitch dark. Still we got here after a fashion all safe and sound.


Had a big barrage here the other night, our guns in action for awhile. Then night before last my gun did some harassing fire. Lay your gun on a target (center of a town, cross road or the like) and fire on it every few minutes on the chance of hitting someone. Great sport until they discover you then beat it, if you have time which you usually do.

In another letter to his mother a few days later, he opened up a little about the toll his recent experiences had had on him, at the same time reassuring her that he was safe.

Am still in our little palace here below and am feeling fine, have gotten over much of the hollow feeling I had the first few hours here, and can listen to the whistle of a shell without having palipitation [sic] of the heart.


Well I am in a very quiet sector and barring accidents am just as safe as in our former quarters. Of course there is some activity shells flying bombs exploding etc, but as a rule they are a long way from us and the nearest we come is being an audience to a grand set of fire works. It sure is a stupendous sight to be on guard at night and watch the action in different directions. All kinds of sky rockets & star shells, flashes of the big guns, noise of the machine guns rifles etc. It is interesting from a spectators stand point but hardly from a participants.

Our quarters here are in a dugout several feet below ground (built by the Boche in fact) and are in a way comfortable although crampt. […] We sometimes do a little harassing fire at night trusting to luck on hitting some unsuspecting Boche 2-3 thousand metres away. It is all good training gives the boys a little insight into what action really is and prepares them for their work on the more active fronts.



To his sister, Charles wrote:

Glad to hear you are doing work for the Red Cross. It is a case of us all doing our bit in any way we can, and Red Cross & YMCA work is just as important as sitting down at a machine gun & pumping lead into the unsuspecting Boche.


Sure was a funny experience tramping thru this trench not knowing where it led to and our first shell travelling overhead, with what seemed to us a damn mournful whistle accompanied by an explosion which seemed very close. […] We had a glimpse of about every thing connected with our work, got gassed a couple of times, bombed & shelled and the like, but if one was careful why practically no danger. There was a certain fascination to it all, and although you couldn’t help but be pretty frightened at times still you cannt [sic] help but want to be back again taking a chance in a good cause.

And to his uncle Fred:

We are just back from our first trick at the Front. A novel & exciting experience to a rooky I can tell you. Your first few hours you feel sure are your last but you soon get your feet down on the ground & your hair down on your head and realize that with a little care your chances of living for a while longer are pretty good. Of course we were on a comparatively quiet sector but even on more active ones I believe that with due care the danger is not as great as we are all apt to picture it before going up. […] We quickly found out that dugouts & deep trenches are great places to be in when any shelling is going on. We did more or less firing while on duty but like artillery fire machine gun fire is mostly indirect & done at night, so we couldn’t tell whether we did much damage or not, still it gave us a lot of satisfaction to hear the gun send them across.

The 101st Machine Gun Battalion left the Chemin des Dames sector on 18 March 1918. Check back here at the Beehive for the next installment of Charles’ story.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 8 January, 2018, 12:00 AM

A New Year’s Greeting from Merrymount Press, 1918


Welcome to the future! In this first week of the new year, I bring you a New Year’s greeting from one hundred years in the past. This illustration by Rudolph Ruzicka (1883-1978) graced the annual greeting to the friends of Merrymount Press, Boston at the dawn of the year 1918. The image is a view of the parade ground at Camp Devens (Ayer, Mass.) and the Latin text at the top of the image is the official motto of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” translated into English as “she seeks with the sword a quiet peace under liberty” -- a solemn message for the advent of a year under the shadow of World War One.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a collection of illustrations by Ruzicka, himself a member of the Society for many years, as well as many titles printed by Merrymount Press. You are welcome to explore our print holdings through our online catalog ABIGAIL and reach out to the library staff with any questions you have about accessing items in our collection.

We look forward to welcoming you to the library in 2018 and beyond!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 3 January, 2018, 10:15 AM

older posts