“Why cant I immortalize my name before morning?”: The Diaries of James Thomas Robinson

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

On February 20 1933, the U.S. Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to repeal Prohibition. I’d like to take advantage of this auspicious day to introduce you to one of the most entertaining collections here at the MHS.

It’s not often that I laugh out loud at a collection, but I
found myself doing just that when I cataloged the diaries of James
Thomas Robinson
of North Adams, Mass. To give you a taste—and to commemorate
this 86th anniversary of the end of Prohibition—here’s what young Robinson
wrote on the night of 16 May 1844:

I am in the old store with Quin[1], drunk! He is drunk also and trying to scribble in his journal. The fact is “old Quin” has got a cask of damn good brandy here, and we have been drawing on it, sucking it from the bung, through a spike stem. This would look like having a strong desire for liquor, but the fact is I wanted to see how it would feel to be drunk. I never was really cocked before, since I can remember. How curious I feel! My head swims, my body feels warm, I am top heavy. Quin is dashing away like a steam boat, though he dont know what in hell he is writing. […] Drunk! Drunk! Why in hell cant I be a Byron, or more! Why cant I immortalize my name before morning? I dont think much of this heavy drunk after all that is said about it. I dont think tis very pleasant, this allmighty dizzyness. I cant seem to write. S**t.

handwritten page of diary showing entry for Thursday, May 16
James Thomas Robinson’s diary, 16 May 1844

His handwriting is almost illegible by the end of the entry.
I’m calling it “drunk-journaling.” The following morning, in neater
handwriting, Robinson wrote:

It seems that I was drunk last night, from the preceeding page. Well I suppose it must be so, though I have no very distinct recollection of it, and now, on reflection, I cant say I am very proud of it, either as an instance of romance, or a circumstance of pleasure. No, on the whole I think it was a foolish freak, extreemely foolish, in this day of light and truth, and I dont think I shall cut such a caper again. To-day, as was to be expected, I’ve feel dull and spiritless. Slept on the chairs, eyes heavy and red, appetite gone.

handwritten page of diary showing entry for Friday, May 17
James Thomas Robinson’s diary, 17 May 1844

I’ve been wanting to blog about this collection for some
time, but it’s hard to know where to start. Robinson was both a good writer and
an interesting guy, so his diaries are chock full of terrific content and cover
a wide range of subjects. When he had his “foolish freak” above, he was a
21-year-old student at Williams College and a great sower of wild oats. He
described a number of salacious peccadillos and sexual experiences, and some scenes
played out like slapstick comedy—in one close call, Robinson had to hide under a
woman’s bed to escape detection.

Robinson was sometimes infatuated, jealous, melodramatic, alternately
thoughtless and empathetic, manipulative and manipulated—in other words, fairly
typical! In fact, there’s something very modern and “unplugged” about his
diaries that makes them distinctive. Equally fascinating are later entries,
which contain some introspection and reflections on himself as a younger man.

What else is there, you ask? There’s family drama (he hated
his stepmother and resented his half-brother), local gossip (his cousin Harriet
was jilted by Henry L. Dawes, later a U.S. congressman), a political awakening
(Robinson became a member of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party), and eventual
maturity (he developed a close friendship and great admiration for his
sister-in-law, poet Caroline Atherton Mason).

In his diaries, Robinson is often likeable, or at least relatable,
and at other times irritating and hypocritical. For all his genuine pity for
Harriet’s heartbreak, his own treatment of women leaves a lot to be desired.
Case in point: poor Lucy, a young woman who apparently worked for the family
and with whom Robinson had a fling. The power dynamic worked in his favor, and while
for him the relationship was casual, she felt differently. He eventually
realized this and regretted his insensitivity.

One more thing makes discussing this collection a challenge:
it’s difficult to find a family-friendly passage to quote! Robinson liked his
language a little blue, and his free use of four-letter words is also unusual in
19th-century material. Personally I find his conversational style
endearing.

The five diaries of James
Thomas Robinson
date from 1842 to 1853, with gaps. Robinson graduated from
Williams College in 1844 and worked as a lawyer in North Adams, like his
father. He served in several public positions, including Massachusetts state
senator and judge of probate and insolvency for Berkshire County, and co-owned
and wrote for the local paper. He and his wife Clara (Briggs) Robinson had
three sons. He died in 1894 at the age of 72.

[1]My best guess is that “Quin” was Josiah Quincy Robinson, Robinson’s first cousin once removed. He was a few months older than Robinson.

This Week @MHS

Please note that the MHS is closed on Monday, 18 February; the building will open at 5:00 PM for visitors attending the evening program. Here is a look at what is going on this week:

  • Monday, 18 February, at 6:00 PM: Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson & America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation with Steve Luxenberg, Washington Post Associate Editor. Steve Luxenberg presents a myth-shattering narrative of how a nation embraced “separation” and its pernicious consequences. Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case synonymous with “separate but equal,” created remarkably little stir when the justices announced their near-unanimous decision on May 18, 1896. Yet it is one of the most compelling and dramatic stories of the nineteenth century, whose outcome embraced and protected segregation, and whose reverberations are still felt into the twenty-first. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).

  • Tuesday, 19 February, at 5:30 PM: Panel: Feminist Economics with Danielle L. Dumaine, University of Connecticut, and Julie R. Enszer, University of Mississippi, with comment by Juliet Schor, Boston College. These papers begin a conversation on the intersection of the study of the women’s liberation movement with the history of capitalism. Danielle Dumaine’s paper, “Sisterhood of Debt: Feminist Credit Unions, Community, and Women’s Liberation,” examines the role of Feminist Credit Unions in the women’s liberation movement. Julie Enszer’s paper, “‘a feminist understanding of economics based on a revolutionary set of values’: Feminist Economic Theories and Practices,” looks at the feminist organizations that created the Feminist Economic Network. This is part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality series. Seminars are free and open to the public. This seminar will take place at the Knafel Center, Radcliffe Institute.

  • Wednesday, 20 February, from 9:30 AM to 4:00 PM: Teaching the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts. Lowell’s water-powered textile mills catapulted the nation–including immigrant families and early female factory workers–into an uncertain new industrial era. Nearly 200 years later, the changes that began here still reverberate in our shifting global economy. Hosted in partnership with the Tsongas Industrial History Center, this workshop will explore the history of industrial growth in New England and its impact on immigration, labor movements, women’s rights, and communities in New England and beyond. This program is open to all who work with K-12 students. Teachers can earn 22.5 Professional Development Points or 1 graduate credit (for an additional fee). There is a $25 per person fee. This workshop will be held at the Tsongas Industrial History Center in Lowell, Mass. For questions, contact Kate Melchior at education@masshist.org or 617-646-0588.

  • Thursday, 21 February, at 5:15 PM: Mourning in America: Black Men in a White House with Leah Wright Rigueur, Harvard Kennedy School, and comment by Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard University. This paper focuses on the 1980s HUD Scandal, wherein contractors, developers, lobbyists, HUD officials, and others misappropriated billions in federal monies set aside for low-income housing. Of particular interest are the intertwined stories of two African Americans: Samuel R. Pierce, Ronald Reagan’s HUD Secretary, and Kimi Gray, a Washington, D.C. public housing activist. In exploring these narratives, this paper aims to complicate our understanding of the “Black 1980s,” the Ronald Reagan-led White House, and democracy in post-civil rights America. This is part of the Boston Seminar on African American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

  • Thursday, 21 February, at 6:00 PM: Uncivil Society with Julian E. Zelizer, Princeton University; Michael Tomasky, Democracy; and Robin Young, WBUR and NPR. American political discourse has become so dysfunctional it is hard to imagine reaching a national consensus on almost anything. Longstanding historical fault lines over income inequality, racial division, gender roles, and sexual norms coupled with starkly different senses of economic opportunity in rural and urban America have fueled a polarized political landscape. Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, and Michael Tomasky, If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved, and Robin Young, co-host of Here & Now on WBUR and NPR, will discuss how we got here and if there is a way back. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).

  • Saturday, 23 February, 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. Join is for a 90-minute docent-led walk through of the public rooms of the MHS. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.   

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts.

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

Brief Sketches from Danvers Alms House in the 1850s

By Brendan Kieran, Library Assistant

In The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers,
2005), David Wagner writes that before the 20th century, when large-scale
federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare were introduced,
government social welfare efforts were largely local, and poorhouses, also
called almshouses, were institutions that served many people (3-7).

The MHS holds a register of
paupers at Danvers Alms House (Peabody, Mass.)
, which records
the people who were in the institution between 1841 and 1859. Adino Page, the
superintendent at the almshouse between 1850 and 1859, was mostly responsible
for the entries in the register. As noted in the catalog record, the entries in
the register list names, residences, entrance and departure dates, ages, and
other information about them and their stays in the almshouse. The volume
provides a glimpse into a 19th century Massachusetts almshouse, and documents
the diversity of people admitted to the institution, the varying reasons for
admission, and the experiences of those individuals.

One individual documented in the register is a 32 year-old man from Virginia named George Vannen. He entered the almshouse on March 11, 1858, and left two days later. Page lists Lowell as Vannen’s destination, and guesses that Vannen had escaped from slavery.

detail of register page with handwritten notes
Notes in entry for George Vannen

Luis Paul, age 20, and Mary Paul,
age 19, both of Maine, entered the almshouse on 6 June 1852 and left the
following day. Page notes that they are “Indians of the Penobscot Tribe.”

page from register showing columns of handwritten notes
Entries for Luis Paul and Mary Paul

Page’s opinions of the people
under his care come through in a number of entries. An example is the entry
noting the 2 July 1856 admittance of Mary Skinner of Lynnfield. Page notes that
Skinner was engaged in prostitution [one of multiple women in the register with
such a note], and follows this with “but good natured.” He does not extend
similar remarks to Elisabeth Fuller of Danvers, who was in the almshouse
between 1 January 1855 and 6 August 1855; he writes that she “is a bad
character.”

Page from register of paupers at Danvers Alms House listing people who were there as of 1 January 1854

Page includes comments on a
number of entries to note physical and intellectual disabilities as well as
mental illnesses, using the language of his time. Most of the people with
listed mental illnesses are women. 40 year-old Eben Smith and 36 year-old Marth
M. Grant are two individuals who were in the almshouse as of 1 January 1854 and
were noted as “Insane” by Page.

