January 29, 2016

The Price of a Fire

Boston has endured many great fires in its nearly 400 year history, including a number of significant fires in the 1700s.  The Old State House (then known as the Town House) was damaged in fires in 1711 and 1747, and other fires in 1760 and 1787 destroyed buildings and altered Boston’s landscape. From fire buckets and fireman's helmets in our museum collection to Fire Society membership lists and appeal notices in our archives, Boston's fire history is well-represented in our collections. For the next three months, 18th-century documents related to Boston fires will be on exhibit in the library and archives display case in the Old State House. This examination of the fire-related materials in our collection was partly spurred on by a recent blog post by one of our Education Associates.

One of the documents on display is a 1762 petition submitted by William Price to the Boston Town Selectmen.  In the petition, Price references a fire that broke out in Williams’ Court on June 11, 1761.  As a means of preventing the fire from spreading to nearby dwelling houses and buildings, Honorable Judge Hutchinson, Colonel Joseph Jackson, and Captain Thomas Marshall ordered the “pulling down” (destruction) of a building in the court. William Price owned said building, and petitioned the court to reimburse him for the cost of it.  The two-story building, which measured 47 feet long by 16 feet wide, was valued at around 100 pounds.

A second page of this document indicates that the petition was acted upon on April 13, 1763, but unfortunately, there was not a notation or a follow-up document that provided the outcome of the petition.  I was curious to find out if Price received his reimbursement, so I turned to our library collection and located the Records of Boston Selectmen, which included meetings minutes from 1763.  In the April 13 session, I found an entry for William Price.  From the meeting minutes, I learned that after debate and questioning, the Justices of the Peace and the Town Selectmen did not grant the petition and William Price did not receive compensation for his property loss.

The Old State House is closed the first week of February, so be sure to stop by when we re-open on Saturday, February 6 to take a close look at this document.  These fire materials will be on display through April, but if you can't visit, follow along on our blog as we explore more of Boston's fire history.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

January 20, 2016

To Preserve and Protect

As Collections Manager, I care for boxes of Elizabeth Bull's belongings. From baby caps adorned with microscopic lace and worn by her six children to a metallic embroidered shawl that must have stunned in candlelight to the grandest item - her wedding dress. Young Elizabeth made a wedding dress in 1730 without so much as a potential suitor on the horizon. She was married in 1734 to Roger Price of King's Chapel and set the dress aside until it passed to the bride of one of her sons. And although seams were ripped, hems cut, and drinks spilled in celebration, it was still saved. Bull's wedding dress is an exemplary piece of what is often referred to as school girl embroidery. The term invites us to reflect on the skills affluent young girls were expected to master.

The Bull petticoat, now on display
During conservation of the wedding dress, the petticoat was removed. Hidden for years under a protective layer, the embroidery on the petticoat is even more vibrant and indicative of Bull’s extraordinary talents than the dress. The petticoat, now on display in the museum, allows Elizabeth’s needlework to shine, and shows how even the people who altered the gown still honored her beautiful handiwork.

The Elizabeth Bull exhibit has been supported by the talents of Madelyn Shaw who carved the dress and torso form for the artifacts. Because historic garments were specially made, dress forms in standard sizes definitely wouldn't cut it for exhibit purposes. Etha-foam - an inert foam material - needed to be carved to each garment’s exact dimensions replicating the body of the original wearer. What is more, all exhibit materials that come into contact with historic textiles need to be inert or inactive so that they won’t cause further degradation.

The Bull wedding dress,
packed for storage
For preservation purposes, we have given the dress and the petticoat a separate six month display run in our gallery. The dress and petticoat have been embroidered with a rainbow of colors that can fade when exposed to light. We’ve mitigated exposure through controlling gallery light levels and using specially coated glass on our display cases that hinder exposure to UV light. Thankfully organic dyes are sturdier than synthetic dyes, which became more popular in the 19th century. All of this has eased my mind considerably and has allowed for accessibility to beautiful 18th-century items such as this one.

Despite everything we’ve put in place to protect these items, the mere handling of 300 year old silk increases potential for damage. Collections handling is tricky and although it becomes easier with practice and adhering to basic standards, it is a daunting task. The process usually requires multiple hands to support the garment and collections managers and specialists handle items only when they need to be displayed, conserved, or studied. It is also important to let items rest between these events. Earlier in January, the wedding dress was returned to storage for a good nap and the petticoat was put on display, where it will remain until June. Stop by the Old State House to examine this exquisite artifact in person.

By Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager

December 21, 2015

“The Vehemence of the Flames”: The History of Three Fires at the Old State House

The Fire of 1747

Fire!  Fire! The Town House (now known as the Old State House) has endured many fires over the years.  In fact, it was built in 1713 with a brick facade to replace the original wooden Town House, which burned to the ground in 1711.

On December 15, 1747 The Boston Gazette reported:
“At six in the morning the Watch in the east end of the Town House broke up, and between five and ten minutes after, the rays of the fire first discovered it in the said passage through the great window against it, by glancing into the Chambers of the houses on the north side of the Town House where two or three people were awake, and running to the windows first saw it there. But it quickly broke into the Council Chamber and run up the deal wainscot stairs into the loft and lanthorn above and set them all in a blaze.”
MS0119/DC 352.52 - General Court orders
payment for repairs of the Old State House, 1751
The 1747 fire, which started in one of the many hearths in the building, devastated the Town House. On that fateful night, embers from the hearth located near the entryway between the Council Chamber and the Chamber for Representatives Hall made their way into the woodworking underneath, caught fire, and engulfed the entryway between the two chambers.  The growing flames continued up from the staircase onto the roof until the entire building was ablaze.

