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.”

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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A Resolution Reached At Town Meeting

ayrshireThe great thing about poking around in an archive as rich as ours at the Hingham Historical Society is that connections are there to be made.  Half the story might be in one document—and then the other half pops up.  A prior post on this blog (“An Appeal to Town Meeting”) was about the address of an unnamed 18th century farmer to Hingham’s Town Meeting.  The farmer had complained that he was unable to drive his livestock to pasture at the Great Lots, or bring off any produce, because  another Hingham farmer, Thomas Hersey, had built a stone wall across a public way.  The farmer had came to Town Meeting armed with evidence that, he claimed, proved that one hundred years previously the Town had authorized the laying out of a road to ensure the access to the very same Great Lots now blocked by Mr. Hersey.  And there the story ended.  The documents we were looking at were from the Hersey Family papers, and they left the identity of the petitioner and the outcome of the dispute unknown.

Detail from D.A. Dwiggins' map of Hingham, "The Old Place Names," 1935

Detail from “Historic Map of Hingham, Mass.,” Hingham Public Library Local History & Special Collections

But it turned out that the rest of the story was nearby, in our Thaxter Family papers, because the unhappy petitioner was John Thaxter, Sr., who left a memorandum describing the resolution reached at Town Meeting, together with the “true copy” of the 17th century Town Meeting vote upon which he relied.  John Thaxter presented the dispute to Town Meeting on December 17, 1794.  He presented evidence that in June 1694, almost exactly 100 years previously, Josiah Loring had complained to the Town Meeting that he could not access his own pasture at the Great Lots.  The solution he had proposed, which was accepted by the Town, was the laying out of a public way between Broad Cove Lane and Goles Lane (the “Turnpike”) adjacent to the Great Lots and the Squirrel Hill Lots.  According to Thaxter’s memorandum, written the next day, here is what happened:

At a Legal town meeting in Hingham June ye 19th 1794.  The within votes of the Town [i.e., the 1694 record] were presented to the Town by John Thaxter as a memorial that the high way from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street which has been passed & repassed on time immemorial is now stopped up by Thomas Hearsy erecting a stone wall across the same whereby said Thaxter is deprived from going to his pasture at great Lotts in a great measure.  As the meeting was thin the town thought there was a probability of said Thaxter & Hearsy settling the difficulty subsisting between them and they labored for an accommodation.  Said Thaxter then made said Hearsy a proposal.  As both of them had said they would not remove the wall, that if said Hearsy would send a hand he would another to remove the wall, which said Hearsy agreed to.  Then said Thaxter withdrew the memorial and nothing further was acted by the Town.  The wall was removed the next day.

So, with some encouragement (or pressure) from their neighbors, John Thaxter and Thomas Hersey settled their dispute, agreeing to share the job of removing the stone wall which Thaxter had proved was an obstruction on a public way.

Thaxter and Hersey were contemporaries, born two years apart in the early 1730s.  Hersey lived on Lincoln Street, Thaxter on South Street; both spent their entire lives in Hingham, except for military service and Thaxter’s years at Harvard College.  They must have known each other very well.  We don’t know what their personal relationship was or how this incident fit into it.  They have, however, provided us a glimpse into how local land use disputes were handled in a long-ago era.

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.

An Appeal to Town Meeting

The terminology used in these 18th century manuscripts will be familiar to any contemporary participant in Hingham’s Town Meeting:  “Mr. Moderator,” the first opens, “As I requested the article in the warrant we are now upon to be inserted, [I] suppose it is expected I should shew for what reason it is inserted . . . .”  We do not know who is addressing Town Meeting or who made these notes, but we understand immediately what’s happening.

The speaker explains that he enjoys the use of 27 acres of land at “Great Lotts,” half “tillage and mowing land” and half pasture, “to no part of either of which can I carry any manure or bring off any produce or drive my oxen or cows but upon sufferance.”  The problem, as he describes it, is that when the town laid out the “Great Lotts” and “Squirrel Hill Lott” one hundred years previously, the intention had been to lay out a road running between Goles Lane and Broad Cove Street, to allow access to the lots.  (Broad Cove Street is now called Lincoln Street and Goles Lane, also formerly called the Turnpike, is now Beal Street.  The Great Lots were survivals of the practice, in the earliest days of settlement, of assigning settlers planting lots and pasture at a far remove from the thickly-settled residential center of town.)

A town committee was appointed, the speaker claims, to lay out this road, and ¾ of its roughly one-mile route was fenced.  The task was not completed, however, and recently Thomas Hersey had built a stone wall where the road ran across his property.  For the speaker, the stakes were high:  “if I cannot get to my Land [I] shall be reduced to the hard necessity of keep[ing] two cows & driving my oxen to the worlds end & keep[ing] a horse the greater part of the summer at the barn.”

It demonstrates just how old our town is that this 18th century Hingham farmer was basing his argument on what he claimed were the Town’s mid-17th century actions.  Remarkably, he appears to have had documentary evidence to support his contention.  A second set of notes in the same handwriting, perhaps of a second application to the Town, opens:

Mr. Moderator.  What I propose by Laying before the Town the record that has now been read is to shew the sentiments of the Town respecting a highway from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street 100 years ago, which the Inhabitants have passed  & repassed since time immemorial but is now entirely stopped up by Mr. Thomas Hersey . . . .

Hingham’s town seal pays tribute to the four pillars upon which the town was founded and grew:  Church, School, Train-Band (the militia), and Town-Meeting.  These two manuscripts remind us of the central role played by Town Meeting, which, as the legislative branch of our municipal government, has offered individual citizens a direct voice in municipal government for close to four centuries.