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.

The Hingham Ice Harvest

Ice joined the arsenal of food preservation tools in the 19th century, and local business devoted to producing and distributing ice to homes and business grew up.  (An earlier food preservative, salt, was the subject of an earlier post, “The Old Salt Works.”)  Local businesses harvested ice from Hingham’s many ponds, stored it, and sold it during the warmer months.  These photographs from our archives document Charles T. Leavitt’s ice operations on Cushing Pond in South Hingham:

Cutting ice at Cushing Pond

Men with horses and sleds cut ice at Cushing Pond

Ramp to Leavitt's Ice House, January 31, 1898

Ramp to Leavitt’s Ice House, January 31, 1898

Charles Leavitt's Ice House, January 31, 1898

Charles Leavitt’s Ice House, January 31, 1898

Each ice block was hand cut and weighed up to 400 pounds.  Blocks were sledded to shore, carried to the icehouse, and loaded in, so that the ice completely covered the floor space and then was layered until it reached the roof.  Properly piled and insulated, ice would remain frozen throughout the summer and into the following fall.  In Walden, Henry David Thoreau provided a description of the ice storage process:

They divided it into cakes by methods too well known to require description, and these, being sledded to the shore, were rapidly hauled off on to an ice platform, and raised by grappling irons and block and tackle, worked by horses, on to a stack, as surely as so many barrels of flour, and there placed evenly side by side, and row upon row, as if they formed the solid base of an obelisk designed to pierce the clouds. . . .  At first it looked like a vast blue fort or Valhalla; but when they began to tuck the coarse meadow hay into the crevices, and this became covered with rime and icicles, it looked like a venerable moss-grown and hoary ruin, built of azure-tinted marble, the abode of Winter . . . .

They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever? It is commonly said that this is the difference between the affections and the intellect.

Charles T. Leavitt distributed ice in Hingham and around the South Shore until 1902, when he sold out to George C. Hayward, who continued to sell ice for another twenty or so years.  In January 1914, the Hingham Journal reported :

Mr. George C. Hayward, Hingham’s popular iceman, began Monday morning on cutting his ice for the season of 1914 at Cushing’s Pond, South Hingham. He has good clear ice of ten inch thickness.

By the second World War, however, most people in this area had electric refrigerators, and the days of the icebox and ice delivery were over.

"C.T. Leavitt Ice" Delivery Truck on South Street, Hingham

“C.T. Leavitt Ice” Delivery Truck on South Street, Hingham

The Old Salt Works

Illustration from "The Old Salt Works," Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1 (1916)

Illustration from “The Old Salt Works,” Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1 (1916)

The manufacture of salt in Hingham commenced at Broad Cove around 1812.  Buoyed by the rapid growth of Hingham’s fishing industry in the early years of the 19th century, several salt works were built, both at the easterly end of the harbor, near the steamboat landing, and on the salt meadows at Broad Cove.  Salt manufacture, “one of the old industries of Hingham,” was the subject of a paper presented to the Hingham Historical Society at its January 24, 1916 meeting, by Orin Brewster Sears, “a son of the proprietor of the [salt] works.”   The salt works owned and operated by Orin Brewster Sears’ father, also named Orin Sears, were built in the salt meadow along Otis Street, accessed by Fearing Road.  They were the last salt works to operate in Hingham.

In his paper, “The Old Salt Works,” published in 1916 as “Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1,” Sears described the method of extracting sea salt by solar evaporation.  Salt water was pumped from the harbor into two long rows of vats around 200 feet long, called the “water rooms,” which ran up from the harbor at the westerly end of the salt meadow.  The pumps used to fill the water rooms were powered by a pair of windmills.  The water sat in the vats, evaporating, until it began to deposit lime, at which point it was drawn, through a system of hollow logs, to the “pickle rooms.”  There, as evaporation continued, lime and other unwanted constituents of sea brine were separated from the salt and water and salt crystals began to form.  The liquid would then be drawn, again through hollow logs, to another set of vats in the “salt rooms.”   Here, as the salt crystals increased in size, they dropped to the bottom of the vats and were raked together, drained, and carried to the “salt house” to dry.  The entire process took around three weeks.

Illustration from "The Old Salt Works," Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1

Illustration from “The Old Salt Works,” Hingham Historical Society Publication No. 1

The Sears family was instrumental in the development of New England’s salt industry.  Pre-revolutionary colonists imported salt from England.  The war-time embargo created a crisis on Cape Cod, where salted fish was a staple food and primary export.  Captain John Sears of Dennis is credited with having invented the method of sea salt extraction by solar extraction described above.  Well suited to New England’s climate, it was adopted across the Cape as our domestic salt industry grew, aided by tariffs imposed by the young United States government.  It was also the system used in Hingham.  Orin Sears moved to Hingham from Dennis in 1846, motivated by “the desire to keep his boys from going to sea,” then “the only lucrative business on the Cape.”  He purchased the salt works described in the Historical Society paper, although the heyday of the local salt industry had already passed.  Between the mid-1830s and the mid-1850s, as the result of the decline of its fisheries and the development of alternate domestic sources of salt, Hingham’s salt production declined from over 20,000 bushels a year to fewer than 2,000.

The Historical Society’s early interest in Hingham’s “old industries” went hand in hand with the early 20th century belief in progress.  Sears waxed philosophical in his talk about the disappearance of the old ways:

It may seem strange to some of us in this day of development, with mines of rock salt, salt lakes, and salt springs almost everywhere, that our fathers should have been obliged to procure their supply from the ocean; no less so that with our country filled to overflowing with petroleum, they should have been obliged to brave the dangers of the whale fishery, for oil for illuminating purposes.  Those of us who have lived to watch the transition from tallow candle to the electric light, from the lumbering stage coach over rough roads to the automobile on the modern oiled stone boulevards or swifter steam express trains, from the messenger to the wireless telegraph, have reason to thank God that we live in the twentieth century.

Enjoying the “Cool Sea Breezes” at Hingham’s Old Colony House

The advent of mass transportation in the mid-19th century helped create the summer tourism industry that has been so important to our regional economy.  When New England and the Sea, an historical survey of our maritime heritage, addresses the rise of seaside resorts, it tips its hat to Hingham:  “. . . one had to have a summer house at the shore, or go to the White Mountains, or stay at one of the fashionable hotels—say, the Old Colony House at the head of the harbor in Hingham . . . .”

A gathering in front of the Old Colony House. Photograph from the archives at the Hingham Historical Society.

Built in 1832 by the Boston & Hingham Steamship Company, the Old Colony House was an early example of the symbiotic relationship between the infant transportation and recreation industries.  The steamboat George Lincoln made the trip from Boston to Hingham swift (around 75 minutes) and pleasant, while the Old Colony House, erected on Summer Street near Martin’s Lane, created a destination, increasing passenger traffic on the vessel.  The railroad came through Hingham in 1849, and one of the stops on the new South Shore Railroad, called “Old Colony House,” was close by the hotel, providing easy access from Boston—and soon thereafter, the opportunity to change trains for Nantasket.  (The station’s descendent is today’s Nantasket Junction stop on the MBTA Greenbush Line.)  After the Civil War, the great Nantasket hotels drew business away from the Old Colony House, which was in decline when it burned in 1872.

The Historical Society’s archives include a collection of the business papers of Alfred C. Hersey.  Among Hersey’s many business interests (largely in the shipping and transportation industries) was the Old Colony House, which the steamship company sold in the late 1830’s.  Hersey’s 21-page handwritten inventory of the hotel’s furnishings, made in May 1860, provides important detail about what a New England resort hotel of the 1860’s was really like.

The inventory faithfully describes the furnishings of each room of the hotel, including dining room, parlors, billiard room, bowling alley, and office, specifying quantities, materials, and state of repair.  In the “East Parlor,” for instance, guests could sit on their choice of 6 damask covered sofas (4 “slightly stained”), 1 stuffed arm chair, 13 black walnut stuff bottom chairs, a stuffed rocking chair, and 10 black arm chairs (which had among them, however, only 8 cushions).

A typical guest room was furnished with a bedstead, mattresses, bolster and pillow, bureau, washstand, looking glass, mosquito netting, chamber pot and cover, soap cup, mug, and curtains.  A servant’s room in the attic, by contrast, had a bedstead, mattress, bolster and pillow (“stained”), wooden chair, toilet table (“defaced”), “small” looking glass, basin and ewer, and soap cup.  (Servants’ rooms in the scullery appear to have had significantly fewer furnishings.)

The inventories of the kitchen and laundry provide detailed lists of equipment.  To launder the hotel linens and guests’ clothes required water casks, grease casks, basins, wash boards, starch pans, a mangle, clothes horses, brushes, 11 flat irons, iron racks, and an iron heater.

The contents of the kitchen and “pastry room” tell us about the hotel’s fare.  There were large and small frying pans, copper and iron sauce pans, a meat saw, large and small steamers, tin and copper baking and cake pans, iron cake molds, tin jelly molds, a gridiron, waffle irons, coffee pots, a tea chest, ice cream freezers, an ice cream chest, and an ice cream scoop.  The “pastry room” was furnished with a bed—the pastry cook must have needed to rise early.

In a series of travel letters published as A Trip to Boston in 1838, Enoch Cobb Wines wrote warmly of the

splendid and well-kept Old Colony Hotel, the refined social pleasures it affords, the noble view enjoyed from the observatory on its roof, and the cool sea breezes that almost enable you to put summer at defiance. . . . [It]t presented a gay and happy appearance.  The broad piazza which surrounds three sides of the house was thronged with smiling groups, in which a due intermixture of the gentler sex was not wanting . . . .

. . . There was an excellent band from Boston there, and we had the poetry of music, the poetry of motion, and the poetry of social happiness, all in high perfection; and afterwards the poetry of sound sleep in the cool air, for which the proprietor of the Old Colony seems to have made a perpetual contract.