October 6, 2015

Out of storage and into the library!

Like most museums, our collection includes a number of beautiful paintings that spend most of their time in storage.  As a way to share these items with the public, we recently decided to move three paintings over to the library!

View of Boston Harbor (1884.0209)
One of the paintings that is now hanging in the library is View of Boston Harbor by John White Allen Scott (1815 - 1907).  Painted in 1853, this painting has been part of the Boston Society's collection since 1884.  It is an oil painting, but was originally done with the intention of being engraved. Scott was a Boston painter and lithographer, known for portraits, landscape, and marine images. He was a friend of fellow artist Fitz Henry Lane (also known as Fitz Hugh Lane). According to The Handbook of the Bostonian Society, Scott and Lane "served an apprenticeship together in the Pendleton shop, and were partners from 1845 to 1847 in a lithographic firm of there own."  (The Pendleton shop refers to the lithographic print shop that was run by brothers William and John Pendleton.)  In the 1853 Boston city directory, Scott is listed as an artist with studio space at 265 Washington Street, but he had previously held space in the Tremont Temple, until it was damaged in a fire in April 1852.

View of Boston Harbor is a large painting that depicts Boston's waterfront in the mid 1800s.  It shows a bustling seaport with horse-drawn carts moving merchandise up and down Broad Street.  A group of men are shown on scaffolding in the right foreground of the image, constructing a new building out of bricks.  Only a few of the buildings in the painting are identified by name, one has a sign reading "Arch Wharf Sail Loft" and the other reads "George H. Gray and Danforth Hardware."  Broad Street was laid out and named in June 1805 and it still exists today, but over the years it has been expanded and cut in places.  This painting provides insight into how the street looked in the 1850s, and the building under construction gives a hint to the changes yet to come to the street.

Our newly refurbished library, with Silva's painting on view
The other paintings on display in the library are Schooner Passing Castle Island by Francis Augustus Silva and Sovereign of the Seas by James Edward Buttersworth. With new items on the walls, we decided that it was about time to freshen up the library a bit. Thanks to a generous donation from one of our long-time members, we were able to paint the walls, install new carpet, and mount special UV window shades that will protect the paintings from light damage.  We're excited about the changes in our library, and hope that our visitors and researchers enjoy the new space as much as we do.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

September 24, 2015

Sharing two treasures from our collection

Staff members Amy Nelson and Elizabeth
Roscio show collection pieces to Colin Meloy
Our library had a special guest earlier this week!  Grammy-nominated band The Decemberists were in town for a show on Wednesday, September 23 and singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Meloy stopped by the Old State House for a tour of our galleries, a trip up to the tower, and a visit to the library to see some of our 18th-century archival treasures.

Colin had limited time at the library, so I pulled two of our most important items out of storage to share with him.  The first was our copy of the Declaration of Independence, which I wrote about in a previous post.  The other was our copy of Paul Revere's famous print, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, March 5, 1770, by a party of the 29th Regiment.  This print is one of only about 25 versions still in existence, and we are thrilled to have a copy in our collection.  Revere engraved and distributed this print which depicts the event that would become known as the Boston Massacre.  Revere’s interpretation takes a patriotic approach, and below the image are eighteen lines of verse beginning with "Unhappy Boston! See thy Sons deplore, Thy hallowed Walks besmeared with guiltless Gore."

Colin takes a close look at Revere's print
This 1770 print is from the second state, in which the clock on First Church reads 10:20 rather than 8:10 as in its first state.   Even though it is 245 years old, it is in great condition!  There has been some paper repair in the corners, but the colors are still very vivid. One of my favorite things to point out about this print is that since they were hand colored, each version differs slightly from the others.  For example, there is a small dog in the foreground of the print, standing amidst the fray.  In our version, the dog is very detailed but it has not been colored in.  In most versions, the dog is painted brown, and in some versions it also has spots!  

Our library and archives are open by appointment only, but you don't need to be a famous musician to conduct research in our collection.  Appointment requests can be sent to me by email. If you can't visit us in person, be sure to follow along on our blog, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see glimpses into our collection!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

September 8, 2015

Adopt an Artifact!

Lydia Withington map, 1896.0053.001
Do you love revolutionary history and want to help preserve it?  Want to know that your well-meaning gift will make a difference to our museum collection and future visitors? The Bostonian Society has an Adopt an Artifact program where you can give directly to the conservation of specific museum artifacts that our Collections Manager has identified as needing conservation.  Your donation will help to preserve these items for years to come.

To learn more about the program, please visit our website.  On this page, you'll be able to see the artifacts that need to be adopted and learn more about their history and the specific conservation work that is needed.  You'll also be able to see some of the previously adopted artifacts.

