The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around the Neighborhood

Major Samuel Selden’s Powder Horn: A Revolutionary Map of Boston

We expect to see maps on paper, not on animal horns. Maj. Samuel Selden might have thought this as he etched a map of Boston on his powder horn, which is dated 9 March 1776. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers used animal horns to hold their gunpowder. They filled them at the larger end and funneled the powder into their weapons. Not all militiamen had their own powder horns, so men like Selden carved unique designs on them in order to claim them as their own.

Selden was a member of Connecticut's Provincial Assembly and became a major in the colony's militia during the war. He served under George Washington's direction during the siege of Boston. His powder horn depicts the sites of American fortifications as well as the positions of the Continental Army just before the British evacuated the city.

Even if we did not know Selden's background, his carvings convey his allegiances. A ship labeled "Amaraca" displays a Continental Union flag. Another flag depicts the Liberty Tree, the tree near the Boston Common where locals met to protest British rule. Alongside his name, Selden also inscribed the words: "made for the defense of liberty."

Selden's map is a pictorial map rather than one focused on the area's geography. His detailed carvings feature individual ships in the harbor and houses lining the Boston neck. Crosshatching adds depth to the water and makes his lettering stand out. In contrast, a 1775 powder horn housed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center features a more traditional map of Boston. Instead of pictures, this map traces shorelines. Unlike Selden's, however, a British soldier carved this powder horn. He inscribed the words: "A Pox on rebels in ther crymes [their crimes]."

1775 powder horn

Photo courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Just six months after Selden carved his horn, the British captured him at the Battle of Kip's Bay during their campaign to take control of New York City. The prison's conditions were poor. Less than a month later, Selden fell ill and died on 11 October 1776.

Selden's powder horn, as well as that of his British counterpart, is currently on display in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center's exhibition at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition, We Are One: Mapping America's Road from Revolution to Independence, uses maps to explore the events that led thirteen colonies to forge a new nation. We Are One demonstrates that maps, from Selden's carving to early European maps of the new nation, were central to the revolutionary process. The exhibition features maps as well as prints, paintings, and objects from the Leventhal Map Center's own collection and those of twenty partners, including the British Library and Library of Congress. Visit zoominginonhistory.com to explore geo-referenced maps from the exhibition.

The exhibition will be on display at the Boston Public Library through November 29, 2015. We Are One then travels to Colonial Williamsburg from February 2016 through January 2017 and to the New-York Historical Society from November 2017 through March 2018.

The Leventhal Map Center also hosts the NEH-funded American Revolution Portal database. Researchers can access maps from the Massachusetts Historical Society, British Library, Library of Congress, and other institutions in one search. Users can download images for research and classroom use. Access these resources and learn more about We Are One at maps.bpl.org/WeAreOne.

Find out more about the Society's own map collection at their upcoming exhibition: Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection, which opens on 2 October. Through 4 September, visitors to the MHS can learn more about the American Revolution with exhibition: God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill.

 

Image 1: Selden, Samuel, 1723-1776. [Powder horn scribed by Samuel Selden.] Lyme, Conn., 1776. 1 powder horn: ivory; 37 x 21 x 13.3 cm. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Image 2: Detail of above.

Image 3: E.B., [Powder Horn with Map of Boston and Charlestown]. [Boston], 1775. Scrimshaw horn, 14 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 8:00 AM

Attention All Cartophiles

Back in Novermber I posted on the Beehive about the MHS library staff field trip to Worcester's American Antiquarian Society. The motivation behind the trip was to learn more about the AAS collections, policies, and how their services can benefit our researchers. We, the staff, also selected many other local institutions to visit to gain better understanding of the resources available to our researchers when they need to get beyond our holdings. 

Yesterday, my colleague Kittle and I had the pleasure of visiting the Norman Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. While there, we learned about their collections (over 200,000 maps), their accessibility (open to the public), and their short history.

The Map Center's holdings range from the late 15th century all the way up to the present day, from some of the earliest printed maps to modern metropolitan planning maps. The materials are all cataloged online via the BPL Bibliocommons. In addition, the Leventhal Center has over 7,000 items digitized and viewable on their website. And for those that enjoy a more whimsical view of things, they also hold a collection of maps from fiction. These chart the geographies of places like Middle Earth and Narnia, detail the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and map out the course of Captain Ahab and the Pequod. These fictional maps are the focus of the Center's current exhibition. 

After we learned about the public side of the Map Center, the gracious staff also toured us through the background, showing us the secured storage spaces where these important collections are housed and preserved. 

