October 20, 2016

Archaeology Month: Lost and Found

October is Archaeology Month! Sira has previously looked at an item from our archives from an archaeologist's perspective, and today she takes a closer look at an object from our museum collection.

Archaeologists often study things that have been lost, dropped, or discarded. Unlike a painting or document that has been preserved intentionally, these items can tell us about the parts of the past that have been long forgotten.

One object that we hold in the collection has a fascinating backstory that allows us to imagine the lives of everyday people doing everyday jobs.  The card attached to this pin says “At one time while repairs were being made on the organ at Kings Chapel this old pin was found within the organ. This organ was procured from England in 1756 and paid for by private subscription. It cost 500 pounds sterling and was said to have been selected by the great Handel himself though the great master was at that time blind. This pin was found by the Boston organ builder, Mr. Henry E. Holland. 1886”

NN2008.0010 with penny for scale
While we know quite a bit about the life of Handel, for me the more interesting life to consider is that of the person who dropped this pin into the organ. Did it belong to one of the people who made the organ in England? Was it dropped into the organ during production, or afterwards? Did it fall in while the organ was being produced? During transport? After it arrived in Boston? What did it hold? Clothing? Sheet music? Did they notice it was missing, perhaps get down on hands-and-knees to look for it?

In this case, Mr. Henry E. Holland acted as an amateur archaeologist by preserving the pin and telling us as much about the circumstances of its discovery as possible. Knowing where and how it was found gives us a much deeper understanding of the object itself – the pin alone tells us very little, but the pin and the story together give us material around which to imagine a narrative.

By Sira Dooley Fairchild, Finance and Administrative Assistant

October 11, 2016

The archives: an invaluable resource for historians

Page 1 of the March 12, 1770 Boston Gazette
As an intern with the History Department at the Bostonian Society, I have spent a great deal of time researching in the library and archives. Filled with a great variety of sources and information on eighteenth century life in Massachusetts, this is an invaluable resource for historians like me, who want to know what exactly life was like for the people who lived in Boston at that time. Archives are a very important resource for historians, with most if not all scholars undertaking archival research at some point in their lives. By looking through sources from the time, historians can often verify or confirm newfound ideas and arguments.

Here at the Bostonian Society, we have an extensive archival collection. Most recently, I have been using the newspaper collection quite a bit, looking at one document in particular. I am currently working on editing The Proceedings, which is the Society’s scholarly publication, with the next issue focusing on the legacy of Crispus Attucks and other African-Americans from the eighteenth-century. For this reason, I have been looking at an article from the Boston Gazette and Country Journal from March 12th, 1770. This was the first publication issued following the Boston Massacre of March 5th, which happened right outside the Old State House. Attucks is named in this article as the first victim of the Massacre, which also states that he was born in Framingham. As this issue of The Proceedings will be focusing on Attucks’ roots and slavery in Massachusetts at that time in general, it is useful to me both as an editor and as a historian to look at items such as this, in order to uncover how events were portrayed at that time. The version that we have of this newspaper is actually a re-print from the early 1900s, as it was such a popular edition.

Having access to sources such as colonial newspapers and to resources like the archives of the Bostonian Society in general, is very important for historians. Working so closely with such artifacts is often the most exciting part of the research process, as it allows us to feel truly connected to the people and places of the past. Using the archives has been one of the best parts of my internship, and I’m looking forward to continuing to research in them over the coming months. I would encourage anyone interested in archival research to book an appointment with Elizabeth, our Library and Archives Manager, and come in to look at this fascinating collection!

By Laura Gillespie, History Department Intern

October 3, 2016

Kicking Off Archives Month!

Elizabeth checks out a document display
at the National Library in Dublin
October is Archives Month!  Throughout the month, we'll be highlighting the archives by sharing items from our collection and discussing ways in which we use the archives.  I'm kicking off the month by describing some of what I do with the archives at the Bostonian Society. For just over five years, I’ve been the Library and Archives Manager at the Society, overseeing our collection of 200 archival collections, along with our prints, photographs, and books. Sometimes I’ll introduce myself as an archivist, which is not always a term people are familiar with. They often think I mean archaeologist (or anarchist!), and don’t realize that an archivist is someone who cares for and makes accessible records of enduring value. Some of my favorite parts of my job are using these valuable records to answer reference questions and selecting archival items to display in Old State House exhibits.

When the Bostonian Society was founded in 1881 it was charged with collecting artifacts related to all of Boston's history.  That is a large task to undertake, and in recent years the Society has narrowed its mission to focus solely on 18th century Boston and the Old State House.  However, the questions that I answer run the gamut of Boston history; for example, patrons want to know about Boston businesses in the 1900s, what their house or neighborhood was like in the 1800s, or about a Revolutionary event in the 1700s. I turn to our archival collection to assist patrons and regularly use primary sources like letters, ledgers, and financial records.  While most of the reference requests that I receive are through email or mail, I do occasionally assist a researcher on site.  I really enjoy seeing a patron examine one of the unique items in our collection, and the excitement that is evident when they find an answer to their research question.

An Oath of Allegiance from 1778
currently on display in our library
On a recent trip to Dublin, I was excited to discover an exhibit in the lobby of the National Library that not only included copies of documents in its panels, but a case with drawers that held actual documents related to the exhibit.  When I visit museums, I always connect to the exhibit's message the most through its use of documents and manuscripts.  Seeing someone's letters and diaries, an annotated record, or even a broadside printed from that time period puts the exhibit in context for me, and helps me to relate to the exhibit on a personal level.  I try to keep this feeling in mind when I am planning for an archival display in the Old State House or writing a blog post about a collection piece.   By sharing items from our archival collection, I hope that our museum visitors and blog readers will both learn something about the 1700s and feel connected to it in a significant way.

As the Library and Archives Manager I strive to make our archival collection accessible through blog posts, reference requests, and exhibits.  I love sharing the neat things in our collection with researchers and the general public.  Please follow along on our blog, Facebook, and Instagram to "virtually" explore our archives as we celebrate Archives Month!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

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