Science and Suffrage at the MHS

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist 

On this first day of Women’s History Month, I’d like to tell you about a remarkable woman who makes a brief appearance in one of our collections: Florence Bascom.

One of the things I enjoy about working as an archivist—and writing for the Beehive—is the opportunity to research a wide variety of interesting people from all eras of American history. Bascom’s name was familiar to me, but I didn’t know much about her.

The collection in question is the Benjamin-Owen family papers, which consists primarily of letters to Mary Curtiss (Benjamin) Owen and her son from family members and friends. Included are four letters from Bascom to Owen, written between 1912 and 1929. The two women were distant cousins; their great-grandfathers were brothers.

Mary Curtiss Benjamin, who went by the nickname May, was born in 1860 in Egremont, a small town at the southwestern edge of Massachusetts. In 1889, she married George F. Owen and moved with him to Colorado Springs. May Owen was an active suffragist there, and just four year later, Colorado became the first U.S. state to pass women’s suffrage by popular referendum.

Florence Bascom, two years younger than Owen, was herself the daughter of a suffragist. She was born in Williamstown, Mass., and distinguished herself early by earning a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science, and a Master’s degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin. In 1893, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. (She was required to sit behind a screen in classrooms to separate her from the male students.)

Bascom taught at the college level both before and after her doctoral studies and, in 1895, was asked to found and head the geology department at Bryn Mawr College, where she would go on to teach for over three decades. Bascom also published dozens of papers on geology, worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and belonged to many professional geological and scientific organizations.

When I came across Bascom’s letters, the first thing I noticed was how hard it is to read her handwriting. See for yourself!

Letter from Florence Bascom to May Owen, 2 Jan. 1926

The substance of the letters is fairly mundane. Bascom primarily discusses news of mutual family members and asks after Owen’s son. As for her scientific work, she occasionally mentions fieldwork and conferences, but only in passing. She also references her love of horseback riding.

The spiciest passage relates to her opinion on smoking, apparently in response to a question from Owen about women’s use of tobacco: “I am for women’s right to use it every time but I hate to see it used in excess by man or woman. It is after all a self-indulgent, somewhat inconsiderate-of-others, doubtfully hygienic and expensive habit.”

Slight though their content is, these letters are enough to give us a sense of Bascom’s thoughtfulness. I particularly like the way she asks Owen, “Are you fairly comfortable in your surroundings, May, and happy in your daily life? Please let me know frankly if you need what I could give you…”

Even though I wasn’t very familiar with her, Bascom’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed by her contemporaries. I found a number of notices about her published during her lifetime. The American Geologist reported on her in 1893 when she earned her Ph.D., remarking that her work had “attracted much attention,” and again in 1895 when she accepted the position at Bryn Mawr.

In 1898, The Chautauquan was already listing the 36-year-old geologist in an article on “Some American Women in Science,” alongside other illustrious names. She was also profiled in The Key (1916), a publication of Kappa Kappa Gamma, and later included in a book called Famous Women (1926), which ranks her with the likes of Marie Curie and Maria Mitchell.

Bascom died in 1945. Her namesakes have included a glacial lake in Massachusetts, a building at Johns Hopkins, a Venusian crater, and an S-type asteroid.

As far as I can tell, these letters are the first Florence Bascom manuscripts acquired by the MHS, but both Bryn Mawr and Smith College have significant collections of her papers.

Knocking It Out of the Park: The Fenway Victory Gardens

By Meg Szydlik, Visitor Services Coordinator

February is the part of winter that always feels drearier than any other time of year, at least for me. With that in mind, I wanted to do research on something lighter to counter the snowy days and bitter cold. So I decided to pull out the Fenway Victory Gardens’ collection to explore. The history of the organization and the gardens, founded in 1942 and located in the beautiful Emerald Necklace, can be gleaned from both official statistics and tantalizing pieces of decades-old drama, which peak through the information about plots and plant growth. It tells a small piece of the story of the Fenway area–an area that’s been home to the MHS for more than a century.

What a difference February to April makes! Pictures of the MHS plot taken by Laura Wulf

The Fenway Gardens’ website explains their origins as a victory garden, which was a WWII movement to increase access to fresh food grown by citizens, with the goal of stretching ration coupons and increasing food sent overseas to troops. There were victory gardens all across America, but the Fenway Gardens of Boston are one of the few that are still around. The records held at the MHS span from 1944 to 2011 and include details of the gardens themselves as well as memberships, board communications, and gardening paraphernalia. The maps of the gardens demonstrate that in many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While many new gardeners appear each year, I noticed over the decades people maintained their gardens year after year, contributing to green space in the city, many assisting other gardeners with their plots as well. The records are a charming peek into the kind of neighborly relationships that sustained the Fenway Gardens for more than 80 years.

Then and now! A map of the area in 1978 and the current map on the website.

The Fenway Victory Gardens were not always assured of success, however. Many documents describe the vandalism that took place in the area and requests for police protection of the Gardens. The safety of the site was frequently called into question by gardeners. Despite these concerns, there was an emphasis on inclusivity, with the 1981 anti-discrimination policy reading “this society shall not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, or sexual preference” and the 1975 release of a booklet offering community resources for all types of groups, including the elderly, students, and “gay individuals.” The focus on accessibility for all also extended to disabled people, according to an undated report on improving the space for access, which included feedback from real disabled individuals. The Gardens were under constant threat however, and one of the letters by a long-term gardener recalls that in the late 70s, the nearby Red Sox wanted to buy out the space for a parking lot. The community rallied and saved the Gardens instead. If you’ve had trouble parking for a game, I suppose you can blame Fenway Gardens! I think it was worth it though. They are a wonderful piece of community history!

On the left is an photograph of an instructional manual with some small pictures of plants and gardeners with a wall of text. On the right is a photograph of a flyer advertising a picnic for the Fenway Garden Society with drawings of people attending and the date.

In 2020, the MHS received a plot of our very own after a couple of years of being on the waiting list! Led by the intrepid Laura Wulf, our Photographic & Digital Imaging Specialist, MHS staff members cleaned up the overgrown weeds and built a beautiful respite. The Fenway Victory Gardens are free and open to the public to stroll through. It is such a beautiful site that I highly recommend doing so!

MHS staff participating in one of the Fenway Garden workdays. Photograph taken by Laura Wulf.

(Dis)Orderly Books: Insubordination and the Continental Army’s Invasion of Iroquoia

By Blake McGready, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Elijah Winslow disobeyed his sergeant’s orders and went swimming in the Susquehanna River, so he had no one to blame but himself when he drowned. In the summer of 1779, Winslow and thousands of other Continental soldiers assembled in the Pocono Mountains as they prepared to invade the homelands of the Haudenosaunee people. While encamped at Easton, Wyoming, and other mountain villages, American revolutionaries flagrantly defied orders. They deserted camp, plundered the locals, and indulged in swimming in the rivers. Winslow was one such offender. A sergeant remembered that “Winslow asked Leave…Repeatedly both Last Night and this Morning to Go into the River.” After the sergeant denied Winslow’s request, he ventured into the water anyway. By the end of the day, the army determined that Winslow’s death was “entirely Accidental.”[1]

I read this account in the orderly book of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, one of the many Revolutionary War orderly books at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Orderly books document everyday details about life in the Continental Army—the officers in charge, the placement of troops, accounts of battlefield defeats and losses, etc. For a scholar looking more closely, these records also show enlisted men struggling with officers over the conditions of their service. Officers wanted to secure the compliance of unruly troops, while at the same time rank and file soldiers objected to military hierarchy. Orderly books seethe with conflict between officers and their disobedient men.[2]

The 2nd New Hampshire Regiment’s insubordination leaps off the pages. When the army arrived at Easton, officers ordered soldiers to limit their bathing in the nearby Delaware River. Less than a week later, officers repeated the prohibition, now reporting that some soldiers developed “Intermitting Fevers” on account of their “their too frequent Going into the Water and Remaining too Long in that Situation.” Despite repeated orders against swimming, Elijah Winslow drowned one month later.[3]

Theft was another major issue. When Yankee soldiers arrived at Easton, several of them harassed and plundered the town’s mostly German inhabitants. After Continentals traveled “a Great Distance…into the Country” and robbed the locals, commanders established a half-mile perimeter around camp. The restrictions did not work, and soldiers were soon caught stealing sheep from local farmers. A court martial also found several New Jersey soldiers guilty of “Stealing hoggs” and other property from civilians. In early July, Major General John Sullivan begged his men to not rob the locals’ hay or burn their fences.[4]

Sullivan struggled to stop vengeful troops from taking matters into their own hands. Armed parties departed camp and intimidated disaffected locals. Continentals insulted Native allies (“Warriers of the Anydas [Oneidas] Tuscorara and Stock bridge Indians”) who had recently joined the rebel ranks. How dare soldiers “Ridicule & Speak Contemtably” of the Native troops, Sullivan declared. But over the coming days, the jeering continued and tensions between white revolutionaries and Native soldiers simmered.[5]

In August and September, the Continental Army ferociously devastated Iroquoia. As the maelstrom of Continental predation barreled through the Haudenosaunee heartlands, soldiers burned Native villages, assaulted Native women, and robbed Native gravesites. What can an orderly book tell us about this pivotal invasion? During the weeks before the army entered Iroquoia, officers had been struggling constantly with their troops’ discipline. Soldiers repeatedly violated orders against bathing, stealing, and taunting Native soldiers. The Continentals, it seemed, were spoiling for a fight.[6]

As American revolutionaries destroyed Haudenosaunee villages and farms, they wrote many journals and diaries bragging about the devastation. Their orderly books, however, tell a different story. These documents shed light on soldiers’ numerous infractions and the tensions within the Continental Army. Furthermore, they reveal that soldiers’ acts of plundering and terror began well before the army stormed into Iroquoia. In the Poconos, the Continentals rehearsed the destruction and belligerence that would characterize their invasion of Native lands.

[1] “Winslow askd Leave…,” entry dated July 6, 1779, Orderly book, Wyoming and Easton, Pennsylvania, 27 May-25 July 1779, 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, Continental Army, recorded by William Mordaunt Bell, Revolutionary War Orderly Books (P-394), Reel 4, Massachusetts Historical Society. (I have modernized the spelling of most entries but included the original text in the notes.)

[2] John A. Ruddiman, “‘A Record in the Hands of Thousands’: Power and Negotiation in the Orderly Books of the Continental Army,” The William and Mary Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2010): 748.

[3]  Entry dated May 29; “Intermitting Fevors”; “their two [sic] frequent Going into the Water and Remaining two Long in that Situation,” entry dated June 9.

[4] Liam Riordan, Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 80; “a Great Distance…into the Cuntrey,” entry dated June 7; entries dated June 9, 24, July 5, 12.

[5] Entries dated June 10, 15, 24.

[6] For actions of Sullivan’s men in Iroquoia, see Maeve Kane, “‘She Did Not Open Her Mouth Further’: Haudenosaunee Women as Military and Political Targets during and after the American Revolution,” in Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), 83–92.

Fashion Plates – Not Just Pretty Pictures!

By Maggie Parfitt, Visitor Services Coordinator

One of the best things about working at the MHS is when a coworker sends a link to a catalogue listing with a “you’d like this” message. Recently, I was sent the motherlode of fashion plates in the MHS collection in our 1872 edition of Robert Chamber’s The Book of Days. While there’s too many to include here, I wanted to share some of my favorites, along with some fashion plate background, and some of the ways researchers reference them to support textual research. They’re not just for looking at! (But the looking is also fun).

First things first: what is a fashion plate? Fashion plates, as the name suggests, are illustrations of fashionable dress published in ladies’ magazines and journals starting around the 1780s and continuing through the 19th century. Armed with these illustrations women would travel to their trusted mantua-maker/dressmaker for a new gown inspired by the style in the plate. Some fashion plates even went so far as to include names of milliner’s shops, or the name of the dressmaker who invented the design.

“English Walking & Evening Dress, Invented by Miss Pierpoint, Edward Street, Portman Square. Published Oct 3, 1822.” Note: the term “dress” is in fashion plates typically refers to a mode of dressing rather than a single garment.
“Dinner Dress” stylistically dated to early 1820s. “Parisian Dinner Dress,” January 1, 1829.

When preserved in their original published contexts fashion plates often include written descriptions detailing fabric types, accessories, and garment names. Sources like these are key for filling in visual gaps in the written record. They help material culturalists and dress historians puzzle together disparate pieces of information like fabric advertisements in period newspapers or mentions of specific garments in letters, diaries, and journals. With all these pieces we can start identifying extant garments more completely and assemble robust theories of the dress of the past.

Morning and Evening dress, July 1803” with written description. Whoever wrote the descriptions included a note about the current season’s fashions: “The most fashionable colours are pale blue, lilac, yellow, pale green, and pink.

While a useful tool, it’s important to remember fashion plates were primarily marketing. They reflect a dressmaker’s interpretation of the silhouettes and details in style at the moment, and aren’t necessarily indicative of actual garments. Think of the difference between runway shows and red carpets. While both are modern examples of “high fashion,” red carpet styles have been edited down by individual taste. This does mean you can find fashion plates that are A LOT – with seemingly every accessory piled on there.

The Fashions, Expressly designed and prepared for the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, Feb 4, 1865.

I hope you enjoyed a quick look at just a few of the fashion plates in the MHS’s collection. While meant to inform the fashions for 19th century society – the upper classes of England and France, they provide great insight into the shapes, silhouettes, and accessories of all classes. I can imagine women of the time pursuing fashion plates and picking and choosing their favorites, much like we do today!

William Dunlap: Playwright, Father of American Theater & Artist

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Manager

While searching the online collection and archives of the MHS for objects and stories to share on social media, I find myself going down rabbit holes when I find slight hints of an interesting story. Recently, this happened with a historical figure of note that I had never heard of, despite having done theater in my youth and being familiar with US history and art. That man was William Dunlap.

William Dunlap (1766–1839) is touted as the father of American theater; he was also influential in art, literature, and design. He is perhaps most famous for his play André, which depicted George Washington on stage for the first time after the United States became a nation. On opening night in 1798, the play caused a bit of a scandal. It tells the story of the British spy Major John André, who Washington executed during the American Revolution. One of the characters in the play is a soldier in the Continental Army. He becomes furious with Washington over the execution and tears the black cockade from the hat he was wearing and throws it to the ground. The audience erupted in fury at such desecration of a sacred Federalist symbol. They booed vociferously and then rioted after the play finished, forcing Dunlap to change the ending.

Modern color photograph of a young white man wearing a black cocked had with white trim and a rosette ribbon in black with a silver button at the center. His clothes are a white high-collared shirt, red and blue wool jacket of military design and he has a few white straps in leather and other materials going over both shoulders. In the background is a row of white military tents and further back is a tree line.
This image from Cockade Column depicts a soldier in a Continental Army uniform with a cocked hat sporting a black cockade.

Charles Frances Adams wrote in his diary of two occasions when he saw the Dunlap play, The Stranger, in 1833 and 1837, although the note in 1837 reveals he had seen the play in 1825 and 1834 as well. Adams wrote this about the play, “This is a piece I never can see without feeling it. Indeed I am more touched by it than by any. If this is the test of a good piece it certainly is good, but I require rather more. I feel the inconsistencies in the character of the heroine, and the affectations of sentiment, it contains.”

Despite having lost an eye to an errantly thrown rock by a school friend as a boy, Dunlap was also a trained artist. He was mainly a portraitist, and the MHS holds a portrait he painted in New York City in 1811 or 1812 after his Park Theatre closed in 1805. The portrait is miniature watercolor of Elizabeth Oliver Lyde. When viewed up close, it shows great attention to the lines of her face, the shadowing and light on her cap and clothes, and the depth of emotion in her eyes.

Color photograph of a small portrait painting of an older white woman in an oval gold frame, with black painted wood frame around that. The figure is in ¾ profile and looks at the viewer with expressive dark eyes, she wears a frilled white cap that covers her hair, a large white shawl and a pink dress or shirt. The background is pink, lighter to the right, and gets darker as it goes left.
William Dunlap, 1811/1812, Elizabeth Oliver Lyde (1783–1820).

Not only was Dunlap a playwright, but he also wrote History of American Theatre in 1832, the first history of its kind, andHistory of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States in 1834. He also served as the director of New York’s American Academy of Fine Arts in 1817, and then helped to found New York’s National Academy of Design in 1826.

After searching for collection items that are digitized, I was curious to see if the MHS held any of Dunlap’s plays. What I found was a cache of 57 items in book and microfilm form. MHS even has Dunlap’s published diary, Diary of William Dunlap (1766–1839): the memoirs of a dramatist, theatrical manager, painter, critic, novelist, and historian! These items can be seen by making an appointment with the MHS Library. You can learn how to make an appointment here.

On the Beat with James Bruce

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist 

Previously on the Beehive, a colleague of mine described the early 20th-century diaries of Robert E. Grant, a policeman in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston. The MHS also holds the papers of another policeman, Lieut. James Bruce, a contemporary of Grant’s who lived and worked in Everett.

Everett Police Department, ca. 1914, Boston Globe
James Bruce, from Tattlings of a Retired Police Officer

James Bruce was born in Scotland in 1869, immigrated to the United States in the late 1880s, and was naturalized a few years later. He and his wife (also a naturalized citizen from Scotland) lived at 10 Russell Street in Everett and had four daughters and two sons: Walter, Margaret, Janet, James, Mary, and Emily. Janet died as an infant.

When Lieut. Bruce was patrolling its streets in 1920, Everett’s population was 40,120. According to printed sources, the city was home to many immigrants, primarily from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada, as well as 1,129 African Americans.

Bruce’s collection at the MHS consists mostly of volumes documenting his police work, including two diaries, 1921-1922; a precinct arrest log, 1904-1924; and a memoir he wrote called Tattlings of a Retired Police Officer, printed in 1927. Some events described in Tattlings correspond to the log, although Bruce used pseudonyms for publication.

The arrest log, in particular, is a mine of information. Its pages are arranged into columns listing date, full name, nationality, “assisted by” (that is, who assisted Bruce in the arrest), offense, and disposition, or consequence for the arrestee. The first thing that stands out is how many people were arrested for drunkenness—so many that Bruce just used ditto marks to save time.

Pages from the James Bruce arrest log

Other offenses included assault and battery, disturbance of the peace, larceny, breaking and entering, weapons charges, non-support of dependents, destruction of property, automobile violations, probation violations, and false fire alarms. Rare but still present were a few incidents of manslaughter. Some people were arrested for being ‘idle and disorderly” or “stubborn and disobedient,” “exposing his person,” or gambling on a Sunday. Adultery was also an arrestable offense.

And of course, those being the days of Prohibition, there were arrests for the manufacture and sale of liquor, though not as many as I expected.

Some entries are amusing: “vile, indecent & profane language in the street,” “indecent language near a dwelling” (which was worse, I wonder?), “lewd & lascivious cohabitation,” and “feeding [a] horse on [a] public st without an attendant or the wheels being locked.”

Many are disturbing: “two warrants for assault with intent to carnally know & abuse two juvenile females also one warrant for having in his possession obscene pictures for the purpose of corrupting the morals of the young.” Bruce also dealt with cases of incest, neglected children, mental illness, and animal cruelty.

When an arrestee was African American, Bruce indicated their race in a note next to their name. One Black man from the West Indies was arrested for “not having [a] registration card,” and another was AWOL from military service. I was also intrigued by some of the items that were allegedly stolen. Cash or a diamond ring, I understand, even “five hens,” but “four baby carriage wheels”?

James Bruce was injured in a fall in 1924 and retired from the Everett police force. He died in 1932.

In my research for this blog, I uncovered evidence of a shocking family tragedy. According to the Boston Globe, on 26 February 1922, James Bruce was handling his gun at home, apparently unaware it was loaded. The gun discharged, and the bullet struck his daughter Mary, a 17-year-old student at Everett High School. She died at the hospital six days later.

When I looked through Bruce’s collection for anything that might shed light on this incident, I found no reference to it, except by omission. The last entry in his 1922 diary was written on 24 February, two days before the shooting. The rest of the volume is blank.

“You are men, as well as they”: David Walker’s Appeal to Colored Citizens

By Hilde Perrin, Library Assistant 

With Black History Month upon us, I wanted to investigate items in our collection related to the Black experience in Massachusetts. One item is a pamphlet written by David Walker, titled “Walker’s appeal in four articles: together with a preamble, to the colored citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly to those of the United States of America.” Walker’s pamphlet addresses his fellow Black citizens, encouraging them to work against slavery, and calls attention to the racism in the abolition movement.  

Walker’s appeal in four articles

Born in North Carolina, David Walker relocated to Boston, where he operated a clothing shop and served as an active member of Boston’s Black community.1 Walker was a founding member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), a Black-led abolitionist organization which argued for equal rights, fighting against slavery and segregation. The MGCA was active in Boston, and later became more broadly known for merging with the New England Anti-Slavery Association in 1833.2 Published in 1830, the abolitionist pamphlet is a powerful piece of writing that exhibits Walker’s and the MGCA’s views on slavery and the need not only for abolition, but for equal rights. 

The pamphlet is divided into four parts, covering the consequences of slavery, the religious aspects of slavery, and the problems of the colonization movement, which was active during this period. Walker wastes no time in airing his grievances, calling slavery the “curse to nations”3 that makes his fellow Black Americans the “most degraded, wretched, and abject” beings4. Grounding himself in his Protestant Christian faith, he asserts the evils of slavery and the humanity of African Americans using his language in the pamphlet. Walker repeatedly refers to African Americans as “citizens.” While Black Americans did not legally possess citizenship until after the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868,5 Walker uses the word to emphasize a key point in his argument – the importance of their humanity. “You are men, as well as they”6 he asserts. He further discusses this by citing the bible and calling out white Christians particularly for their lack of equality. Elaborating on the reluctance of white Christians to accept Black Americans as equal in humanity, Walker challenges white readers to support not just the abolition of slavery for their own consciences, but for the equal rights of their fellow humans.  

The pamphlet showcases Walker’s education and classical knowledge – providing biblical and classical examples against slavery throughout his argument and writing in dialogue with racist founders like Thomas Jefferson and contemporaries like Henry Clay. Using biblical examples of the Israelites enslavement by the Egyptians, he elaborates that even while they were enslaved, they were treated with more humanity than the enslaved in the 19th century United States.7  Not only does he showcase his education through his writing, he also argues for the importance of education, calling to educated African Americans to enlighten their “ignorant brethren.”8 Walker sees the need for education as connected with the need for freedom and encourages his readers to seek it out for themselves and others. 

Walker’s appeal in four articles

Walker concludes the article by printing an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, and highlights to readers the hypocrisy of the document, asking “Do you see your declaration, Americans!!!!!! Do you understand your own language?”9 He tasks white Americans with raising the enslaved to the condition of “respectable men,” and further stating that they must “make a national acknowledgement to us for the wrongs they have inflicted.”10 With dramatic use of exclamation points and capital letters, Walker crafts his language to display his anger and to emphasize the importance of his argument. His fiery language reminds us today of the weight of slavery, and the responsibility that comes with perpetuating it, and gives us a glimpse into the Black participation in the abolition movement.11 

Walker’s appeal in four articles

The Petition, Part I

By Miriam Liebman, Adams Papers

For the upcoming Papers of John Adams, vol. 24, I have been working to identify a group of women who sent Pres. John Adams a petition in 1799 or 1800 (the exact date still needs to be further researched; maybe I will discuss the process of redating documents in a future post!). These 72 women wrote this petition on behalf of men charged with crimes of “sedition and misdemeanors” for their participation in Fries’ Rebellion in March 1799. The rebellion started in resistance to a new federal tax law and other federal laws including the Alien and Sedition Acts. If you are interested in reading the whole petition alongside the women’s signatures, it is available on the American Philosophical Society’s website. The women wrote as “mothers and wives petitioning for fathers for husbands and for children” acknowledging that while it was uncommon for women to send such a political petition in their position as mothers and as wives they were not “overstepping” their role. In many ways, they embodied the ideal of Republican Motherhood, which you can read more about in my last blog post.

While the petition does not contain the names of the men, we do learn that these women wrote on behalf of more than thirty men imprisoned in the “Gaol of Philadelphia.” General William MacPherson who led the federal forces against the rebellion returned to Philadelphia with 31 prisoners, who were potentially the subjects of this petition.[i] The text of the petition says that they included a list of the prisoners and their punishments, but that document did not seem to survive. They asked John Adams to pardon the prisoners for their crimes, sentences, and fines.

This document is unique in that it is signed by over seventy women, whose names often do not make the history books. Over the past few months, I have started the process of identifying these women and what brought them together to write and sign this petition.

Searching for these women in traditional sources has proved challenging for a number of reasons. First, women’s names were often not recorded in censuses or city directories in the late eighteenth century, unless they were widows. Second, for birth and death records, I need to account for whether the women were married or single at the time they signed this petition. Most married women changed their last name when they got married. My strategy has been to start with the more unique names since I have a greater chance of identifying them.

For example, one of the petitioners signed her name “E. Vredenburgh.” While she did not provide her first name, her last name seemed unique enough that a limited number of results would appear when searching her name. I first searched the Philadelphia Directory for both 1799 and 1800. While she did not appear in either directory, someone named Isaac Vredenburgh was listed at 74 Market Street. I then searched newspapers to see if she was mentioned anywhere. There was an advertisement in the Philadelphia Dunlap’s Daily Advertiser, 19 September 1795, announcing that she was moving her shop from one address to 74 Market Street and provided her first name, Esther. Now that I had her first name, I turned to to see if I could find out more about her. Isaac Vredenburgh’s will, which was on the website, listed Esther as his wife. I was also able to locate her grave on and found out she died on 25 July 1810. These are some of the most helpful sources when trying to confirm the identity of these women. I am still trying to figure out how this petition came to be and how it brought this group of women together.

 As I was finishing up this blog post, I came across another blog post from the American Philosophical Society on this petition and their journey identifying these women. Hopefully between these two projects, we will successfully be able to identify all 72 women and give them their place in the history books.

I hope to update you all here in a few months where my research has taken me and how much more I have learned about these women.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding of the edition is currently provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute.

[i]Newman, Paul Douglas, “The Federalists’ Cold War: The Fries Rebellion, National Security, and the State, 1787–1800,” Pennsylvania History 67 (Winter 2000), p. 29.

Outdoor Education, Part I: The School Gardening Notebooks of Susan Putnam Hill

By Madeline Birnbaum, Library Assistant

Elizabeth Susan Hill (1871-1957) and Susan Putnam Hill (1878-1935) were sisters and teachers with a keen interest in the natural world. The daughters of Mary Susan McIntire and Charles Henry Hill, a farmer and produce dealer, they grew up in Groton, Mass. with six other siblings. Little documentation of their early lives survives, but both went on to become teachers, Elizabeth in Groton and Susan in Lancaster, about fifteen miles from her hometown. This blog post will focus on Susan Hill, and a Part II will focus on her sister.

Around 1907, Susan Hill became the director of a school gardening program, which encouraged children to tend their own small garden plots and carefully observe the cycles of growth and harvest, as well as the intricacies and curiosities of animal life around the gardens. This program was situated within the wider “nature study” movement in the United States, which by the time Hill began to teach was a fully-fledged pedagogical approach. Scientists and educators such as Louis Agassiz, Lucretia Crocker, Wilbur S. Jackman, and Anna Botsford Comstock had been among those at the forefront of the late-19th-century effort to incorporate experiential learning and the study of natural science into American public schools. The desire among members of the cultural establishment to develop an educated voting populace, their anxiety over increased urbanization, and their impulse to Americanize the many new immigrants to the United States all contributed to the educational policy environment in which nature study flourished.[1]

The MHS holds several notebooks related to Susan Hill’s gardening program, most kept by Hill herself. Through these notebooks, we can see the depth of care Hill had for the program and the extent of her knowledge of gardening and botany; it seems likely that much of her expertise and enthusiasm stemmed from her upbringing as the daughter of a farmer. Describing three new school gardens begun in Lancaster, Hill writes,

“The children were very interested and enthusiastic. Each child had a note book and kept a record of his garden – telling when things were planted [–] when up – when blossomed – when first eaten. In this way they find out for them selves how long it takes for the various things to be ready for the table. […]

School gardening does not teach how to grow vegetables merely, but it gives the children a sense of ownership […] He is taught that that little garden is his and he will do his best to make the most of it.”[2]

Hill seems to place equal weight on the knowledge and skills of gardening on the one hand and the lessons of personal responsibility and respect for property on the other, making for an interesting combination of innovative pedagogy and traditionalist, conservative messaging.

The politics of education aside, one doesn’t need to take Hill at her word that the children were enthusiastic about their gardens. Alongside Hill’s eleven extant gardening notebooks, two children’s notebooks are held at the MHS that communicate the students’ investment in learning in their own unique ways.

The first notebook, kept by a child called Mary L., shows how Hill guided younger children in their learning. The back of the notebook contains a series of questions about the basics of botany in what appears to be Hill’s handwriting and their answers carefully written by Mary. The call-and-response nature of the questions, as well as the way they build on and branch out from one another, recalls the form of a catechism.

“1. What is Botany?

Botany is the study of Flowers.

2. What does even the smallest seed contain?

Even the smallest seed contains a Little Plant.

3. What is this Little Plant called?

The Embryo.

4. What are the Leaves of a seed called?

The leaves in the seeds are called Cotyledons.

5. What is the bud between the Cotyledons called?

The bud between the leaves is called the Plumule.”[3]

The majority of Mary’s notebook is comprised of entries for different species of plants and animals, each accompanied by another series of questions written by Hill and (usually) dutifully filled in by her student. In the below entry for a blackberry plant, Mary fills out the required answers to Hill’s many technical questions (Size? Shape? Petals? Sepals?) and then writes in the “Remarks” field, “very prickly.” From what we can tell from her notebook, Mary seems to have been a bright and curious student.

Image showing a handwritten notebook page.
The notebook of Mary L., showing her notes on a blackberry plant.

The other, anonymous child’s notebook appears to have been created by a student a little older than Mary, and whose study of nature was more self-directed. Rather than a structured series of questions written by Hill and responses penciled in by the student, this notebook takes the form of a journal. The student was clearly a dedicated gardener, as an anecdote about visitors to the school plots demonstrates:

“July 22. Two boys from town came to visit our gardens and our teacher asked them to judge our gardens, they were very severe I got 99%, I had one weed in my garden.”

A reader can also tell that the student was keenly observant and had a genuine interest in the natural world. There are several instances in the notebook in which the student describes taking home a moth or leaf with eggs on it to observe more carefully. In one entry, they vividly capture the drama of a flying ant attacking a spider, with intricate drawings of what appear to be the three stages of the flying ant’s life on the page opposite. The student writes,

“I saw a large flying ant trying to carry a live spider away. It was too large and bungling to carry it frontways so he walked backwards dragging it along after him.”[4]

Image showing two pages of a handwritten notebook. The left side shows three large sketches of an insect at different life cycles. The right side shows handwritten, dated journal entries.
The notebook of an anonymous student, showing sketches of the lifecycle of an insect and journal entries pertaining to their garden plot.

Susan Hill’s collection of gardening notebooks allows us insight into a distinctive trend in American education, and also provides a window into the ambitions and projects of a teacher in small-town Massachusetts at the beginning of the twentieth century. My personal favorite aspect of the collection, though, is how it keeps alive the curious minds of Hill’s students and the tiny, intricate details of nature, like a blackberry flower’s five white petals or the mortal struggle of a captured spider, so often unnoticed and even more often unrecorded.

[1] Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. “Nature, Not Books: Scientists and the Origins of the Nature-Study Movement in the 1890s.” Isis, Vol. 96, No. 3 (2005), pp. 324-352.

[2] Hill family papers, Carton 1, Folder 26, MHS.

[3] Hill family papers, Carton 1, Folder 41, MHS.

[4] Hill family papers, Carton 1, Folder 42.

Born in the USA: Citizenship for Children

By Meg Szydlik, Visitor Services Coordinator

If you are like me, you’ve taken online quizzes that pull questions from the written citizenship tests to see how much you know about your own history. As a historian, I have always done well, so I decided to explore other ideas of what American citizenship means. I choose the 1920 children’s book I Am An American by Sara Cone Bryant as an example. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started to explore the online copy linked in the MHS’ catalog entry. What I found was a highly-propagandized retelling of the history of the United States. The book has a particular focus on WWI, and on ideas of cleanliness. It was interesting to read with the context of another hundred years and knowledge of WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the Cold War. There are countries that did not even exist yet and others that have fallen in the century since this book was published. The world is so different, and yet so similar.

Cover of a book, greenish in color. The text reads “I AM AN AMERICAN” above a girl and boy in uniform saluting with an American flag in the center. Below the flag the text reads “By Sara Cone Bryant” and there is a sticker at the top with a library call number on it.
I Am An American book cover

The particular narrative presented in the text is one that does not match with the experience of every American. One part that really struck me was the chapter about the flag and how the flag had no “black pages” or “marks of tyranny” on it. Elsewhere in the book, Bryant discusses slavery as a bad thing and briefly references its negative reflection on the United States, but stops short of truly engaging with the legacy of enslavement, including sharecropping and rampant racism. It startled me how little the book, published a little over 50 years after the end of the Civil War, discussed abolition. It is interesting to me as well that Birth of a Nation, a 1915 racist film classic screened to much acclaim in Woodrow Wilson’s White House, was less than a decade old. In 2024, I would certainly consider chattel slavery and the protection of the right to own another person to be a black mark on the flag though apparently Mrs. Bryant does not. And I am far from alone in that thought, as discussions about monuments indicate.

Page from a book. The text reads “When we study the histories of the old countries we see that their flags used to be taken out to war for very cruel and unjust purposes. Perhaps people knew no better in those days./Our country was settled after better ideas had come into the world, and by people who thought deeply about right and wrong. The history of our flag has no such black pages./It is a privilege to belong to a brave young country, with a history we need not regret, and a flag with no marks of tyranny on it.”
Detail from chapter titled My Flag in I Am An American

Throughout the text, there is an emphasis on the innate goodness of America that I found ahistorical. Continually insisting that Americans are the best, bravest, and most free people in the world at a minimum suggests an untrustworthy level of bias and propagandizing. It gives off the same energy as my mother insisting that her children are the best, but where I can forgive my beloved mother her love for her children, I have a much more difficult time with Mrs. Bryant. American history is full of fights on the Senate floor, political intrigue, and corruption, none of which is acknowledged in the text. The United States is not perfectly pure! Nor would I expect it, or any country or state, to be. But in the immediate aftermath of what we now refer to as World War I and the Red Scare, it would have made sense to shore up support wherever possible and schoolchildren make excellent targets for what reads an awful lot like indoctrination.

Image of the White House overlaid on top of the Capitol building with the words “MY GOVERNMENT” and an eagle underneath. Below that the text reads “IV/I am an American. I am a citizen of the American Republic, first and greatest in the world. My country is a Union of Free States, under one central government which is chosen by the people and in which all have equal rights.”
Detail from chapter titled My Government in I Am An American

The children reading this text in school grew up just in time for World War II, where American nationalism reached a fever pitch yet again. While I do not doubt that there were many factors involved, I suspect that this kind of messaging played a role. The American exceptionalism of the text is still taught in schools today, or at least was when I was an elementary student. That message of exceptionalism is now interwoven with complications – slavery, racism, child labor, women’s rights, and poverty are all part of the story. American history is filled with complications and citizenship should be too, even in times of triumph.