Derby Day, Then and Now

Old Derby Academy, see from the North.  Postcard collection at the Hingham historical Society

Old Derby Academy.  (Hingham Historical Society)

Hingham residents know to watch for the early June procession through Hingham Square that kicks off Derby Academy’s graduation ceremonies. Boys in chapel dress and girls in white dresses march from the current Derby campus on Burditt Avenue down Fearing Road to New North Church, where the day’s ceremonies are conducted.  This tradition is almost as old as the Academy itself. Ever since the New North meetinghouse was erected in 1806, at least part of Derby’s end-of-year ceremonies have taken place in it.

Of course, the walk wasn’t always so long: when Old Derby Academy was the schoolhouse (from 1818 until the 1960s), the procession started on Main Street in Hingham Square.

New North Church, Hingham

New North Church. (Hingham Historical Society) 

A Hingham Journal article from 1861 describes what was the “annual exhibition” held partly in New North and partly in Loring Hall. In those days, the focus was not on the graduating class but rather on the progress made by the student body as a whole. “Scholars” of all grades demonstrated the fruits of a year’s hard work by presenting dialogues, original oratory, dramatic performances, and, of course, music. A needlework display in the basement of Loring Hall showcased the girls’ handiwork.  Exhibition programs from the 1833 and 1892 exhibitions, reproduced at the bottom of this post, differ in detail but not in overall conception or scope.

Loring Hall, Main Street, HIngham.   From the photograph collection at the HIngham Historical Society

Loring Hall. (Hingham Historical Society)

The Journal described the 1861 Derby Exhibition as “one of the most agreeable [days] of the season,” and it was truly a major social event. Derby Academy was Hingham’s only secondary school for much of the 19th century, and it continued to dominate our educational landscape for years afterward. The exhibition day was not just a chance for parents to see what their children had learned or for the oldest scholars to say goodbye in style: it was an opportunity for the entire community to come out, celebrate the onset of summer, hear a few interesting lectures, and listen to some good music.

Did the ’61 Journal have any complaints? “If we were disposed to criticize,” it remarked, “the speaking would have been more effective had it been less rapid.” However, “the music was excellent, the hall packed to the utmost,” and we can catch a modern-day echo of the buzz and bustle of this celebration when the Derby students make their way through the Square next week.

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Order of Exercises, Derby Academy Exhibition, May 22, 1833. (Hingham Historical Society)

Order of Exercises, Derby Exhibition, 1892  (Hingham Historical Society)

Order of Exercises, Derby Exhibition, 1892 (Hingham Historical Society)

Our Autograph Albums

Autograph albums were all the rage in mid-19th century America—and Hingham was no exception.  We have a collection of the small books in which Hingham boys and girls exchanged signatures, messages, and verse during the 1860s and 1870s.  The albums themselves came in all shapes and sizes–the boys’ albums more conservative  and the girls’ more elaborate, with illustrations, decorations, and fanciful covers.  Willie Leavitt’s album was compact and business-like,

Willie Leavitt's Autograph Album

Willie Leavitt’s Autograph Album

but the photograph below does not do justice to Minnie F. Burr’s autograph album, which was covered with deep-pile, chartreuse green velvet with the word “Album” inlaid in shiny celluloid letters.

Minnie F. Burr’s Autograph Album

Some boys and girls (mostly boys) simply signed their names in their friends’ albums but many penned a few lines of poetry or prose.  As would later be the case with high school yearbook inscriptions, there must have been some pressure to write memorably, and to meet this need, collections of autograph album inscriptions were published.  The Album Writer’s Friend, a copy of which is in our archives, helpfully asked,

Who among the readers of this preface has not been invited to write a few words of sentiment in the Albums of a friend? As an aid to the many thousands who have received this invitation and have not known what to write, we offer this collection of choice verse and prose . . . embracing sentiment, affection, humor, and miscellany . . . .

Its offerings ranged from the florid–

Our lives are albums, written through
With good or ill—with false or true—
And, as the blessed angels turn The pages of our years,
God grant they read the good with smiles
And blot the bad with tears

to the light-hearted–

In the storms of life
When you need an umbrella
May you have to uphold it
A handsome young fellow

The young people of Hingham did not appear to have needed much help, and the entries they made in their friends’ albums sound original and genuine, whether penned in verse (like Maud Cushing’s entry in Lizzie Hersey’s album, April 8, 1876),

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Lizzie Hersey’s Autograph Album

or with a touch of sophistication (like Eliza Cushing’s perfect French in Hattie Cushing’s album, August 14, 1863).