In one entry, for 49 year-old Lydia Smith, Page describes at least a perception of gender nonconformity. He writes that Smith “is neither male nor female.”

detail of register page with handwritten notes
Entry for Lydia Smith

One particularly tragic entry describes the death of Dean Carty, a 28 year-old Irish immigrant (one of many Irish immigrants listed in the register) who entered the almshouse on April 6, 1850, and died three days later. Page writes that “he became delirious, leaped from the window, 2nd story, he lived about 20 [minutes] after being taken up.”

detail of register page with handwritten note about Dean Carty
Notes in entry for Dean Carty

An account that does document
longevity tells the story of Joshua Daniels. Page writes a lengthy entry about
him:

            Joshua Daniels, Died [February] 19th, 1850–Mr. Daniels was a native of Great Britain, was a soldier in the British army, served under [General] Burgoyne–was taken prisoner,  by the Americans, in 1777, as he informed. He would not return to the English. [H]e lived  in the towns of Billerica, Beverly, Middleton, and other neighboring towns until about the  year 1807, when he came to Danvers and married a Widow, Putney, who had some  property. Mr. Daniels was first sentenced to the home for intemperance, in 1814, and continued to sentenced [sic] here accordingly, untill [sic] May 17th 1826, he was committed as a pauper, he remained untill Death, at the age of about 104 years.

lower half of register page showing handwritten notes
Description of the life of Joshua Daniels by Adino Page

Wagner writes that “[d]eeply
intertwined with the history of poorhouses . . . is not only the history of
poverty but of old age, sickness, physical and psychological disability,
alcoholism, child welfare, widowhood, single parenthood, treatment of deviance,
unemployment, and economic cycles” (3). This register provides ample
opportunities for investigation of these topics from the perspective of one
Massachusetts almshouse superintendent in the mid-19th century.

The MHS holds some
other records of almshouses that operated in Massachusetts in the 19th century,
including the Boston
Overseers of the Poor records
, the Charlestown
Overseers of the Poor records
, the Overseers
of the poor of Haverhill (Mass.) records
, the Newton
Overseers of the Poor account book
, and the Roxbury
almshouse records
. If you would like to view the Register of
paupers at Danvers Alms House or any of these other almshouse records, please
feel free to visit the MHS library and explore our holdings!

This Week @MHS

Here are the programs on the schedule for coming week:

  • Monday, 11 February, at 6:00 PM: Lincoln & the Jews: A History
    with Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University. Historian Jonathan D. Sarna reveals how Lincoln’s remarkable relationship with American Jews impacted both his path to the presidency and his policy decisions as president. Expressing a uniquely deep knowledge of the Old Testament, employing its language and concepts in some of his most important writings, Lincoln also befriended Jews from a young age, promoted Jewish equality, and appointed numerous Jews to public office.A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).

  • Tuesday, 12 February, at 5:15 PM: Amputated from the Land: Black Refugees from America & the Neglected Voices of Environmental History with Bryon Williams, Academy at Penguin Hall, and comment by John Stauffer, Harvard University. This paper focuses on dictated narratives from the 1840s and ‘50s, accounts delivered by blacks who fled the U.S. to settle in the wilds of Ontario. These first-person accounts of environmental encounter and expertise are unrivaled in depth, breadth, and detail among black ecological writing of any era. New environmental histories need such accounts that not only counter dominant American environmental and political myths, but offer black-lived stories of environmental belonging and agency. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

  • Wednesday, 13 February, at 6:00 PM: Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize Ceremony with Douglas L. Winiarski and Stephen Marini. Please join us for a special evening in which Douglas L. Winiarski will receive the 2018 Gomes Prize for Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in 18th-Century New England. Winiarski will join historian Stephen Marini in a conversation about religious revivalism and the shaping influence of religious awakenings on faith and culture in eighteenth-century New England.A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. W

  • Saturday, 16 February, at 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. Join us for a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Please note that the MHS will be closed on Monday, 18 February. Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

Boston to Bombay*: Historical Connections between Massachusetts and India

by Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

On Saturday, 2 February 2019, 45 people gathered at the MHS for Boston to Bombay: Historical Connections between Massachusetts and India. This special event focused on the historical connections between Boston and India as illustrated by manuscripts and artifacts in the collection of the MHS. After the Revolution, ships from Boston and Salem sailed for India on a regular basis bringing back not only goods but also ideas, fashion, religion and philosophy. These connections continued through the centuries and remain strong today.

Reception for Boston to Bombay program

Reception for Boston to Bombay program

Boston
and India: 18th Century Connections

Several
items on display showcased the interactions between Boston and India in the 18th
century. A bottle of tea leaves collected after the Boston Tea Party
represented the North American role in being forced to fund the British East
Indian Company.

Three
miniatures portraits were on display. One, from 1818, depicts Major General
David Ochterlony, who was born in Boston in 1758. Ochterlony went in India as a
cadet by 1777 and rose quickly in military ranks. He was called the “Conqueror
of Nepal” for his victorious campaigns and given the title “Defender of State”
by Shah Alam. Two others, done in watercolor on ivory, of Emperor Shah Jahan
and Mumtaz Mahal by an unidentified 18th century artist were also on
display.

Benjamin
Joy of Newburyport, Mass. was appointed the first U. S. Counsel to India by
President George Washington. Although the British refused to acknowledge him as
Counsel he remained as an “agent” in India for three years. Visitors were able
to view Joy’s sea chest. It was made in India and accompanied him on his voyage
back to Boston.

Sea Chest belonging to Benjamin Joy

The Ice Trade

Boston’s
most lucrative trade with India was ice. Ships full of ice cut from the ponds
of Massachusetts would sail across the globe to ice houses in Bombay and
Calcutta. Frederic Tudor of Boston, known as “the Ice King,’ became very
wealthy due to the ice trade. Items on display to illustrate the ice trade
included a print of the ice being cut from Spy Pond; a print of the harbor at
Calcutta; a copy of Walden; and a letter from Calvin W. Smith, an agent of the
Tudor Ice House, to his mother in Boston from Bombay.

John Eliot Parkman in India

John Eliot Parkman, brother of historian Francis Parkman, went to India in 1855. He not only marked his travels on a wonderful 1855 map of India, he also wrote about his travels and excitement in letters home. He even painted some of the people he met along the way. Visitors were able to see a travel map and a watercolor painting by Parkman as well as a letter from Parkman to his mother:

Calcutta February 22nd 1855

“My dear Mother,

“…We have been living there now about a fortnight and like it better and better everyday. The house is about 3 minutes from town, almost on the banks of the river, and in the pleasantest place near Calcutta, we have a large garden and a tank in it almost as large as the Frog Pond, and beside these advantages two dogs and a billiard table. there is one drawback however to a new comes in the shape of jackals who drift about to the house every night and gangs above 50 and howl like so many rampant Devils- , it is unnecessary to add that I slept but little the first three nights but I have since got used to them.

Mr Bullard who has just come down from up country is living with us but goes to Paris by the steamer, he has told me such stories about Delhi, Agra and half a dozen other places that I am well-nigh crazed and probably shall remain in that condition till my turns come to travel. (!)

Mr. Lewis has given me $50 a month but you have no idea what an expensive place this is, I was insane enough to think when I was at home that living here was remarkably economical, but I have since learnt better (at my cost of course). I can live in Boston for half the money I am obliged to spend here. Clothes are very cheap but then you have to have so many, that it comes to about as much, if not more than it does in Boston…”

Bostonians Travel to India

William
Scollay kept a journal while travelling and studying in India from14 November
1811 to 28 October 1812. The journal includes descriptions of his stay in
Calcutta, impressions of the landscape, and most interestingly, Hindi classes
taken at the College of Fort William. Scollay fills the pages of the travel
journal with vocabulary lessons.

The Log of the Bark Hannah Sprague kept by Horatio Stockton Rotch in 1845 is one of the many ships logs in the collections of the MHS.  The log was kept on a trading voyage from Boston to Madras and Calcutta, India. Entries record longitude and latitude, course, winds, and distance traveled and narratives kept at Madras and Calcutta.

Letters from India

A selection of 19th-century letters focused on social justice and the link between Indian and Boston reformers were on display. Raja RomMohan Roy, known as the “Father of the Indian Renaissance,” wrote to William Ward, Jr. of Medford on 5 February 1824. Roy was a social reformer who criticized the Caste System, polygamy, and the treatment of widows. He also advocated for women’s right to inherit property.

In a 24 September 1887 letter to Mrs. Andrews, Pandita Ramabai
indicates that she will stop in Boston on route to Manchester NH, as part of a
national tour. A group of Bostonians formed the American Ramabai Association,
to support the work of Pundita Ramabai as she tried to create a home and school
for child widows in India.

In a letter by K. L. Nulkar to the American Ramabai Association in Boston, he advocates for the rights of the child widows in the care of the home to practice their own religion. He reminds the American benefactors that these schools are secular. Photographs of K. L. Nulkar and his wife and child were displayed alongside the letter.

Letter from K. L. Nulkar to the American Ramabai Association in Boston and photographs of Nulkar and his wife and child

It was a pleasure to welcome so many new visitors to the MHS! If interested in learning more about items related to India in the collection, please contact the Library.

*The use of the name Bombay in the title of the event was derived from historic texts and should be taken in the 19th-century context.

George Hyland’s Diary, February 1919

By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

Today, we return to the diary of George Hyland. You can read more about this diary series in the January 1919 post. Today, we follow George through a February that was “very fine weather — (for winter),” punctuated by rain and snow that was quick to melt — not like our own February so far! George’s month is punctuated by running errands in North Scituate, regular visits to his uncle Samuel (with milk for Ellen and chocolate candies for “little Elizabeth”), and chopping wood. He also hitches a ride on the back of an “auto truck” and buys a new pair of rubber boots with felt leggings which he pronounces to be “good ones.”

As readers have probably already noticed,
George is a keen and regular observer of the weather. In February he notes the
appearance of northern lights and also identifies planets and constellations he
sees in the clear night skies. This habit, along with his mention both in
January and February of “boxing the compass” — a mariner’s exercise —
has made me wonder whether he had been at sea in his younger years, or if not
learned to record the weather from a relative who was a mariner.

Without further ado, join George on his daily
rounds during February 1919.

* * *

PAGE
322 (cont’d)

Feb 1. Cut wood in swamp 5 1/2 hours. Cold and
very windy W.N.W. temp. 16-40. In eve went to N. Scituate — walked down and
back (5 miles). Bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store, also some choc.
candy for little Elizabeth. A little warmer in eve. tem. 26 bought some milk at
Mrs. Merritt’s.

2d. (Sun.) Clear; very windy; tem. 18-42;
W.N.W. Got some wood in swamp. Fine weather for season. Paul Briggs spent eve.
Here.

3d. Cut wood (in swamp) 5 1/4 hours. Cold.
Windy. Clear. tem. 17-42; W.N.W. Fine weather for season. Bought some milk at
Mrs. Merritt’s early in eve. Fine eve. Wind very light. Clear. Mrs. Cora Vinal
at Mrs. Merritt’s — will stay a week.

4th. Cut wood in Swamp 5 1/2 hours. Fair.
W.S.W.S.E. tem. 36-45. In eve went to N. Scituate, bought some groceries at
Mrs. Seavern’s store — also some choc. candy for Elizabeth – 3 cts. Light rain
in eve. Walked to N.S. and back. Boxed compass 4 times forwards and backwards
while going to N.S. — N. to right back to N. then to left back to N., then
same by E., S., and W.

5th. Cut wood in Swamp 5 hours. Fine weather,
cloudy, A.M. 10 A.M. clear; W.N.W. tem 20-42. Early in eve. Went to N.Scituate
bought some bread, also bought some choc. Candy for Elizabeth – 2 cts. Eve.
clear. Cold. — but fine for season. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s.

6th. Cut wood 5 1/2 hours. Very fine weather
— for winter. Clear; W.N.W. tem. 16-36. Eve. clear; tem. 24. Went to N.
Scituate early in eve. — walked down and back. Stores all closed when I
arrived there. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s, then went to Hwd.
Litchfield’s and bought some bread.

7th. Cut wood 5 1/2 hours. Fine weather,
clear; tem. 20-38; W.N.W. Called at S.E. Hyland in eve. Bought 2 loaves of
bread at H. Litchfield’s and some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s, called at Uncle
Samuel’s and got some milk for Ellen at Mrs. M’s. Fine eve. Planets and stars
bright. Venus in W., Jupiter, Sirius Canis Major and Proceon [sic] (Canis
Minor) make an obtuse triangle near Orion.

PAGE
323

8th. Cut wood in Swamp 5 1/2 hours. Fine
weather, clear, tem. 25-39. W.W. and S.E. par. Clou. ate in aft. Early in eve.
Went to N. Scituate. Bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store, also at H.
Litchfield’s, also bought some choc. Candy for Elizabeth — 3cts. Eve. hazy.
W.S.E. 11:30 P.M. W.W.; clou. A large piece of heavy wood fell on my right foot
— hurt one of my toes badly this afternoon. Light S. storm late in the night.

9th. (Sun.) Clear to par. Clou. W.N.E. tem.
25-35. Got some wood out of the Swamp and put it in the cellar. A few flakes of
snow in aft. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s in eve. Spent eve at. S.E.
Hyland’s — S.E.H. gave ^me a fine Baldwin’s apple — grew on a very small
tree. I picked all of his apples last fall. Eve. clear, cold. Fine weather for
the season.

10th. Cut wood in Swamp — 4 hours. Snow storm
early A.M. W.N.E. — very windy. Fare [sic] par. clou. aft. clear. tem. About
25-32. W.N.E. cold and windy. Early in eve. bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s.
Fine eve. clear. wind mod. N.E.

11th. Cut wood 6 hours. Cold. clear. W.N.W.,
S.E. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s early in eve. tem. To-day 16-28. Eve.
clear. frosty. 7 P.M. tem. 12. Cold night.

12th. Cut wood 5 hours in Swamp. Fine weather
— clear; W.N.W. — S.E.; tem. 10-36. Early in eve went to N. Scituate —
bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store. Also some choc. candy for
Elizabeth — 3 cts. Walked down and back. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s.
Fine eve.

13th. Cut wood 6 hours. Very fine weather, clear,
tem. 18-40; W.N.W. early in eve went out to H. Brown’s Store then went to Mrs.
Merritt’s and bought some milk. Circle around the moon in eve. 11:30 P.M.,
clou. Will prob. Snow or rain soon.

14th. Rain all day, W.S.E. tem. 27. Early in
eve went to H. Brown’s Store. Bought 2 loaves of raisin bread. 30. Eve. colder,
W.N.W., fog and mist, rain.

15th. Snow storm at times. W.N.W. tem. About
33-36. Early in eve. Went to N. Scituate — bought some groceries at Mrs.
Seavern’s store — also some choc. candy for Elizabeth — 3cts. Bought some
milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. eve. clou. to partly clou. W.W.

16th. (Sun.) Par. clou. To clear, tem. About
32-40. W.N.W. Cold and very windy in eve. bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s in
eve.

17th. Cut wood in Swamp 6 3/4 hours. Clear;
W.N.W.; tem. 20-38; windy. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s in eve. — also
got some for Ellen. Fine eve.

18th. Cut wood in Swamp 6 3/4 hours. Cold and
windy. N.W. tem. 18-38. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s and some bread at H.
Litchfield’s in eve. eve. cold, very windy. clear. 11 P.M. par. clou.

19th. Cut wood 6 3/4 hours — in Swamp. Clear.
cold. windy — N.W. Eve. windy. cold. clear. tem. to-day — about 16-38. In
eve. bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s and some bread at H. Litchfield’s. Cold
night.

20th. Cut wood in swamp 5 1/2 hours. Very fine
weather — (for winter) tem. 16-36; W.N.W. clear. Early in eve. before supper
went to N. Scituate bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s Store — also at
Jos. H. Vinal’s store. Also bought some choc. candy for Elizabeth — 3cts.
Walked down and back. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. Northern lights in
eve.

21st. Cut wood 5 hours in the Swamp. Cloudy,
very chilly, wind S.N.S.E. tem. 24-36. Began to snow about 3:50 P.M. W.S.E.
light snow storm all eve. Early in the eve went to N. Scituate — rode down
with Willard Litchfield — on the rear end of auto truck, walked back. Bought
some groceries at Jos. H. Vinal’s store, and a pair of rubber boots with felt
leggings at Mrs. Seavern’s store. 3.92 — also some choc. Candy for Elizabeth
— 3cts. Then went to H. Litchfield’s and bought 2 loaves of bread — 30. Very
light snow storm all eve.