This devastating fire left the Town House destroyed with damages to the top two floors, roof, and the tower.  Only the brick exterior walls remained untouched by the fire. Besides the physical damages, records indicate that the Province lost many items including Province records, books, portraits, and “a great Quantity of Wines and other Liquors.”

Massachusetts residents repaired the building in 1748 at a cost of about £3705, which was split between the Province, the County of Suffolk, and the Town of Boston. The rebuilding of the Town House saw changes to the exterior in the design of the tower and roof. In 1748, the former octagonal tower and gambrel roof was replaced with a pitched roof and a three-staged square tower, which is still present on the building today.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we post about the other two fires that devastated the Old State House.

By Deirdre Kutt, Education Associate

December 14, 2015

Treating the fish to tea

There is a small exhibit case in the Society's library where I can display a rotating selection of items from our archival collection.  Our library is open by appointment, so the only individuals who get to see this featured document are researchers, staff members, and visitors to our library and administrative offices.  But thanks to the blog, I can share images and information about this featured item with friends near and far.

On December 16 we recognize the 242 year anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.  Over the years, this important event in American history has been commemorated in many ways, including plaques, reenactments, poems, and songs – like “Tea Tax”, the lyrics of which are currently on display in our library.

According to our catalog, this broadside dates to circa 1862.  It published the lyrics to “Tea Tax” with a notation that it was “sung with unbounded applause at the Boston Theatre, by Mr. Andrews.”  While researching this song, I found some references to it being a "Yankee Comic Song." It certainly does not make light of the events that occurred on the evening of December 16, it does present the narrative in a lighthearted tone.  One part of the song describes dumping the tea into the harbor and goes, "And did'nt care a tarnal curse, for any King or Minister / We made a plaguy mess o'tea, in one of the biggest dishes / I mean, we steep'd it in the sea, and treated all the fishes."

If you look closely at the lyrics, you'll also be able to see that they point out locations in Boston that have changed since 1773, specifically that State Street was called King Street and that the bridge to Charlestown had not been built yet.

There are many reprints of this song in existence, the earliest dating to the 1830s.  In some of the broadsides the composer is listed as “a gentleman from Boston” and some state that the song was performed at the Federal Street Theatre, which was another name from the Boston Theatre. 

Besides this broadside, we do not have too many other Tea Party related artifacts in our collection.  But if you are in the area, be sure to stop by the Colony to Commonwealth exhibit at the Old State House to see one of our other important Tea Party artifacts - a vial of loose tea that was allegedly removed from the boots of Thomas Melvill after the Tea Party.  According to the story, Thomas found the tea on his boot when he returned home from the night's activity, and collected it to be saved.  The tea was then donated to the Society in 1899 by Miss Mary Melville, a descendant of Thomas. 

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

November 18, 2015

A Grateful Heart: Thanksgiving Proclamations in our Archives

Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation
Governor John Hancock
(MS0119, DC394. 26 1783)
Will you be celebrating later this November with a grateful heart, as John Hancock urged citizens of Massachusetts to in a 1783 Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving? The broadside featured here is from our archival collection, and was issued by Governor Hancock in the Council Chamber of the Old State House on November 8. Under the advice of his Council, the proclamation set Thursday, December 11 as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. Proclamations such as these were published as broadsides, and posted throughout the city to notify citizens of the upcoming day of observation.

Thanksgiving was not celebrated nationally until George Washington issued a proclamation for it in 1789 and it wasn't a federal holiday until Abraham Lincoln declared it as such in 1863. Prior to that, individual colonies would periodically declare days of thanksgiving for various reasons. We are grateful that our archival collection includes many proclamations for days of thanksgiving, prayer, and fasting. For Days of Thanksgiving, in particular, our holdings include more than thirty proclamations issued by Massachusetts Governors dating from the 1700s into the early 1900s. The oldest proclamations in our collection include this one by John Hancock, a 1796 proclamation for solemn prayer and fasting issued by Governor Samuel Adams, and a 1764 proclamation for a general fast issued by Governor Francis Bernard.

Thanksgiving Proclamation
Governor Channing Cox
(MS0119, DC394. 26 1921)
Since Thanksgiving was established as a federal holiday in 1863, the proclamations declared in the late 19th century and 20th century were primarily ceremonial in nature. A 1921 proclamation issued by Massachusetts Govorner Channing H. Cox recalls the 300th anniversy of the landing of the Pilgrims and also reads "Now, therefore, in appreciation of the numerous blessings which have been ours through the past year, in accordance with the custom of my predecessors who have counted it an honor to follow where Governor Bradford led, and with the advice and consent of the Council, I, Channing H. Cox, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, appoint Thursday, the twenty-fourth day of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." Compare that with John Hancock's 1783 proclamation, which has a more religious tone, and says "I do by and with the Advice of the Council appoint Thursday the Eleventh Day of December next (the day recommended by the Congress to all the States) to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, that all the People may then assemble to celebrate with grateful Hearts and united Voices, the Praises of their Supreme and all Bountiful Benefactor for his numberless Favours and Mercies."

While the function of the Thanksgiving Proclamation changed over the years, the general sentiment remained the same, that citizens of Massachusetts take a moment to reflect on their blessings with a grateful heart.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager