This coming fall, Lexington Historical Society is partnering with several other organizations in town, including the Town Celebrations Committee, Lexington Minute Men, Lexington Veteran's Association, and Cary Memorial Library, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the ending of WWI.
I’m thrilled to share that the Community Endowment of Lexington, an Endowed Fund of the Foundation for MetroWest, has given us a generous grant of $4,000 to support this work. The Community Endowment of Lexington promotes a spirit of philanthropic giving to help enhance the quality of life for all Lexington citizens now and in the future. In addition to support from the Lions Club and the Rotary Club of Lexington, the Community Endowment of Lexington’s grant will allow us to bring an often forgotten aspect of Lexington’s history to the community.
This commemoration will include an exhibit in the CVS windows in Lexington center on the soldiers who died in the war, exhibits at Cary Memorial Library, lectures, a panel discussion, and several other programs that touch on many aspects of the war.
As I’ve worked on the committee to prepare for this commemoration, I’ve learned a bit about Lexington’s involvement in the war, and it’s truly fascinating. One of the things that I thought was of particular interest was Lexington’s Liberty Loan Flags. During the war, towns encouraged folks to buy bonds to finance the American war effort. If a town met its quota, it was awarded a Liberty Loan flag from the U.S. Treasury. Lexington met its quota for all five Liberty Loan drives, and received accordingly; having met the quota for all drives was marked by a line through the flag given for the fourth loan. Lexington Historical Society has all four flags in its collection.
An event I’m particularly excited about is the Armistice Day Poppy Gala to benefit Lexington Historical Society which will take place on October 19 at the Masonic Lodge right near the Green. This event will feature a plated dinner and several live bands playing songs from WWI. In addition, there will be a raffle and live auction and guests will be encouraged to dress in period attire. More information about the Poppy Gala is available here.
I look forward to commemorating the ending of WWI, and I hope that you will join us at these events to learn about this fascinating aspect of Lexington’s history.
For information on the WWI commemoration and how to contribute to the conservation of the Liberty Loan flags, please visit our World War I Commemoration page.
-Erica McAvoy, Executive Director
Everyone’s house has a story to tell.
Maybe your house was built two hundred years ago and has a fascinating history and a rich story of its inhabitants before you. Maybe it stood during the Revolutionary War or was home to a historically significant figure.
Maybe your house was built during the 1950s. Maybe it was built by a well-known mid-century modern architect in one of Lexington’s architecturally significant planned communities.
Or maybe you designed your house yourself only a few years ago. You carefully considered the exact layout and design that would be best for you and researched and installed all the amenities that you found important. Yours is the first and only family to have inhabited it, and you are the very beginning of its story.
Regardless of the age of your house, that house is your home. Whether you know a lot about the history of your house, or whether you know nothing and would like to learn more, your home has its own unique story that it is waiting to tell you.
Many people are fascinated with learning the story that their home has to tell. What has their home seen over the years? How has it changed since its original construction? Who else lived there, and who else made it their home, too? There are a lot of resources that you can use to learn more about your home in Lexington.
In Lexington Historical Society Archives, the most common research requests we get are concerning the history of specific homes and buildings in town. We have realized that people love to know about where they live! To that end, we have been working in the archives to get our Properties and Landmarks Collection online so that this collection, and others, can be available to the public. Individuals can now search this collection for their address to see any information or photographs that we might have on their home. Don’t forget, though – if your search doesn’t yield any results for your address, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have any information! This is an extensive collection, and while we are doing our best to make it available online in its entirety as quickly as possible, we aren’t there yet! So, if you don’t see any information on your address, be in touch and we will see what we can find for you.
The Society isn’t the only resource available to those in Lexington, though. You can also find more information on your house at the Town of Lexington Archives, Cary Memorial Library, and by browsing the Historical Commission’s Cultural Resources Survey, where you can find information on the architectural and historical importance of specific Lexington houses and neighborhoods.
If you are interested in learning more about all of these resources available in Lexington, consider attending the panel discussion “Discover Your Home’s History” on Saturday, September 22, 2018 at 9:30am at Cary Memorial Library, where representatives from all of the above organizations will be participating as panel members!
And always remember – your house is your home. And you are now part of its story and history.
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
If you’ve been in Lexington during the spring or summer, you’ve probably heard the unmistakable sound of the bell from the Old Belfry. Every Patriot’s Day it helps to announce the arrival of the British Regulars during the Battle of Lexington Reenactment. Perhaps you’ve been in town during the Historical Society’s week-long summer camp and have heard it as participants of the camp take turns ringing the bell. But what’s the story of the Old Belfry? The unique and somewhat forgotten history of one of the more lesser known properties the Historical Society cares for starts years before its clanging bells alerted the townspeople of Lexington to the approach of the British Regulars.
Charles Hudson doesn’t discuss the belfry in much detail in his book History of the Town of Lexington, but he does discuss the origins of the structure. He mentions a specific town meeting held on June 15, 1761 when Isaac Stone presented the town with a bell “weighted four hundred and sixty-three pounds” and the Town’s conclusion that a structure to house the bell should be placed “on ye top of ye Hill upon ye North side of Liet. Jonas Munroes house” (Hudson, 60). However, this site would not be the structure’s permanent home.
After the death of Jonas, his son John asked the town that his property tax be reduced in return for allowing the belfry to be on his land. The town resisted the proposal, leading to the first relocation of the belfry, when rather stealthily on one night in 1767, a group of unknown people secretly moved the belfry to the Town Common. This secret move instigated a small bit of drama in town and even made its way on to Town Meeting’s agenda in hopes of resolving the issue. Eventually the decision was reached to move the belfry to a different part of the Common. This third location of the belfry is where the structure would be when the Battle of Lexington occurred on April 19th, 1775 and its bell would ring out in unison with many other alarms during those early morning hours (this location is now marked by a boulder, placed on the Common in 1910). The location marked by the boulder is where the structure would remain until 1797 at which point it was sold to the Parker family and moved to their homestead on Spring Street and used as a wheelwright shop.
It wasn’t until 1891 that the Old Belfry would come under the auspices of the Historical Society. At a meeting in February of 1891, Mr. James S. Munroe, after purchasing the Old Belfry from the Parker family, offered it to the Historical Society “if they would move it to town and place it in a prominent place” (LHS Proceedings Vol. II, ii). The Historical Society agreed and a committee was selected and tasked to “restore it to a suitable location near its original position” (Hudson, p. 490). Later that month, the Society voted to place the Old Belfry on the lot for the new Hancock School on Clarke Street, marking the belfry’s fifth location in town. On Saturday April 18, 1891 the Society held a dedication service to the restoration of the Old Belfry.
However, as happens with wooden buildings, the belfry began to fall into a state of disrepair and decay. The original belfry would cease to exist when on June 20, 1909 a strong gale wind would damage the structure beyond repair. The Historical Society formed a committee of three people who would “have full charge of rebuilding the Old Belfry . . . on such site as the Committee may select.” (LHS Proceedings Vol. IV, 182). The reproduction was installed in March 1910 and was “constructed as nearly as possible on its old lines and on the same site.” (Proceedings Vol. IV, 184). After only three years the belfry was relocated one last time, from the back end of Belfry Hill to its present site on the front part of the hill.
If you find yourself at the corner of Clarke Street and Massachusetts Avenue, follow the trail that leads to the Old Belfry, but mind your step as the trail is rocky and steep in some sections. More info on the belfry.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
One of the most exciting things about having such a wide variety of materials in the archives is that there is always something different to look at. I recently rehoused our collection of daguerreotypes, in order to better preserve them, and found some spectacular examples of Lexington history!
But first, what is a daguerreotype?
Daguerreotypes (pronounced da·guerre·o·type) are the earliest form of commercial photography. The process was invented in 1839 by the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, hence the name. Unlike modern photography, which seems so quick and painless, the process to create a daguerreotype is long and complicated. First, a silver plated piece of copper is polished in a very particular way to create a completely smooth mirrored surface. Then the plate is exposed to iodine gas to “prime” the plate and make it light sensitive. Then the plate is exposed to light, imprinting the image onto the plate. Finally, the image is “fixed” meaning that the residual light-sensitive chemicals were removed through being washed with another chemical so that the image would remain on the plate. The plate is then mounted in a decorative wooden case with gold trim and a velvet lining. It’s quite a process, if you ask me!
The French government in exchange for a lifetime pension bought Daguerre’s invention for a lifetime pension, and the process was given freely to the world (except England where it was patented). Daguerreotypes were popular from 1840-1860. Besides daguerreotypes, you may also hear the terms ambrotype and tintype used to describe photographs from this period. These are similar methods to daguerreotypes but use different chemistry to create their images. Luckily, modern photography has moved beyond this extremely labor-intensive process, but history has left us to reap its benefits.
For more information on daguerreotypes:
Now, on to the cool photos (below)!
-Lina Rosenberg, Operations Manager and Archivist
My Lexington story begins at the Old Burying Ground behind First Parish Church.
Literally, in fact. One of my cousins grew up right next door in the Battle Green Apartments, and the old stones were our playground for childhood scavenger hunts. I had a vague notion of being somewhere important when I stumbled upon the elaborate tabletop-style grave of the reverend John Hancock. Seven-year-old me was not yet keen on history, but she knew she'd heard that name somewhere before.
I’ve always been fascinated by the artwork on the oldest stones, from the grotesque winged skulls to the attempted portraits of the deceased. But until recently, I didn’t know that there was an anomaly hidden in the back corner of the burying ground. While doing research for our weekly graveyard tour, I discovered the grave of Thomas Prentice, a Lexington lawyer who died in 1760. I never noticed it before - his gravestone is easy to pass by. It can be hard to see in direct sunlight; the carving isn’t as deeply incised as most of the stones around it. Adorning the top of the stone is not a skull or an angel, but a sort of bizarre mixture of the two, a skull shape with human eyes and a vaguely reassuring smile on its face. Near the bottom, in a font unique to this stone, the final line reads, “Engrav’d by Abel Webster, 1763”.
This invites quite a few questions. Why is this the only stone of its type in Lexington, and why is it signed so prominently? While studying graveyard art is fairly common, we don’t often think about who actually did the carving. Stone carvers who signed their work generally did it on the back of the stone, underground, or hidden in the design, not splayed in bold across the front. Clearly Abel felt very highly about himself. But it wasn't completed until three years after Prentice's death. Also, skulls don't usually have lips. What's going on here?
It turns out that the Webster family stone carving shop is something of a local legend. Abel and his brother Stephen were known for their mid-century stones that transition between 17th century skulls and 18th century “soul effigies” (the carvings that look a bit like angels). Trying to portray the eternal soul in a less gruesome way, they invented a completely unique art style. They didn't always agree on the execution, though. According to one story, they even fought over how optimistic about death they should be. Abel’s carvings generally feature happy-looking, smiling faces, while Stephen’s carvings are apathetic at best and depressed at worst. This makes identifying the carver fairly easy, even when they aren’t signed – just look for the smile or the frown!
The reason why Lexingtonians haven’t heard of this hilarious bit of local lore? The Websters were actually from Chester, New Hampshire! The majority of stones carved by them are found in Chester and the border town of Hollis, next to Nashua. It’s likely that Abel was working as an itinerant carver in a variety of towns to augment his work with the local population. Thomas Prentice’s family may have leapt at the chance to have a completely new type of stone marking his grave, making it stand out among those created by local carvers.
The type of carving Abel usually did is called a "light bulb head" in gravestone history circles, for obvious reasons. Some of them are actually quite adorable.
Stephen seems to have mostly used one shape and one theme on his carvings. I guess if you have a signature style, you should stick with it, even if it's pessimistic!
The Farber Gravestone Collection at the American Antiquarian Society is a great resource to see the work of different carvers. You can browse more of Abel and Stephen's work by searching their interactive database of New England gravestones. All of the pictures in this post can be found there.
Also, be sure to join us on a "Stories in Stone" tour to see the Thomas Prentice grave for yourself! Tours are only $5 and run every Friday at 11 AM, leaving from Buckman Tavern. More information can be found here.
- Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Sometimes marketing the Historical Society's events and activities is about writing press releases and sending them to local press outlets. Sometimes, it's about creating content for our social media platforms and building engagement on those accounts. Sometimes, it's a whole other animal.
In early June, I noticed that the Special Collections Department at Occidental College had a photo on their Instagram feed showing temporary tattoos of their college seal! I loved it and immediately decided we had to do something similar.
After boring the rest of the staff with different ideas, I settled on pulling the icons from our logo and creating a tattoo for each one (see the photos at the top of this post). In the future, we may roll out different versions of the tattoos based on our activities and events. A la Oprah, YOU GET A TRICORN HAT, YOU GET A MID-CENTURY MODERN HOUSE, EVERYBODY GETS A HAMILTUNES SILHOUETTE!
We've ordered a test run of 200 tattoos and plan to launch them at this Wednesday's 4th of July event. In the future, we will make them available at Patriot's Day, Discovery Day, etc. Pick your favorite (vote below!), keep an eye out, and grab one for yourself!
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
If you’ve driven through downtown Lexington in the last six weeks, you’ve probably noticed an abundance of yellow school buses parked along the Battle Green and slightly longer wait times at pedestrian crosswalks as students shuffle to and from the several historic sites located in Lexington. May and June have become synonymous with “School Group Season” here at Lexington Historical Society and this year’s season has proven to be one of our busiest seasons yet. So far this season we’ve welcomed groups from twenty-four different schools and three home-school collaborative groups. All six public elementary schools from Lexington have visited us for a morning of fun, but we’ve seen interest from other school districts in the local area start to grow as well. In fact, this season we’ve welcomed groups from as far away as California and even a group from Melbourne, Australia!
While a tour of one of our historic houses is always a fun option and one that 629 students have chosen this season, our programs designed for school children are becoming an increasingly popular option. The Historical Society offers a variety of programs that allow students to not only learn the importance of Lexington, but to also experience the history of the town during their time with us. Every program that we offer students is designed around the use of primary sources and allows students to use these unique materials to help them accomplish a task associated with the program. Whether students are studying Reverend Jonas Clarke’s diary entries to help create a meal for his family or using sworn depositions from Captain Parker’s militia to try and determine who fired the first shots on Lexington Green, students are getting the chance to be proactive in their learning. They can turn on their minds and be creative in these programs. Of the close to 1800 students who have visited Lexington Historical Society this season, nearly 1200 have participated in one of our school programs.
Although this year’s School Group season is slowly winding down, I am looking forward to next year as we are planning to introduce several new initiatives that will be sure to be of interest to young minds. We’re planning to add a new “Simple Machines” program that will teach students to prototype simple machines designed to assist with chores done in Colonial times. We’ve also partnered with Lexington's EMPOW Studios to offer STEM themed school programs where students will learn about the rich history of Lexington. Then they will apply their newfound knowledge by creating stop motion animation projects as well as 3-D building projects (photos above). Finally, we are going to be expanding our home-school opportunities this fall as we look to expand the ways in which Lexington’s rich history can be accessed. So while the school year is over, we’ve already begun preparations to make next year’s “School Group Season” an even better one.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
On April 19, 1776, Reverend Jonas Clarke gave a sermon “to commemorate the murder, blood-shed and Commencement of Hostilities, between Great-Britain and America” begun at the Battle of Lexington exactly one year before. Could he possibly have known, or even imagined, the importance that we would place on the handwritten manuscript of this sermon nearly 250 years later?
In 1846, a daguerreotype, the earliest form of photography, was taken of the first steam train traveling from Lexington to Boston. Would this photographer have realized the rarity of this image, or the historical significance that this steam train would come to have on the town of Lexington and the region as a whole?
Loring Muzzey, a lifelong Lexington resident, created an extensive scrapbook of his experiences in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Would he have appreciated that this would be an invaluable resource to future generations?
Though the individuals referenced above likely did not recognize the importance of their creations, the fact remains that these items, and others like them, have an intrinsic value to historians, scholars, and residents of Lexington and the nation. Thus, the manuscript, daguerreotype, and scrapbook mentioned above are just a few of the items that Lexington Historical Society has made a concerted effort to conserve, preserve, and restore for future generations.
At the Society, we have a long list of items that meet the necessary criteria for conservation work by specialists, and we make every effort to make this a priority. To that end, we have introduced an annual Conservation Evening, where members of the community are asked to donate toward specific items that we have designated as in need of immediate attention. This year, we raised money towards the conservation of four tavern ledgers and day books dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries from Buckman and Munroe Taverns. Through the generous donations of many patrons, we have raised enough funds to complete the work on the two most costly books and are continuing to raise money to conserve the remaining two. If you are interested in helping us achieve this goal, or if you’re simply interested in learning about the other conservation projects that we have undertaken in the last several years, you can do so by visiting this section of our website.
The conservation of the ledgers will be completed by Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, MA, and the Society works with them quite often, as they specialize exclusively in treating paper-based collections, such as maps, photographs, books, and manuscripts. They also have a wonderful Imaging Services department, which provides us with high resolution digital images of documents that might be difficult to photograph or scan. The Society only works with premier conservators for all our conservation needs, including: Carmichael Art Conservation in Bedford, MA for treating works of fine art; EverPresent in Newton, MA for digitizing audio and visual media; Trefler’s in Needham, MA for full service restoration of wooden furniture, porcelain, ceramics, silver, and other fine collectibles; and Windsor Conservation in Dover, MA for textile conservation.
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Are you looking for that perfect piece of furniture, china to blend with your set, or a wall hanging for that empty space? Or are you into antique jewelry, glassware, or other objets d'art? You'll be surprised at the incredible deals you can find at our annual Relinquished Treasures Sale.
This event is truly a one-of-a-kind sale of antiques, vintage and retro housewares, decorative items, and fashion pieces. Through the hard work of volunteers and staff, the Depot transforms from a messy room full of boxes to a neat and appealing retail space. By the Members' Reception on Friday evening, all will be calm, but today, the phrase that springs to mind is "chaos and candlesticks!"
All proceeds from this annual fundraiser - the fourteenth annual, to be exact - benefit the work and programs of Historical Society. The event takes place at the same time as Lexington's annual Discovery Day street fair, so it's a busy and fun day in Lexington!
We are still accepting gently used small furniture, artwork, silver, china, linens, and housewares. Please call 781-862-1703 to arrange for drop-off at the Depot (or possible pickup for heavy or large items). Donations will be accepted through Wednesday May 23.
Members’ Preview: Friday, May 25, 7-9 PM at the Depot
Public Sale: Saturday, May 26, 9 AM-3 PM at the Depot
Saturday sale free and open to the public!
Recently, we heard from Lexington tavern-keeper David Comee, who was assaulted by a customer who was trying to steal a lemon. A few people noticed the irony that in the 18th century, lemons were generally used to make punch. It seems like poor David Comee received several!
But a strong punch really was one of the more popular drinks in 18th century taverns. In fact, we still have a surviving lemon juicer from Munroe Tavern. While the Munroe punch recipes don’t survive, we know generally what would have gone into them: a mixture of fruit juice, water, sugar, alcohol, and spices. This was considered a gentleman’s drink due to its expensive ingredients, although a few bowls of punch would lead men to become anything but gentlemanly, as William Hogarth brilliantly illustrated in his painting, A Midnight Modern Conversation.
This past weekend, we tried some of this authentic punch at the LHS Colonial Singers’ performance of The Beggar’s Opera, a satirical British musical from 1728. The characters in the show are decidedly low-class, but their nefarious activities could bring in enough money to allow them to indulge a bit! The recipe we served our guests was taken from a 1723 cookbook called The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary; Or, The Accomplish'd Housewife’s Companion. Originally called “Punch for Chamber-Maids”, it includes lemon, lime, and orange juice, sugar water, white wine, and brandy. While not in the original recipe, a sprinkling of nutmeg, the 18th century’s favorite flavoring, rounded out the drink nicely. Not all 18th century recipes suit the modern palate, but this punch ended up being quite a treat just the way it was written. We are hoping to have a revival of The Beggar’s Opera sometime in the future, but in the meantime, give this punch a try for yourself at home!
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager