April 15, 2015

Off the bookshelf: a look at a favorite item from the library

April 12-18 is National Library Week! The library at the Bostonian Society was founded in 1881, and since then we have collected, preserved, and made accessible for research a wide range of materials relating to Boston. Highlights of our library collection include sources on Boston and New England history, colonial history and the American Revolution, city directories, and Massachusetts Revolutionary War military records. We actively acquire recent publications, but some of the books in our collection date to the early 1800s.

F73.3.T54 title page
I use our library collection to help researchers on-site and with reference questions that are sent to me. From all of the time that I spend back in the stacks, I've found that I have a few favorite library items. I love our almanacs, many dating to the late 1700s, and I use our run of Boston city directories, dating from 1789 through the 1980s, on a frequent basis. My favorite source in the library, though, is Annie H. Thwing's The Crooked and Narrow Streets of the Town of Boston, 1630 - 1822.

Annie Thwing (1851-1940) was an author and historian. In addition to her research into Boston's streets and built environment, she also wrote a re-telling of the children's book Chicken Little with illustrations by Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter.  And while I don't use Chicken Little for reference very often, I do often find myself reaching for The Crooked and Narrow Streets. The streets of Boston have changed a good deal over the last 385 years, and I frequently receive reference questions about the history of specific streets, some of which are no longer in existence. Thwing's book is one of my go-to sources for these questions, as it give a history of the street, an idea of its physical location, and information about the individuals who lived in or owned property on the street. This source also helps us to imagine the colonial streets that our Revolutionary Characters would have walked down, and the people they would have encountered along the way.

Spurred on by a desire to know where her ancestors lived, Thwing researched early Boston's streets and inhabitants by using a number of resources, including deeds, probate, church, and town records, and diaries. All of this information was indexed on 125,000 catalog cards, that were later donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, before they were published as The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston. The MHS also has a collection of the Thwing Family Papers.

Celebrate National Library Week by finding some great sources at your local library, or by searching our catalog to find some in our collection!

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

March 25, 2015

From our collection: Phillis Wheatley

March is Women's History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to highlight an item from our collection that pertains to a remarkable woman - Phillis Wheatley. Our library holds a first edition copy of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and for the time being, this item is on display as part of our Revolutionary Characters exhibit.

Phillis was about seven or eight years old in 1761 when she was purchased by John Wheatley.  She was named Phillis after the slave ship that brought her from Africa, and was given the Wheatley surname.  Phillis was intended to be a servant for John's wife Susannah, but beginning at a young age, Phillis was tutored by Wheatley's children, Nathaniel and Mary. When she exhibited a literary talent the Wheatley family worked to foster her education by passing domestic duties on to other household slaves, though she was still required to complete light chores. Phillis studied the Bible and subjects like geography and history, but it was her exposure to British literature and classical poets led her to write her own poetry. With the support of the Wheatley family, Phillis became the first African-American female poet to publish a book when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773 by Archibald Bell. There are 39 poems in this collection, including "To the University of Cambridge in New England" which is thought to be the first poem she wrote.

PS 866 .W5 1773
The displayed book is currently open to the poem "Ode to Neptune" with a subtitle that it was written during Mrs. W--'s [Wheatley's] voyage to England. The book has been on exhibit for several months, and for preservation purposes, I turn the page occasionally to reduce the risk of light exposure to this 18th century book. Next month, the book will be taken off of display and returned to storage. In its place will go another item from our collection, the matted frontispiece from a different copy of Wheatley's book (pictured above). When the Society received this donation from member James Bugbee in 1887, the frontispiece had already been removed from the book. We feel lucky to have two items affiliated with Wheatley in our collection!

To learn more about Phillis Wheatley, please visit the Poetry Foundation site.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

March 20, 2015

This Week in Colonial Boston

During the colonial era, the Old State House saw multiple periods of transition of executive power.  It was the seat of colonial power for the royal governors of Massachusetts, and then continued to be the center of power after Boston was occupied by British soldiers and placed under martial law by Generals Thomas Gage and Sir William Howe during what became an 11 month siege of Boston.  The British occupation of Boston ended on March 17, 1776 when General Howe evacuated his troops from the town, leaving it open to Patriots waiting just outside its borders.

The British fleet evacuated the town, but lingered in Boston Harbor despite fair sailing conditions.  General George Washington began to grow concerned that the British would return, so he decided that Boston must be occupied again, only this time by the Continental Army. 

On March 20, General Washington departed for New York and left Boston in the command of General Nathanael Greene.  Greene was from Rhode Island, but had visited Boston multiple times, staying at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern only a few steps away from the Old State House on King Street.  One can only imagine what General Greene’s first impressions were when he returned to a familiar town now changed by many months of British occupation.

General Greene placed Boston under martial law, using the Old State House as a rallying point for his troops.  In front of the Old State House, he ordered an encampment of reserve troops to await further orders.  Whether or not General Greene used the Old State House as a headquarters for himself, he viewed the building as a focal point of authority within the town.

