The above quote was written by Theodore Parker, a minister and fiery abolitionist from Lexington. He was also, as noted, the grandson of John Parker, local wheelwright and the captain of the Lexington training band, who stood up on Lexington Common in 1775.
After the events of last Wednesday, January 6, the Historical Society carefully considered its response. We went dark on our social media sites and communications channels until Friday 1/8 to give us time to process the historic events and properly craft a response. We recalled that there is a poignant connection between Parker's words and those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. We knew that these words have given Americans hope before and will do so again.
The full quote, from Reverend Parker's 1853 sermon, Of Justice and the Conscience is "Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
Dr. King summoned fellow minister Parker's words in Selma, Alabama in 1965 as he declared that justice and equality were long in coming for many, but that he believed they would come. He said, in response to the question of how long will it take to see social justice, "How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long."
Lincoln's Gettysburg address also borrowed from Parker's writings. The sentence "Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people" from Parker's sermon The Effects of Slavery on the American People inspired Lincoln's "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
It's also particularly relevant that President-Elect Joseph Biden referenced Parker's moral arc quote in his November 2020 acceptance speech. Both he and Senator Tammy Duckworth relied on the quote to calm nerves and tempers on the evening of January 6 and the morning of January 7.
After the appropriate quote from Parker was selected, staff and Board members prepared a written statement (reproduced here below). These are historic times - as our statement says, "We must stand for our Constitution, our laws, and our principles. Thank you for standing with us."
Full statement in response to the events of January 6, 2021
246 years ago this April, the fight for American independence began on Lexington Common. Though it would be a long and brutal war, the hard-won prize was a young republic that, ideally, would allow its citizens to have a voice.
That republic has not been perfect - it has been nearly broken apart by civil war; it has been bruised by violence; and not all citizens have had access to the same rights. Amidst these challenges, though, the democratic ideals for which it stands have remained. America has done its best to ensure that its elections are free and fair and that “government by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Lexington Historical Society exists to teach the public about the fight for this American republic and its democratic ideals as represented by our Capitol building. Its tragic desecration on January 6 showed us that we have more work to do, and that our mission has never been more crucial.
We must continue to study the past to learn about our present and shape a better future. We must stand for our Constitution, our laws, and our principles. Thank you for standing with us.
In December of 1753, Reverend Jonas Clarke of Lexington wrote to his brother, Thomas, from Dedham. The letter begins with several sentences of excuses, as Thomas had asked Jonas to write more often . . . and it appears that Jonas had not obliged, due his self-proclaimed very busy schedule. (Haven’t we all been there, especially in December just before the holidays?)
“To speak the truth,” Jonas wrote, “I have been exceedingly drove with business, as you may easily conceive from my having the care of many youth committed to me; for I have, at present, and have had, ever since you was here, about 60 scholars, and sometimes more.”
And doesn’t that just perfectly describe how many of us feel as we end this December of 2020? Like we have been “exceedingly drove?” It has been a long year full of unanticipated stressors, while we continuously adapt to the to the frequently referred to “new normal.” Many of you who are caring for children may even feel like you have had “the care of many youth” committed to you (and, at times, even if you only have a few children, it may even feel like you have had upwards of 60 scholars remote learning in your home). It has been a very strange year indeed, and it is likely that the holidays were quite different for you this year, as well. Now that the hustle and bustle is winding down, maybe you can take a bit of time to relax and regroup before jumping into the new year and all that it may have in store.
Letters like this one from Jonas Clarke, though, are fascinating windows into the minds of individuals throughout time. Personal correspondence can offer insights into how people were feeling at particular moments in history, they can shed light on historic events or routine day-to-day life, and they can really humanize the past for us. Through this letter, we can find ourselves comparing our hectic lives with that of Jonas Clarke over 250 years ago.
At Lexington Historical Society, our interest in these personal texts has led us to launch a brand-new program: Letters of Lexington. This will be a subscription based program where individuals can purchase a 6-month subscription for $100 and receive one curated mailing per month from Lexington Historical Society’s archives. Each month’s mailing will focus on one original short letter that can be found in our archival holdings. Subscribers will receive a scan of each letter, a typed transcription of the letter, and a short description of the letter which will place it into historic context. While the letter will be from Lexington’s archives, that does not mean that it will always focus on the American Revolution! Lexington has a rich and diverse history, and these letters will span from the 18th to the 20th centuries and will be on a variety of topics. Letters will be sent out towards the end of every month, beginning at the end of January 2021.
Our social calendars this winter may not include too many outings or events, and will certainly look different from winters past, but no doubt you will find yourself as “exceedingly drove” as ever for one reason or another. Maybe we can all make a special effort this year to write more letters! And, I hope that you also make a special effort to document your experiences during this unique winter, so that 250 years in the future, residents of Lexington can see how you spent these long months and how you made it through this crazy pandemic time. (And don’t forget to submit anything you take the time to document to our What Life Was Like In Lexington: The Covid-19 History Project!)
Lexington Historical Society wishes everyone a wonderful holiday season and a safe winter! Hopefully, we can all take a deep breath and give a big cheer for 2021!
– Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
One of the many enjoyable aspects of my job is the chance I get to interact and engage with children interested in history. One of my favorite ways to do this is through our Colonial Crafts program that we have run on Saturdays the past few years. It provides kids with an opportunity to learn a little about life in the Colonial Period, but also to engage with this period of history by creating and crafting their own Colonial craft or object.
Typically, the sessions last an hour with about 15-20 minutes of discussion of the week’s activity and then the remainder of the time devoted to competing the hands-on activity. Through these activities, kids feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when they see the how a handful of everyday supplies have become a useful tool or toy that would have been used by a Colonial child.
Unfortunately, like so many classes or programs this year, we were unable to hold these sessions in person as we typically do. However, as we have done all year in 2020, Lexington Historical Society is re-imagining a popular program and taking it virtual. While I know Zoom meetings and activities have become very common place and that Zoom fatigue is a very real occurrence, I’m hoping these virtual craft activity sessions might provide a brief break from meetings and class lessons and allow the entire family to experience Colonial life and create some fun memories.
The plan for the craft sessions is for kits of supplies to be created and picked up remotely at one of Lexington Historical Society’s historic properties. Each participant will be sent a Zoom link and at the determined time, would join the Zoom with a Lexington Historical Society staff member and work through the activity with them virtually.
The only decision that I need help with is when to hold them so that everyone has an opportunity to participate. I’m hoping to hold these sessions after the holidays, either weekly on a Saturday or a set of sessions during February Vacation Week. So, if you’re interested in the program, please complete the poll at the bottom of the blog and keep an eye out for more details to come!
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
On September 1, 1824, a member of the Lexington Artillery Company wrote a note on a 5 x 7 inch piece of paper requesting “Three Quarter Casks Powder for the Salute in honor of Gen'l LaFayette.” The famed Revolutionary War general, “American’s Fighting Frenchman,” had landed in Boston a couple of weeks earlier for his big 1824-1825 American tour and Lexington was eager to mark his visit in a big way.
On August 24, 2020, David Wood, long-time curator of the Concord Museum, forwarded me an email from David Hillier of Antique Associates at West Townsend. That 5 x 7 piece of paper had survived for 196 years and Hillier wanted to know if we would be interested in it returning home to Lexington. We were!
However, there is no acquisition line item in the Historical Society's budget. We budget a certain amount per year for collections care, but buying valuable items (or conserving them) is often beyond our regular budget. Therefore, when our director Erica McAvoy brought the acquisition proposal to our Board of Directors at their September meeting, we hoped that generous Board members might offer to help bring the Lafayette document home.
And they did! The Board voted unanimously to acquire the exciting document and many offered to donate to its purchase price. Once we were off and running on the purchase, we received a generous offer from Enterprise Bank to cover the cost of the document. Thanks to that help, our Board gifts will be saved for future conservation work.
For example, conservation work was performed in 2014 on the 39-foot linen banner that greeted General Lafayette, in addition to the booming salute made possible by that gunpowder! Read more about the banner here.
Now that we care for both the banner and gunpowder receipt, we’re looking forward even more to the 200th anniversary of Lafayette’s visit, coming up in 2024. We’re looking into partnering with the Lafayette Trail project, as well. Stay tuned for more on Lafayette in Lexington!
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
It’s no secret that while I am a terribly impatient cook in the modern day, I do love learning about the history of food, gizzards and all. There are a variety of historical cookbooks on my shelf which yield recipes both astonishingly modern (beer-battered apple fritters) and decidedly stuck in the past (calves’ chitterlings dressed “curiously”).
Historical cooking tends to come up often as a topic of conversation this time of year, as people prepare for Thanksgiving. While over time most of us have grappled with the knowledge that this holiday actually celebrates a dark time in our country’s history, it can be hard to break away from the desire to gather with family and indulge in nostalgia. Education here is key. I highly recommend visiting the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Museum when it is safe to do so, and to also do some reading on this history. This is, after all, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on these shores!
One quick way to get a good historical view of what the “First Thanksgiving” was all about is to go back to the source: Governor William Bradford’s account Of Plimoth Plantation:
“Others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye som̅er ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule…And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion.”
Keep in mind that not only were the Pilgrims working with fairly meager supplies compared to what they were used to back in England, but they were also known for austerity. Extravagance in religion went hand in hand with extravagance in culture, and fashion, and food, and dissident religious groups like the separatists and Puritans wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, one of the most useful cookbooks of the time was actually published as an elaborate insult. Published at the end of English Puritan rule in 1664, The court & kitchin of Elizabeth, commonly called Joan Cromwel, the wife of the late usurper : truly described and represented, and now made publick for general satisfaction (whew, that’s a mouthful) was designed to showcase that Cromwell and his ilk made their food just as bland and soulless as their religion and government. After several long essays on the horrors of the Cromwell administration, the book proceeds to expose Mrs. Cromwell’s favorite dishes, “most of them ordinary and vulgar . . . of which it will be no unpleasing Labour to the reader to peruse.” The Pilgrims likely would have been viewed in the same way.
Even these dishes, which were deliberately meant to sound horribly plain and dowdy, would have seemed downright exotic to the inhabitants of Plimoth Colony, who lacked many of the basic ingredients that the English could get from the Continent, such as fine wine, citrus fruit, and large quantities of spices. Depending on what ingredients were at hand, the group may have attempted to cobble together something similar to one of Mrs. Cromwell’s recipes, a boiled cod’s head with oyster stuffing and a wine-butter sauce.
“Cut off the Codds head beyond the Gills, that you may have part of the body with it, boyl it in water and salt, to which you may add half a pint of Vinegar, the head must be little more than covered before you put it into the Caldron, take a quart of the biggest cleanest Oysters, and a bunch of sweet herbs and Onions, and put them into the mouth of the head, and with a packthread bind the Jawes fast, you must be sure to pick it and wash it very clean, when it is boyled enough, take it up and set it a drying over a Chafing dish of Coals, then take the Oyster Liquor, four Anchoves, and a sliced Onion; put to them a wuarter of a pint of white Wine, and sweet butter, and melt them together, and pour it on the Cods head, still all or most of the Oysters upon the head, or where they will enter, and garnish it over with them, grate on a little Nutmeg, and send it smoking up, garnish the brims of the dish with Limon and sliced bay Leaves.”
To our modern palates, the food that the Wampanoag were cooking was often much tastier than that of the English, and if roasted eel isn’t your thing, Native cuisine from across the country is amazingly diverse and delicious! To get a closer look at the history of Native American food both before and after 1620, we are teaming up with Cary Library for their November book club, which will be hosted by chef Lois Ellen Frank.
Lois' website notes that “Lois has spent over 25 years documenting foods and life ways of Native American tribes from the Southwest. This lengthy immersion in Native American communities culminated in her book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, featuring traditional and contemporary recipes.” Lois will be sharing her expertise on Native American cuisine and how food can be used for health and wellness. Register here to join us this Wednesday, November 18, at 7:00 PM.
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Tomorrow is the 2020 Presidential Election. We have newly installed an exhibit on women's suffrage in the windows of the CVS Pharmacy on Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington center. The national suffrage movement spanned 70+ years and women in Lexington were involved for as long. We honor and appreciate their long fight and reaffirm our commitment to equitable history.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Emily Murphy's white paper on Lexington suffrage. This excerpt covers some important events in the early years of the movement. If you would like to read Dr. Murphy's full paper, it is available here or on the "Something Must Be Done: Bold Women of Lexington" exhibit page.
Lexington’s iconic place in American history has always made it a touchstone for any number of movements and the same can be said of the women’s suffrage movement. The battle of Lexington and Concord often featured in suffrage speeches, particularly as speakers pointed out that women were paying their fair share of taxes, but could not vote for representation.
However, when it comes to participation in the suffrage movement, Lexington does not feature as a critical point in the Massachusetts story. Suffrage in Lexington can be described as typical; neither more nor less active than any number of small rural towns in the greater Boston area. And as such, its activity ebbs and flows as the greater tide of suffrage enthusiasm did in Massachusetts. There are not a lot of records of suffrage activities in Lexington, but this is a chronological list of what has been found in newspaper articles and other papers.
1875: Centennial Celebrations
The first time that Lexington really gets mentioned in relation to women’s suffrage after the Civil War is at the 1875 Centennial Celebrations that happened in Lexington and Concord. In The Women’s Journal, Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Browne Blackwell both wrote scathing reviews about the lack of participation or even mention of women, let alone women’s suffrage in either of the celebrations, even though many of the speakers were in favor of suffrage. “It will be seen how small a share women received of the thought and attention of the celebration. It would seem a small return to the women of Concord and Lexington, whose taxes next fall will be over $3000—one fifth of the whole sum voted by the men at the town-meetings from which these women were excluded.”
One bright spot that Blackwell found was “the one man who did not forget to recognize the rights of American women at the Lexington Centennial,” African-American caterer J. B. Smith, who managed the supper for the Lexington event. In response to a letter from nineteen young women from Arlington offering to help with table service for the event, Mr. Smith wrote: “. . . for myself I thank you, and for the sentiment that prompted the act I thank God. It will quicken the pulsation of the patriotic heart of the world, it will hasten the day when all persons will be born free and equal . . .” Blackwell then goes on to point out that there were no women speakers, very few women in the audience or at the supper, and “the fact remains, that it was a celebration of men, by men, for men, and not in any true or complete sense a celebration of the people.”
1877-1887: Lectures, but no League
The next mention of women’s suffrage we find is two lectures being held in Lexington on the subject, both mentioned in The Woman’s Journal:
MEETINGS AT ARLINGTON AND LEXINGTON
On Monday and Tuesday evenings of this week [December 10 and 11, 1877], Suffrage meetings in the above-named places were addressed by Lucy Stone. Mrs. Nancy C. Gilman, who is more than three score and ten years of age, had secured a hall in Arlington, and Rev. Mr. Elder’s Church in Lexington [The Follen Church in East Lexington], and in part, attended to the arrangements. Mrs. Gilman was the inspiring cause of the meetings being held. Younger persons may take a lesson from the courage and perseverance of this venerable woman.
Owing to insufficient notice and the first snow-fall of the season, both meetings were small, but those who were present gave close attention. Tracts were distributed, and it is hoped that some, at least, will be induced to take a more active part hereafter.
Lucy Stone came back to Lexington to speak that same week, on Sunday, December 16,
WOMAN SUFFRAGE IN LEXINGTON
Last Sunday evening, the birth place of American liberty held a meeting in the Town-Hall, which was given without charge for the purpose, to consider the “moral and religious bearings of Woman Suffrage.” We had been told that there was “little sympathy felt in Woman Suffrage in Lexington,” but the large hall was filled by an intelligent and interested audience numbering several hundreds, and it was evident that this was a mistake, or at least that the people were willing to consider the question. Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell were the speakers. After the meeting, several citizens of Lexington waited to express their sympathy and to offer their co-operation in circulating a Woman Suffrage petition.
This successful meeting was due to the effort of Mrs. Nancy C. Gilman, of Arlington, aided by the co-operation of those tried and true friends of reform, the Wellingtons of East Lexington.
From these two items, it seems that what women’s suffrage interest there was in Lexington at the time was still centered in East Lexington, in the Wellington/Simonds/Stone/Robbins families who were interconnected by marriage and who were the mainstay of the pre-Civil War abolitionist programming in Lexington. Mrs. Nancy C. Gilman, who was from Northfield, New Hampshire, was born in 1806, making her about seventy-one at the time of these lectures and she was a former teacher and a female physician who studied at the Boston Female School of Medicine, graduating in the early 1850s. She lived in Arlington, then in Lexington, between 1868 and 1890, before returning to Northfield, and it seems she was an active member of the MWSA.
Further proof that the impetus for reform was still coming from East Lexington is found in the October 2, 1880 Woman’s Journal in a letter from Ellen A. Stone. It’s not apparent which Ellen A. Stone it was, as there is no title attached to the name, and both mother and daughter were very active at this time. It is more likely that it was Miss Stone, as she was the more interested in education:
MISS EASTMAN IN LEXINGTON
Editor Journal: The friends of educational Suffrage in Lexington, held a somewhat informal meeting at the Selectmen’s room in the Town Hall the afternoon of Monday last (13th). Miss Mary F. Eastman was present and spoke at some length upon our present school system, its aims, its defects, and its needs. The direct and earnest manner of Miss Eastman commanded the closest attention on the part of those present, and her remarks were the more forcible as it became evident that she spoke from practical knowledge of her subject. The meeting was very interesting as well as instructive. Very truly yours, Ellen A. Stone, Lexington, September 25, 1880
Mary F. Eastman was one of the best speakers in the MWSA roster. Born in Lowell, she became a teacher and worked under Horace Mann at Antioch College. She had a distinguished career in both public and private schools, and became a women’s suffrage advocate along with an education reformer, and was known for her logical, persuasive style of speaking. She was in Lexington about a year after women gained the school committee vote, so school reform was a hot topic among women’s groups.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the suffrage movement annually presented petitions to the legislature for a women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution. In 1882, Sarah Morell Millet, a widow who had been involved for many years in both abolitionist and women’s suffrage activities (she had been one of the founding members of the Lexington Female Charitable Association), reported her success at getting signatures on that year’s petition:
WELL DONE LEXINGTON!
The town of Lexington, in which the first gun was fired for American independence, is still true to the principle of the consent of the governed. A Woman Suffrage petition signed by seventy-eight citizens, all residing in the eastern part of the town, was received last week, accompanied by the following interesting letter:
East Lexington, Jan 17, 1882
Mrs. Lucy Stone: The names on the enclosed paper are from East Lexington only. Every person to whom I presented the petition, with the exception of two, seemed pleased to give me their names, I rejoice that the auguries for the future of our cause are today so encouraging. The addresses of the late meeting in this week’s Woman’s Journal, and also the notices in the [Cambridge] Transcript are very inspiring to those interested in the great work.
Truly Yours, Sarah Millet.
This was not the first time that Sarah Millet had worked a petition drive; in 1879, she was one of the petitioners who started the bill for school committee suffrage.
Because of its proximity to Boston, Lexington was an easy trip for Boston-based speakers, and so the town was host to many lectures from well-known speakers like Mary Eastman, and some who when they appeared in Lexington were not well known, but later became extremely important. In May of 1885, the Woman’s Journal narrated a week in the MWSA speaker’s rounds:
SUFFRAGE MEETING AT LEXINGTON
April 30—We were entertained by Mrs. E. J. Cogswell, within a stone’s throw of the spot where the first gun was fired for “No taxation without representation.” The Town Hall was opened to us, as to any political party. Here was the largest meeting of the week.
Rev. Mr. Staples [First Congregational Church] presided. He advised that the School Committee be enlarged to five, two of them to be women. Professor Emerson, of the Monroe School of Oratory, Boston, was there. He attended our Salem Convention, and heard Miss Shaw speak. He said he thought it worth while to hear her again, so pleased was he before. A league will be formed in Lexington. The next day the old scenes were reviewed by Mrs. Cogswell, who made it very interesting for us.
In the Library, Mrs. Stone, of Lexington, has placed Judge Samuel E. Sewell’s bust with Hancock and Adams, with an appropriate tablet telling all who read that he is doing to-day for women what they did for men in ’76.
“Miss Shaw” was, in fact, Anna Howard Shaw, who at that time had only recently been ordained as the first female Methodist Protestant Minister. A product of the Boston University Theological School (1878) she was at the time she spoke at Lexington just finishing up another degree in medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine (1886). However, although she was often referred to as Rev. Shaw, shortly after getting her medical degree she decided to use her significant oratorical powers to fight for women’s rights. She eventually moved to work with Susan B. Anthony, whose niece became Shaw’s lifelong partner, and by 1892 she was Vice President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, then in 1904 became president of the organization.
Judge Samuel E. Sewall was a major figure in both abolitionism and woman’s rights. As a lawyer, he defended fugitive slaves and women, and worked to change the divorce laws to be more favorable towards women.
Mrs. E. J. Cogswell is an interesting person. Emily Johnson was born in Lexington in 1818,
and both her mother and sister were members of the Lexington Female Charitable Association, which indicates a familial interest in doing good work. She was an early graduate of the Lexington Normal School, and is known to have taught in Vermont in the early 1840s. Emily married William Cogswell in 1850, but after losing an infant son in 1853, her husband in 1859, and her mother in 1862, she turned to Unitarian missionary work, moving to North Platte, Nebraska in 1868 to start a Sunday School and Unitarian congregation. As can be seen from this news item, she returned to Lexington before 1885, and became active in the suffrage movement for a few years. She died in 1897.
-Dr. Emily Murphy, National Park Service curator and "Something Must Be Done" exhibit research consultant
 (H. B. Blackwell, Only Half a Celebration 1875) (L. Stone 1875);  (Meetings at Arlington and Lexington 1877);  (H. B. Blackwell, Woman Suffrage in Lexington 1877);  (Hurd 1885, 545);  (E. A. Stone 1880);  (Howe, et al. 1904, 484-489);  (Well Done Lexington 1882);  (Massachusetts General Court House of Representatives 1879, 225);  (Suffrage Meeting at Lexington 1885);  (Gordon 2000);  (Mann 1845, 73);  (Paoletti 2016)
We are very pleased to be the recipient of a generous $35,000 grant from the Coby Foundation that will help fund a large textile conservation project. The Historical Society cares for a set of bed hangings made by Rachel (Dwight) Gould circa 1768. They are one of only two essentially complete bed hanging sets made in this area during this time. The bed hangings are on display in the Hancock-Clarke House, in the room where Dorothy Quincy and Lydia Hancock were staying when John Hancock was participating in the Provincial Congress in spring of 1775.
The goal is to preserve this historic and rare treasure so that the hangings can be viewed and enjoyed by visitors and researchers for generations to come. These bed hangings received remedial stabilization cleaning and on-site installation assistance in 2009, but now will receive a much more comprehensive treatment. The conservation work will be carried out by Deirdre Windsor of Windsor Conservation. In addition to working with Lexington Historical Society for the past decade, Deirdre completed the conservation project for the Mary Bulham bed hangings at Old York Historical Society in 2016-17.
The textile conservator proposes a comprehensive conservation treatment including vacuuming, cleaning, and stabilization. After the hangings are cleaned, areas with tears, weakened binding edges, weakened curtain loops, and deterioration will be addressed. Valances and the head cloth will be lined to offer structural support. After conservation, the bed hangings will be reinstalled with a historically accurate hanging system that provides the best support for long-term display.
The bed hangings are one of visitors’ and guides’ favorite items in the houses. Embroidered leaves, vines, flowers, and other motifs are still vibrant and beautiful. Visitors often express their admiration for the size and scope of the crewelwork, which took nine years to complete. Seeing the bed hangings in person with no physical barrier feels very intimate and personal. The hand of the seamstress is very evident and they provide a window into the past. However, the textiles are stained, worn, and fragile from 50 years of display and inherent stress due to their age.
Lexington Historical Society strives to interpret 1775 with as much accuracy as possible, and having artifacts of the period in the museums brings history to life. They engage visitors and help them to understand the daily lives and struggles of those who fought for American independence. The Coby Foundation’s generous grant will enable these unique and important bed hangings to continue to tell its tale for years to come.
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager & Erica McAvoy, Executive Director
The Coby Foundation, Ltd., located in New York City, funds projects in the textile and needle arts field. Its funding is limited to non-profit organizations in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The Foundation was established in 1994 by Irene Zambelli Silverman in honor of her mother, Irene Meladakis Zambelli. Mrs. Silverman described her mother as “the finest needlewoman in New York.” Since it began its grant making in 2002, the Foundation has awarded more than $5 million to over 170 projects. https://cobyfoundation.org/
Back in February of 2019, I wrote a blog post concerning a collection of personal papers that were donated to us by the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. In that post, I focused on the fascinating life of Margaret Kimball as told through these recently acquired personal items, newspaper clippings, photographs, and a large scrapbook. Margaret’s life was certainly worthy of this extensive discussion.
One might wonder, though, what happens to an archival donation like this after Lexington Historical Society has accepted these items. How do we process them? Where do they go? How do researchers access them? Well, I will shed a little bit of light on this process, while continuing to use the Margaret Kimball Collection as a kind of case study.
When I was contacted about the Margaret Kimball Collection, I first wanted to establish that this was, indeed, a collection with a strong Lexington connection, as the Society’s collecting policy requires. When that was established, I met with a manuscript archivist at the Phillips Library. I had some paperwork prepared for her, including a thank you letter (thanking them for the donation and acknowledging that we received it) and a Deed of Gift form. This is standard paperwork for any archival donation, whether the donation is coming from another institution or an independent individual. Whenever a donation comes into the archives, we require that this kind of paperwork be signed. A Deed of Gift is especially important, as it serves as a legal document that transfers ownership of any stated items from the donor (who must have legal rights to the items they are donating) to the Society. Without a signed Deed of Gift transferring ownership, the Society has no legal rights to the items, which can be a liability.
After the paperwork has been signed and the donated items become the legal property of the Society, the Society has then taken on the responsibility (and associated costs!) of processing, housing, and caring for these items, as well as making them available to the public when possible. The same held true for the Margaret Kimball Collection. Once I got this collection back to the archives, I took some time to see what was in the boxes. In this case, the contents were in no particular order, but included items like aviation atlases, personal correspondence, memberships, memorabilia, and, most notably, a very large scrapbook pertaining primarily to Margaret’s flying career.
Many may wonder what we do with these boxes of “stuff” when they come into the archives. Processing a collection like this, even a small one, can take a significant amount of time. First, an initial assessment is conducted, where we determine the rough condition of the items, remove any obstacles such as paperclips or staples, and get a general sense of the types of materials with which we are working. Then, the materials are divided into “series”; for example, the items in the Margaret Kimball Collection were organized into an Aviation series, a Photograph series, etc. Then, each of the items within the boxes are organized so that that each item falls within a specified series. The collection essentially needs to be organized in such a way that we have both physical control and intellectual control over all of the items.
After that is done something called a “Finding Aid” is created. A finding aid is a document that gives an overview of the collection, where it is from, what it is about, what is in it, etc. We can give this to researchers before or during their visit to the archives to help them understand what they are looking at. Finding Aids can be incredibly detailed and time consuming to create, but they can also be a huge help to researchers. There is a kind of “formula” that must be followed in the creation of a finding aid. When you factor in both the creation of the finding aid and the intellectual/physical organization of the collection, you can see why it can take weeks to assess and arrange a collection from start to finish!
For Margaret’s collection specifically, her amazing scrapbook made up a significant chunk of the collection and was a series within itself. In this case, after seeing this scrapbook and realizing what a treasure trove it was regarding Margaret’s life, I immediately thought of it as a candidate for future conservation efforts. The scrapbook contained numerous photographs, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia pasted inside, as well as additional items such as licenses and passports stored between the pages. Many of the pasted items are falling apart or peeling off the pages, and the adhesive was beginning to disintegrate. The items being stored between the pages were also, at this point, holding up the binding of the scrapbook to some degree, so it was not very safe or stable to remove them individually either.
As we do whenever we have items that are candidates for conservation, I brought this scrapbook to Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) for appraisal, which is our go-to conservation laboratory, and one of the most premier in the nation. NEDCC specializes in treating collections made of paper or parchment, such as works of art, photographs, books, documents, maps, and manuscripts. We visit NEDCC when we need help preserving and conserving items that we have designated as conservation priorities. These can vary from items that are in particularly rough shape that we do not want to degrade further to items of particular historical or research value. They have done amazing work with our conservation projects in the past. Something like this scrapbook was certainly one of a kind, and it was not in the best condition, so it qualified on a variety of levels as a conservation priority.
I asked NEDCC to assess the scrapbook and provide us with some treatment options. A variety of options were presented (including conservation, custom housing, digitization, etc.), and the most expensive option was estimated to cost about $14,200. This is not uncommon - conservation can be particularly expensive. It requires significant fundraising to take on these types of restoration projects. This type of conservation work, while expensive, is imperative to our ability to provide these types of fragile items to researchers and scholars within the archives. As it stands, I would not be comfortable allowing anyone to handle the scrapbook (which has not yet been conserved due to limited financial resources) in such a fragile condition, and this is the case with many of our more delicate archival items that we do not allow researchers to access. After conservation, though, the scrapbook would be much more stable for handling. Not only that, but it would also be digitized, which means that I would be able to provide digital access to this scrapbook to researchers around the world – and it would not harm the original item in the slightest.
In the meantime, the scrapbook sits safely with the rest of the Margaret Kimball Collection – now fully processed with a completed Finding Aid – in acid-free archival boxes on the shelves of our newly constructed Archives and Research Center. It anxiously awaits researchers when the archives are open to the public after the pandemic has subsided.
There are certainly some aspects of processing an archival collection that are standardized, but each collection is unique and comes with its own individual challenges, issues, and history.
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
In any other year, September becomes a month of reflection and planning for me. I would be reflecting on the summer season, beginning preparations and planning for the remainder of the fall season while also looking ahead towards the following Spring opening of our historic houses.
However, as we can all attest, this has been anything but a normal year. Absent this summer were the curious questions of students and visitors asking “What time did Paul Revere arrive at Hancock-Clarke House?” or “How did Buckman Tavern end up with a musket ball hole in the front door?” Instead, there were questions of “Is Lexington Historical Society open?”, “Is Lexington Historical Society opening the historic houses?”, or “What types of tours does Lexington Historical Society offer?”
As the summer has progressed, Lexington Historical Society has moved from offering 3D online virtual tours to self-paced phone tours (with 2 new tour options!) to guided walking tours. While these transitions have been happening, I have been delving deep into webinars, COVID-19 regulations, and social media groups for museum best practices - all to plan for that wonderful day where we would be able to welcome visitors back inside the historic comforts of our buildings.
I am now happy to announce we will be able to open Buckman Tavern on a limited basis with a hybrid outdoor/ indoor guided tour! During the tour, participants will gather outside with a Lexington Historical Society guide to learn the history of Buckman Tavern and the role it played in the Battle of Lexington. After this brief chat, visitors will be guided through the historic 1710 tavern and be able to view the period rooms that up until this point have been closed to visitors since March 2020. Visitors will have time to view artifacts and ask questions of LHS guides during this abbreviated tour of the interior of Buckman Tavern.
During the tour, all social distancing practices and mandated Massachusetts State Regulations and Requirements will be observed. Please remember to stay the length of a British Grenadier (6 feet) away from other visitors and to always wear your mask so that we can keep both our visitors and staff as safe as we can.
Hybrid tours of Buckman Tavern will begin on Saturday October 3 and will be offered daily through Thanksgiving from 10 AM – 2:30 PM every 45 minutes. Online reservations are recommended and will be available for booking starting on October 1.
I think I speak for all of our guide staff when I say that we are excited to have the public back inside our building and look forward to seeing everyone if you feel comfortable visiting! Finally, I want to thank everyone for their support over these past few months as we have attempted to serve our loyal audience while at the same time “building an airplane as we fly it” during this ever-shifting pandemic.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
One of the most enduring mysteries of the Old Burying Ground is a low, long gravestone, adorned not with the usual winged soul of the Revolutionary years, but with six tiny, very human figures. These carvings represent six of the seven children of Sarah and Abijah Childs, who died within three weeks of each other in the summer of 1778. These children were among many casualties in an unnamed epidemic that swept through Lexington that year. Such a marker is a testament to how little some things change over the years, as we work our way through humanity’s latest deadly disease.
One thing that makes the current situation easier to bear, from a historical perspective, is the amount of documentation we have: newspaper articles, blogs, photos, videos…the amount of information a 22nd century historian will have on the coronavirus is staggering. But in the 18th century? Studying disease can be a frustrating process, involving poring over town books and letters, with much internal groaning over our ancestors’ lack of death records. Most 18th century vital records do not list what someone died of and, course, even when records do exist, they are often speculation, or use archaic terms for a variety of diseases. The outbreak in Lexington has been argued by some historians to be dysentery, an offshoot of noted outbreaks in other towns, but the possibilities are endless. Measles, whooping cough, diphtheria…all were rampant at different periods of time, particularly among children.
The most popular possibility for any 18th century mystery epidemic is usually smallpox, being the most well-known and well-documented disease of the time period. But was it in evidence here? Boston did publicly notify of infections in town, mainly to ease the minds of the locals whenever rumors of illness started sweeping through the streets. It was not uncommon to see news reports specifying that a local case had been discovered, that the infected persons had been removed to the quarantine hospital on Rainsford Island, in the harbor, and that the town was currently free from disease. The spring of 1778 did see an outbreak in the city, and letters to the editor in Boston newspapers complained in mid-summer that the pox didn’t seem to be abating, despite reassurance from officials.
The largest outbreak of smallpox in the greater Boston area was in 1776, and we do know that it made its way to Lexington by the end of that year. In December, Betty Clarke, the 13-year-old daughter of Reverend Jonas Clarke, contracted smallpox, possibly during a visit to the city. As soon as Betty showed signs of pox, Reverend Clarke rushed to make an appointment with a local doctor to inoculate the whole family. Whether Clarke urged the rest of the town to do the same to prevent the outbreak from spreading is unknown, so we still can’t rule smallpox out for what was plaguing the town in 1778. But the practice of inoculation was widespread at the time.
The precursor to modern vaccines, inoculation, had been popularized in Boston a generation earlier during an outbreak in 1721. The process, involving depositing infected matter into the body of a healthy person to induce an immune response, had actually been in successful use in Asia and Africa for several centuries, while Western doctors looked on in distrust. It was actually the enslaved population of Boston who first told the locals about the practice. Onesimus, a man enslaved by Cotton Mather (of witch trials fame) told his master that a scar on his arm was from an operation he had had back in Africa, which made him immune to the pox. After corroborating this account with others, Mather began an extensive public campaign encouraging locals to adopt inoculation, but then, as now, it took the public a long time to get over fears of complications, or spreading the disease further. John Adams was inoculated before the Revolution, in 1764, and wrote of his experience:
“They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin for about a Quarter of an Inch and just suffering the Blood to appear, buried a Thread about half a Quarter of an Inch long in the Channel. A little Lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of a Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over.”
The thread mentioned would have been soaked in fluid from a fresh pustule, allowing the virus to enter the bloodstream through the cut. Not something that would work in a modern hospital! The development of vaccines has clearly come a long way since the 18th century, no longer dealing in live viruses and mass cross-contamination. But at the time, this was (in America, at least) a revolutionary new technology that allowed people to believe they had a fighting chance against the most infamous disease in the world. While our experiences of dealing with medical mysteries have been frustratingly similar through the centuries, hopefully flu shots this winter, and COVID shots to come, won’t seem nearly as harrowing now. And in the future, we will hopefully have our stories preserved so that future historians won’t be quite so in the dark as they try to piece our long and complicated story.
If you would like to add your story of what it’s like to live in Lexington during the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider contributing to the COVID-19 History Project!
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.