September 6, 2016

“Where are you from?" and other questions asked during tours

My name is Laura Gillespie, I am an Education Associate (EA) and History Department Intern at the Old State House. Having worked as an EA in the museum over the summer months, I have been asked many interesting questions. For me, the main one has been “where are you from?”

Laura hard at work researching in our library
It is understandable that people are interested in my background, as I am an American History graduate from Ireland. I completed a Masters in American History at Queen’s University Belfast last year, and am now interning at the Old State House for a year to gain hands-on experience in public history. Many of our museum visitors are surprised to find a person from Ireland educating them on their own country’s history, and so I usually get asked some variation of this question at the beginning or at the end of each tour. This is then often followed up with “why American history?”

I have always been very interested in American history, and when I was trying to decide where to come on my graduate visa, Boston really stood out to me as a city that was abundantly rich in history. The concept of the Freedom Trail, a pathway connecting many of the historic sites in the city, seemed like an innovative way to get the public interested in the history of both the country and of the Revolution. I started my internship with the History Department in February and became an EA in April, so I now know more about the Revolutionary War, and particularly Boston’s role in it, than I ever thought I would.

My time as an EA has been very beneficial, and I really enjoy interacting with the many visitors that come through the museum. The tour that we give on the Boston Massacre often leads to questions like “where exactly did the soldiers fire on the civilian crowd?” or “they called five deaths a massacre?” The “Massacre” took place March 5, 1770 outside the Town House on King Street, (as it was known in colonial times), which is now the Old State House on State Street.  Teaching people that Paul Revere's engraving "The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, March 5, 1770, by a party of the 29th Regiment" could be seen in some ways as one of the first pieces of propaganda produced by the Sons of Liberty in the lead up to the Revolution is always an interesting part of the tour. 

On the Old State House Tour, which goes through the history of the building, I often get asked questions like “did Samuel Adams speak in this chamber?” and “where was the Declaration of Independence first read to the people of Massachusetts?” Informing people that Adams spoke many times in Representatives’ Hall as a member of the Massachusetts Assembly and that the Declaration was first read from the balcony in the Council Chamber on July, 18 1776 are always fun topics to discuss with visitors. Many people seem to really appreciate the fact that they are standing in the space where these major historic events happened. This has impressed upon me the value of making history accessible to the public through spaces like the Old State House. I’m looking forward to seeing what interesting questions the coming months will bring!

By Laura Gillespie, Education Associate and History Department Intern

August 24, 2016

A Lasting Inscription

If you are browsing through someone's personal library, it is pretty common to come across at least a few books that have a nameplate, a signature, or a personal inscription scrawled on the first pages.  You may have even written some of those in your own books or in gifts to others.  But when you are signing or inscribing a page, do you think about the lasting impression that you are making to the book?  I was digging around in the archives recently and came across a handwritten orderly's book from 1775 that had been inscribed by the author.  This got me thinking about other items in our collection that have personal inscriptions. Bibles, pamphlets, newspapers, and books - these are items commonly found around a home or office that someone has laid claim to by signing their name on it.  I feel that these inscriptions add a personal connection to the items in our archives, and decided to take a closer look at some of them.

Inscription on inside cover of MS0176
I started with the orderly's book; the inscription reads, "James Bennett is my name and that is enought [sic] for you whoever you be that ownes [sic] this book. Ashby." I noted that the book's catalog entry doesn't include an author listing and he is not identified by name within the text of the book, so without the inscription on the first page his identity would have remained a mystery. This orderly book provides information about the men and supplies in Capt. Abijah Wyman's company in Col. Prescott's regiment, and lists the company's general orders from June 20 through August 29, 1775. I also found James in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War and learned that he was from Ashby, Massachusetts and marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775.  While informative, James's  military listing and the contents of the orderly book don't give much insight into his personality, whereas I think his inscription does  - he seems a little bit cheeky!  Faded names can also be seen elsewhere on the page and on the front and back covers, presumably they are signatures of the other men in the company.

Signature on title page of MS0023
Another example that I found was in the Friendly Fire Society rules, regulations, and membership lists, 1774. This pamphlet lists the rules and orders of the Society, as well as a membership listing of each individual’s home and business address, details that Society members were required to know so that they could assist each other in the event of a fire.  We know which member owned this pamphlet because written on the title page is the name Wm. Dawes, Junior. William is best remembered as one of the men who rode from Boston to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775 to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were coming.  Curiously, on the opposite page, William seems to have written "Freedom" but provided no further explanation. While we can assume that he was commenting on his feelings of living in Boston in the turbulent years leading up to the Revolution, we don't really know for certain - it's important to remember that an inscription that might make sense or have meaning to you could be a mystery for future generations!

I've written about the John Hancock family bible before, but it includes one of my favorite inscriptions in our collection. John Hancock not only signed his full name with an apostrophe "s" to indicate that he was the book's owner, but he also wrote "thou shalt not steal, saith the Lord" perhaps as a warning to keep someone from walking off with an item from his personal library.  That saying seems to be one of his favorites, as he wrote the same inscription in a psalm book also in our collection.

These inscriptions were all written in the late 1700s and remain boldly visible almost 250 years later. I'm sure that the next time I inscribe a book, I'll pause and think about the message that I am recording for posterity! 

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

August 2, 2016

Step back in time on August 13

For the second year in a row, the Bostonian Society is proud to present Echoes of the Past, a one-day interactive mystery game in the streets of Boston that will send players into the city's past to search for clues while immersing them in the story of Boston’s famous Stamp Act protest.

Mark your calendar for Saturday, August 13, 2016 when free sessions of the game will be offered at 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., or 3:00 p.m. At 4:00 p.m., the game will culminate with a reenactment of the Stamp Act Riots. And new this year is the opportunity to experience an 18th-century marketplace. Starting just before 1:00 p.m., the plaza beside the Old State House will be transformed into a marketplace, giving our visitors the chance to talk with living historians about the many industries that made 18th-century Boston tick.

Echoes of the Past is a fusion of interactive theater and puzzle solving where participants will unravel the compelling true story of politics and intrigue and leave feeling excited about Boston’s history. Players are invited to begin their adventure at the registration table beside the entrance to the Old State House where they will receive an introduction and a guidebook. With the guidebook in hand players will hunt for ghosts, also known as “Echoes of the Past.” These live costumed interpreters will quickly draw players into the political intrigues of 1765. With riddles, ciphers, secret societies, grudges, and plots, every interaction will entertain and enlighten, and every player’s choices will make their experience unique. After collecting a stamp for their book from each character in the game, players will discover the game’s thrilling climax at 4:00 p.m. when they join together with an 18th-century mob to participate in a protest march from the site of the Liberty Tree to the hub of colonial power, the Old State House.

To participate in the Stamp Act Riot reenactment, meet at the corner of Washington Street and Winter Street (next to the Downtown Crossing T Station) and join historic reenactors in period costume in a raucous march through the streets of Boston to the Old State House to protest the coming Stamp Act. Can the stamp distributor be compelled to resign his post?

We hope you will join us for a full day of activities on August 13! Please leave any questions in the comments.

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Boston Cultural Council, a local agency which is funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, administrated by the Mayor’s Office of Arts + Culture.

July 22, 2016

An 18th Century Cure for What Ails You

My name is Sira Dooley Fairchild and I have worked in the finance department of the Bostonian Society since February. My background is in archaeology, which means that I am fascinated by the daily, mundane lives of ordinary people in the past. The administrative offices for the Bostonian Society are located in the library and my desk is not far from the case in which we display a rotating exhibit of interesting items from the archives. When Elizabeth was changing out the case the other day, the small almanac that she was putting in caught my eye.

Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack, 1774
AY 201 .B7 B52
The small pamphlet is called Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack for the Year of our Redemption 1774 and it lists the phases of the moon, tides, sunrise and sunset, as well as providing a seasonal verse for each month. We have several volumes from this series, dating from between 1768 and 1803, published by various Boston printers. This particular issue was in printed by in 1774 by John Hicks and Nathaniel Mills at their office on School Street, only a short walk from the Old State House. It originally cost seven coppers for a single issue, or £3 and 4 pence for a dozen.

What caught my eye were the home remedies that were printed on the back of the almanac. The first one may be useful to those of you spending your summer vacations on the beach:

To remove sunburn or tan
Take half a pint of milk, with the juice of a lemmon and a spoonful of brandy. Boil the whole, skim it well, and keep it for use. Add white sugar and rock allum.

List of remedies on the back of the almanac
The second remedy sounds as though it might make acne worse – even in my worst teenage years, I never tried rubbing butter on my face.

To take away little red pimples from the face
Take two ounces of lemmon juice, two ounces of rose-water, two drams of silver sublimed, and as much cerus; put all this together, and mix it up in an ointment: With this anoint your face going to bed; the next morning, when you get up, anoint it with fresh butter, and then rub it clean off.

And lastly, this cure for “the itch”, which involves wearing wool gloves and rubbing your hands with sulfur and lard. At least you only have to do it for three days.

A receipt for the care of the itch
Make an ointment of equal parts of flowers of sulpher and hog’s lard, and oint the hands only three days, twice a day, and wear woolen gloves, he will be effectually cured.

Although our archives contain many documents relating to the American Revolution and the founding of the country, for me, the glimpse into the daily lives of 18th century Bostonians provided by this small almanac is equally interesting. It allows me to think of figures from the past as complex individuals living full lives, worrying about the same details we worry about today.

By Sira Dooley Fairchild, Finance and Administrative Assistant


July 12, 2016

Boston - running on coffee since the 1600s

When you're in Boston, you won't go far without seeing a Dunkin Donuts and you'll notice more than a few people ambling around town with their cups in hand. But coffee and coffeehouses as an integral part of daily life is not a modern condition, they were an important part of early Boston, too. In the late 1600s, coffeehouses began to rise in popularity in London. By as early as 1688, coffeehouses modeled after those could be found in Boston and continued to grow in number in the 1700s. Throughout the summer months, stop by to see documents related to early coffeehouses in the library and archives exhibit case in the Old State House. For those of you that can't make it downtown, I've highlighted two of the displayed documents in this post.

Petition from Joseph Ballard for a liquor
license, 1754 (MS0119/DC1137)
Early coffeehouses and taverns were somewhat similar in nature, though coffeehouses specialized in coffee, tea, and chocolate and originally banned gambling and alcohol.  As they evolved, coffeehouses did begin to serve alcohol, but they remained a meeting place for men to conduct business and discuss current events, politics, and commerce. One of those coffeehouses was the British Coffee House, which was located on Long Wharf at the end of King Street (now State Street), just down the road from the Old State House.  As its name suggests, in the 1760s and 1770s it was a place where those who were loyal to the king would feel welcome to gather.  On display is a petition to Boston selectmen in support of Joseph Ballard’s request for a license to sell “spirituous liquors” at the British Coffee House.  The petition notes that the house is a meeting spot for societies and it would be of public benefit for it to sell liquor.  The line between taverns and coffeehouses was sometimes blurry, but generally speaking, coffeehouses were gathering places to discuss business while taverns were a venue for fun and entertainment.

Indenture agreement, July 21, 1812 [page 1]
(MS0190/03-04)
A bit later, the Exchange Coffee House was a hub of activity in Boston, though it was only in existence from 1809 through 1818, when it was destroyed in a fire. However, in the early 1800s, the seven-story building was one of the largest and tallest in the city.  The Exchange Coffee House was more than just a coffeehouse; its public rooms included a large hall, topped with a dome, which served as a merchant’s exchange, and it was also one of the only hotels in Boston in the early 1800s. Another distinguishing feature of the Exchange Coffee House was that it maintained a reading room.  The 1812 document on display is an indenture agreement between the proprietors of the Exchange Coffee House and John Jones, the innkeeper.  The agreement established that a certain room in the building should be furnished and appropriated to be a reading room, which had a selection of political and commercial documents, journals, and newspapers.  Local merchants and patrons of the Exchange Coffee House who paid a yearly subscription were welcome to use the reading room.  Much like today’s coffeehouses, the reading room and coffeehouse at the Exchange served as a place where people could gather to exchange ideas and discuss current events.

There is much more to the story of the Exchange Coffee House, to learn more, check out The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse by Jane Kamensky.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager