April 29, 2015

A letter as old as Boston

John Winthrop (1980.6.2)
For the past month there has been a small and unassuming document on display in our special archival case in Representative's Hall.  Though it doesn't seem like much to examine at first, it is actually one of the most interesting items in our archival collection.  The document is a letter from a father to a son dated September 9, 1630, but what makes it notable is that the father is John Winthrop and the son is John Winthrop, Jr.  Though brief in content, this letter is important because it is one of the oldest items in our collection and includes the signature of a man remembered as a leading figure in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  John Winthrop served four terms as the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and his son John served as governor of the Connecticut Colony from 1657-1658, and from 1659 through his death in 1676.

Letter from John Winthrop to his son (MS0190, 04/14)
In the letter, Winthrop writes to his son asking him to pay Mr. Robert Parke a debt that the elder Winthrop owed. Transcribed in full, the letter reads:

Son John

I pray pay unto ye bearer Mr. Robert Parke or his assignee ye sum of forty one shillings which I owe unto him so I rest

Below the body of text, a column to the left includes a location and date of Charlestowne in N: England, Sept. 9 1630, and to the right is the closing and signature of yr [your] loving father Jo: Winthrop.  A notation at the very bottom of the letter, written in different handwriting, indicates that the bill was paid on January 28. It is especially interesting to note that this letter is dated September 9, 1630 - only two days after John Winthrop announced the founding of the city of Boston on September 7, 1630.  Learn more about the founding of Boston by checking out The Partnership of the Historic Bostons.

John Winthrop signature (MS0190, 02/54)
Our archival collection includes one other example of John Winthrop's signature, but in this instance the original document has been cut so all that remains is the line "Taken upon Oathe the 8th of the 6: mo: 1639.  Before Jo: Winthrop Gov-" The content of this letter remains a mystery, which makes us especially glad that we have a letter in our collection that includes both Winthrop's signature and his message.

According to the Proceedings of The Bostonian Society, Winthrop's letter to his son was donated in 1980 by Mr. and Mrs. William Osgood in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Boston. William Osgood was a long-time President of the Bostonian Society, and he and his wife were both life members of the Society.  We continue to be grateful to the Osgood family for this generous donation to our collection.  When this rare and nearly 400 year old document is not on display, it is kept in a special enclosure in dark storage to preserve it for years to come. 

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

April 23, 2015

A Peek Into Storage

My name is Alli Rico, and I’m a graduate student in Harvard University’s Museum Studies program. Currently, I’m interning at the Bostonian Society where my project is to help Collections Manager Tricia Gilrein document, condition report, photograph, research, and otherwise process a portion of our collection that was, until recently, housed at the Charlestown Navy Yard. In November 2014, the offsite collection was moved from the Navy Yard to a new offsite storage facility that allows us to better access these materials.

More than 20 years ago portions of the museum collections were moved to buildings in the Navy Yard. The National Parks Service provided help in determining preservation measures for certain artifacts, as well as identifying items that would be most useful for interpretation in the museum galleries. They then assisted in moving items that fell outside these criteria to various facilities in Boston. The Bostonian Society continues to assess all the collections for their potential for exhibits and research. As such, it has been a major goal to revisit these artifacts.

Different perspectives have also arisen regarding collections care, for instance: deaccessioning. Deaccessioning artifacts means that the museum will assess our needs against those in Boston’s museum community and heritage sector. Some of these items might better serve the missions of neighboring organizations. We’ve maintained that one of our project goals will be to contribute to our colleague’s goals as well as our own.

A look inside the cornerstone box
Between hands-on observations at the new storage facility and research based on the collections records back at the Old State House, I’ve found some pretty fascinating stuff! We came across a cornerstone box from the old Post Office building, which was given to the Society by the U.S. Sub-Treasury in 1932; it will be brought to the Bostonian Society Archives so that Library and Archives Manager, Elizabeth Roscio, can take a look at it and tell us what’s inside (a future blog post to follow!).

U.S.S. Maine plaque
We also came across quite a few plaques from around the Boston area. One of them is a duplicate of the plaque currently mounted to the anchor at the USS Maine memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. After talking to the cemetery’s Command Historian (they are a military cemetery, after all), we determined that the anchor at the memorial came from the Boston Navy Yard, and so the plaque must have been made here as well and we ended up with a duplicate. It’s a fascinating piece of history and took some detective work to piece together!

Already, we’ve found new homes for several headstones at the Historic Burial Grounds Initiative: a city initiative that deals in conservation and repatriation. A few historic water pipes from Boston’s first water systems were transferred back to the city via its archives where they will inform the study of early Boston infrastructure and public works. While the process will take a while, we are hopeful that by the end of the year, we will be well acquainted with this collection and its interesting and surprising connections to our fine city.

This project will take place over a year, meaning we have plenty of time to become familiar with the collection. Undoubtedly, we’ll find some pretty interesting objects and facts along the way – stay tuned!

By Alli Rico, Collections Intern

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