"What should we call our quarantine content?" was not a question I was expecting to ask in the museum staff group chat this month, but we are all adjusting to new circumstances!
In a time when group gatherings are restricted to no more than 10, non-essential businesses are closed to the public, and millions are staying home, Historical Society staff have been brainstorming ways to bring the museum to you!
We will be compiling all of our digital content in one place, but I wanted to focus specifically on our exhibits in today's blog post. Read on to see some of your options for digital exhibits.
We have had an online exhibits page for more than 7 years, but it hasn't gotten a lot of traffic in the past. Now is the page's time to shine! You will find three years of past CVS exhibits and exhibits on Hancock–Clarke House archaeology, Lexington trade signs, Loring Muzzey's Civil War diary, and much more.
Something Must Be Done: Bold Women of Lexington opened on March 8 with a wonderful (and now illegal) preview event. It was open until March 12, then we unfortunately had to close this brand-new exhibit. In the interim, we will be working to populate the exhibit page with documents, photos, audio, and a batch of videos taken last week!
#Alarmed: 18th Century Social Media closed in December, but through the magic of 3D filming, it is available on our recently-released Buckman Tavern virtual tour.
Stay tuned for more content coming online in the next week or two. Happy Virtual Explorations!
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
We have been having an unseasonably warm winter this year, but 250 years ago, in 1770, there were feet of snow on the ground. The citizens of Lexington were tucked away in their farms, spinning flax by the fire, waiting for spring, and wondering what the next political upheaval might be. Just six months earlier, they had staged a spinning match on the town common to protest British imports, and had been boycotting tea since April.
Bostonians, a more politically diverse lot, were still coming to blows over which shops were selling imports and which were not. On February 22nd, a Loyalist from Woburn
named Samuel Richardson, who would have been well-known to many Lexingtonians, fired his musket into a crowd of protesters, killing ten-year-old Christopher Seider. Some would consider his death the first real casualty of the American Revolution. Then, less than two weeks later, a group of civilians got into an altercation with British soldiers, who fired into the crowd, killing five, in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
We do not have any surviving records of what Lexingtonians thought of these events when the news made it out here, but the reaction in general was swift, as copies of Paul Revere’s print of the Massacre began to circulate. One of these was put on display in the Wright Tavern in Concord, and John Buckman may have done the same in his establishment.
250 years later, however, the Boston Massacre is remembered as one of the most pivotal events leading up to the outbreak of war in 1775. Revolutionary Spaces, the new partnership between the Bostonian Society and Old South Meeting House in Boston, put together an incredible program on March 7 to commemorate the anniversary of this event. Over 100 reenactors spread out between the sites, showcasing a variety of daily activities in pre-Revolutionary Boston, such as a town selectmen’s meeting, a football game, and a ladies’ tea party.
As is often the case, I spent the day as a professional turncoat – for the afternoon portion of the program, I interacted with the public as Mary Saunders, the wife of a British soldier in the 14th regiment, introducing people to the Loyalist perspective. During the evening reenactment, I was Mary Cathcart, one of the many townspeople who scuffled with the soldiers, offering a distinctly different point of view.
This has definitely gotten me in the spirit for our upcoming 250th celebration in 2025 – not that far away now! The reenactors are already thinking ahead - doing research, making new clothing, and recruiting new soldiers into the ranks. Each Patriots’ Day morning is a uniquely moving experience, as the drumbeats of the British soldiers get closer and closer to the Green, but I imagine that the reenactment five years from now will be one not to forget.
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
It's a show where people pretend to be people pretending to be people, and one of them pretends to be Paul O'Shaughnessy of the Historical Society. When the REAL Paul O'Shaughnessy joined the New York City audience to watch last month, things got truly odd. And quite wonderful.
O'Shaughnessy, now enriching his sixth decade of Lexington's portrayal of the past, was one of many reenactors interviewed for "How To Load A Musket," an original play by actress and playwright Talene Monahon that ran for two weeks in January at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. After interviewing reenactors for five years, the Belmont native took her script through workshops at the Cape Cod Theatre Project and Northern Stage in White River Junction.
She and her Lexingtonian best friend "used to attend the Battle of Lexington together and I loved exploring her home and pretending to act out the story of the wounded Redcoat who was taken in by colonists during the war," Monahon wrote in an email. "Later, as an adult and theater-maker, the initial impulse was to explore a world which felt adjacent to my own and seemed to be a uniquely fascinating lens through which to look at the country in the present."
It's an unusual show, and totally compelling if you're into geeking out on history, especially the Lexingtonian variety. It goes in unexpected directions, but it's not too surprising that O'Shaughnessy would find his way into it. He's an absolute stalwart of preserving Lexington's past by playing it out.
But not as a colonist. Cheerful and erudite, O'Shaughnessy wields a musket and bayonet as a leader of the His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot in America, the top-notch British reenactment company formed in 1968 in anticipation of the Bicentennial. He brandishes a soft-spoken wit and a knowledge of history as least as formidable as his equipment, and he's a trooper in the truest sense. He shows up for everything, as willing to play auctioneer as Grenadier if called upon by the Historical Society.
O'Shaughnessy relishes telling how he first was drawn into reenacting as a teenager in 1972, hanging around the Green as teens are wont to do, and semi-interested in the Lexington Minute Men and their drill. When he saw the precision and splendid accoutrement of the 10th, his perspective and his loyalties shifted, and he's since devoted his talent, time and energy to exploring and exposing the value of the British point of view. His core rationale for 50 years of wearing a red coat is so resonant, it makes it right into the script and onto the stage: "Somebody's got to play the British." And sure enough, during the performance that very line got an appreciative chuckle.
It comes at the very beginning, as the audience is just moving into the words and thoughts of these thoughtful, obsessed, meticulous odd ducks, whose actual words from Monahon's interviews form virtually the entirety of the script.
They describe their craft and its impact on its impact on their lives. They talk about the unexpected ways the modern world affects their vocation (the racial clash in Charlottesville that rocked the nation as Monahon was researching her show serves as a disturbing pivot point). They grapple with the question, "Am I laughable?" and decide they are not.
And they poignantly express yearning felt in one form or another by most historical society affiliates, to return to a past world that feels more comprehensible and worth inhabiting because we know how the story ends.
O'Shaughnessy says Monahon wrote in the play's turning point, the modern intrusion of racial ugliness, because she had to, and did a good job balancing the laughs inherent in a deeply eccentric pastime and respect for the passion and sense of higher calling it entails. "She was reasonably fair about that. She portrayed the oddities where they were oddities, and rationality where there was rationality and she included a little bit of magic."
O'Shaughnessy good-naturedly allowed how he'd have loved to have all three hours of his interview worked into the script, but understands well why his character (played by Ryan Spahn) really only has a few pure O'Shaughnessy lines - and a terrific story about losing one's sense of fiction and swinging a real sword at reenactors attempting to seize a cannon. O'Shaughnessy is a techie at the Footlight Players in Jamaica Plain, and knows well the constraints and vagaries of scriptwriting and the stage.
But not what it's like to be trodding the boards in the third person. "I was very interested to hear my words spoken to me from the stage, by someone's else's voice. It was a bit fascinating, and, I was measuring the distance between what I said and how I said it, and how he said it."
O'Shaughnessy said both actor and playwright got him right, and he delighted in meeting Spahn after the performance. The actor clearly enjoyed the odd encounter too. "I think it closed a loop for both of us," O'Shaughnessy said. "I told him that he played me better than I do."
What's next for the show? Monahon just learned it's going to have another run in NYC, and she's interested in connecting with still more reenactors. And it's not implausible that the show could be staged in Lexington (watch this space….)
-Guest Contributor Craig Sandler, Managing Partner, State House News Service
Lexington Historical Society has a very clear mission: to be a premier interpreter of the events of April 1775, and the faithful steward of all of the town's history through time. Working with events surrounding April 1775 has always, understandably, been very important to us and our mission. However, particularly in recent years, we have made a conscious effort to better uphold the latter part of our mission statement.
We are endeavoring to focus on areas of Lexington history that are more recent, more diverse, and less prominent, and we have been making this a priority going forward. For example:
In continuation of these efforts, this past Saturday, February 8, Lexington Historical Society had the honor of partnering with Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL) to co-sponsor an event during Black History Month: “The Black History Project of Lexington.” The goal of this program was to endeavor to better document the history of the black experience in town by inviting individuals to stop by and tell us their stories. We requested that participants either be willing to take part in an oral history interview and/or donate (or allow us to scan) some of their photographs and documents. We described the event as an opportunity to “help historians build a clear and complete picture of Lexington’s multiracial history.”
Though it is not yet open for researchers, this was the first collections related event to officially take place at our brand new Archives and Research Center (ARC), and we were thrilled to be able to use the space publicly for the first time in such a meaningful and important way. We plan for this to be the inaugural event for a further initiative and partnership with ABCL. Also, stay tuned for details on the ARC's official opening later this spring!
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Silk, linen, steel needles. How would you make a sampler without these items? Or, more appropriately, with what would you replace them if you were boycotting the British manufacture and import of said items?
This sampler was completed by Bethiah Hastings of Lexington at age 8. She would have been just 3 years old at the spinning protest of 1769, but her mother or older sisters may have attended that event to protest British textile imports. The Hastings household may have given up that boycott fervor by 1774 and Bethiah may have used items imported from England for this sampler.
Or Bethiah may have completed the sampler on New England linen using silk thread and steel needles that predated the Townsend Acts. Wool thread from local sheep would have been available, and possibly needles made of horn or bone. Neither silk weaving nor steelmaking were sufficiently advanced by 1774 in New England to say for sure if she could have accessed local needles or silk.
We have no way of knowing where its component pieces came from, but considering this one object helps us understand how the trade conflicts with England may have affected everyday life for patriot women in Lexington.
How many of your favorite items are imported? How would you feel if you no longer had access to them?
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
In continuing a trend of answering questions about the construction of our historic houses (see this previous post on paint colors), I figured I’d give a little information on a question that our staff is regularly asked. While one of the most asked questions is always “Where is there a restroom?”, this blog post will discuss the second most asked question: “Are the floors original?”
The original floors of the homes would have been constructed of pine or oak boards (depending on which was readily available) and would have had wide dimensions due to New England trees being larger than they are today. As some might be aware, there were restrictions set forth by the British government on what type of trees and what size could be used for private use. These White Pine Acts allowed the British government to restrict which felled trees could be used for private building.
So, know that we know a little bit about the materials and how the floors would have been constructed originally, it’s time to figure out if the floors today are still original.
Unfortunately, due to the moving of Hancock-Clarke House and the millions of visitors that have come to the house since it opened for tours in 1898, the floorboards have been replaced at different points during the house’s history. While disappointing to know that most of the floorboards are not original, a good portion of the surviving woodwork (paneling, summer beam, joist beams) in the house is original to the eighteenth-century construction of the house.
The second house that Lexington Historical Society opened for tours was Munroe Tavern, originally constructed in 1735. As is the case with the Hancock-Clarke House, most of the floors have seen heavy use by the visiting public and have been replaced over the years. What is interesting is that in 1939 when the floors were replaced during a massive restoration effort, the replacement boards and some of the exterior doors were supplied from an older building in town.
Unlike at Hancock-Clarke House and Munroe Tavern, we have evidence that some portions of the floors at Buckman Tavern still have original fabric. At Buckman, as you ascend higher in the house, the older the floors become. Due to high levels of visitation over the 100 plus years the house has been open to the public, the floorboards in the first story of the house have been replaced. These floorboards were replaced during the 1920s when the first story was restored. To keep with what the tradition of what the original floors would have looked like, the boards were cut in wide patterns and attached with custom made rose-head nails.
The floorboards on the second story, mainly the boards in the ballroom of the tavern (the current exhibit space), date to the 18th century, although no exact year has been determined. The attic of Buckman Tavern is where a good portion of the original flooring is located. Most of the floorboards in the attic have been dated to before 1775, with the boards in the southeast and northeast attic chambers dated to before 1755!
If you have a question about the architecture or construction of the houses, please feel free to leave them below in the comment section and I will answer them if I can.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
We here in Massachusetts are often given a bleak history when learning about the origins of the Christmas holiday as we know it. Early settlers were overwhelmingly Puritans and, we are told, banned it outright. It wasn’t until the days of Charles Dickens and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree that the old English traditions began to come over to America. As with most of these stories, the truth is somewhat muddier and varied from place to place.
While it is true that the early Massachusetts Bay colony frowned on the excesses of English Christmas, it was only banned for just over 20 years in the mid-17th century. Even so, there were plenty of dissenters who stayed under the radar and likely celebrated anyway. Those people who belongs to other sects, or who were Jewish, tended to eventually settle in Rhode Island where co-mingling of religions was better tolerated. Back up in Massachusetts, in the 18th century, most everyone viewed Christmas as a minor religious holiday, if they celebrated it at all. There were a number of squabbles over the years between ministers, weighing the merits of celebrating a religious event with a man-made date, so your congregation could very well influence your holiday spirit. Among the most damning evidence against celebrating Christmas on December 25th, according to Reverend John Barnard of Marblehead: not only did God not bother to put a date in the Bible for us to celebrate, but as we all know, Jesus couldn’t have been born in December, as it would have been too cold outside for the shepherds to be watching their flocks by night.
Regardless of which church you went to, however, there would have been hints of Christmas in the air, as newspapers often printed stories from other colonies where the holiday was celebrated more often, and adapted the festive spirit to pursue their own interests (some things never change). In the New York newspapers, you might see advertisements for “Christmas Pieces”, essentially early blank Christmas cards, printed with festive borders, which boys would fill in for their parents. In New England, you were more likely to see the occasional bit of religious poetry, but Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper, thought he could do better.
Thomas’s end-of-year message for 1771, written from the point of view of your humble local paperboy, hits all the right notes, starting with a Christmas wish, veering into political territory, and ending with a good, old-fashioned call for money:
The Carrier of
The Massachusetts Spy
Wishes all his kind Customers
A Merry Christmas
A Happy New Year
And presents the following, viz.
Hail happy day, important year!
Be more propitious than the last;
In thee let mighty truth appear,
And every tool and tyrant blast.
From this unbought, unfetter’d PRESS,
Which laws and constitutions show;
That it the happy land may bless,
With lessons which they ought to know.
Nor shall the frowns of low’ring skies,
Nor party rage of selfish men,
Forbid the boy who brings your SPYS,
To serve and pleasure you again.
But Sirs, since your indulgent hands
Are yearly wont my heart to chear,
Some pence will rivet your commands
And fix my wishes for the year.
Boston, January 1, 1772
-Sarah McDonough, Program Manager
It was just a country tavern, part bar, part restaurant, part general store, smelling of wood and tobacco, supplying the same farmers year in and year out with the comforts and necessities of existence and giving them common ground to share the passage of their small-town lives.
However, Buckman Tavern in Lexington Center was also at the heart of history, a key staging ground at the birth of America. In the years after adoption of the Constitution, the customers who frequented Buckman and the town's other taverns were some of the men who'd seen the very first action of any United States soldiers, and who'd done their town immortal service by making it the first to fight for freedom.
Those same customers populate the pages of a ledger book kept by the tavern owner Rufus Merriam, who ran Buckman from 1794 to 1815. His colonial script - though of course by 1794, Massachusetts was no longer a colony - documents the daily needs and wants of his neighbors. And those neighbors seemed to want a lot of rum! But spirits were only a portion of what Merriam sold.
This handsome ledger, an invaluable artifact of the nation's earliest days and the lives of its most famous residents, was in danger of falling apart beyond the point of usefulness. Recently, it's been brought back to supple life by a benefactor who's devoted decades to halting the disappearance of our history.
Susan Bennett learned that Conservation Evening 2018, a fundraiser to save and restore four precious ledgers from Buckman and Munroe Tavern, had gotten most of the way, but not all the way, to raising sufficient money to restore all four. Bennett knows something about fundraising, and restoration. She's the quiet powerhouse who oversaw the renovations of Munroe and Buckman Taverns and Hancock-Clarke House, and the erasure of debt on the Lexington Depot during twelve impactful years as the Society's executive director.
Her love for Lexington and its history is obviously undiminished - and so is her awareness that it takes more than affection to preserve the past. That's why she stepped forward to help make up the difference between what was needed and what Conservation Evening raised. The deaccession and sale of an Edward Curtis print unrelated to Lexington got the ledger restoration project all the way across the finish line.
Earlier this month, Bennett got to see first handhand what her generosity had wrought, and what she'd bequeathed to future generations. She came to the new Archives and Research Center (ARC) at Munroe Tavern to meet Society archives manager Elizabeth Mubarek, who was carrying the newly-restored ledger in its custom-fitted box, and looked, in the sparkling sunshine of a New England morning, not unlike an Archives Elf hurrying a holiday present to an expectant recipient. "One less box to move," said a grinning Mubarek, who has worked to pack and prepare hundreds as the ARC is filled with four centuries of records and ephemera.
Bennett gave the ledger the once-over of a seasoned museum professional and pronounced herself pleased. "People in Lexington don't realize how incredible our collections are. And it's really important to spread the word about how incredible they are," she said. And touring the new state-of-the-art shelving and cabinetry, she said to Mubarek: "It's nice to see the Society so committed to the best level of care for its collections. You guys have taken it forward beautifully."
A report on the book's condition from the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, which did the restoration work, describes the damage and then the steps that were taken to undo it. Even couched as it is in conservation-ese ("The full-leather tight-back binding was very worn, abraded, and torn"), it still reads like a short story with a happy ending ("Tears were mended with Japanese kozo paper.")
Mubarek puts it a bit more tellingly: "Parts of the cover were coming off in flakes, and it was moldy." But now, the pages turn easily and read clearly. The cover feels delicious, like deerskin - not that the staff is planning on allowing much touching.
Whichever description you go by, it's clear what Bennett's generosity has enabled: the freezing of time by NEDCC, or even the undoing of time - rolling back the damage of centuries. And she's done it in the name of a dear friend and fellow historian, Mary Keenan. Keenan's a stalwart of the Society who keeps the minutes of Board meetings and has pitched in at every turn over the years.
Her motivation, however, goes much deeper than public-spiritedness. She is a trained and experienced historian who taught at Lexington High School for many years, and the author of "In Haste, Julia." Published in 2011, "In Haste, Julia" is likely to see a new wave of interest this year. It tells the story of Julia Robbins Barrett, born in East Lexington and destined to travel New England pushing the causes of abolition and women's rights, including the right to vote. She, and Keenan, are sure to get their due again as the Society celebrates the centennial of women's suffrage in 2020.
As she stood with Bennett amidst the gleaming wood and metal shelving of the new ARC, Keenan grinned the grin of a teenager and recalled getting the call from Bennett that she'd be donating her $5,000 in Keenan's name. "I was flabbergasted," Keenan said. "Oh, how do I express it? I was just delighted."
Perhaps the greatest protection the project has afforded the ledgers, and the greatest benefit to researchers interested in what they can reveal, is that digitization of every page was part of the work. That means the book itself can rest securely in its specially-made box, in a locked cabinet at the Society's vastly-improved archives, while historians can peruse its details to their heart's content.
Keenan said the preservation and digitization will enable researchers to trace "the web of connections" among the Lexingtonians who commenced the Revolution War. "You can see exactly when the Revolution was occuring because of the changes in what people were buying," she said.
And, in typical Society fashion, Bennett and Keenan already seem to have turned their attention to the next job that needs doing. The Society needs funds to preserve other priceless items, just as the ledgers were put to rights. One suspects it won't be long before the two history lovers will be beating the bushes, looking for modern Lexingtonians to add their names to another ledger, this one electronic, recording the donations of those willing to answer the call of historical preservation.
-Guest Contributor Craig Sandler, Managing Partner, State House News Service
I’m writing to tell you more about how we are preparing for the move to the Archives and Research Center (ARC) at Munroe Tavern. We will be opening a bit later than originally planned – but fear not! Plans are well underway to get the archives up and running in the next few months, and we are so excited to finally get to share our new building with the public!
First, we are happy to announce that in October, we had our custom designed compact shelving installed in the basement vaults, as well as additional fixed shelving and locking gun cabinets. We also received the metal bookcases ordered for our reading room on the first floor and the rare bookshelves for the second floor. Additionally, we ordered and assembled several metal processing tables that will be used primarily by our volunteers and interns in our processing room. In October, we purchased two large exhibit cases that will be located in the reading room, and we also received a donation of two table exhibit cases from the International Museum of World War II that recently closed in Natick.
We are still waiting to receive some additional wire shelving for both the second floor of the ARC and the basement vaults, as well as metal flat file map drawers for the second floor. Our window treatments, special ordered for our unique windows, will be installed the third week of November. As you can see, preparations have certainly been underway and are nearly complete!
On to the move itself! This project has a lot of moving parts (no pun intended), and we have split it up into “phases” to keep each step straight.
Phase One, weather permitting, will be taking place this Wednesday, November 20. This phase will involve moving most archival collections from the current archives, located in the Hancock-Clarke House basement, into the new archival compact shelving at the ARC. This includes our reading room browsing library and our rare book collection. We will then spend the next few weeks arranging the collections in the new space at the ARC, as well as rearranging the old archival storage spaces at Hancock-Clarke in preparation for Phase Two.
Phase Two will involve moving large framed artwork, signs, and any exhibit related materials that had previously been stored at Munroe Tavern to the old Hancock-Clarke archives (which will now be freed up after Phase One is complete). An exciting thing to point out about this collections move is that we are not losing any space that we already had – we are just gaining additional space! So, we will be re-purposing the Hancock-Clarke archival vaults in order to store these oversize materials that are not accessed frequently. The Phase Two move will be completed by fine arts handlers at T. E. Andreson in order to assure the safety of these items while in transit. Phase Two is planned for late December or early January.
After Phase Two, and in preparation for Phase Three, we will be moving most of the technology, including computers, scanners, and the server, from Hancock-Clarke archives into the new spaces in the ARC. Any remaining collections items at the ARC that have not yet been placed on shelving will be arranged on the new wire shelving (which will, at this point, have been delivered and installed). The staff offices will be prepared and furnished, and the processing room will be prepared for volunteer work spaces.
Phase Three is the final phase, and it is tentatively scheduled for January 28, 2020. This is the least intensive phase, and it involves moving all extraneous items left at Hancock-Clarke archives after Phase One to the ARC (such as filing cabinets, oversize map files, and any remaining archival collections). All remaining office furniture at Hancock-Clarke archives will either be moved to the ARC or disposed of, and the office spaces will also be re-purposed for collections storage.
By this time, when all three phases are complete, it will likely be early February. At that point, we will spend the next several weeks putting the finishing touches on our public reading room space, as well as updating object and box locations in our database, thereby allowing us to accommodate researchers and research requests. We expect these preparations to be completed so that we can be fully open to the public by late spring or early summer of 2020. We look forward to welcoming you into the archives’ new home!
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.