If you have questions about the Adopt an Artifact program, please leave them in the comments or contact our Collections Manager directly by email.

August 26, 2015

Boston’s Liberty Tree Illuminated (Part II)

In our last post, we examined the events that occurred in Boston on August 14, 1765. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Liberty Tree lanterns.

When Parliament finally accepted the reality that the Stamp Act could not be enforced and repealed the measure, Bostonians chose to celebrate at the Liberty Tree. News of the repeal arrived in Boston in May 1766. On May 19 and again on May 20, the entire town was illuminated by candlelight and the Liberty Tree itself was hung with dozens of lanterns. According to some accounts, 108 lanterns were hung from the tree—a reference to the margin by which the repeal passed in the House of Commons. “Liberty Hall” was decorated with banners and scrims painted with allegories depicting the story of liberty and the victory of Britannia, and the streets around the Liberty Tree were choked with revelers. In a way, the lanterns marked the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Liberty Tree, as it moved from serving as a site of assembly and political action to a site of memory, where the power of ordinary people to effect change through collective action was celebrated.

Though they have remarkable significance to the history of the American Revolution, not much is known from the surviving written accounts of the May 1766 celebrations about the lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree. Fortunately, at least three have survived, including one in the Society’s collection.

In many ways the Bostonian Society’s lantern is relatively undistinguished. Like most lanterns of the second half of the eighteenth century, it is made of tin and glass. It is large enough to accommodate two candles, but at just over 20 inches by just under 8 ½ inches it is not oversized. It is painted green, red, and gold, and the tinwork is well executed but not overly ornate.

Detail of 1889.0024
A closer look, however, reveals much that is of interest. The lantern bears a carefully wrought crown of elm leaf finials, a clear reference to the Liberty Tree itself. Importantly, the same finials are found atop all three surviving lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree in May 1766. This suggests that the lanterns were made as a set, either by a single tin worker or by multiple craftsmen working together. Clearly, the lanterns were not a spontaneous outpouring contributed by Boston residents; instead, they were part of a carefully planned commemoration of the repeal and of the Liberty Tree’s role in the defeat of the Stamp Act.

The materials from which the lantern was made tell us much about the mindset of the celebration’s organizers. During the Stamp Act crisis, Boston merchants had adopted a non-importation agreement - basically, a boycott of goods imported from Britain - and craftsmen and consumers alike were asked to forego goods made in England. With the repeal of the Stamp Act, however, British imports flooded back into the market, and it appears that even the group most committed to defeating the Stamp Act was happy to resume purchasing these goods. We know this because the lantern is made almost entirely of imported wares: the production of both tin and glass were prohibited in the colonies and had to be imported from Britain; even paint was primarily an imported luxury. The lantern suggests, in other words, that those in Boston who most bitterly contested the Stamp Act still considered themselves members in good standing of the larger imperial polity and beneficiaries of the British trading system that brought luxury imports to their small town on the periphery of the Atlantic world. The lanterns they used to commemorate the history of the Liberty Tree thus tell a more complex story than we might expect about the origins of the American Revolution and the place of Bostonians in shaping it.

Replica lantern at the August 14 event
(Courtesy of Heather Rockwood)
What would members of the Revolutionary generation make of Boston’s efforts to commemorate the history of the Liberty Tree 250 years after its birth as both a site of popular politics and a political symbol? The answer is hard to know, but we can be certain that they would recognize the power of memory to shape the world in which we live. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Boston in 1824, he stopped at the site of the Liberty Tree and declared: “The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree.” But the world has forgotten both the spot and the tree. Earlier in August, we invited the public to reflect on the legacy entrusted to us by an earlier generation of Bostonians. As part of the event, 108 replica lanterns were carried through the city to the Liberty Tree site at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets.  We should not forget this spot, and the lanterns that illuminated it.

In an upcoming post, we will tackle a final mystery about the Society’s Liberty Tree lantern: who painted the words that appear on the bottom surface of the lantern?

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History

August 13, 2015

Boston’s Liberty Tree Illuminated (Part I)

This Friday marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Boston’s Liberty Tree on August 14, 1765. An enormous elm whose arched boughs shaded the main road into Boston from the surrounding countryside, the Liberty Tree served as the gathering place for the first convulsive mass protest against Parliamentary legislation during the Revolutionary era and quickly emerged as the most potent symbol of the American cause. Towns and villages across North America identified Liberty Trees of their own and used them, as the people of Boston did, as places to come together, voice their grievances, and call for change. No other place speaks as plainly to the role that ordinary people played in making the American Revolution as does the site of Boston’s Liberty Tree.

Some of the 108 lanterns for Friday's event
(Courtesy of Martha McNamara)
On Friday night, Bostonians will remember this history by coming together where the Liberty Tree once stood, at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets. The event will connect participants and audience members to the American tradition of popular assembly so deeply rooted in this place and invite each person to reflect on the meaning of the American Revolution for our own era, 250 years on. To give shape to this conversation, participants belonging to five community organizations from across Boston will carry 108 lanterns, each decorated with artwork that speaks in its own way to the enduring legacy of the Liberty Tree.

The lanterns themselves tell an interesting story that connects back to both the history of the Liberty Tree itself and the historic Liberty Tree lantern in our museum collection. To unravel it, we must return to the August morning in 1765 when Bostonians first gathered beneath the Liberty Tree. As the sun rose that warm day, carts and foot-traffic passing into town came across two unusual objects hanging from the branches of the well-known elm: an effigy of Andrew Oliver, a high-ranking member of Massachusetts government and the man who had been appointed to oversee enforcement throughout the colony of the hated Stamp Act; and a green-soled boot containing a stylized representation of the devil. This last was a reference to the Earl of Bute, seen as the driving force behind Parliament’s decision to pass the Stamp Act in March 1765.

Bostonians reviled the Stamp Act because it imposed a tax on the colony without their consent. Massachusetts voters elected representatives to their own colony’s legislature, and few people contested that body’s right to enact taxes. However, no one in Massachusetts could cast a vote in Parliamentary elections. The Stamp Act was due to go into effect on November 1, 1765, but already it had been the topic of heated debate about town for more than a year. Everyone knew that the colony’s “humble petition” asking Parliament to repeal the act would be rejected. The congress proposed by the Massachusetts assembly as a means of coordinating the efforts of all the colonies to secure repeal would not take place until October, by which time it would be too late. If something were to be done, it would have to happen soon.

Corner of Essex and Orange Streets in 1774, showing Liberty Tree
When Oliver and Bute’s effigies unexpectedly appeared in the arbor above a busy section of street, therefore, it struck a chord that resonated all across town. First hundreds and then thousands of Boston residents turned out to see the spectacle. As they approached the tree where the effigies hung, they could hear speakers exhorting them to stand strong in defense of the liberties that were their birthright as subjects of the British crown. By the hundreds they shouted “No!” when the speakers cried “Stamp!” As the crowd swelled, the royal governor called on the county sheriff to cut down the effigies and disperse the assembly. Sheriff Greenleaf’s deputies were barred from approaching the tree and sent away with a promise that the effigies would be removed at nightfall. And indeed they were. The throng removed the effigies and paraded with the likeness of Oliver up the street to the Town House (i.e., the Old State House). They marched through the building and directly beneath the governor’s chamber, chanting their opposition to the Stamp Act. Next the crowd proceeded to the waterfront, where they tore down a structure on Andrew Oliver’s dock that was believed to contain the stamped paper to be used in enforcing the Stamp Act. Finding no paper, they instead took the rubble from the destroyed building up nearby Fort Hill, where they burned it in full view of Oliver’s private home. Each piece of wood was ceremoniously “stamped” before being committed to the fire. And when the bonfire was sufficiently hot, Oliver’s effigy was sent to a fiery death—a far-from-subtle message to the provincial Secretary, who watched from this window not far off.

Oliver had seen his likeness hung from a tree with a rope about his neck, paraded through town, and consumed by flames. His property had been destroyed, and he surely felt lucky to have escaped with his own health intact. By the next morning, Oliver had resigned his post as stamp distributor for Massachusetts. No replacement could be found. The great mass of ordinary people had made their voices heard, and in one frightful blow the Stamp Act was made a dead letter throughout Massachusetts. Other towns soon followed Boston’s lead, and before long protests had forced the resignation of those charged with enforcing the Stamp Act in every colony but Georgia.

In Boston, the protesters and their sympathizers celebrated their victory by naming the tree where the protest began “the Liberty Tree.” A plaque bearing this title was affixed to the tree in early September, and a new organization calling itself the Sons of Liberty pledged to defend not just the tree but the larger cause of American liberty. As fall turned to winter, thousands continued to gather at the Liberty Tree to voice their opposition to the Stamp Act. Soon the newspapers were calling the space beneath the tree “Liberty Hall”—a reference, perhaps, to Faneuil Hall where the town government met and an indication that the proceedings in this outdoor space were seen by some, at least, as a legitimate part of the political process.

Liberty Tree Lantern in the Council Chamber
Check back next week for the continuation of this story and to learn more about the Liberty Tree lanterns. And please come to the Liberty Tree site at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets on Friday, August 14, at 8pm to join in commemorating 250 years of an important American ideal.

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History