22d. In forenoon hauled wood (over 1/2 cord)
out of the Swamp. 1 1/4 hours; in aft. cut wood in —

PAGE
324

— the Swamp 3 1/2 hours. Snow storm early
A.M. — about 1 inch of snow — all melted in aft. Clou. to-day; tem. 34-40;
W.S.E. early in eve. Went to H. Litchfield’s and bought some bread, then went
to Mrs. Merritt’s and bought some milk. Eve. clou. W.S.E. to E. 10 P.M. light
rain. Called at Uncle Samuel’s on way back from Mrs. M’s. Wore my new boots in
aft. Good ones.

23d. (Sun.) rain until about 3:30 P.M. W.N.E.
then W.N.W. Colder. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s early in the eve. Very
wet all around here. Eve. par. clou. 11:30 P.M., clear. Windy. W.N.W.

24th. Clear; W.N.W.; tem. 34-45. Windy. In
aft. cut wood in Swamp 2 1/2 hours. Very wet in swamp. Early in eve. Bought
some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. Also bought some for Ellen. Fine eve. Paul Briggs
spent eve. here.

25th. Cut wood in Swamp 6 1/2 hours. Fair to
cloudy; tem. 32-41; W; S.W., N.W., S.E. In eve (before supper) went to N.
Scituate bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store — also choc. candy for
Elizabeth – 2cts. Walked down and back. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s.
Eve. clou. 12:05 (mid.) began to rain. W.S.E. will prob. be a storm. Rain all
night.

26th. Rain until about noon. W.N.S. and N.W.
Clear, very windy in aft. (max. wind about 36 n.) Called at Uncle Samuel’s in
eve. Eve. clear, windy, cold.

27th. Cut wood in Swamp 5 1/4 hours. Clear;
W.N.W. to S.W.; tem. 17-34. Eve clear.

28th. Cut wood in Swamp 4 hours — finished
cutting 7 1/2 cords of hardwood (maple and yellow birch — also a few sticks of
white birch) 225 per cord at $16.87 also have finished out 1/2 cord on a
sled — 25. Clear in forenoon. Warm. W.S.W. tem. 30-48. Frost this A.M.
Light rain 1 P.M. to 1:30 P.M., then clou. to par. clou. Eve. clear. to par.
clou. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s early in eve. Called at Uncle
Samuel’s. L. H. Hyland has paid me for cutting the wood. Began to rain about
11:40 P.M. Light rain.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in
person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please
visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please
note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an
authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of
their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript
original. The catalog record for the George Hyland’s diary may be found
here. Hyland’s diary came to us as part of a
collection of records related to Hingham, Massachusetts, the catalog record for
this larger collection may be found
here.

This Week @MHS

Here is a look at what is going on at the MHS this week:

  • On Monday, 4 February, at 6:00 PM: Mentioning Unmentionables: An Exploration of Victorian Underclothes with Astrida Schaeffer. Nineteenth century fashion shaped and added to the body in a variety of ways. This inside tour of the myths and realities of Victorian corsets, crinolines, bustles and more introduces ladies who challenge our stereotype of the tiny-waisted, fainting Victorian woman, shares what critics thought of these fashion trends, and reveals the clever illusions that made waists seem smaller than they really were. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).
  • On Tuesday, February, at 5:15 PM: Colonial Mints & the Rise of Technocratic Expertise in the British Atlantic, 1650-1715 with Mara Caden, MHS-NEH Fellow, and comment by Penelope Ismay, Boston College. Governors, assemblies, and inhabitants of Britain’s American colonies routinely tried to set up mints to coin money during the seventeenth century, including in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This paper explains why every effort to establish a mint in British America failed, with the exception of the Boston mint, and why the mint in Boston was shut down in the 1680s. It explores the ways in which the Officers of the Royal Mint employed technical knowledge to curtail monetary autonomy in Britain’s overseas dominions. Finally, it examines the rise and fall of a strategy that colonial governments used to try to attract foreign coins to their shores in lieu of minting their own money. This is part of the Boston Area Seminar on Early American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.
  • On Wednesday, 6 February, at 12:00 PM: To Make a Breathing Picture: John Singleton Copley’s Disturbingly Vital Portraits in Enlightened Boston with Caroline Culp, Stanford University. This talk uncovers a peculiar desire of mid-18th century art: to make pictures so realistic they seemed to live and breathe. Focusing on Boston artist John Singleton Copley and poet Phillis Wheatley, among other cultural figures, it explores superstitious beliefs that lingered in an enlightened, empirical, and rational citizenry. This is part of the Brown-bag lunch programBrown-bags are free and open to the public.
  • On Saturday, 9 February, at 10:00 AMThe History & Collections of the MHS. This is a 90-minute docent-led walk through of our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

 

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts.

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

The Elm Hill Private School and Home in Barre, Mass.

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

lithograph of campus
Institution for Feeble Minded Youth. Barre, Mass.

The Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth in Barre, Mass. was the first school of its kind in the United States. It was founded in 1848 by Dr. Hervey B. Wilbur, and Dr. George Brown took over as superintendent three years later. The MHS holds a small collection of George Brown papers, including correspondence, financial documents, and printed items related to this ground-breaking school. Here’s a picture of Dr. Brown from the George Brown family photographs.

photograph
Photograph of George Brown

A promotional broadside from 1864 declared that the Elm Hill School “offers the best educational advantages for children and youth, whose different phases of mental infirmity unfit them for receiving instruction by the ordinary methods, and at the same time provides a permanent home for those who desire it, where every comfort which wealth can procure is furnished.” Of course, only families with means could afford to send their children to this exclusive and remote private institution, and some students came a long way to attend.

The collection includes a few folders of letters from students’ family members, and these can be mined for some tantalizing details. For example, one 1865 letter relates to Elm Hill student Gouverneur Heiskell. Gouvy, as his family called him, was born in 1847 or 1848, and his great-grandfather was none other than President James Monroe. After the Civil War, Gouvy’s family found itself in tough financial circumstances, so his mother wrote to Dr. Brown.

first page of handwritten letter
Letter to George Brown from mother of Elm Hill student Gouverneur Heiskell

In your recent letters to my Father you said that you did not think my poor afflicted child Gouvy was capable of deriving any benefit from further instruction, & that his mind was rapidly giving away, if this is the case it is hardly worth my while to keep him at school at heavy expense, which money might be expended upon my other children to greater advantage. I am therefore making every effort to find some respectable family living in the country who would be glad to take him for a moderate sum, & take care of him treating him kindly & giving him good food & lodging. I find myself in a fair way of doing this in some German families, but before they make any arrangements they require a statement of his case, that is if he is harmless easily managed &c &c […] I never shall forget yours & Mrs Browns kindness & shall always number you among my friends […] I should like very much to have a Photograph of Gouvy.

One particularly interesting story is that of the Kollock family. Charles Kollock was an Elm Hill student from a large Philadelphia family. His father, Rev. Shepard Kosciusko Kollock, died in 1865, leaving his children $14,000 in ready money. At that time, the reverend’s oldest son Matthew was serving with the army in California, so brother John agreed to act as estate administrator. However, by late 1867, the family’s account with Elm Hill was in serious arrears, and John wrote anxiously to Dr. Brown that he was having trouble coming up with the money.

I am aware, that your patience with me, is well nigh exhausted, and that you feel that you cannot keep my brother any longer unless your bills are paid. I have been trying very hard to get Charles’ money in such a shape, that there will be no further difficulty […] It is the desire of all my family, as well as myself, that Charles should remain with you, if you will keep him.

Eventually oldest brother Matthew, somewhat confused, contacted Dr. Brown directly.

I have heard nothing from my brother Charles for more than two years, and feel anxious to hear from you direct, how he is, and also whether his board and tuition is paid promptly, when it is due by my brother John. I do not like to ask him questions about it as he seems to dislike to answer them.

Dr. Brown replied immediately, and just five days later Matthew wrote again, “astonished” to hear about the unpaid debt amounting to hundreds of dollars. He explained that fully $4,000 of their father’s $14,000 had been designated for Charles’ support, and he suspected that John had lost the entire sum in “rash speculations.”

first page of handwritten letter
Matthew Kollock letter to George Brown

Matthew asked Dr. Brown to send him the outstanding bills and resolved to bring a case against his brother for “breach of trust.” He also called John out for lying about an army appointment. Eventually sister Mary reached out to other relatives, who helped with Charles’ expenses.

James Reynell, an India merchant, also lived in Philadelphia, and his sister attended the Elm Hill School. Here’s an excerpt of an 1877 letter to Dr. Brown.

first page of handwritten letter
James Reynell letter to George Brown

I wrote to you with a little present to my Sister last Christmas and have not heard whether the little Trunk arrived safely or how my Louisa is. Please write and let me know by return that she is well as something inclines me to fear she is poorly. […] My Little Loo must not think her brother has deserted her and you must kindly keep me in her memory even if I do not write so often as I ought. Please tell her I send kisses & love […]

The Elm Hill School was known by many names over time, reflecting the evolution of its mission and probably changing sensibilities. Some of Elm Hill’s previous (and very unfortunate) names included the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind (ca. 1851) and the Private Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Backward and Eccentric Children (ca. 1853-1855). “Imbecile” was dropped sometime after 1858, and “Children” became “Youth” before 1870.

George Brown superintended the school for 40 years, until his death in 1892. At that time, though other schools for the “feeble-minded” had since been established, Elm Hill was the largest private institution of its kind in the country. Dr. Brown’s son George Artemas Brown succeeded him as superintendent, followed by his son George Percy Brown. The institution closed in 1946, 98 years after its founding.

The George Brown papers fill only one document box, and these letters represent just a fraction of Dr. Brown’s overall correspondence. They give us a fascinating glimpse into his work in Barre, but tell us very little about the students themselves or their education. Interested researchers will find additional material in a collection of Elm Hill School records at the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. That library also holds some Brown family papers, primarily those of later generations.

This Week @MHS

Join us for a program this week! Here is a look at what is going on:

– Tuesday, 29 January, 5:15 PM: Better Teaching through Technology, 1945-1969, with Victoria Cain, Northeastern University, and comment by Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Uncertainty about media technology’s affective and political power plagued post-World War II efforts to expand media use in schools around the nation. Would foundations or federal agencies use screen media to strengthen participatory democracy and local control or to undermine it? Was screen media a neutral technology? This paper argues that educational technology foundered or flourished not solely on the merits of its pedagogical utility, but also as a result of changing ideas about the relationship between citizenship and pictorial screen media. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

– Wednesday, 30 January, 12:00 PM: Superannuated: Old Age & Slavery’s Economy with Nathaniel Windon, Pennsylvania State University. Plantation owners demarcated elderly enslaved laborers as “superannuated” in their logbooks. This talk examines some of the implications of locating the origin of old age on the antebellum American plantation.This is part of the brown-bag lunch program. Brown-bags are free and open to the public.

– Thursday, 31 January,  6:00 PM: The Great Molasses Flood Revisited: Misremembered Molasses, with Stephen Puleo; Allison Lange, Wentworth Institute of Technology; Gavin Kleespies, MHS; and moderator Rev. Stephen T. Ayres. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, when remembered, is often interpreted in a dismissive, comical manner. How does this case compare with other incidences of historical events that are interpreted or “curated” at the expense of accuracy and respect for human experience? How can we bring complexity back to events that have long been relegated to the realm of local folklore? Local scholars will discuss the question of misunderstood history by looking at the Great Molasses Flood, the fight for women’s suffrage and Leif Erickson. This program is a collaboration between the MHS and Old South Meeting House and is made possible with funding from the Lowell Institute. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. This program will be held at Old South Meeting House.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts.

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

Founder to Founder

By Sara Georgini, The Adams Papers

Like so many good stories here at the Historical Society, it began with a reference question. Jeremy Belknap, hunting through his sources, asked Vice President John Adams for some help. Belknap, the Congregationalist pastor of Boston’s Federal Street Church, had spent the past few years amassing manuscripts for several major research projects. By the summer of 1789, he was deep into writing the second volume of his History of New Hampshire, a sprawling trilogy that he built, slowly, with meticulous footnotes. The clergyman, who honed his narrative skill as a Revolutionary War chaplain and biographer, felt thwarted by a lack of access to key documents.

John Adams, 1735-1826.

 


Jeremy Belknap, 1744-1798.

 

After poring over George Chalmers’ Political Annals of the Present United Colonies from their Settlement to the Peace in 1763 (London, 1763), Belknap wrote to Vice President John Adams to see if he knew more about the Scottish antiquarian’s research methods. Mainly, Belknap wanted to see how Chalmers pieced together his saga of America as a “desert planted by English subjects” and made fruitful by the flourishing of English liberties. On 18 July, Belknap wrote: “When I observe his having had access to the papers in the plantation Office, I feel a regret that an Ocean seperates me from such a grand repository. how necessary to form a just judgment of the secret springs of many American transactions!” Jeremy Belknap’s query – and Adams’ detailed reply – form one of the most significant exchanges that we will feature in Volume 20 of The Adams Papers’s The Papers of John Adams (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020).

Though the nation was new, Americans like Belknap hungered to capture their history in print. While British scholars flocked to the Society of Antiquaries of London and dug through government office records, early American scholars lacked similar institutions and resources to conduct historical research. Across Massachusetts, precious family manuscripts and rare artifacts piled up in private homes and flammable steeples. When Belknap looked around Boston in 1789, he lamented how fire and plunder had ravaged materials held in the city’s courthouse (1747), the Harvard College Library (1764), Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s home (1765), the Court of Common Pleas (1776), and Thomas Prince’s cache at the Old South Church (1776). Belknap began sketching out what became the Massachusetts Historical Society: a scholarly membership organization (of no more than seven!) that collected materials and published research. He found a fellow visionary in John Pintard, who led efforts to found the New-York Historical Society.

 

Jeremy Belknap to John Adams, 18 July 1789, Adams Family Papers.

 

Adams and Belknap had traded letters before, and they would continue to do so until the pastor’s death in 1798. This one touches directly on his plans to create the Society. Founder to founder, Belknap put the problem plainly:

The want of public repositories for historical materials as well as the destruction of many valuable ones by fires, by war & by the lapse of time has long been a subject of regret in my mind. Many papers which are daily thrown away may in future be much wanted, but except here & there a person who has a curiosity of his own to gratify no one cares to undertake the Collection & of this class of Collectors there are scarcely any who take Care for securing what they have got together after they have quitted the Stage. The only sure way of preserving such things is by printing them in some voluminous work as the Remembrancer—but the attempt to carry on such a work would probably not meet with encouragement—

 

John Adams to Jeremy Belknap, 24 July 1789, Belknap Papers.

 

In Adams, Belknap found a high-profile ally. A longtime supporter of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the statesman had championed the new nation’s intellectuals abroad. He approved wholly of Belknap’s instinct. Despite his duties presiding over the Senate in the first session of the federal Congress, John Adams prioritized Belknap’s query, firing off a reply on 24 July. He shared a few thoughts on Chalmers’ work and filled in details of Revolutionary War history. Then John Adams lingered happily on Belknap’s dream of a historical society. He had a very personal stake in how the national story was told, after all, and he was eager to impart advice. Adams wrote:

Private Letters however, are often wanted as Commentaries on publick ones.— and many I fear will be lost, which would be necessary to shew the Secret Springs… some of these ought not to be public, but they ought not to be lost.— My Experience, has very much diminished my Faith in the Veracity of History.— it has convinced me, that many of the most important facts are concealed.— some of the most important Characters, but imperfectly known—many false facts imposed on Historians and the World—and many empty Characters displayed in great Pomp.— All this I am Sure will happen in our American History.

 

Encouragement from John Adams and others led Belknap to dedicate the following months to drafting a concrete plan for the organization’s future. On 24 January 1791, Belknap invited nine colleagues to join him in creating the Massachusetts Historical Society, following up with a detailed circular letter ten months later. John Adams and his family, all ardent advocates of Belknap’s mission to preserve history, have supported the Society ever since, in word and deed.