"Pensez a moi, ma chere amie"

“Pensez a moi, ma chere amie” — Hattie Cushing’s Autograph Album

Otis Remington’s humor, penned in Minnie Burr’s album on April 23, 1879, is corny but funnier than The Album Writer’s “humorous” suggestions:

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And inside jokes must have been as prevalent then as they are now:  who knows what Frank Pollard meant by this vaguely ominous note made on April 4, 1872 in Willie Leavitt’s album?

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These Hingham young people left often-endearing reminders of their daily life and friendships in their autograph albums.  They never imagined that their schoolroom would become an historical society’s archives or that these notes exchanged among themselves would survive as “artifacts.”

Lydia Sprague: Young Artist and Scholar (Part 2)

[Second part of a post about young Lydia Sprague, an artistic girl in 1840s Hingham]

Lydia attended school in the large upstairs room at Old Derby that we know today as the “ballroom.” The room was divided in two, with girls in the southeast half and boys in the northwest half. Up to 30 North Parish girls, age 9 or over, could attend the Academy. As a Hingham resident, Lydia’s minimal tuition included supplying her share of firewood during winter for the one stove in the room.

Girls were taught writing, English, French, arithmetic, geography, and needlework, a traditional skill for schoolgirls who demonstrated their proficiency by embroidering samplers.  Our prior post featured examples of Lydia’s penmanship exercises and maps; if any of her needlework survives, it did not come to us.

Drawing was also a desirable skill for young ladies and one at which Lydia Sprague clearly excelled. Her sketchbooks date from 1844 through 1846, beginning when she was 12 years old. They contain numerous landscape vignettes with figures and cottages, charming and detailed and derivative of engraved illustrations she may have seen in local gazettes, copies of European paintings or popular Currier and Ives prints. Copying such images was a common way for a motivated student to develop drawing skills.

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Some sketches in her books appear to be imaginary scenes–

IMG_3214 –but others appear to have been influenced by direct observation. Many landscapes include a bay-shaped expanse of water that suggests Hingham Harbor.

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Other than her school work and drawings, we know little about Lydia Sprague’s life. She grew up in Hingham Center, married young, and had no children. In all likelihood, she set aside her artistic ambitions when the demands of married life shifted her priorities. Similarly, the story of her sketchbooks before they came into the Society’s collection is also a mystery. Lydia’s survive today in very good condition, perhaps treasured and protected for decades by a doting niece or nephew before finding their way into our collection.

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Lydia Sprague: Young Artist and Scholar (Part 1)

IMG_3205Our archives contain a partial school record of an artistic young Hingham scholar.  Her name was Lydia Sprague, and she attended Derby Academy from 1844, when she was 12, through 1846. Her sketchbook, hand-drawn maps, copybook, and other school work provide a glimpse into schoolwork at Derby Academy in the mid-19th century and reveal a schoolgirl’s love of drawing and a desire to excel by attention to detail.

Lydia’s small sketches of possibly local scenes, landscapes, and figures engaged in play and daily life suggest a family talent shared with the more famous Hingham artist Isaac Sprague. Isaac Sprague, an older second cousin, was born in 1811. Like Lydia, he was the son of a box-cooper and grew up in Hingham Center. It is likely that Lydia knew and looked up to her cousin Isaac.

Isaac Sprague was a self-taught artist and naturalist who met early success when he accompanied John Jay Audubon on the 1843 expedition up the Missouri River that led to Audobon’s famous portfolio, “Quadrupeds of North America.” An obituary of Isaac Sprague quoted him as saying, on the subject of his training, “I always had a fondness of making pictures and made small drawings at school.”

IMG_3216Young Lydia Sprague also made “small drawings at school,” and we have in our collection three of her pencil sketchbooks, highly detailed maps of American states and territories, and a copy book of exquisite penmanship. This fascinating legacy conveys her individual achievement as a diligent student and young artist.

The repetitive penmanship exercises of moral phrases and the exhaustive information included on her maps provide a glimpse of Derby Academy’s high expectations both of virtuous behavior and proficiency in these areas of study.

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Before the advent of universal public primary and secondary education, most children who received a good education had affluent parents who could pay for it. Lydia was the daughter of a box-cooper and born in 1832, when most Hingham girls of her class were taught only enough reading, writing, and arithmetic and needlework to prepare them for their lives as the wives or tradesmen, mariners, and artisans. IMG_3198She had the good fortune to have been raised by parents who valued education and who enrolled her for a few years at Derby Academy. This progressive school, the first in New England to offer a rigorous education to girls, was founded shortly after the Revolution and perhaps reflected a new republication concern that women be prepared to raise knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.

–To be continued

A 19th Century Thanksgiving

In 1857, eleven year-old Francis Lincoln of Hingham described his Thanksgiving in a school essay. He writes of roast turkey, a large family gathering, and giving thanks to God, as we would today:

Thanksgiving was the day set apart from work by our forefathers to worship God, after they had gathered in their harvest, and it has been celebrated ever since their time. It is the occasion when Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Brothers and Sisters gather together and have a good dinner of Roast Turkey and Plum-Pudding. I have generally dined at my Grandfather’s, but since he has been unwell and rather old, I have remained at home. I will give you an account of my last Thanksgiving Day. In the morning, I attended church and heard the Rev. Calvin Lincoln preach an excellent sermon. In the afternoon my Father, two brothers and I started on a walk to World’s End, which is more than two miles from our house, but we went to the point which made the walk about one half a mile longer. Solomon then loaded his gun and fired at a target, he also let Arthur fire at an old stump. We got home at about five and a half o’clock having been gone three hours. I therefore spent a very pleasant Thanksgiving.

From our 21st century perspective, two things are missing from Lincoln’s essay. Football, of course, which did not yet exist in its modern form (see our prior post “A Schoolboy Fan of the Boston Game”), and any mention of the 1621 harvest dinner attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

The Puritan settlers of New England had a tradition of “providential” holidays: days of fasting called during difficult times for the community and days of thanksgiving called to celebrate times of plenty or deliverance from strife. In the years following the Revolution, the national government adopted this practice and held periodic thanksgiving holidays. The practice gradually became institutionalized, and in 1816 Massachusetts and New Hampshire were the first two states to establish late fall state holidays of Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims were not particularly identified with Thanksgiving until the late 19th century, as explained in Plimoth Plantation’s on-line “History of Thanksgiving”:

With the publication of Longfellow’s best-selling poem The Courtship of Miles Standish (1848) and the recovery of Governor Bradford’s lost manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation (1855), public interest in the Pilgrims and Wampanoag grew just as Thanksgiving became nationally important. Until the third quarter of the 19th century, music, literature and popular art concentrated on the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock and their first encounters with Native People on Cape Cod. . . . .

The Pilgrims were not ignored in 18th and early 19th century America; we just did not always think of them and turkey dinners at the same time.  In Plymouth, Boston, and other Massachusetts towns, dinners, speeches, parades, and other celebrations were held on December 22, the anniversary of the date in 1620 when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth (having already spent several months on Cape Cod). Our archives include numerous copies of the speeches and sermons given, on what came to be called Forefathers’ Day, by South Shore ministers and politicians, as well as the occasional national luminary, such as John Quincy Adams (1802), Daniel Webster (1820), Edward Everett (1824), and Lyman Beecher (1827).

"The Landing of the Pilgrims" (1877) by Henry A. Bacon

“The Landing of the Pilgrims” (1877) by Henry A. Bacon

Only after the Civil War and in the later years of the 19th century, did representations of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag become focused on the “first Thanksgiving,” i.e., the 1621 harvest celebration. The story of the first Thanksgiving resonated in a country working to restore national unity and reacting to the increasing diversity of its population.

Visiting the Misses Barker

When she was young, Eliza Robbins of Milton enjoyed visiting the Barker sisters of Hingham. As an adult, she wrote a fond memoir of her visits to “The Misses Barker,” which she addressed to her younger sister, Sarah. Her essay, a typescript of which was placed in our archives by early society benefactress Susan Barker Willard, consists mainly of fond character sketches of the three maiden sisters who lived together on North Street in Hingham during the late 18th and early 19th centuries but also provides interesting glimpses of the Town of Hingham during that era.  According to Miss Robbins,

Deborah, Sarah and Bethiah Barker were daughters of Captain Joshua Barker of Hingham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Captain Barker belonged to a good family, when all the families were good—descendants of those primitive and pious colonists who first settled New England. He was a man of high honour, great benevolence and most amiable manner. . . . Mrs. Barker was the cousin of her husband and was the second of three sisters; the eldest died the widow of General Winslow and the youngest, Elizabeth, died single in the house of her nieces. The three sisters, especially the subject of this brief memo, never married.

Miss Robbins’ grandmother, Elizabeth Murray Inman, had owned a millinery business in Boston with the Barker sisters’ “Aunt Betsy” during the mid-1700s and, she explained, “between [the Murrays] and the Barkers an intimacy then commenced that was hereditary to the descendants of both the parties.”

