October 25, 2016

Preserving a legacy: institutional archives at the Bostonian Society

Bostonian Society Charter, 1881
There have been many posts on this blog featuring some of the historical items in our archival collection, but the Society's archives also holds institutional materials. These documents and manuscripts tell the important story of the Bostonian Society, the organization that has cared for and maintained the Old State House since its founding in 1881. I've marked Archives Month this October by installing a display in the Old State House that allows visitors to take a peek into our institutional archives.

Currently on display through the end of the month are a bookplate from the early days of the Society's library, a pamphlet dating from 1882 with information about the Society's history and background, a menu from a celebratory dinner held in 1982 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Society's founding, and the original Bostonian Society charter - which I think is the most notable item on display.

The charter  marks the official incorporation of the Bostonian Society on December 2, 1881 and is the culmination of years of work by devoted Bostonians who were committed to saving the city's historical landscape.  The story begins when John Hancock’s family home on Beacon Hill was demolished in 1863, which served as the rallying call for the need for  historic preservation in Boston.  Consequently, the Bostonian Antiquarian Club was formed in May 1879 as a way to bring together like-minded gentlemen with an interest in history and antiquities. After functioning for two years as a volunteer club, the group felt they would be better able to advocate for the Old State House before city government if they were an incorporated society. Thus, the Bostonian Society was officially incorporated by the city in 1881 and became the steward of the Old State House, charged with maintaining it so that it would not reach a fate like the Hancock Manor.  The aim of the Society was to prevent the “reckless destruction of monuments of the past” and to provide a location to preserve, store, collect, and display artifacts related to Boston’s history.

Though available for use by researchers, some of our institutional records, like our charter and other founding documents, are over a hundred years old and must be handled carefully. We continue to add to the institutional archives on a regular basis, ensuring that the history of the Bostonian Society is accessible for future generations.  In addition to the documents on display this month, our institutional archives includes the Society's meeting minutes, annual reports, scholarly publications, acquisition ledgers, and exhibit plans. The Old State House itself stands as a testament to the work of the Bostonian Society, but our institutional archives share the stories of all that it has accomplished over the past 135 years.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

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