While in command, General Greene organized patrols to protect the town from possible attack and also held his men to a high standard of discipline. He warned his men that any reported act of plundering, abusing, or insulting Bostonians would result in heavy punishment.  For the duration of his time in Boston he only reported two claims of suspected looting, neither of which was proven.

General Greene’s command of Boston would only last while the British fleet remained in Boston Harbor.  By the end of March, the fleet had set sail towards Halifax, Nova Scotia to await reinforcements. On April 1, General Greene and his troops set out to rejoin the American forces assembled in New York. 

Although in command of Boston for only two weeks, General Greene had made an impression on the inhabitants of Boston that was not matched by his military successor, Artemis Ward.  Within a month of his departure, a Bostonian wrote to John Adams claiming that Ward needed to be replaced and specifically asked to return command of the town to General Greene.  This sentiment shows that General Greene gained the respect of the people of Boston and proved his ability to protect the town within a short period of time.

By Roberta DeCenzo, Education Associate

February 26, 2015

Oliver Holden and The Winter's Sun

"The Winter's Sun" MS0190, 1/44
Each month, I have the opportunity to select an item from our archival collection to display in Representatives' Hall at the Old State House.  This month, I've chosen to embrace the time of year by selecting a musical score by Oliver Holden titled "The Winter's Sun." This score dates to 1830 and the music and lyrics are handwritten.  Written in December, "The Winter’s Sun" comments on the lack of daylight and the feebleness of the sun's rays, but it ends with a hope of spring, repeating the line “yet know we when it sinks away it rises, it rises on a land of spring.”

Oliver Holden (1765-1844) was born in Shirley, Massachusetts. As a young man, he served as a marine during the Revolutionary War, and afterward settled in Charlestown and helped to rebuild it from damage sustained during the war.  A carpenter and real estate dealer by trade, Holden also served as a town officer and a representative to the Massachusetts State Legislature between 1818 and 1833

Oliver Holden, 1899.0034.001
Though he wore many hats, Holden is best remembered as a Boston clergyman and a prolific composer who specialized in hymns.  Most of his work dates to the late 18th century, but he continued to publish sporadically into the 19th century.  From 1792 to 1807, he taught singing, composed over 245 works, and compiled more than a dozen anthologies.  During George Washington's visit to Boston in 1789, Holden led the chorus in "Ode to Columbia's Favorite Son," which was sung in front of the Old State House. Holden also provided the music for Washington's memorial service in 1800.  A portrait of Holden by Ethan Allen Greenwood (pictured at the left) and his pipe organ and accompanying wooden stool are part of our museum collection. Our archival collection includes manuscript scores and tune-books composed by Holden that date to 1798, 1830, and 1844.  Though the bulk of Holden's music in our collection is of a sacred nature, there are some romantic songs, such as "He's stole my Heart from me" and "What tho' 'tis true I've talk'd of Love."  Of all of these pieces, my favorite is "The Winter's Sun" because I believe it reflects that Bostonians past and present rely on the thought of spring to help get through the cold and dark days of winter.

Boston is blanketed in a layer of snow right now, but we should remember that in just a few short weeks we'll turn the clocks forward to enjoy more sunlight each day - eventually saying goodbye to the winter's sun and welcoming the spring's sun.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

January 28, 2015

Time Capsule Items on Display! (Part IV)

The last day to view the exhibit of items from our 1901 time capsule is this Sunday, January 31 and this post marks our last examination of the displayed artifacts! If you'd like to read about all of the other items on display, please be sure to check out the previous posts.

S.D. Rogers, courtesy of Heidi Grundhauser
A few items in the time capsule were related to the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The G.A.R. was a fraternal organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. When this time capsule was assembled in 1901 the Civil War was still in recent memory, having ended only 36 years prior. Many of the men who were involved in the restoration of the Old State House may have been veterans themselves, or at least had family members who served. One of these men was Samuel D. Rogers, who included the Roster for Boston Post No. 200, of which he was a member, in the time capsule. Heidi Grundhauser, a descendant of Rogers who first notified us of the possibility of the time capsule in the lion's head, has done research into his Civil War service and she was kind enough to provide us with a picture of him in his Civil War uniform.

The time capsule also included photographs and autographs of many G.A.R. officials, and we choose to display the business card and lapel pin belonging to Edward P. Preble, who served as the Assistant-Adjutant General of the Department of Massachusetts G.A.R. I have not had a chance to do much research into Preble yet, but I have found a letter that was likely written by him during his Civil War service.

Edward Preble G.A.R. lapel pin and business card (front)
One of the most striking items in the time capsule was the Grand Army Badge, made of captured cannon metal and dating to 1886. This is an official badge of the G.A.R., and includes the seal which shows a handshake between two former adversaries. The badge was wrapped in its original packaging, which listed instructions for use.

G.A.R. Badge packaging
G.A.R. Badge
I hope you have enjoyed learning more about this selection of items from the time capsule. Once the exhibit closes, the items will be moved to our archives where they will be preserved for future generations.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager