When settlers first arrived in New England they had a lot to learn. One of the first things was how to grow corn. Native Americans taught the new settlers how to fertilize soil for the corn with “three herrings to a hill,” as Eleanor Roosevelt tells us in This is America, the 1942 photodocumentary she wrote with Hingham resident Frances Cooke Macgregor.
Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Macgregor worked together on the book at the suggestion of the publisher, G.P. Putnam Sons of New York. The text was written by Mrs. Roosevelt and the photographs were taken by Mrs. Macgregor. In January 1942 Eleanor came to Hingham to meet with Mrs MacGregor at her Stoddard Street home. Frances Cooke Macgregor was a published author and photographer. She had already taken many photographs for the book and she and Eleanor together decided upon those they both felt would be most effective. The United States had just entered the Second World War and their hope was to produce a book that showed life in small town America and to help Americans understand what it was they were fighting for.
While in Hingham, according to an account of her visit in the Hingham Journal of January 8th 1942, Mrs. Roosevelt dropped in on a League of Women Voters meeting, chatting informally with members and answering their many questions at this time of uncertainty in the country. The First Lady found Hingham’s architecture, a mix of old colonial mansions, gingerbread Victorians, and charming Cape Cod cottages, to be delightful and much copied in other parts of the country. She is reputed to have described Hingham Main Street as the most beautiful Main Street in America.
When Mrs. Roosevelt saw Hingham, she felt she had found “a picture in miniature of the whole nation.” One purpose of the book was to affirm what it meant to be an American, regardless of ethnicity, and Eleanor was thrilled to discover that the Hingham High School football squad that year had players whose families had come from eight different parts of the world and that Hingham was home to Dutch and Polish farmers, Italian shoe makers, and a German harness maker, amongst many others. In 1942 Hingham had a population of 8,000. It still had 50 farms—but it also had a commuter train., and much of its population now travelled to work in Boston. There were, of course, schools, churches of all kinds, and a public library with 28,000 volumes. The Loring Hall movie theater would be showing Citizen Kane the following week.
Children played outside in the still plentiful open spaces. A favorite winter activity was known here as pung-riding, a term unknown in most of the rest of the country. A pung was a low box sleigh drawn by a horse. Often hay would be placed inside and the children would snuggle down to enjoy the ride. The more adventurous would ride on the runners, jumping off one pung and onto another while both were gliding swiftly over the snow.
With Mrs. Roosevelt’s words and Mrs. Macgregor’s photographs, the women wanted to portray American ideals. They hoped that all across the country ordinary people would recognize themselves in the descriptions of Hingham and its citizens and understand that their values and aspirations were also true of them.
A collection of Frances Cooke Macgregor’s photographs of Hingham—which she personally selected and gave to the Historical Society in the early 1990s—are currently on display at the Hingham Heritage Museum. A presentation of “Tea With Eleanor’ with the actress Sheryl Faye in the persona of Eleanor Roosevelt will take place at Hingham Heritage Museum on Saturday, November 16th at 3:00 pm. Please click here to purchase tickets on-line or buy in advance at the Hingham Heritage Museum: seating is limited. We hope you’ll take advantage of the both of these opportunities to learn more about these remarkable women and their connection to Hingham.