August 28, 2014

The Art of Scrimshaw: pieces from our collection and a how-to guide to make your own

Whale's tooth with view of Amsterdam, MB0282
Sometimes the best part of learning can be getting your hands dirty. That’s exactly what we have been doing on Summer Saturdays at the Old State House! One of my favorite hands on activities is one designed around the art of scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw is pieces of carved and colored whale tooth or bone. Although whale tooth and bone were the most common materials for scrimshaw, examples can also be found of tusk, ivory or bone from other sea or land animals. Carving animal tooth and bone is a practice that goes back centuries, but the term scrimshaw came into use in the 19th century- as the whaling trade was exploding worldwide. Whaling ships would embark on trips that lasted years and the whalers often had ample time on their hands. The act of creating scrimshaw, called scrimshandering, was a detailed art that could easily occupy many hours and whalers could then bring the finished products home to their families and friends as souvenirs from their time abroad.

Scrimshaw clothespin, MB0070
These examples from the Bostonian Society’s collection show how diverse scrimshaw can be. Some show familial scenes, while others are more artistic or depict places the men traveled to. The shape of the scrimshaw can vary. Frequently scrimshaw took the shape of the original tooth, but sometimes it would be shaped into useful tools like this cribbage board and clothespins.  Busks were also common scrimshaw gifts, brought home to wives and sweethearts. Busks were a component of the corsets worn by women in the 19th century, the vertical piece lying against a woman’s sternum. A very intimate souvenir!

Whale's tooth with
family scene, MB0036

Whalers used whatever tools they had at their disposal, such as jackknifes, files and India ink. As scrimshaw became well known some men brought special tools with them on the ship in anticipation of the pieces they would work on. Tools that resembled a dentist kit were some of the most popular tools! The small picks worked well on the tooth and bone. Our hands on activity uses materials that are more readily available in the 21st century. We are doing this activity in the museum this summer, but it can easily be done at home as well, or even in the classroom.

Scrimshaw Activity

  • Block of white soap
  • A ball point pen
  • Black washable poster paint
  • Wooden carving tools (such as this one available at craft stores)
  • Sponge, cut into small pieces
  • Paper plate
  • Newspaper or craft paper to cover work space

  • Smooth off soap surface with wooden tool
  • Use point of wooden tool or the point of the pen to carve image (the pen will not make any marks on the soap). Carve whatever image you want. It can be a meaningful representation of something you love or a beautiful design. It’s up to the artist!
  • When carving, be careful not to press too hard, the soap may split.
  • If the soap is dry, the soap particles can irritate your throat, so don’t breathe too deeply!
  • Use sponge to apply paint. Use enough to get into the carving to make the entire image appear. Wipe away excess paint, using the sponge as well as paper towels to get the desired look.
  • Let the paint dry.
  • Share your art with friends and family- regaling them with tales of your time on the high seas!
Resource note: A great resource for more information on scrimshaw (and the history of whaling) is Leviathan, by Eric Jay Dolin.

By Alexa Drolette, Museum Programs Manager

August 20, 2014

Not that Samuel Adams! -- Chasing a Revolutionary Patriot across Boston (Part II)

As we learned in last week’s post, Samuel Adams bounced from job to job, but his engagement with radical politics was a constant in his life and his political inclinations likely influenced his steady resolve to preserve the flag. Adams always involved himself in local politics and was an outspoken fixture at town meetings. He supported Thomas Jefferson and the Whigs, and he was written about on one occasion as a great orator of Boston. He was a regular attendee at the anniversary celebrations of Thomas Paine’s birthday, where he made toasts decrying political and religious tyranny. Like Thomas Paine, he was an atheist. In his later years he became a radical abolitionist, allying himself with men like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Liberty Tree, Boston Common.  1983.0003.011.144
In the 1850s, newspapers recognized him as one of the last surviving “relics” of the Revolutionary period and reported that he had an incredible memory of those times. At the 75th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1851, he was one of three Revolutionary veterans riding in a carriage for the procession. By his own account, he witnessed the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British departure from the town, and Washington’s entrance into Boston. He claimed to have been one of the “Boston boys,” young men who acted as sentinels for the Sons of Liberty when they had their secret meetings, and that he even served as the confidential messenger of the patriot Samuel Adams. He stated that he served as a privateer during the Revolution. Thus far it is difficult to confirm these impressive stories.

