This past month I portrayed Elijah Sanderson in Lexington Historical Society's annual "Ghosts and Graves" experience. I played my character in the warm Tap Room at Buckman Tavern (where in fact Elijah was that night), but in between performances I got to wondering. Thinking about those dark and chilly hours on April 19, 1775 - with people coming and going from the tavern bearing a variety of information - were the local militia drinking alcohol that night and morning? I had thought about it before - all we veteran tour guides have - but this time I really was trying more than ever before to understand their position.
The answer for many amateur tour guides with a peripheral knowledge of the events in Lexington is a smiling "yes" - they will tell their visitors with a wink and a nudge that the militia had been imbibing "liquid courage" which advanced their next act of taking a stand on the town green that day. This version of events is not confined to colorful retelling but indeed has been enshrined in some popular histories.
Several years ago, a local historian who had just published a successful account of the opening events of the war came to Lexington to deliver a lecture and to field questions. Many of the modern Lexington Minutemen were in attendance, and they took issue with this writer’s assertion that the Lexington militia were “possibly in an alcohol induced haze” on the morning of April 19, 1775. Since the 1775 company were gathered in a tavern, the whole scenario seems to make sense, given (in large part, I suspect) the modern idea of what a "tavern" is. But for the Minuteman company of today, it was grossly egregious to besmirch their honorable reputation by the author’s going so far as to suggest that some were drunk.
In eighteenth century Massachusetts a tavern was a necessary and reputable establishment for sustaining traveling merchants on their way to and from Boston. In many places, including Lexington, a settlement's main tavern provided a warm setting for official town business on days when the unheated church building would not do. It was a decent and convenient place for men and women alike to socialize between church services. In short, Lexington's Buckman Tavern was hardly a place known for revelry and heavy drinking.
For the eighteenth-century Yankee farmers of Lexington, alcohol was probably a daily part of life. It was less potent than today’s equivalents since less sugar was available for fermentation. It contained sediments which we would find unpalatable today but were an added source of nutrition for the colonists. They would have taken beer and alcoholic cider from an early age. Clean water was available in a place like Lexington, but it does not seem to have been the beverage of choice for the Revolutionary war-era colonists. Alcohol was not at all disapproved of, but drunkenness, like any disorderly behavior, most certainly was.
All this notwithstanding, the night of April 18, 1775 was a frightening one for all concerned. The tavern became a hive of activity, with people of all ages - but mostly men - filling the rooms and sharing news. Would the British arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams as they passed through the town? Would they ransack or burn the inhabitants' houses?
It cannot be said for certain what (if indeed John Buckman made his supply available that night at all) any of the militia who would face the redcoats on Lexington green that morning drank just beforehand. Yet we historians deal in evidence where we can, and there is no evidence that alcohol was a factor in the decisions made that fateful morning. The very fact that there is no evidence of this carries special force. Of the myriad sources we have describing the events of that day, not one - British or American - notes that the opposing gunmen seemed in any way impaired. And each side certainly had every reason to characterize the other as disorderly.
There is more to debunking this myth than mere splitting of hairs. It belies the very real fact that the participants in the battle of Lexington understood all too well what was at stake and what they were about. They were in no mood for merrymaking. And when they did what they ultimately decided to do, it was entirely of their own, coherent volition.
-James Miele, Buckman Tavern Shop Manager
When our staff was first tasked with writing this blog, one of the ideas was to provide our membership and social media followers with a behind-the-scenes view of what happens on a day-to-day basis at Lexington Historical Society. Up until this point, most of my posts have dealt with ways that the Society has been improving the interpretation of our historic sites and the many exciting youth programs we’ve been developing. Today, I’m going to veer from those topics and provide a quick glimpse into an aspect of my position that always provides some excitement and learning opportunities, historic house maintenance.
Like in any home, the maintenance of our three historic properties is a never-ending job and I would like to personally thank Lester Savage, our Buildings Committee Chair, for all his help and advice as different issues pop up during the season and off-season. One of the more recent issues I’ve dealt with was a small infestation of yellow jackets at Munroe Tavern. Over the past few weeks, our guides and visitors have been reporting seeing yellow jackets flying around the Washington Room. I personally think they were just trying to view the chair that George Washington sat on while he dined at Munroe Tavern in 1789, but in more likelihood, they were looking for the warmth of the sun that is present in that room during the daylight hours. While walking around the exterior perimeter of the building, I noticed a few yellow jackets flying in and out of a crack in the corner to the eaves of Munroe Tavern. Assuming the space they were flying in and out of led to the attic, I made the ascent to the top region of the Tavern and discovered that the yellow jackets weren’t just flying into the Tavern for a quick visit. On the contrary, they had taken up a residence in the attic.
After consulting with a local beekeeper, Alix Bartsch, to determine what type of bee or hornet we had taking up temporary residence in our attic, I set out on the task of removing the nest from the attic rafters. After borrowing a beekeeper suit from my father-in-law, a beekeeper as well, I donned the suit and planned my battle strategy. Before I began my secret mission, I decided I should check in with Hugh for some last-minute advice on how to remove unwanted pests. Luckily for me, my task was much less dramatic and more successful than the mission the British Regulars embarked on in April of 1775. I was able to detach the nest from the ceiling of the attic and place it into a bag and remove the nest to an outside location. Thankfully the cool, crisp fall weather and the hornet spray I had applied earlier in the week made the yellow jackets a little sluggish because nobody even came to greet me.
As of Monday morning, there haven’t been any signs of the yellow jackets and the Tavern appears to be free of any other curious critters. Hope you enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the “other duties as assigned” portion of my job that you don’t normally see!
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
In 2013, Lexington Historical Society received a donation from the Whitman family of an Eames molded plywood lounge chair. Simple in design, yet an icon of modern style, the chair is known as an LCW (Low Chair Wood).
It came from the estate of Elizabeth and Robert Whitman. Elizabeth earned her BFA in Interior Design from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1949. Whitman worked as an interior designer for both The Architects Collaborative and Design Research, two widely known modern design firms. Her husband Robert received a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in structural engineering in 1951 and taught in MIT’s Department of Civil Engineering from 1957-1993.
Given the Whitmans’ experience with design and engineering, it is no surprise that they owned such an iconic chair, created by such an iconic couple. Charles and Ray Eames were arguably two of the most prolific and talented designers of the 20th century.
Before teaming up with her husband Charles, Ray Eames worked with Charles and Eero Saarinen in preparing molded plywood furniture designs for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Furniture Competition.
Charles and Ray Eames married in 1941 and moved to California. During the Second World War, the couple was commissioned by the United States Navy to produce molded plywood splints, stretchers, and experimental glider shells.
After the war, Charles and Ray continued to apply their creativity with wood to furniture design. This led to the creation of the molded plywood lounge chair, their first mass produced product, in 1946. If you look at the side of our chair, you can see the layers of wood veneer bonded together.
Other forms of the Eames chair became popular, especially their later work with Herman Miller, but the LCW style is the first of its kind in their opus and very recognizable, despite only being produced from 1946-47. We were pleased to receive a fine example of such an iconic object and to feature the chair in our mid-century modern Lextopia exhibit in 2015.
Just as the Historical Society’s 18th century objects help illuminate the story of the 18th century houses for which we care, mid-century modern objects help us tell the story of MCM art and architecture and the “second revolution” of Lexington.
If you are interested in what that might look like, join us for a mid-century modern cocktail party on November 2!
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
It’s the end of September, and I have been thinking about Halloween for a while now. There’s something about the changing leaves and shortening days that make this time of year perfect for this holiday. And, having grown up going to high school within the bounds of a 17th century village named Salem, I got my fair share of Halloween history as a child.
The Salem witch hysteria never made it all the way down to Lexington, although there were a handful of people in Woburn and Billerica who were thrown in jail. I often wonder what the citizens of Lexington (then called Cambridge Farms) thought about what was happening. At the time, we were in the process of building our first meeting house and newly appointed minister Benjamin Estabrook may have felt that he was in over his head.
But that doesn’t mean that people in Lexington didn’t believe in witches or the supernatural, and it took a long time for some of these beliefs, and the traditions associated with them, to die out. One of the most popular items on the tour of the Hancock-Clarke House are a series of shoes, neatly laid behind the plaster wall of the minister’s study. There is an astonishing variety in the little collection: shoes for men and women, adults and children, leather and wool. All well-worn, and very deliberately placed there, hidden away during the house’s construction.
These are called “concealments”, and are thought to be a good luck charm, a way to ward off any evil spirits that might be inhabiting your new home. Sometimes they are accompanied by “witch bottles” full of other magic charms to ward off specific evildoers. The Northampton Museum in England has compiled an index of nearly 2,000 concealments (including ours), which is set to be made digitally accessible next year.
These shoes would have been placed in the wall during the construction of the Hancock-Clarke House in 1737, 45 years after the infamous witch trials. Not so long a time, actually! It is easy for us to think of our Age of Enlightenment patriots having any connection with the superstitions of the past, but they were only a generation or two removed from that fading world (Ben Franklin’s aunt Bethshua famously took off her shoe and threw it at Martha Corey’s head during her trial). Superstitions and folk magic tend to linger for centuries.
By the mid-18th century, however, most on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to distance themselves from the beliefs of their ancestors by putting a stop to any further superstitious persecution. This news article from 1751 is a good example, reporting on the “barbarity” that ensued in England when John and Ruth Osborne, “inoffensive people near 70 years of age” were accused of witchcraft and tortured by their neighbors, leaving Ruth dead.
An addendum to the article proudly revealed that of the entirety of the mob, 29 members were subsequently being tried for murder. One of the men was eventually executed.
- Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Lexington Historical Society is much more than a room with piles of old documents and artifacts; it is a vibrant organization, active all year round, with an engaged staff and volunteer base. To give you an idea of just how active Lexington Historical Society is, here are some fun facts!
• 20,000 people walk through the doors of our museums
• LHS presents an average of 50 public programs
• An average of 2,500 students participate in education programs at our museums
• We receive about 100 research inquiries
So how do we fund our extensive operations?
Many people think that we receive funding from the town or National Park Service. The truth is, though, we are a private non-profit organization. While we sometimes receive grants from a local or state government entity, we do not receive regular funding from any one source.
Each year, we rely on income from the sale of our museum tickets, membership dues, our two appeal campaigns in the fall and spring, and various fundraisers throughout the year such as our golf tournament and Relinquished Treasures sale.
A New Initiative
We recently began planning for an additional fundraiser in the fall, with the goal of it being our major fundraiser of the year. The theme for this year’s fundraiser is “Mid-Century Marvels: Bauhaus and Beyond.” Our aim is that, through sponsorships, ticket sales, and advertisement space in the events’ program books, the Mid-Century Marvels fundraiser will help us close out 2019 with a bang, poised for growth and success in 2020.
This series of events is scheduled to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the Staatliches Bauhaus, a design school that began in 1919 in Germany that influenced art and architecture all over the world. Lexington is home to hundreds of mid-century modern homes, so the Bauhaus anniversary has strong ties to Lexington’s history.
Mid-Century Marvels Events
The first event takes place this Thursday, September 12 at the Gropius House in Lincoln. The evening begins with wine and hors d’oeuvres on the patio behind the house, and ends with a special tour by Gropius House staff with interesting collections pieces on display. The space is very limited, and there are only a few tickets remaining! For tickets, please call our office at (781) 862-1703.
After the Gropius House tour there will be a tour of the Gamota’s house (now sold out) showing mid-century modern art, a Cronin Lecture by Sasaki Associates discussing the life and work of the late Lexington resident Hideo Sasaki, and a cocktail party in a mid-century modern home in Shaker Glen. For information on the Sasaki lecture and the cocktail party, please visit www.lexingtonhistory.org/events.
Support from Individuals and Businesses
The individuals and businesses who sponsor these events know the value of Lexington Historical Society and want to support our important work. Many of our supporters return year after year and we also hope to engage new individuals and businesses each year to enhance our ties with the community and allow us to do more for Lexington and for our visitors from around the world.
I would like to thank the following individuals and businesses who are sponsoring Mid-Century Marvels: Bauhaus and Beyond:
• Christina Gamota
• George Gamota
• Hisel Flynn Architects
• Janovitz & Tse
• Lester E. Savage Real Estate
• Kane Investments
• Reside, Inc.
• Seasons Four
The Mid-Century Marvels: Bauhaus and Beyond events are crucial to Lexington Historical Society’s end-of-year fundraising goals. Without fundraising, our organization would not be able to care for our collections, welcome thousands of students, or open our museums’ doors to thousands of visitors. Please consider supporting us through our Mid-Century Marvels Initiative by joining us at an event or making a donation at www.lexingtonhistory.org/financial-donations. Thank you for your support!
-Erica McAvoy, Executive Director
If you’ve driven past Munroe Tavern in the past week, you might have noticed a cadre of ladders and workers painting the exterior of the building. Like all homes, our historic properties need to be touched up occasionally so they can look their best for all those wonderful photos that our visitors snap of them during the season. Wondering how each of the unique colors of Buckman Tavern, Hancock-Clarke House and Munroe Tavern were selected? Well, allow me to peel back the curtain and explain how each house got their color.
Buckman Tavern: With construction of Buckman Tavern taking place in 1710, one can imagine that the exterior of the building has been painted hundreds of times of its life. However, once Lexington Historical Society began interpreting the tavern, we have at least some idea of how many times the exterior has been painted. According to records the exterior of Buckman Tavern was painted in 1915, 1926, 1941, 1955, 1959, 1969 and 1989.
The yellow walls and cream color trim that you see on the tavern today were chosen as a result of an exterior paint study done in 1987 by Sara Chase of SPNEA (now Historic New England) Conservation Center. During that study, Sara took historic research, including using Amos Doolittle’s engraving, and scientific analysis of paint layers found on old clapboards to determine the potential color of Buckman Tavern. During her work she discovered that the first paint layers on the clapboards was “a thick medium dull ochre yellow, a thick slightly greenish ochre yellow, a layer of oil glaze and a warm light tan.” Sara later notes in her report that the “tan and cream [trim] is probably a little late for 1775” and concludes with the suggestion that a yellow and cream scheme was the best recommendation for the exterior paint of Buckman Tavern. This color scheme is still adhered to today and was at one point such a popular color for homes that ACE hardware in Lexington used to carry a “Buckman Tavern Yellow” paint option.
Hancock-Clarke House: Like Buckman Tavern, the Hancock-Clarke House, built in 1737, has seen countless paint jobs. However, during the restoration of the home in 2008, much research was done by Rykerson Architecture to try to determine the correct exterior color of the home. Again, a combination of physical evidence and scientific testing would help determine the color scheme that is currently being followed. In their report, Rykerson noted that an oil painting of the home dating to around 1840 showed the house being painted a yellow ochre. Rykerson was able to discover that “when first restored in 1897, the windows were painted a contrasting white; the house and trim were by then a uniform color.
A previous report on the exterior paint of the Hancock-Clarke house completed in 1977 by Dr. Judith Selwyn of SPNEA found many layers of paint on the house. But Dr. Selwyn felt that the “curry” color put on the house in 1970 was similar to the earliest layers. She noted that at a paint mine in Lexington yellow ochre paint was mined in the eighteenth century and provided some explanation as to the possibility of the exterior being painted a yellow color. The last bit of research done regarding the exterior paint colors was done by Brian Powell, who examined the paint in 2006. Brian found that paint on both sections of the house were of a “early yellow ochre- a medium or light green- possibly a layer of another yellow ochre—3 layers of grey/brown including the present paint.” With this information obtained from the various reports and visual aids, the current color scheme was selected and has was last used in 2018. The current colors of the house are part of the California Paints Historic Colors of America series. The body of the building is Georgian Yellow with a Polish trim.
Munroe Tavern: Munroe Tavern was built in 1735 and has undergone several changes to the exterior of the building throughout its history. Due to the replacement of the exterior finishing materials over these years, Rykerson Architecture in their Historic Structures report from 2010 was unable to determine an exact original color of the building. However, they did note that since 1939, the exterior has been painted red. However, some clues as to the original color of the building can be found in a 1991 report done by Sara Chase prior to the replacement of clapboards and corner boards that were done in 1993.
As Sara notes in her report: “Sample chips were taken where the wood had been sheltered or where wood was secured with cut nails. The sampled corner board was cut and the lower portion of the wood obviously had been cut when the [tap room was removed] …There were earlier and later cut nails and we looked for wood attached with earlier nails. The early cut nails, with diagonally opposite cutting flanges might date from as early as 1815. No wrought nails were found on the exterior wood . . . It appears that there are three layers of dark red paint, each slightly different in value, of most recent paints. Next below that are three layers of greys of quite different values on the clapboards and lighter ivory on the trim. The earliest paints found on the samples are a dull ochre with a lighter cream trim. The ochre, cream and at least one grey layer are pre 1870, pre-machine made paints, because of their unevenly ground and poorly dispersed pigment particle.”
As Sara concluded, the earliest paint samples dated were a grey color that dated to before 1870. She also notes, as did Rykerson Architecture, that it was not possible to determine the exterior color of Munroe Tavern during the 1770-1780 time period. With this information in mind, the decision was made in 2011 to continue the tradition started in 1939 of painting the exterior a red color scheme with the addition of using white trim instead of an all solid red scheme. The current colors of the house are part of the California Paints Historic Colors of America series. The body of the building is Cogswell Cedar with a Lead White trim.
In conclusion, if you’re considering an update to your own dwelling and are looking for examples of historic house colors, all three of our properties have been researched to determine possible original colors and can serve as great examples of what colors to choose. If you need more information regarding the specific make-up of the colors, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re always happy to assist.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
The book shown above is a ledger/account book covering the period from 1871-1886. We discovered it in our collection in the spring of 2018. We were surprised to realize that the ledger has come quite a long way! It contains the business (and sometimes personal) accounts of Thomas and John Long of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Though this is certainly a valuable piece of history, we investigated further and found no evidence of a connection to Lexington. Our mission at the Historical Society is to be a premier interpreter of the events of April 1775, and the faithful steward of all of the town's history through time. Given that this ledger did not help fulfill that mission, we decided to remove it from our collection and try to find a place for it that would be more suitable.
Therefore, the ledger was deaccessioned (more on what that means) this spring per a recommendation by staff and a vote by the Society's collections committee. We then contacted the Prince Edward Island Provincial Archives in Charlottetown to attempt to find a better home for the Long’s records.
Success! They were interested in the ledger. They agreed to take a look at it, though were clear that reviewing it did not mean it would definitely be accepted into their collections. This is a common practice with us and many other museums as well. Sometimes, objects or books or photos or documents offered to an organization may not be in as good condition as we might like, or may have a copyright issue, or there may be another reason to reconsider accepting the donation.
Once we got the go-ahead to bring the ledger to the Provincial Archives for review, the next step was to get it there. Luckily, we were well prepared for that! I have family and a summer cottage on Prince Edward Island and visit every year. The path being clear, I made preparations to bring the ledger with me in July 2019. It traveled in the trunk of my car, housed in an archival folder and a wooden case to protect it from damage. The case may not have been strictly necessary, but with my two children and two dogs in the car as well, it gave me much-appreciated peace of mind.
I delivered the ledger to the Provincial Archives in late July. Historically housed in Province House, a renovation of that historic site moved both the archives and the Offices of the Government next door in 2015. I signed in, got my security badge, and headed up to the fourth floor with the ledger in its case. Once in the reading room of the archives, I had a nice conversation with one of the archivists about the ledger and also generic museums & archives chit chat. The Provincial Archives staff will consider the ledger at some point soon and let us know if and when they accept it. Payload delivered, I headed back outside to the summer heat, pleased that the plan came together and the Longs were back in Charlottetown!
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
Anyone who is familiar with those who work in the museum world knows that we just cannot stop learning. In our spare time, we find ourselves attending lectures and symposiums, watching documentaries, and reading the newest, weightiest volumes that we can find on a variety of historical topics and civics issues. The fact that we love to continue learning and discovering new theories, methods, and points of view on a variety of topics also goes hand-in-hand with our professions.
All staff members regularly attend relevant annual conferences and meetings that pertain directly to our individual positions, but we also strive to do even more. We’ve written in the past about some of the ways we do this, but wanted to share an update and a new endeavor in which I am engaged!
Executive Director Erica recently completed a certificate program in nonprofit management and leadership at Boston University. Collections and Outreach Manager Stacey regularly attends workshops on collections care, marketing, and exhibit best practices, including two this past June on the latter topics, presented by the New England Museum Association (NEMA). Programs Manager Sarah attended a panel discussion at Old South Meeting House in February on interpreting slavery at museums, so as to better implement the history of slavery in our interpretation and programming. Education and Interpretation Manager Chris recently took part in a NEMA workshop on “Finding Your Way Through Interpretive Planning.”
And so, with the Society’s support, I recently embarked upon a new pursuit: obtaining an archival Arrangement and Description Certificate through the Society of American Archivists (SAA). SAA is the oldest and largest professional archival association in North America, and thus this is a very credible and reputable program dedicated to the successful teaching of archival best practices. This program requires that I complete eight courses within four tiers of study inside three years, and the courses can be offered periodically in locations across the country. In May, I attended an archival “bootcamp” which took place at University of South Carolina in Columbia and where I completed the three required courses within a four day period.
The courses that I completed were excellent – they were taught by engaging and qualified professionals who tailored the coursework to the needs of the attendees. The attendees themselves varied from an archivist at Linfield College working with the Oregon Wine History Archive, to an archivist from California working with Pixar, to a variety of university and museum archivists. It’s always interesting and informative to learn about what similar and different issues other archivists within the profession face daily. Building these networked relationships and connections with other professionals is incredibly beneficial.
The courses I attended were:
And with that, I’m nearly halfway to completing this program! The remaining five courses are electives, so this will be an excellent chance to choose courses that pertain most to our needs at the Society – especially as our needs grow, change, and professionalize with the opening of our new Archives and Research Center in the fall! I’m very excited to continue pursuing this certificate and to make sure that I am staying current with archival best practice. After all, I love to learn!
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Visitors come from near and far to visit Lexington and walk in the footsteps of the militiamen and patriots who brought Lexington to the world’s attention in April of 1775. For some time now, Lexington Historical Society has used volunteers through our historic house greeter program to welcome visitors to two of our three historic house museums open to public: the Hancock-Clarke House (36 Hancock Street) and Munroe Tavern (1332 Massachusetts Avenue). Simply put, greeters welcome visitors to the houses, take and sell admission tickets, and orient visitors with the tour-style of that particular house museum. However, this does not fully convey the importance of these volunteers.
For a number of visitors to Lexington, a greeter is the first representative of Lexington Historical Society they will interact with. Being volunteers, greeters have chosen to be there, and visitors can tell that they are genuinely excited to share their significant local history with others. While we wish that every visitor to Lexington had the time to tour one or more of the historic houses, even if they don’t, greeters are still providing way-finding information and local restaurant recommendations, adding to that visitor’s experience of Lexington as a whole. So, for these visitors, greeters are not only the face of the historical society, but also of the community.
Given that the houses are open seven days a week for five months out of the year, it is a significant task to keep the welcome desks staffed. At any given time, the greeter program has 50-60 current volunteers. Starting in April, greeters begin welcoming visitors to the houses on the weekends, and after Memorial Day the greeters fill over 100 shifts each month, June through October. As of July 15, 2019 greeters have volunteered for over 550 hours since April, and we are not even half-way through the season!
Part of what makes this program so successful is how different styles of volunteering come together to build a strong, yet flexible, volunteer program. At the core, there are a handful of greeters who have made the commitment to fill the same shift (or two) each week for most weeks of the season. Others seek to volunteer at least once a week but have a more variable schedule that adapts to our needs from month-to-month. Finally, some greeters may find their availability better lends to volunteering twice a month, filling in where they see the greatest need. The volunteers themselves are equally diverse. They include high school and college students, working professionals, parents and grandparents, and retirees. They are lifelong Lexingtonians, 50+ year residents, new arrivals, and exchange students here for just a year. What they share though is a passion for Lexington’s history and a desire to welcome all those visitors who open the door to the Hancock-Clarke House or Munroe Tavern seeking to experience that history for themselves.
Are you interested in learning how to become a historic house greeter? Contact Melissa Drake at email@example.com.
-Melissa Drake, Weekend Manager
Long before the events of April 19, 1775, Massachusetts was already fighting the British government. As taxation soared following the end of the French and Indian War, early Patriots organized boycotts and protests against the Crown. Not everyone had an equal opportunity for voicing their concerns, however. While elite men could involve themselves in government, and men and women of the lower classes could take to the streets in protest, middle and upper-class women were forced by society to think of their reputations and remain silent. Apparently, women who set fire to the stamp-collector’s house just weren’t considered prime marriage material! However, this doesn’t mean that these women were not actively involved in politics in their own way.
At Buckman Tavern, I am often struck by the way gendered spaces in the building are arranged – we believe that the small parlor next to the kitchen at the back of the house was used as a ladies’ parlor, and it sits directly behind the West Room, a frequent spot for clandestine Patriot meetings. There is no closeable door between these two rooms, allowing the inhabitants of the back parlor to eavesdrop on conversations in the front. I like to think that that the women of Lexington hatched most of their patriotic plans in this room, including the Lexington Spinning Bee, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
Fashion in the 18th century was serious business for both men and women. Your status in society was displayed by your clothing: how in style it was, and what materials it was made of. Fashion also benefited the British economy, as dressmaking fabric was made in England and then imported. Therefore, a fabric boycott was an obvious choice for the Patriot cause, and women, long stereotyped as textile producers, were able to step up to organize and implement these boycotts.
In urban towns like Lexington, most women had only a basic knowledge of textile production. Many were taught to spin, but most houses were producing only coarse, basic linen fabric that could be used around the house for utilitarian purposes. This all changed during boycott years. Sales for spinning wheels skyrocketed as women rushed to be seen creating homespun fabric for the Patriot cause. Ads in newspapers and protest songs proclaimed that local women were refusing marriage proposals from anyone not following the boycott, and tying up their hair with twine instead of silk ribbon.
This culminated in Lexington on August 31, 1769, when forty-five women congregated with their spinning wheels at the home of Daniel Harrington, facing the town common (the house, torn down after the Bicentennial, is now the empty lot on Harrington Street). Over the course of the day, from sunup to sundown, they spun 602 “knots” of 40 yards each of linen and 546 knots of cotton, almost enough thread to cover a marathon route. The thread produced at these spinning matches was often lumpy and unusable, but, as it was ceremoniously presented to Anna Harrington at the end of the day, the crowd would have been proud that they had not only created something that could further the Patriot cause, but that they had been able to hold a public protest nearly fifty people strong under the guise of “genteel women’s work”. Anyone from that point forward seen wearing homespun would automatically be recognized as a true Patriot.
250 years to the day, the Historical Society is recreating this event in its original location. Both historical reenactors and modern spinners alike will be gathering at the Harrington property to demonstrate their craft and talk about the politics of the original protest. Visitors will be able to get a sense of the whole process of creating clothing from start to finish in the 18th century, from combing freshly shorn wool and flax, to spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing.
We will also be kicking off this event earlier in the month with a special lecture, “I Am An Honest Woman: Female Revolutionary Resistance” by Dr. Emily Murphy of the National Park Service. Join us on August 8th at 7:00 PM at the Depot to find out just how revolutionary these protests were before you see it live for yourself. Space is limited for lectures and reservations are required; email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your seat. Be sure to keep an eye on our events page over the summer for more information!
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.