19th century photo of North Street Bank, 115 North Street, formerly the Joshua Barker home

19th century photo of North Street Bank, 115 North Street, formerly the Joshua Barker home

Remembering her visits to the Barker home, which was located on North Street in Hingham Square (next to the present-day Post Office), Miss Robbins wrote:

That parlour was a delightful south room. The fervent heat of the summer sun was broken by the thick shade of a wide spreading plane tree that stood near the house and the glossy tresses of a dangling woodbine hanging over the windows softened the light that entered it, leaving spaces sufficient to look through upon the street to which the ground before the house covered with short velvet grass descended in a gentle slope. On the further side of the street lay the vegetable garden of the neighbor, along the borders of a little brook that ran through them toward the sea, which though out of sight was not far off. Beyond the gardens lay another street—behind that stood a hill on the top of which the villagers bury their dead. On the right hand—onward to the limit of vision, along the path way ran houses, those of traffic and mechanic art—the Academy and the spire of an old Church. None of these objects were picturesque but they had a character, they represented life and death, learning and religion, industry and competency, security and contentment. . . .

Detail from a map of historical names and places in Hingham.  ("Barker Shipyard" belonged to the sisters' uncle, Francis Barker.)

Detail from a map of historical names and places in Hingham. (“Barker Shipyard” belonged to the sisters’ uncle, Francis Barker.)

The basic layout that Miss Robbins describes is remarkably unchanged:  the house faces North Street, the bed of the former “Town Brook” (now the capped Greenbush train tunnel), and then South Street.  On the far side of South Street, Hingham Cemetery, Old Derby Academy, and Old Ship Church run south along Main Street ahead.

Hingham Square, looking south on Main Street, 1861.

Hingham Square, looking south on Main Street, 1861.

 

Hingham Square looking south on Main Street, today

Hingham Square looking south on Main Street, today

Happy 300th Birthday, Madame Sarah Langlee Hersey Derby

Today is the 300th anniversary of Madame Sarah Derby’s birth and a good time to post about a woman whose name looms large in Hingham history—and legend.

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Born Sarah Langlee, daughter of a Hingham tavern keeper, she married well—twice. Her first husband was Dr. Ezekiel Hersey, a prominent and affluent Hingham physician. After his death, she married Richard Derby, a wealthy ship captain and merchant from Salem. (Richard Derby built Salem’s Derby Wharf in the 1750s.) She outlived Captain Derby as well and returned to Hingham to live on the large farm she inherited from Dr. Hersey.

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Local legend created from this a “rags to riches” story (in their Hingham history Not All Has Changed, Francis and Lorena Hart dub Sarah Derby “Hingham’s legendary Cinderella”):  a beautiful young girl growing up poor on the islands of Hingham Harbor, whose names—Ragged, Sarah, and Langlee—described her as a young girl.  Edward Rowe Snow, in his History of the Harbor Islands, put to rest the idea that the islands were named after “ragged Sarah Langlee,” however; these islands bore those names on nautical charts as early as 1700–well before Sarah Langlee was born.

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

But her portrait (made in later years) suggests youthful beauty, as do perhaps the two good marriages.  When he died in 1770, Ezekiel Hersey left his substantial estate to his wife on the condition that she give £1000 to Harvard College.  Sarah Derby added to this her own bequest in the same amount, and together their gifts endowed the Hersey Professorships of the Theory and Practice of Physic and of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, laying the foundation for the establishment of Harvard Medical School.

She remarried, to Captain Richard Derby, in 1771.  It is also a common misconception that this second marriage is what made her a wealthy woman.  In fact, she waived her dower rights when she married Captain Derby, who left his fortune to his family and bequeathed to Sarah Derby only an annual income (and two slaves, also commonly glossed over in legend).

When she returned to Hingham in 1783, Madame Derby was persuaded to endow a new school for Hingham. The school would be co-educational (one of the first co-educational schools in the country) for the instruction of boys “in the Latin, Greek, English, and French languages, and the sciences of Mathematics and Geography” and girls “in writing, and in the English and French languages, arithmetic, andthe art of needlework in general.” As discussed in a prior post (“A Trip to the Principal’s Office—in 1799”), a single preceptor had the charge of both sexes, although a “sensible, discreet woman” taught the girls their needlework.

Sarah Derby's Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Sarah Derby’s Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Madam Derby died in 1784 and is buried in Hingham Cemetery, not far from the site of her school. She provided further funding for the school in her will and instructed that her clock and her portrait (the one appearing at the top of this post) be placed in the school building. The original school building was replaced, in 1818, by a Federal-style structure—Old Derby Academy, current home of our Hingham Historical Society.

MLD013One hundred years ago today, on April 18, 1914, the Town of Hingham joined Derby Academy in celebrating Madame Derby’s bicentennial. A “Birthday Celebration” was held in her honor at Loring Hall. The program for the evening’s entertainment, preserved in our archives, included a local chorus, the Martland Band, from Brockton, English and Latin declamations by alumni, and poetry, essays, and other literary and musical offerings.

Happy Birthday, Madame Derby!

 

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