Learning more about the Leventhal Map Center allows now to better direct our own researchers who need cartographic resources that the MHS does not hold. And not only did we get to learn about the wonderful collections but we got to introduce ourselves and meet some of our neighbors. Stay tuned for more installments from our staff site visits to see who we meet and what we find!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

Oliver Lofts: Mapping the Traces of a Music Publishing Empire

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved across town from one former streetcar suburb-turned-neighborhood of Boston (Allston/Brighton) to another (Jamaica Plain). A paltry three mile journey as the crow flies, since we live without a car and get around on foot, public transit, or bicycle, this has meant learning new pathways to all of our usual destinations -- including the Massachusetts Historical Society. Along these new routes stand traces of Boston’s past, if only you keep your eyes open and know where to look for them.

Bicycling home from work along the Southwest Corridor Park, from Symphony Hall to Jackson Square, last week I happened to notice the brick facade of an old factory building turned residential lofts that announced in the stonework “Oliver Ditson Co.”

Who, I wondered, was Oliver Ditson, and what had his factory once produced? Fresh from reading Alexander von Hoffman’s history of Jamaica Plain, Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), I knew the Heath Street area had been known for its breweries. Perhaps, I thought, our Mr. Ditson was a brewer. Happily, I work at a place where such questions can often be answered by searching our catalog and going on a historical treasure hunt! A few keystrokes and call slips later, I had discovered that Oliver Ditson and his company were not brewers but, instead, music publishers and retailers here in Boston. Ditson, born in Boston in 1811, began his career working at a bookshop on Washington Street, under the employ of Samuel H. Parker, before launching into the music publishing business in 1835. In 1858 Oliver Ditson & Co. began publishing Dwight’s Journal of Music, one of the most highly respected music journals of the nineteenth century, and was soon expanding into the Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York markets.

In 1918 a history of the music scene in Boston, published by the Oliver Ditson Company, foregrounded the company’s sparkling new ten-story retail building that still stands today on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, overlooking the Boston Common. “The focus on modern Boston’s shopping activity is at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, where converge the currents of vivid life from hotels, theatres, and subways,” writes William Fisher in Notes on Music in Old Boston. “Within a stone’s throw of this teeming corner … is the splendid new home of the Oliver Ditson Company” (79). From its state-of-the-art heating plant in the sub-basement to its Tiffany show windows, “Victor Talking Machines” department,” and opulent meeting rooms, the Tremont Street headquarters was the company’s public face.

 

The building that would become Oliver Lofts in 2011 meanwhile, was a late arrival into the company’s holdings. The property did, indeed, begin life as a brewery -- though unassociated with Ditson. According to Historic Boston, the Highland Spring Brewery occupied the site until Prohibition brought the American beer industry to its knees. The Oliver Ditson Company then purchased the storehouse, built in 1912 and once used to house casks of ale and porter, and used the building as a print shop and warehouse into the mid-twentieth century.

Thus, one single rehabilitated industrial building I pass by on my evening commute holds within its walls traces of two centuries worth of Boston development.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 8:00 AM

From Medicine to Music: #8 The Fenway

Around the Neighborhood - #8 the Fenway

These days, the Historical Society is hemmed in by institutions devoted to the study of music. Our neighbor to the east on Boylston Street is the Berklee College of Music. Around the corner to our southwest the New England Conservatory occupies several buildings. But, in looking through some old photos recently, I found that a very different group once rubbed shoulders with the MHS on the Fenway.

The second iteration of the Boston Medical Library was founded in 1875, thanks mainly to the efforts of the then 30-year-old Dr. James Read Chadwick with tremendous support from the older Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. Beginning in December 1874, these two men and many other prominent Boston doctors held several meetings and published circular letters to gain support for the founding of a new medical library in the city. Once there was enough support, Chadwick drew up a constitution and by-laws for the new library and, in October of 1875, the Boston Medical Library opened in two rooms at No.5 Hamilton Place in downtown Boston. It would take only three years for the rooms to become inadequate for the Library’s needs.

In February, 1878, the Boston Medical Library Association began making appeals for help in acquiring a new space. The property they purchased was located at 19 Boylston Place, previously both the home of Dr. Samuel G. Howe and a boardinghouse. This spot served as the Library headquarters for the next 23 years until the space was outgrown once again. In his History of the Boston Medical Library¸ Dr. John Farlow noted that “There was no doubt that No.5 Hamilton Place was outgrown in 1878, and No. 19 Boylston Place was outgrown in a still greater degree in 1900. How the library ever continued to exist and serve its members in the overcrowded quarters, seems more or less of a wonder, as we look back on it.”[i]

In May 1899 members of the Library were asked to decide between two parcels of land on which to construct a new building. At the meeting, a committee presented brief statements advocating for either a lot at St. Botolph and Garrison Streets or a lot on the Fenway. Regarding the lot on the Fenway, the committee stated:

