The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

How the Sausage Is Made: The Process of Processing

I’ve written many posts at the Beehive highlighting specific items, stories, and people from our collections that captured my attention, but it occurs to me that readers of our blog may be interested in a bigger picture of the work we do here. This week, I’d like to offer a behind-the-scenes look at how a collection is processed—or, as we say in Collections Services, how the sausage is made.

The responsibilities of the MHS Collections Services department include everything from the acquisition of new material to processing, preservation, and digitization. It’s the job of a manuscript processor like me to make collections both physically accessible and intellectually coherent to researchers, what archivists refer to as “arrangement and description.”

This can be challenging, to say the least. Collections come to us in all shapes, sizes, and conditions. Think of the way you keep your personal files at home or on your computer. You may know where things are, but would anyone else be able to figure it out? Are items arranged chronologically? Do folder labels really reflect the folders’ contents? How do the files relate to each other? When we’re talking about historical documents, often passed down through generations, potential problems multiply. Items may be in poor condition, undated, unidentified, basically a mess. For example:



This carton contains hundreds of letters folded up in their original envelopes and in no discernible order, as well as rusty staples, paper clips, and who knows what else. (Hair, leaves, dead insects—we’ve found them all!) These papers can’t be used by researchers like this. Each letter will need to be unfolded and arranged chronologically in acid-free boxes and folders for access and long-term preservation. It’s a very time-consuming job. A finished collection ends up looking something like this:



At the same time this physical work is being done, the processor will also need to make some intellectual sense of the material, scanning the letters carefully but quickly to determine who the authors and recipients are and what topics they discuss. The collection will be described in ABIGAIL, our online catalog, with headings for people, places, organizations, events, subjects, etc.

Good cataloging is vital because it’s our description that directs researchers to a specific collection. Experienced archivists have developed both subject knowledge and professional instincts that help them make informed judgments about the context and importance of a collection. What makes the papers historically significant? What possible avenues of research might bring someone to see them?

When you look at one of our catalog records, you may notice many slightly different permutations of the same topic. For example, papers of the director of Boston’s Children’s Hospital during the peak of the U.S. polio epidemic might be described by any or all of the following subject headings (and then some):

Children’s Hospital (Boston, Mass.).


Children—Health and hygiene.


Hospital administrators.




This may seem redundant, but there’s a method to the madness. What headings are useful depends on a researcher’s particular area of interest. Is he or she doing work on the specific hospital, children’s hospitals, Boston hospitals, hospital administration, polio, general childhood health?

Catalog records for manuscript collections have to be written from scratch because each collection is unique. No two archivists will describe the same papers the same way. Hundreds of our collections here at the MHS are also described more fully in online guides, which allow us to go into more detail about groups or “series” of papers and to indicate where specific material is located. Our guides are fully searchable, and more and more people are finding us through online search engines.

Manuscript processing is fundamental to all the work done at the MHS. Every other function of the library, from research to digitization, exhibit planning, even blogging, would not be possible without it. We’re constantly refining our catalog records and collection guides, and we’re still making discoveries in collections that have lived on our shelves for years. Our researchers are a great resource, bringing their subject knowledge to bear to fill gaps…and to catch our mistakes!


comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, 1:35 PM

Boston by Broadside, part II: Fashionable Footwear

Welcome to my new series here on the Beehive: “Boston by Broadside.” Here I will use examples from the MHS’ collection of broadsides to show various views of our fair city as it used to be.


As we leave Prof. Boulet's Gymansium behind after a bracing work-out, we are ready to start exploring the city a little bit more. Since we will probably be on our feet for a while we need to make sure that we have some trusty (and stylish) footwear to get us around. With that in mind, we'll head into the city proper and proceed to 180-182 Washington St. to pay a visit to Mr. Henry Wenzell. 


As you can see from Messr. Wenzell's handsome advert, he specializes in importing the finest and most fashionable French footwear, and has for some years now. I think that I will go with a sturdy pair of boots in case we are struck with a sudden downpour on our walk. 

And now, with our toes cozy, we can set off once again to see what sights Boston-that-was has to offer us. Check back soon to stay on the trail!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 October, 2015, 4:00 PM

Prospect Hill Tower and the Grand Union Flag

One day when wandering through Somerville, my boyfriend, a recent transplant to Cambridge, noticed what looked like a castle tower in the distance. He asked me about it, and rather than just find the answer online, we decided to have an adventure and discover in person what this tower was all about. It turns out that there is not a secret castle in Somerville, rather it is the Prospect Hill Tower, built in 1903 to commemorate the first flying of the Grand Union Flag on that same hill 1 January 1776.



As someone who is a fan of early Massachusetts history, I was surprised that I did not know about this tower and even more surprised that the first flag representing the United States had looked as if it had a Union Jack quartered on it. The next day I decide to search our collections here at MHS to see what materials we held about the Prospect Hill Tower and the first flying of the Grand Union Flag.



We do hold a number of secondary sources about both Prospect Hill and the flag flying, ranging from published historic guides of Somerville to sheet music composed about the first flag flying. The sheet music, pictured below, was printed in 1862 and while it is about the first raising of the flag in 1776, you will notice that the soldier pictured on the cover is dressed in a Civil War uniform, with tents in the background. Prospect Hill was used during the Civil War as a training camp. Most of our materials regarding the flag and Prospect Hill are from the late 19th and very early 20th centuries, which was about the time the tower was erected.



One of these sources is a bound scrapbook, created by Alfred Morton Cutler in 1921. In it, he pasted clippings of articles he had written for newspapers, such as the Cambridge Tribune, between 1918 and 1921. A number of the clippings were Letters to the Editor, in response to articles on the location and flag, with Cutler writing in to correct errors. All the articles go into great detail about not only the location of the first flag on Prospect Hill but also the type of flag. Cutler describes the first American flag as having “thirteen stripes, and containing in the field the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew.” At the end of the scrapbook is a clipping from a letter to the editor from William E. Wall: “An attempt is being made by the Librarian of the Cambridge Public Library to rob our city of Somerville of the honor which it has held so long, viz., that on January 1, 1776, on Prospect Hill (then a part of Charlestown) the flag of the United Colonies ‘first flung defiance to an enemy.’” Mr. Wall goes on to encourage readers to read closely Mr. Cutler’s “answer to assertions of the Cambridge librarian.” Unfortunately the letter written by the Librarian of the Cambridge Public Library was not included in the scrapbook, though this was the apparent conflict which prompted Cutler to correct the narrative.



Perhaps realizing that a book would have a wider audience than a newspaper, Cutler re-works many of his articles and letters into a short book titled The Continental “Great Union” Flag which was published in 1929. Similar to his letters to the editor, which contained short citations, Cutler goes to great lengths to prove the validity of his claims by citing in detail his various sources, which I am sure would lead to more delightful discoveries if a researcher ever chose to track them down.


Stop by and visit the library to help answer your own early Massachusetts or local town history questions! Though you can find answers to many questions online, it is more interesting (and fun!) to see how scholars thought about those same questions many years ago. 


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 3 October, 2015, 2:29 PM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: At the Cataract Hotel, Asswan

Today we rejoin our anonymous female diarist as she journeys down the Nile in the winter of 1914-1915. You can read previous installments of this series here (introduction), here (Cairo to Aysut), here (Aysut to Asswan), here (Asswan to Abu Simbel), and here (Wadi Halfa to Asswan).



Image from Cook’s Handbook for Egypt and Egyptian Sudan (1911), p. 723.


Having returned to Asswan and checked into the Cataract Hotel -- a luxury hotel for foreign travelers -- our anonymous diarist settles into a daily routine in the days before the Christian holidays. No longer constantly moving from location to location, our diarist’s daily routines still revolve around sightseeing, shopping, and socializing with fellow travelers.


Dec. 16. A.M. Went to bazar; bought [kimono?] & Miss. M. a blue stone. Also got post-cards. P.M. took a walk up on the hills of the desert beyond hotel & got fine view of the first cataract. Could see to the dam. Got back for sunset & watched it from terrace. Talking with the Brown’s [sic]. Wrote before dinner.

Dec. 17. A.M.Went to bazar again; bought some beads, cards, etc., & saw many pretty things in [illegible word] shop. P.M. had a shampoo, then went over to Hotel Lobby & had tea, but missed the sunset.

Dec. 18 A.M. Went to shops, I bought India scarf. P.M. took a boat and went over to the rock tombs first, then to Convent of St. Simeon & sailed about a little after-wards, getting back at 6.15.

Dec. 19. Took donkeys & rode out to granite quarries on the desert to see statue of Ramses laying in the sand. A 2 hour trip. P.M. Did some writing then at 4 we went out & walked up on the hill by the fort to see sunset. Wrote before dinner.

Dec. 20. Went to bazar for last time & bought some more charms & a few little things. P.M. tried to walk out along the road to Hotel [illegible] Palace but came to end of it & had to turn around. Sat on a seat in the Public Gardens & watched the sunset. In evening there was a small dance.


A contemporary description of the Monastery of St. Simeon, written for a tourist population, can be found in the 1911 Cook’s travel guide to Egypt:


On the western bank of the Nile, at about the same height as the southern point of the Island of Elephantine, begins the valley which leads to the monastery called after the name of Saint Simon, or Simeon. It is a large, strong building, half monastery, half fortress, and is said to have been abandoned by the monks in the thirteenth century, but the statement lacks confirmation; architecturally it is of very considerable interest. It was wholly surrounded by a wall from about 19 to 23 feet high, the lower part, which was sunk in the rock, being built of stone, and the upper part of mud brick; within this wall lay all the monastery buildings. (730)


You can read the full description in Cook’s Handbook for Egypt and the Egyptian Sudan (1911)   online at The Internet Archive.

In our next installment, we will get a glimpse of how our traveler celebrated Christmas far from home.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

Making History: Boston's Bicentennial

On September 17, 1830, Boston celebrated the bicentennial of its settlement. Such a noteworthy occasion would hardly be complete without the presence of one of the state’s leading families, particularly a former president. Thus, John Quincy Adams was invited to participate in the commemoration events held in Boston that day. Before meeting with the other members of the parade at the State House, John stopped by to see if his son Charles Francis Adams was in his Boston office and would join him. Charles, however, was not there but at his home in Medford. He reported in his diary entry for the day, “As this was the day destined for the Celebration of the Anniversary of the settlement of Boston, and about to produce a tremendous consequent fuss I thought it would be expedient for me to have nothing whatever to do with it. I have a great horror of Crowds, and if I make up my mind to attend public days always have cause to repent it.”

A grand procession of city and state officials as well as Boston residents marched through Boston Common and down Tremont and State Street to Old South Church. There the President of Harvard University and former Boston mayor, Josiah Quincy III, gave an oration that John Quincy Adams considered, “worthy of the subject and received with universal approbation” and a number of songs were sung in celebration of the city. The music included a rewrite of Great Britain’s “God Save the King” with new lyrics by Rev. John Pierpont and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The group processed back to the State House. That evening, fireworks were set off over the common and John Quincy attended a party hosted by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Winthrop.

The momentous occasion also included the first hints of a historic event on the horizon—Adams’s election to the House of Representatives. Before returning to Quincy for the evening, a number of gentlemen at the party approached Adams to discuss an article which ran in the September 6, 1830 issue of the Boston Courier, which suggested that Adams be nominated for the Plymouth congressional district of which Quincy was a part. John Quincy was initially dismissive of the idea: “As the Editor of the Paper has been uniformly hostile to me, I supposed this nomination was made with the same Spirit, and did not imagine it was seriously thought of by any one.” Serious it was though, and two months later, President John Quincy Adams was representative-elect Adams—the first and only president to serve in Congress after his presidency.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 12:00 AM

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