Object of the Month

A Street Sweeper's New Year's Greetings

Ecce Signum! Effigies of Charles Hardy Broadside

Ecce Signum! Effigies of Charles Hardy

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This broadside, published in late 1824, for distribution on New Year's is a greeting from Boston street sweeper Charles Hardy to his patrons.

Yes, I'm alive, in spite of fate

One of the Society's most recent acquisitions, this broadside is remarkable in several respects. First, it is written by a black Bostonian, and—more interestingly—features a portrait of him. Second, it is from a street sweeper—an unseen, yet essential worker doing a terribly dirty, physical job with little more than the rake, watering can, and broom illustrated below Hardy's picture. Third, it gives us a glimpse at the life of a person, torn by "villains … from his native shore," cast upon "the world to die" when "his strength was spent with want and toil." Despite his hardships and advanced age, Hardy asks nothing more than "a mite" for himself and his new fourth wife from those whose streets he kept clean.

Although Hardy's poem fits neatly into the genre of materials known as New Year's addresses, in which workers exhort their employers for gratuities, this one has a bit more to offer. The first line, Ecce Signum, which translates to "Behold the proof," exhorts the reader to look upon Hardy's image and really see—perhaps for the first time--the elderly man who, despite his infirmities, has labored hard for years to keep the streets of Boston clean and to be generous with him, "For if he gets no small change soon, His great and last is near." The text suggests that Hardy is well aware of his advancing age and infirmity, yet he maintains a positive outlook, nothing that "cold as is my winter bed, 'Tis warmer than where sleep the dead."

Hardy published at least two other broadsides in 1819 and 1821, and also placed advertisements in Boston newspapers to thank his customers and ask for their indulgence. The 3 January 1816 issue of the Columbian Centinel features an advertisement in which Hardy "Takes this method publicly to return his grateful thanks to his friends of Marlborough Street, Cornhill, &c. for their kindness to him during the past season …. [despite his being] under the influence of a distressing and debilitating disease," praying that they not "forget him … or suffer him to become and [sic] inmate of the Alms-house …" In the Columbian Centinel of 31 December 1816, Hardy again thanks his patrons, asserting his belief that they "will not be backward to render the ensuing Winter, in which the scarcity of corn will be so severely felt by the poor dependent, like myself, as comfortable as heretofore."

Who was Charles Hardy?

The published records of Boston provide a few clues to Charles Hardy's life and times. He appears sporadically in the Boston directories of the era: in 1816, Hardy is listed on Butolph Street in Boston; by 1826, he has moved to Garden Street, both Beacon Hill addresses. In addition, Hardy's third and fourth marriages appear in the city's vital records. On 3 June 1800, "Charles Hardy & Peggy Allen (Blacks)" are married by Rev. Thomas Baldwin in Boston. On 14 September 1824, Hardy weds his fourth wife Miss Cylinda Man—the record lists them as "P[eople] of Col[or]." Although no record of his death has been found, an obituary for a Charles Hardy, age 71, appears in the 31 May 1832 issue of the Boston Courier.

Although we credit Hardy with authorship, and certainly this poem reflects the thoughts and feelings of this elder street sweep, Hardy and his ilk may well have had ghostwriters assisting in their New Year's pleas. A curious letter in the New England Galaxy on 8 January 1819 from a gentleman signing himself "P.P." claims authorship of a poem "written at the particular request of a learned Librarian of this town and … meant for the use of Mr. Hardy, or some other of his profession" which "did not appear among the Addresses of last New-Year’s Day." "P.P.’s" poem, although humorous, lacks the particular pathos and personal details that Charles Hardy put into his solicitations.

New Year's addresses

By far, the most common type of New Year's addresses in the MHS collection are the annual "carrier’s addresses" published by newspapers each year as combination holiday greeting, year in review, and plea for gratuities on behalf of their carriers. These addresses usually feature long, often humorous verses and were printed on a single sheet. After wishing the reader all the blessings of the New Year, the addresses never fail to prod the conscience of the reader to "grant to us some small douceur, Our future wishes to secure," as in this example from the carriers of the New England Palladium in 1807.

Others involved in service industries also participated in the New Year's tip crusade. In addition to street sweeper Charles Hardy's address, the MHS has addresses from city watchmen in 1820, 1821, 1824, 1826, and 1834; from the lamplighter in 1824; the dry dirtman in 1834; and from the city scavenger in 1834.