On the Fenway we can buy two (or three) lots facing west by south, and next the Historical building. The western light will be very strong on the front. We can build fifty feet front by one hundred deep. The rear is tolerable, but not attractive. The front view is unsurpassed. It will be quiet, clean, bleak. It will appreciate in value of land. We cannot build a symmetrical building, without wells and irregularities. We are limited to seventy feet in height on the front. We may be allowed to carry the rear higher for a book-stack. We must buy a third lot, and keep it wholly or partially unoccupied for side windows and for future growth. We shall have a building twice as long as it is wide, and with a dark centre, unless we have plenty of side windows.[ii]

With a vote of 53 for and 19 against, the Association decided in favor of the Fenway lots. A building committee composed of Drs. John Collins Warren, James Read Chadwick, and Farrar Cobb selected Shaw and Hunnewell as architects. In November 1899, the committee awarded the $86,000 contract for erecting the building to the McNeil Brothers. They also gave contracts for heating, bookstacks, wiring, and an elevator well with room for the machinery. By 12 January 1901, the Library opened to the public with a dedication occurring that evening, just two years after the completion of the MHS’ home at 1154 Boylston Street.

The Boston Medical Library in 1919 at 8 Fenway. A portion of the MHS is seen on the left. What do you think happened to the planned side windows? ("Boston Medical Library" Unknown Photographer, 1919. From the Massachusetts Views collection. Massachusetts Historical Society.)

The Boston Medical Library remained at #8 Fenway for 64 years until the Library closed its doors on 14 June 1965. Over the next two all of its holdings were removed and merged with the collection of Harvard’s newly built Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. On 16 June, the Countway opened to readers.

On 15 January 1964, the Boston Medical Library trustees agreed to sell their building to the neighboring Boston Conservatory of Music for the price of $300,000. The actual sale did not occur until after the move to the Countway in July 1965, and the Library did not officially vacate the property until 2 September.[iii]

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the Boston Medical Library you can search our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what materials we have relating to it. In addition to several printed volumes relating to the Library, the MHS holds significant collections of materials related to many early members of the Library, including Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Collins Warren, and Charles Pickering Putnam.



[i] Farlow, John W., The History of the Boston Medical Library, Norwood, Mass.: The Plimpton Press, 1918.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Garland, Joseph E., The Centennial History of the Boston Medical Library, 1875-1975, Boston: Trustees of the Boston Medical Library, 1975.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 4 April, 2014, 4:21 PM

"Imposed Planning STOPS HERE": Fenway in the 1970s

My last post for the Beehive explored the creation, destruction, and potential renewal of Charlesgate Park in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. In my continued exploration of the Society’s 20th-century urban history collections, I stumbled across this handmade flyer from the early 1970s calling on residents of the Fenway to protest what they experienced as "imposed planning" in the then-struggling neighborhood.

Fenway Residents broadside

"Fenway Residents, We Ask You One More Time" (Broadsides Collection, [1970] Nov. 3, MHS)

The gathering was organized by the housing task force of the Fenway Interagency Group (FIG), a loose coalition of grassroots social services organizations based in the Fenway neighborhood. What, exactly, were they protesting?

Though tentatively dated 1970, it is likely the flyer was distributed during the spring or summer of 1971, as the Christian Science Plaza was taking shape and the neighborhood around the plaza was filling with new development. A newspaper clipping dated April 1971 and preserved in a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) scrapbook describes the construction in positive, neighborhood-friendly terms:

The first housing development is now under construction along the Church Center perimeter. This project, known as Church Park will be the largest apartment house in Boston. It is planned as a mixed use building with 526 units of housing plus parking and retailing. ...In this low and middle income development, 25 percent of the units will go to low income families and the balance will go to middle income families at rents ranging from $110 to $360 per month.

The article goes on to describe the "Wasserman Site," where the FIG flyer invites citizens to protest, as "320 units of middle income housing plus parking and retailing." This official story stands in contrast to the flyer’s claims that the development represents "imposed planning," a "disregard of residents," and "housing residents can’t afford."

Which story won the day? The Church Park building and what became Greenhouse Apartments were both constructed and remain standing today. Leasing at prices between $2500-$5000 per month, the units are now two or three times higher than the BRA considers the maximum affordable rent for median-income Boston residents.

Church Park

Church Park from the intersection of Edgerly and Norway Streets (March 2014)

Over forty years after the FIG protest was held, economic inequality remains a central theme in Boston city politics, and the BRA role in neighborhood planning continues to prove controversial as Bostonians debate how to bring economic investment into the city without pushing lower-income residents and workers out of the urban core.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 5 March, 2014, 8:00 AM

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