The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Exhibitions News

Commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation

Tuesday, 1 January marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As part of the Society's ongoing celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War we have staged two related exhibitions, both of which will open on Monday, 1 January with special exhibition hours (12:00 PM to 4:00 PM) and a public program (details below).  

Forever Free, features the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and a number of paintings, broadsides, engravings, and manuscripts that tell the story of how Boston celebrated Emancipation.

Lincoln in Manuscript and Artifact offers visitors an opportunity to view Lincoln's letter to Joshua F. Speed explaining his evolving views on slavery as well as the casts of the life mask and hands of Lincoln made by Leonard Volk in the spring of 1860.

At 2:00 PM on New Years Day, MHS Librarian Peter Drummey and Curator of Art Anne Bentley will guide visitors through the story of when the news arrived in Boston on New Year’s Day 1863 that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, focusing on how this epochal event in American history became an extraordinary moment in Boston history, and how the pen Lincoln used to sign the proclamation became one of the most treasured artifacts in the MHS collection.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00 PM

Mourning Jewelry: A Spooky Tradition?

Halloween approaches and the MHS has decked the halls with skulls, skeletons, and scythes. Or if you don’t find those creepy, then how about rings full of human hair? How about a brooch featuring a snake eating its own tail (the ouroboros, a symbol of eternity—in itself a scary thing!)?

The spooky objects on display are part of the exhibition In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, as described in a previous post. The season is right for a closer look at one of the most haunting and emblematic pieces in the exhibition.

This ring, part of the MHS collections, commemorates John Gray, the infant son of John and Mary Otis Gray and nephew of political writer Mercy Otis Warren. John died at only six days old. The ring has a design of three joined enameled scrolls and a gold foil skull under a square crystal. The inscription that runs around the outside of the band reads, “J:GRAY OB·17·SEP 1763·Æ 6D,” meaning “John Gray died 17 September 1763 aged 6 days.” Less than two months after the infant’s death, his mother died as well, and a ring was made in her memory.

While skull imagery might seem outré today, it was commonplace in both memento mori jewelry and mourning jewelry before the neoclassical style. Jewels bearing skulls, skeletons, gravediggers’ tools, and other seemingly grim images served to remind the wearer that they will die and should therefore live with the next world in mind. Or, as another ring’s inscription eloquently puts it, “A good life a happie death.”

To learn more about mourning jewelry, and to see some truly beautiful and affecting pieces, visit In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry at the MHS. The exhibition is free and open to the public. The full-color companion volume, written by the exhibition’s co-curator Sarah Nehama, can be purchased in person at the MHS or online at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 19 October, 2012, 10:00 AM

Death, Skeletons, and Fashion: New Exhibition and Book on the Jewelry of Mourning

How do you remember your deceased loved ones? Today many mourners have unique rituals for honoring the dead. Some brand their bodies with tattoos, or print photographs of the departed on T-shirts they can wear. In other cultures the more traditional outward displays of grief persist, such as donning black clothing for a period of time after the death.

Trends in mourning rituals and attire change with the times, and centuries ago the bereaved had their own ways of commemorating loved ones. In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, an upcoming exhibition at the MHS by jeweler Sarah Nehama and MHS Curator of Art Anne Bentley, examines the practice from the 17th through the 19th century of commissioning and wearing rings, bracelets, brooches, and other jewels to honor the dead.

The exhibition features mourning jewels and memento mori pieces. The former memorialize a family member or close friend who recently died. Examples in the exhibition feature inscriptions with the dead’s initials and date of death, hair work made from the locks of the deceased, and miniatures and daguerreotypes depicting the visage of the loved one. Memento mori pieces, however, do not remember a specific person, but rather serve to remind the wearer that a good Christian does not live for this world but for the next. Memento mori translates to “remember death."

Co-curator Sarah Nehama authored a companion book to the exhibition of the same name. In Death Lamented, now available for purchase on Amazon, displays vivid color photographs of the jewels, along with detailed information about the pieces, the mourners, and the mourned. It also examines the changing trends in memorial jewelry style, from baroque to rococo to neoclassical, and beyond.

Both the exhibition and book feature jewels commemorating prominent historical figures, including George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln. View these and other mourning jewels at the MHS exhibition beginning September 28, or preview the jewelry now by purchasing a copy of In Death Lamented. Also, check our events page for upcoming public programs related to mourning jewelry. You just might learn a little about the origins of your own bereavement traditions.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 4:48 PM

Celebrating Independence on July 2nd!

Yesterday we shared an Independence Day message from John Quincy Adams on the Beehive. In keeping in the spirit of preparing to celebrate our nation's birthday, today we share some of John Adams' words on the subject.  In a letter dated 3 July 1776 future president John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: 

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Adams was correct about everything but the date!  His description of people using "Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations" to mark this "most memorable day" is spot on for most American communities today. On Monday, 2 July visit the MHS to hear Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey explain why John Adams believed 2 July 1776 would be the most memorable day in the history of America. We will offer two gallery talks, at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM, for interested visitors to learn the story.

If you cannot make it to a gallery talk, you can still plan to visit the MHS to view the exhibition The Most Memorable Day in the History of America: July 2, 1776. The exhibition, features letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams, manuscript copies of early drafts of the Declaration of Independence in both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson's own handwriting, and the Society's own first printing of the Declaration, also known as the Dunlap broadside. The exhibition is open Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, from 2 July through 31 August.  

Alex Ashlock of WBUR spoke with Peter Drummey about the exhibition over the weekend. Read more in his write-up Should We Be Celebrating July 2nd?

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 30 June, 2012, 1:00 AM

History’s Mysteries: Building a Family Tree

The protagonist of my favorite mystery novel series, Maisie Dobbs, creates a map of each case she works on. A London detective in the 1930s, she pins down a large piece of paper and writes down every bit of information she discovers, drawing lines to connect the pieces as the case evolves. Recently the staff of the Society’s Publications Department took a page out of Maisie Dobbs’s book and created a “map” to solve our own mystery regarding family connections and progeny.

Ondine LeBlanc Building the Shattuck Family Tree on a White Board in the publications officeWe are working on a book to coincide with the Society’s upcoming exhibition on mourning jewelry. The book, titled In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, features mourning jewels from the Society’s collection and from the private collection of the author, Sarah Nehama.

Several mourning jewels used in the book were donated to the Society by Dr. George Cheever Shattuck in 1971, and although some of the people those jewels honored shared last names, we could not initially discern how they were all related. Many prominent families in 18th- and 19th- century Boston intermarried and used the same names throughout generations, making it difficult to differentiate mothers, sisters, and cousins. Many parents also named their children after close family friends, confounding things further for any genealogist.

With one woman in particular we struggled – Elizabeth Cheever. The inscription on her mourning ring had been transcribed as “Elizabeth Cheever obt. 28 June 1814 Aet 72,” indicating that she was 72 and died on June 28, 1814. Even with these details we could not find biographical information on her anywhere. That is, until we had the help of a great MHS volunteer. Kathleen Fox, who is assisting with this project, discovered that the date of death we had for Elizabeth Cheever had been transcribed incorrectly. Rather than 1814, it was 1802! With this new date we were able to find Elizabeth Cheever using the Town Vital Records Collections of Massachusetts on Ancestry.com. Formerly Elizabeth Edwards, she was born in 1730 and married William Downes Cheever.

From this new information we were able to link Elizabeth Cheever to Mary Cheever (her sister-in-law), William Cheever (her son), and so on. We created a family tree, researching each family member until we had connected seven generations of Cheevers, Davises, and Shattucks. The family tree includes those commemorated by all of the jewels Dr. George Cheever Shattuck contributed to the MHS. No mean feat. But we’re not done yet. We still need one confirmation on a Hannah Davis. The mapping – and mystery – continues. Sometimes working at a historical society is just like being a detective.

For more information on the Cheever, Davis, and Shattuck families, read this earlier post on the discovery of Elizabeth Cheever (Davis) Shattuck’s travel diary. She appears in the family tree, and In Death Lamented features a mourning ring commemorating her.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 8 June, 2012, 1:00 AM

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