Adams began displaying the flag for various public occasions in the 1850s, including the anniversary celebration of Thomas Paine’s birthday in 1851 and a meeting of the Free Soil Club in 1852. He evidently wished that the flag continue to be used to support radical politics. In his will, he left it to his granddaughter, and then intended it to pass to Abby Folsom, another abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. He called it the “Flag of Freedom of yore hoisted over Liberty Tree so called in Boston,” though one wishes that he might have mentioned how he came to own it. This question still remains to be answered.

The impression that emerges from the details of Adams’s life is that of a man who lived through an incredible period of American history: from the last years of British colonial rule to the years leading up to the Civil War. He preserved the Liberty Tree Flag as a living emblem of the radical politics he was caught up in as a young man, and of the reforms he still hoped to bring about. In this effort he had a strong sense of history, evinced by his remarks at Boston’s last town meeting before it became a city:

“ ‘Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.’ ”

By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern

August 13, 2014

Not that Samuel Adams! -- Chasing a Revolutionary Patriot across Boston (Part I)

The Bostonian Society has on display at the Old State House what at first appears to be a rather unassuming textile. Unfurled, however, it is an enormous flag (8’ by 13’) with nine red and white stripes, and it came into the collections with a remarkable story: that it hung from the great Liberty Tree in the early days of the Revolution, and even a few years before, when the Sons of Liberty began opposing British rule in Boston.

Liberty Tree Flag, 1893.0093
Before coming to the Old State House, the flag was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. When Bostonian John C. Fernald donated the flag to the Society in 1894, it was noted that the flag had first belonged to Mr. Samuel Adams, a Boston wire-worker, who died in 1855 at age 96. For decades very little was known about this Samuel Adams or how he came into possession of the flag; sources often only repeated his name and occupation.

The flag is currently being prepared for an exhibition about the Liberty Tree, so I have been researching Adams to learn more about him and the flag. Following a centuries-old paper trail, I have tried to connect the dots between the appearance of a flag on the Liberty Tree (documented in Boston newspapers in the 1760s and 1770s) and the death of Adams in 1855. Why did an obscure wire-worker hold fast to the flag for more than seven decades? What did it mean to him?

I found a man who, far from being an anonymous Bostonian, was a well-known local character and who led a very long and interesting life. Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.

Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).

The story of Samuel Adams and the Liberty Tree Flag will continue next week . . .

By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern

August 7, 2014

Historical Postcards on Display

Did you know that the Society’s archives includes a large holding of historical postcards? For the summer months, we selected five of these cards to display in the Old State House, each one portraying an iconic Boston site. Purchasing and sending postcards first became popular in America after the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and this display will give our visitors and blog readers a glimpse into the history surrounding these souvenirs.

The oldest postcards in our collection date to 1898 and depict the Old State House, Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, and scenes from the Public Garden. As you can see from the image to the left, these postcards were printed in gray scale with a color image of the seal of the City of Boston on the left-hand side of the card. The back of the card includes the line “Private Mailing Card (authorized by Act of Congress, May 19, 1898)” which is referring to the Private Mailing Card Act of 1898. Prior to this date, only the Postal Service was permitted to produce and sell postcards. When the Act was established, it allowed private companies to distribute cards; however, they could only refer to them as souvenir cards or correspondence cards, and it was also required that the line “private mailing cards” was printed on the back. This practice ended in December of 1901 when private companies were allowed to start using the term postcard.

One of my favorite postcards on display is a 1904 card of Old South Meeting House. This postcard was sent to Miss Hester Johns of Pittsburg, PA and is one of the few in our collection that includes a personal message, which reads, “We are having a very nice time. Going to the beach tomorrow.” From the picture to the right, you can see that the message was written right below the image of Old South. In the early 1900s, the back of postcards could only include the recipient’s address, so personal messages had to be written on the front of the card. It was not until 1907 that the Postal Service allowed postcards to have a divided back, which provided space for both a personal message and address.

The Society continued to collect postcards of Boston Proper through the 1970s and over the years we have accumulated quite the collection of cards depicting famous Boston sites. The cards illustrate the ways that the city has both stayed the same and changed over the past century.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager