History by the Numbers: A Gomes Prize Ceremony conversation between 2017 recipient Tamara Thornton and MHS President Catherine Allgor
By Alexis Buckley, Research Department
In 2016, the MHS founded the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, awarded annually for the best book on the history of Massachusetts. The prize honors the memory of the Reverend Professor Gomes, a Harvard scholar and a respected and beloved Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society for almost thirty-five years. Peter Gomes believed in the transformative power of engaging with the past, and held an especial fondness for the history of his native state. He extolled the role of the imagination in creating a better world.
About two centuries earlier, another Massachusetts native himself set out to create a better world. His name was Nathaniel Bowditch, and above all he believed in the power of numbers. Thus it’s only fitting that the 2017 Gomes Book Prize was awarded to historian Tamara Plakins Thornton for her biography, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. Thornton brings to life the Atlantic-facing maritime world of Bowditch’s hometown, the bustling port of Salem. She also reveals Bowditch’s role in creating the numbered and sorted bureaucratic society familiar to us today, from creating navigational tables, to organizing the collections of Salem’s East India Marine Society—now the Peabody Essex Museum—and the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, to introducing a numerical grading system at Harvard. As Thornton demonstrates, Bowditch took his faith in numbers and transformed the world.
Thornton joined us at the Society on Thursday, Jan. 25, to receive the 2017 prize. Like any good historian, she came in early to spend the day in our reading room, diving into the research for her next project. (Not to mention using collections well numbered and sorted! Our library staff would make Bowditch proud.) Come evening, after Ellis Hall had been transformed for the award ceremony, she received her award check and a certificate beautifully framed and matted with century-old French endpaper. She then took to the stage to commence a conversation on what it means to be a historian and a biographer.
Who better to join Thornton in this conversation than our new president, Catherine Allgor, another historian cum biographer? Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison followed her work Parlor Politics, on the founding women of the early republic, much as Thornton’s biography of Bowditch followed her monographs on handwriting and the making of country life by the nineteenth-century Boston elite.
Fortunately for those too far away—or too cold!—to attend the program, the conversation was filmed and is now available for you to watch online. Allgor and Thornton spoke about transitioning from writing monographs to writing biographies, and the advantages they had in having already written books that made them familiar with their subject’s world: in Dolley Madison’s case, it was Washington D.C. and all its politicking; for Nathanial Bowditch, it was the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Salem. More specifically, Bowditch lived in a world of merchants and shipping, where—instead of the Latin and Greek needed for Harvard—young men bound for occupations as clerks and navigators learned math and penmanship. Of course, Thornton and Allgor continued, writing biography also means considering the role of inborn personality and temperament in relation to the influence of the subject’s era.
MHS President Catherine Allgor and Gomes Prize recipient Tamara Thornton, in conversation.
Thornton and Allgor also discussed their efforts to find points of familiarity with their subjects while keeping in mind that the past remains a foreign country. Allgor enjoyed taking a fresh look at Washington politics in its infancy through Dolley Madison, and considering how the politics we know today are contingent on so many nineteenth-century choices that people such as Madison made. Thornton described the uncategorized society that Bowditch transformed, with numbers and forms, into the world we live in today.
And, of course, the two biographers discussed Bowditch’s love of numbers. He was inspired by the rules and regularity of the solar system, and sought to recreate that wherever he could. He saw the world, Thornton said, in “pluses and minuses.” He loved the certainty of numbers. If you were incorrect, inaccurate, immoral, wrong: all of these things were the same to him.
There is more to be heard on the video, about finding sources and excluding them, about Bowditch’s views on the places he sailed to around the world, and about strange and unexpected discoveries in the archives! But I will keep this entry short enough to fit on one of Bowditch’s blank forms, and merely suggest that you watch the video, then pick up Tamara Thornton’s award-winning book and take your own trip to Nathaniel Bowditch’s ordered world.
If you’ve published a book on Massachusetts history copyrighted in 2017, we invite you to submit your work for consideration to receive this year’s Gomes Prize, and we look forward to telling all of you what the 2018 competition brings!
| Published: Friday, 2 February, 2018, 10:09 AM
Margaret Hall’s WWI Memoir: The Book, the Talk, the Exhibition
By Jim Connolly, Publications
I’ve posted on the Beehive a few times about Margaret Hall, a Massachusetts woman who volunteered with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. So you may know (and if you didn’t, now you do!) that her memoir and selected photographs from her war experience will be published for the first time in the Society’s forthcoming book, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The MHS will publish the volume on 14 July 2014.
Come celebrate the release of Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country on Tuesday, 15 July 2014, when the volume’s editor, Margaret R. Higonnet, will give a talk titled “‘What is Focus?’ Margaret Hall’s Battle Country.” The program will run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM following a pre-talk reception at 5:30 PM. This event is free but requires an RSVP. Register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
And while you’re in the Society’s 1154 Boylston Street building, you can take in our current exhibition, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War. Until then, you can get your Margaret Hall fix from July’s Object of the Month.
| Published: Friday, 11 July, 2014, 8:00 AM
Congratulations! 2012-2013 Graduates Using MHS Materials
By Anna J. Cook, Reader Services
Since July 2012, the Massachusetts Historical Society has granted use permission to a number of scholars utilizing MHS collections in their theses and dissertations. Below are a list of the scholars and their projects.
Many of these projects should be available in the ProQuest database of theses and dissertations. We encourage you to explore the fine work done by our researchers!
“Lost [or Gained] in Translation: The Art of the Handwritten Letter in the Digital Age”
Dallie Clark, University of Texas
“Plain as Primitive: The Figure of the Native in Early America”
Steffi Dippold, Stanford University
“ ‘Rage and Fury Which Only Hell Could Inspire’: The Rhetoric and Ritual of Gunpowder Treason in Early America”
Kevin Q. Doyle, Brandeis University
“Bodies at Odds: The Experience and Disappearance of the Maternal Body in America, 1750-1850”
Nora Doyle, University of North Carolina
“ ‘Deep investigations of science and exquisite refinements of taste’: The Objects and Communities of Early Libraries in Eastern Massachusetts, 1790-1850”
Caryne A. Eskridge, University of Delaware
“Female Voices, Female Action: A Small Town Story that Mirrors the State Struggle to Protect Massachusetts Womanhood, 1882-1920”
Sarah Fuller, Salem State University
“Engendering Inequality: Masculinity and the Construction of Racial Brotherhood in Cuba, 1895-1902”
Bonnie A. Lucero, University of North Carolina
“Trading in Liberty: The Politics of the American China Trade, c. 1784-1862”
Dael A. Norwood, Princeton University
“Het present van Staat: De gouden ketens, kettingen en medailles verleend door de Staten-Generaal, 1588-1795”
George Sanders, University of Leiden
“International Tourism and the Image of Japan in 1930 through Articles and a Travel Journal Written by Ellery Sedgwick”
Katsura Yamamoto, University of Tokyo
Did you, or anyone else you know, author a thesis or dissertation using materials held in the MHS collections in the past year? Please leave a comment on this post sharing the title, author, and the name of the institution to which the work was submitted.
Thank you all for your excellent work!
| Published: Friday, 5 April, 2013, 1:00 AM
Massachusetts Historical Review Volume 14 on Its Way
By Jim Connolly, Publications
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: that time when a new volume of the Massachusetts Historical Review goes to press! Print subscribers will receive Volume 14 by mail in the early days of the new year, and the electronic version will be published simultaneously through JSTOR’s Current Scholarship Program. Learn more about subscription here. The journal is also a benefit of MHS membership—learn more about membership here!
The upcoming volume treats a diversity of fascinating topics:
“Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic” by Amalie M. Kass
Cotton Mather’s advocacy for inoculation—a practice then unheard of in the colonies—stirred up a controversy in 18th-century Boston. Insults and accusations flew in the partisan newspapers as inoculation’s champions and opponents fought for public health—and personal glory. The source of Mather’s knowledge of inoculation may surprise you.
“The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion and Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings” by Douglas L. Winiarski
This article explores the phenomenon of the prayer bill or prayer note in colonial religious practices, and how a satirical prayer bill was crafted to injure the reputation of Newbury Congregational minister Rev. Christopher Toppan, who vehemently opposed the popular religious revivals of the Great Awakening.
“A Prince among Pretending Free Men: Runaway Slaves in Colonial New England Revisited” by Antonio T. Bly
Bly sheds light on the lives and characteristics of runaway slaves through in-depth analysis and explication of runaway notices in newspapers. Clues within these notices tell us how fugitive slaves employed quick wits and savvy under extraordinary duress. Bly, who has compiled a database of runaway slave notices, crunches the numbers on a variety of characteristics, illuminating the most common months for escape, the race, linguistic ability, and work backgrounds of runaways, and more.
“Boston, the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, and the Poncas” by Valerie Sherer Mathes
When the Ponca Indians of Nebraska were forced from their homeland in 1877 and sent to the inhospitable Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), many Americans sympathized with their plight. Among those who took up the cause was the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, a group of philanthropists, described in detail for the first time in this article. Mathes also chronicles the speaking tours in support of the Poncas, including the tour of Ponca chief Standing Bear.
The new volume also includes review articles by Sarah Phillips and Chernoh Sesay concerning environmental history and books about Phillis Wheatley and Venture Smith, respectively.
Every issue of the MHR offers pieces rich in narrative detail and thoughtful analysis, and Volume 14 is no different. The MHS looks forward to its publication.
| Published: Friday, 30 November, 2012, 1:00 AM
Bostonians Respond to Union Loss at 2nd Bull Run
By Jim Connolly, Publications
31 August 1862 was a remarkable day in Boston—one full of anxiety and activity. News reached town that day of the Union’s devastating defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The battle, which took place in Virginia from 28 to 30 August, resulted in approximately 15,000 casualties, the vast majority suffered by Union soldiers. Bostonians responded with a diligent relief effort.
Nothing in the historical record captures the mood of such a moment like a good diarist. Caroline Healey Dall (whom I’ve blogged about before) was an excellent one, and her journal, which lives at the MHS, gives us a bracing account.
I heard Mr Clarke preach, yet hardly heard him, for I longed for the service to be over, that I might hurry home to help prepare lint & bandages.
No one who was in Boston today—will ever forget it. No one but will be proud to own it as a birth place. The car which I took from Dover St. to Court—was crowded to a crush with women & bundles. Most of them were weeping. "Give way," said rough men to each other, "those bundles are sacred." When we got to the Tremont House—a dense crowd had pressed between it & the Hall. All were eagerly gaping for rumors. About the Tremont Temple a semi-circular rope was stretched enclosing several hundreds of cubic feet. At Three Tables, placed in the center & at each end, men took down subscriptions for the freight fund. Within on the side walk immense boxes were being packed. In the building 1800 women sewed all day.
In the car that went to Medford every body was bitterly depressed. The women thought—that if we conquered in the end, the life of the Camp would ruin our young men, that they would come home coarse, licentious cruel. I could not stand this, and the end was, that I appealed aloud to the women, in a plea lasting—partly in a conversational way, nearly the whole time we were coming out, as to the moral end of the war. How moved the whole population were we can judge from the fact, that one could hear a pin drop in that rattling car—& there was not a smile at me on man's or woman's face.
If the news of the Second Battle of Bull Run and the mad rush to send relief were not cause enough for emotional turmoil, the day held yet another significant—and personal—event for Dall. That morning, her husband, the Unitarian minister Charles Dall, arrived in the ship Panther from Calcutta, where he had been engaged in missionary work since 1855 and where he would live until his death in 1886. This was the first of his four trips home over 31 years. But in the confusion of the day, their paths did not cross.
Willie came out at dusk to tell me, that his father would not get up till tomorrow. I was surprised to find that in the general distress, I had forgotten my private pain, not having thought of the Panther, after thinking of nothing else for months, since I heard she was in the bay.
To learn more about Dall and her materials at the MHS, check out the Caroline Wells Healey Dall Papers 1811-1917: Guide to the Microfilm Edition. We are pleased to work with editor Helen R. Deese to produce the four-volume Selected Journals of Caroline Healey Dall, of which Volume I (1838–1855) is available and Volume II (1855–1866) is in preparation. The excerpts above are taken from the 31 August 1862 entry in volume 25 of Dall’s journals, which covers 24 April 1860 to 23 October 1862, and the full entry will appear in Volume II of Selected Journals.
| Published: Friday, 31 August, 2012, 8:00 AM