July 23, 2014

From our collection: Colonial Currency

Revere engraved currency, MS0119 DC1219
Every month I select an item from the archival collection to display in a special document case in the Old State House. Throughout most of July, two pieces of Massachusetts paper currency engraved by Paul Revere, dating to 1776 and 1779, are on display. Most people know Revere from his famous midnight ride, but he is also well known as a blacksmith and engraver. The Society is lucky to have a few of his items in our archival and museum collections.

Hole cancelled currency, MS0047
Each of the thirteen colonies issued their own paper money during the American Revolution, and those pieces were not easily transferable for use in other colonies. Paper currency in the colonies was different from how we think of money today; these pieces were used as bills of credit, issued by the government. Some of the currency in our collection includes what looks like a hole-punch in the center, which is referred to as “hole cancelled.”

Though the bulk of the paper currency in our collection is from Massachusetts, we also have pieces from Rhode Island and New Jersey as well as a few pieces of Continental currency printed in Philadelphia by Hall and Sellers. The first Continental currency, referred to as Continentals, was issued in June of 1775 after a resolution was passed by the Continental Congress.

NJ currency, MS0047
As you can see from the Revere currency pictured above, paper money included elaborate designs and ornamental motifs. Of the two that are on display, the four shilling and six pence piece has an engraving of a codfish at the top center and the five shilling and six pence piece has an engraving of a pine tree. It was typical of engravers of colonial currency to try to prevent counterfeiting by designing intricate typefaces and ornaments that would be difficult to reproduce. Additionally, Continentals were printed on special paper that included thin blue threads and mica to prevent counterfeiting. Though it seems like a harsh punishment, the line “To counterfeit is Death” was included on some pieces of paper currency, like the New Jersey currency pictured to the right.

There is much more to say about colonial currency than can fit in a blog post, so please don’t hesitate to comment with any questions and I’ll try my best to find the answer!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

July 17, 2014

King Street in the 1700s

The Old State House was built at the head of King Street, now known as State Street. As its grand name implied, King Street was the most important street in Boston for government and commerce.

Using a variety of historical documents we can reconstruct a mental image of what it might have been like to walk out of the Old State House 250 years ago. It would be apparent that you were no longer in 21st century Boston as soon as you stepped out of the door. The salty sea air blowing in from Long Wharf was pungent with the aromas of horse manure, rum-soaked taverns, musty bookstores, hot forges, coffee house kitchens, and more. The calls of seagulls carried over a town as noisy as modern Boston, alive with the clattering of iron-clad cartwheels clattering over rough pebblestone streets, the cries of merchants barking their wares, ships bells chiming, children playing, and craftsmen and sailors hard at work.

The Little Admiral, 1916.0024
18th century newspaper advertisements reveal the goods that were bought and sold on this street. The fashionable shopped here for "All sorts of goldsmith and Jewelry wares," "women's fine horse-hair & beaver hats," "black bone lace, fine white cap lace, gimp and snail trimming," which the advertisers assured were "suitable for the season." For the hungry, shops sold "Chocolate, Bohea and Green Teas, raw and roasted coffee," "Choice Connecticut pork," "Choice Butter by the tub" and "The best Jarr Rasins." And for the scholarly, bookstores here sold "A large assortment of books on Law, Divinity, Gardening, Paper books and Pocket books… at the lowest prices."

Still, one of the main reasons to come to King Street was to socialize and drink. A block from the Old State House, on the corner of Kilby Street, stood the Bunch of Grapes, the Marlborough Arms, and the Queen's Head; three of Boston’s oldest Taverns. There was also the Admiral Vernon Tavern on Merchant's row. “The Little Admiral,” pictured above, is a a shop sign from a few doors down which is thought to portray Vernon, and is now part of our museum collection. King Street also had a number of coffee houses. In spite of their name, these genteel establishments served mostly alcohol rather than coffee.

Studying the shops on King Street gives us a richer picture of the thriving and lively town that Boston was on the eve of the American Revolution.

By Daud Alzayer, Revolutionary Characters Manager

July 14, 2014

Old State House Lion and Unicorn: An Unfolding Story (Part II)

To most who have heard of Moses Gulesian, he is remembered as the one who rescued the USS Constitution, ‘Old Ironsides’. In 1908, he had read that the U.S. Secretary of the Navy considered the deteriorating Constitution no longer needed and might possibly be towed out of Boston Harbor and used as target practice, ultimately to be scrapped.

Gulesian had become a passionate student of U.S. history. To him, Old Ironsides was an icon, launched in Boston in 1797, built with the timbers of a Boston shipwright, gun carriages built in South Boston, sails made in Boston and copper bolts and spikes made by Paul Revere.

USS Constitution, 1975.0006.010
His offer of $10,000 via telegram to Navy Secretary Bonapart drew a prompt response that the sale of a commissioned ship would require Congressional authorization. Word of this leaked to the Associated Press and an ensuing article in the Boston Evening Transcript created a public furor, forcing the Navy to back down and Congress approving the restoration of the vessel.

Publicity and controversy was also to emerge regarding the authorized copper fabrication of the Lion and Unicorn. Editors of The Boston Pilot condemned them as “relics of royalty” that patriots had burned in their opposition to British rule. Yet in 1882, the Common Council of Boston had those “emblems of royalty” replaced. The Pilot argued for their permanent removal.

In contrast, The Boston Transcript viewed the Lion and Unicorn as merely “orphaned emblems of British Sovereignty.” The Transcript’s position was that their replacement was appropriate to the “completion of the old building as an antiquity.” Despite the passion concerning another replacement, Gulesian’s new copper and gilt Lion and Unicorn were ultimately installed.

Although the golden Lion and silver Unicorn had been restored once since that time, their coats of gold leaf and aluminum have now been weathered away by nor’easter winds blowing through the urban canyon of State Street. Undergoing restoration this year, further discoveries may emerge. From old records left by the Superintendent of Public Buildings, a “box” was placed inside the head of the Lion in 1900 – its contents to be revealed this summer!

This article is written by guest author Donald J. Tellalian, AIA, founding Principal of Tellalian Associates Architects & Planners, LLC. He may be reached at donaldt@taap.com. Don has worked on preservation projects at the Old State House with the Bostonian Society since 2005.

July 10, 2014

Old State House Lion and Unicorn: An Unfolding Story (Part I)

The restoration process of an historic landmark often yields surprising discoveries – old newspapers and handwritten notes buried in walls, names and initials of workmen carved into timbers. This summer, the anticipated restoration of the iconic copper Lion and Unicorn that grace the top of the east fa├žade of Boston’s Old State House, promises such discovery.

The Old State House, constructed in 1713, has offered us a veritable odyssey of reincarnation. In 300 years it has lent itself to changes in use and appearance: site of colonial government, then town hall, then state house, then physical reconfigurations to house commercial offices and retail establishments.

Lion and Unicorn, photo by Nick Trainor
Since 2006, restoration/renovation efforts, commissioned by the nonprofit Bostonian Society, have been ongoing. This year a key initiative is the removal, inspection and restoration of the copper Lion and Unicorn. The originals, in polychrome wood, symbols of British rule, were removed and burned during the passion of the American Revolution. In 1882, when the building was restored to its “colonial appearance” replacements were carved and installed. In 1900, during a period of restoration/renovation, those two rotting wood figures were removed and a Boston coppersmith, Moses H. Gulesian, was commissioned by the Commonwealth to replace them in copper.

Moses Gulesian? Here a story unfolds!

Motivated by a utopian vision of America and fearful of the repression and dangers of late 19th Century Ottoman Turkey, Moses Gulesian, a 17 year-old Armenian, left his family for a long and dangerous passage, arriving in New York City in May 1883. He survived with a few Turkish coins in his pocket and slept on a park bench. After many days, with limited ability in English, he found work winding bobbins in a fellow-countryman’s carpet shop, and eventually secured an apprenticeship in a Worcester sheet metal factory.

Ultimately this almost storybook saga of the penniless, yet hardworking immigrant, would seek citizenship, thrive and achieve fortune in late 19th century Boston.

While personal security, substantial wealth and entrepreneurial opportunities were realized in Gulesian’s adopted country, his commitment to good works and philanthropy was not forgotten. He not only sponsored the immigration of his extended family, but sponsored scores of refugees from the ‘old country’, giving many employment and transitional lodging in his Waltham factory building. In the process, he developed longstanding relationships with a number of progressive figures of the day, including Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Check back next Monday for the continuation of Moses’ story . . .

This article is written by guest author Donald J. Tellalian, AIA, founding Principal of Tellalian Associates Architects & Planners, LLC. He may be reached at donaldt@taap.com. Don has worked on preservation projects at the Old State House with the Bostonian Society since 2005.

July 7, 2014

Conservation of the Thomas Barnard Sermon

Our new exhibit A British Town: The Council Chamber in Boston before the American Revolution features two items from our archival collection, including one item that needed some conservation before it was exhibit ready; a sermon preached by Thomas Barnard in honor of the anniversary of the election of Francis Bernard as the governor of the province of Massachusetts Bay, a document that was printed in Boston by Richard Draper in 1763.  To our museum visitors, this item looks like it is in good condition, but that was not always the case.  When we were considering this item for inclusion in the exhibit, I pulled it from storage and noticed that the paper was dirty, the edges ragged, and the binding in poor condition.   Anne Bentley, Curator of Art and Artifacts at the Massachusetts Historical Society, graciously conducted an assessment of the document and determined that it just needed some cleaning and mending before it would be ready to exhibit.  Anne also determined that this was work that could be done in house, and I was eager to undertake this task with her continued assistance.

The title page before (left) and after (right) conservation
Individual pages air drying after soaking
The sermon is 45 pages, which are separated in 6 signatures (a signature refers to a number of sheets of pages that are stacked and folded together, it can also be called a section).  To work on the individual pages, we began by separating each of the signatures from one another, which required that we removed any adhesive or string that was binding them together.  Once the signatures were separated, we were able to detach each individual page which was then soaked in distilled water to remove any surface dirt or remaining adhesive.  The pages were then laid out and air dried after the soaking.  The next step was to reinforce any tears and creases in the pages with Japanese paper, which was adhered to the original paper with wheat paste.  Japanese paper was also used to fill in any large gaps where the original paper had been torn away.  These repaired pages were then pressed for a few days to give them the smooth appearance they have today.  After the pages were mended and pressed, they were folded and nested back together into their original signatures.

Since this is a printed document from 1763, it can only be on display for a limited time before it is replaced with a facsimile.  Once the sermon is removed from display, it will be rebound using a pamphlet stitch and returned to storage.

Being able to do a bit of paper repair was an exciting opportunity for me, and I hope to learn more about it and work on other items from our archival collection in the future!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager