Category Archives: minutiae

Among the Artifacts: The Licensed Newsboy Badge

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

My fingers first brushed across the small metallic oval a few weeks ago. It was right next to Officer Lee’s Lowell PD badge.  This very different badge was light, too old to be plastic.  I figured it was probably aluminum.   As I slid out the drawer at the Lowell Historical Society’s archive, the flourescent overhead lights flashed across its shiny surface, and caught the lettering of the circle of text within.  It was a licensed newsboy badge. The diaper pin clip on its reverse looked old, ancient, but it was in remarkable shape. And it carried a name that looked quite familiar to the Lowell political scene – Poulios.

A newsboy selling newspapers in Rochester, New York, abt. 1910; (Photo Credit: Lewis Hine, via Library of Congress.)

Having delivered newspapers myself in the eighties and into the nineties, something called a newsboy license and issued by the Lowell School Committee seemed really interesting. By the time the 1980s rolled around, we didn’t need newsboy licenses. But, this badge looked more like something a kid hawking papers on a street corner might have had, as in the “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” variety of newsboy.  Not the type who slipped the paper under your door on some Thursday evening before dinner and the Cosby Show.

This badge, according to the rules published by the Lowell School Committee, was required to be worn by any minors under the age of 14 before they could sell newspapers on any street or public place within the city of Lowell.  And it came with conditions.  Newsboys, for as long as they continued to be licensed, were required to attend ‘every session’  of classes at one of Lowell’s schools, unless properly excused from such attendance.  Newsboys were not allowed to sell, lend, or give the badge to anyone, or to give any of their newspapers to unlicensed minors to sell for them.  The newsboy himself was not allowed to sell newspapers in or near street cars, before six o’clock in the morning or after nine o’clock at night.  Lastly, and clearly visible on the badge, newsboys pledged to exemplify behavior becoming of a young citizen, and were not to smoke, gamble, or do anything to jeopardize their image of good behavior.

This newsboy license looked to be early 20th century to me, and had a name attached to it - Athanasios Poulios.  These things usually make our artifacts easier to research.  And it listed the school that young Poulios attended – the Bartlett.  That was slightly less helpful, since the Bartlett school, named for Lowell’s first mayor, traces its roots in the city to 1856 right up to today.  Athanasios Poulios’ address, at 9 Whiting Street in Lowell, proved valuable too.

The 1940 Census Listing for 9 Whiting Street, Lowell.

Partial 1940 Census Listing for 9 Whiting Street, Lowell.

One good rule of thumb when researching the arts and artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society is ‘never assume anything’.  During 1992 and 1993 – about the time I was delivering the Lowell Sun to homes in the city’s South Lowell district, Tarsy Poulios was mayor.  But, did the badge belong to him?  Without a specific year on the badge, I couldn’t be sure.

Using the address on the badge, 9 Whiting Street, I found the Poulios family living there during the enumeration of the 1940 US census.  With a quick process of elimination across his four brothers, I was able to confirm that Tarsy was a nickname for the ‘Athanasios’ whose name was printed on the front of the badge, and in the census.  I already knew that the badge couldn’t have belonged to one of his sisters since, among the many rules attached to these newsboy licenses by the Lowell School Committee, one specifically stated that ‘licenses shall not be issued to girls, nor to boys under the age of ten years.’

A Lowell Sun photo of Tarsy Poulios from his days with the AMNO in 1977

A Lowell Sun photo of Tarsy Poulios from his days with the AMNO in 1977

All of that dated this newsboy license to the late 1930s or early 1940s, meaning that the badge represents one of Tarsy’s first jobs.  It dated to a time long before his two-year run as Lowell’s mayor in the early 1990s, and before he joined Lowell’s City Council in 1987.  Tarsy wore the badge decades before he even began his political career as a neighborhood activist with the Acre Model Neighborhood Organization, and the Community Development Block Grant Organization before that.

When he died in 2010, Tarsy was recalled as gruff, adept at defending his arguments, and very proud of his roots in the Acre neighborhood (he called it ‘God’s Acre’) and in Lowell’s Greek-American community.  He was elected to City Council on his platform of improving Lowell’s neighborhoods, and had a specific focus on removing abandoned cars from city street, something that Lowell struggled with during the 1970s and 1980s.

A few years after Tarsy was selling newspapers, he graduated with Lowell High School’s class of 1943, and went on to serve his country during World War II when he entered the US Army and saw combat action in Japan, the Philippines and Korea.  He was honorably discharged as a Sergeant in 1946.  When he first came home from the war, he attended an electrical school in Boston, but left when his father died and returned home to Lowell to work in the Merrimack Mills to support his family.  By the time the Merrimack Mills closed in the 1950s, Tarsy had moved on to become a letter carrier, a job he held until he retired in 1984.

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell)

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

As Lowell’s mayor in the early 1990s and throughout his career as a public servant before that, Tarsy most enjoyed helping his constituents who he fondly called Joe and Joan Sixpack, whose parents he delivered mail to for over thirty years, and whose grandparents he sold newspapers to, way back in the 1930s, at the very start of his storied career.  His newsboy badge has held up well, in the 85 years or so since he wore it, selling newspapers in the city he would one day lead.  Its vintage-looking clip looks as if it could still hold the badge to someone’s coat.  And its shiny metallic holder looks much more valuable than the 25-cent replacement fee that Tarsy would have had to pay in order to get a duplicate badge, had he lost it all those years ago.


From the Curator’s Desk: Odd Old Things – The Box of Cinders

At the Lowell Historical Society, we sometimes get the question:  “Hey, what’s the strangest thing you have in your collection?”

That’s a tough question to answer. The Lowell Historical Society has been around for a long time. I’m reminded of this each time I visit our archive. Just this morning, I found a book, one of those old official-looking volumes with the word ‘records’ embossed on its side, that contains minutes from a few decades of our board meetings, starting from 1943.  And then, just next to that, was a stack of correspondence with donors from 1973.  All of this is impeccably preserved.

But the Society’s collection is much older than that.  Its history dates back to its founding in 1868.

That’s a lot of time to collect odd things, that have since become old.

When I stumble upon these, I often think of the question: ‘If you didn’t know to ask for it, how would you ever find it? Or even know it exists?’

This is exactly the case with our Box of Cinders.

The Box of Ashes, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

The Box of Cinders, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

Yes, the cinders, or ashes, are in a heart-shaped box.  As we’re currently in mid-February, I suppose that’s sort of seasonally appropriate.  The note attached to the top of the box, which probably accompanied the donation some ninety-ish years ago, identifies the remains within the box not as . . . some long-lost loved one, but as what one Charles C. Swan, a retired shoe dealer, found on his lawn one Friday morning on June 4, 1926.  The note actually provides a lot of information, which is great.  What’s sadly lacking is some explanation as to why the ashes were put, and kept, in a heart-shaped box, for these last 88 years.  This informational  gap is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in our collection.  Some questions just don’t have a satisfying answer.

The Box of Ashes - Top, with Explanatory Note

The Box of Cinders – Top, with Explanatory Note, which reads:  “CINDERS – Found on lawn on 452 East Merrimack St. Friday morning June 4th 1926.  Came from Pollard Fire June 3rd 1926.  Charles C. Swan

Most folks, after finding something on their lawn one morning, probably wouldn’t think of donating it to their local historical society, but Charles C. Swan must have been a bit of a visionary.  And he was the treasurer of the Lowell Historical Society at the time.  So, he understood the significance of historical events when he saw them unfold.

pollard 1944Charles C. Swan probably saw the flames consuming Pollard’s Department Store the afternoon before, maybe from his home a mile away, at 452 East Merrimack Street.  Or maybe he was downtown as the chaos unfolded late that afternoon.  Maybe he saw the firemen arrive, first from the Lowell Fire Department, then from the surrounding towns of Billerica, Chelmsford, and Dracut.  Firemen from as far away as Lawrence came to join in the fight to save one of Lowell’s largest department stores.  No one died, but several firemen were overcome by the billowing smoke or cut by flying glass.  Four hours later, the fire was history.  But, so was Pollard’s Department Store, which traced its roots in Lowell to 1836.  Only its walls remained.  In the eyes of many, including Charles C. Swan, it truly was a Lowell institution, whose loss would be keenly felt.  Mr. Swan probably couldn’t imagine Lowell without it.

Charles C. Swan must have been overcome at that moment, the next morning, when he found a piece of that history on his lawn.  When he picked it up, and held it – maybe even as the smell of the smoke that had consumed Pollard’s still hung in the air.  So, he found a box in his home on East Merrimack, the heart-shaped box, and saved that little bit of history for posterity by donating his find to the Lowell Historical Society.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph.  Photo by Author

Merrimack Street – Lowell – in Fall 2011. Pollard’s was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. Photo by Author

And it worked too.  Those ashes, which otherwise would have likely blown away in the next spring breeze, or melted into his lawn with the next spring rain, way back in June 1926, are still carefully held and preserved by the Society today.  They’ve survived Charles C. Swan, who died a few years later in 1929, and even the great Pollard’s Department Store, which subsequently rebuilt and reopened, but then closed its doors for good in 1969.

Sometimes the most fragile relics are those which survive the longest.


Yesterday’s Telephone Numbers: GLenview, MOntrose, and ULysses

In those long ago days before cellphones, speed dialing, and stored numbers, folks like Tommy Tutone telephoned girls like ‘Jenny’ by actually dialing 867-5309.  If he was a modern type, he may have even punched the number into the telephone’s touchtone keypad, an innovation that was several years old by the time the song was released in 1981.

And, 20 years earlier, in 1962, Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes sang of a woman who urged men to call her at BEechwood 4-5789 so they could “have a date, any ol’ time”.

A generation before, in 1940, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, memorialized the phone number of Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania with the song PEnnsylvania 6-5000.

Do you find it easier to remember the telephone numbers of your childhood home or friends, than those of any one of the ten cellphones and landlines in your family today?  There was something about dialing a telephone number (or even punching it into a touchtone number pad) that helped commit it to memory.

The telephone companies didn’t always think so, though.  As seven-digit phone numbers were introduced during the middle of the 20th century, companies like New England Telephone and Telegraph added exchange names to existing phone numbers to help people remember the two digits added to the beginning of their phone numbers.  Locally, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company called its telephone exchange names ‘central offices’ when they were implemented in the early 1950′s.  In September 1954, in Massachusetts, along came GLenview for Lowell, ULysses for Tewksbury, NIagara for Tyngsboro, and MYrtle for Westford.  (ALpine for Chelmsford came soon after.)  The two initial letters of the central office names, always capitalized, represented the two initial numbers of the phone number to be dialed.  Hence, as it’s explained below, GL3-2181 becomes 453-2181:

New England Telephone, 1954

The idea behind central office names, beyond helping memories and expanding the pool of available numbers, was to enable ‘wide range dialing’, or allowing people to dial American and Canadian numbers directly into their telephones, without the assistance of an operator. The new system also standardized the numbering system and ensured that each telephone received a unique number.  Under this system, telephone numbers contained three components:  an area designation (now known as an area code), a Central Office designation (consisting of the first two letters of the central office name and the first number thereafter, and the station number (or the last four digits of the telephone number).

New England Telephone and Telegraph, 1964

So, how did it work?  If you were dialing within a central office (or telephone exchange name), you needed only to dial the five figures, as explained above.  If you wanted to call outside of your central office, the two letters were added.

There’s something nostalgic and ‘mid-century sounding’ to a phone number like BEechwood 45789, or more locally, GLenview 8-6361, which was the telephone number to reach one of Lowell’s largest department stores, the Bon Marché.  Today, in an era of Skype and email and text messages, it’s hard to imagine the same sort of nostalgia being attached to a phone number.


Dating Old Photographs – The Clues that Tintypes Hold, 1890

Most family historians have THAT box.  The box always looks roughly the same.  It’s the box that belonged to the toaster your mother had three toasters ago.  Or, maybe it’s a shoebox for a pair of long-lost boat shoes from Thom McAn or a gift box from Anderson Little (remember them?).  Maybe it’s a bag from a now-defunct department store like Stuarts or Caldor.  Not long after I took up genealogy in 1988, I began inheriting boxes and bags like those, and they all had lots of photographs – old ones.  There were some color photographs from the 60′s and 70′s, black-and-white photographs from the 40′s and 50′s, and older sepia-colored photographs beneath those.

The photographs from the latter half of the 20th century are easiest to identify.  Most times, I know the subject; if not, the bell-bottoms or dark wall paneling scream 1974 . . . and a well-placed beehive will strongly suggest the decade before that.  And, once you have an approximate date, it’s fairly simple to deduce that you’re staring at your second-cousin, or Uncle Freddy as a kid, or maybe you’ve uncovered that long-lost great-aunt no one has mentioned since Thanksgiving 1981.

As you move back in time, what gets harder to identify are the black-and-white photographs.  Some have dates printed along their white borders; others have dates stamped on the back.  It’s usually pretty easy to pick out grandparents as parents and parents as children.  Great-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles can also be identified, if not on sight, then by context.

Then, you get to the most interesting photographs – the tintypes, the cabinet cards, and the carte-de-visite (CDV) photographs.  These are the photographs you wish you had had when your grandparents were alive to see them.  Sometimes, you can pick out some family resemblances and these provide valuable hints.  Sometimes, you get really lucky and someone, long ago, labelled the photographs for posterity.  That usually doesn’t happen.

So, what do you do?  In 1990 or so, I got a stack of tintypes (one appears above, to the left) from an aunt, who had gotten them from my grandmother 20 years earlier.  My Aunt had no idea who they were, and the small length of ancient string that had long kept them together wasn’t talking either.  At the time, I knew they were old – probably 19th century, but wasn’t really sure how to proceed.  I had researched some genealogy at that point and knew that that branch of the family had come to Lowell in 1869 from Manchester, England.  I also knew that tintypes like the one above spanned a fairly wide range of years, from 1852 to about 1905 or so.  So, I knew that the photograph could be either English or American and that the woman could be an ancestor from any one of three generations.  That wasn’t very helpful in helping me identify her.

I looked for more clues.  The photograph, like lots of others in the 19th century, was obviously taken in a studio – the odd tree-trunk-looking thing and the landscape backdrop weren’t going to fool me.  But, tintypes don’t carry photographers’ marks.  I guessed the woman’s age to be between 30 and 35, and she appeared to be wearing a ring on her right hand, along with a bracelet, necklace, and earrings.  With a range of 1852-1905 for the photograph, though, I still needed more clues to determine her identity.  Enter fashion.

It’s pretty easy to date photographs from the late 20th century, if you spend a moment studying what people are wearing, or how they’ve fixed their hair.  The same can be said for the 19th century.  The woman in the photograph wears a dress of a common pattern known as “windowpane check”; its sleeves are the easiest indicator of a date on the early side of 1890 – the tight sleeves begin precisely at the shoulder’s tip and portray none of the exaggerated fullness that the rather well-remembered leg-of-mutton sleeves would become known for as the 1890′s wore on.  Her hair is another indicator of the late 1880′s.  The bangs aren’t cut short or styled in the large curls popular in the earlier part of the 1880′s.  Instead, she wears her bangs in a style more prevalent right around 1890.

So, a quick study of fashion can get me a guess of, say, 1890, or so, but what if she wasn’t so well-to-do, and if her dress or hair was out of fashion at the time of the photograph?  I still see people trying to sport haircuts from the early 1990′s.  I needed a little more confirmation before I set about looking for women born around 1855 in my family tree.

I looked at the other photographs, and came across this one, in a different box.  I recognized the background immediately – the bridge, the mountains.  And, that same shaggy carpet is on the studio’s floor.  I put the two photographs next to each and decided I had a match.  Both photographs came from the same studio, most likely.  I was even ready to assume they had been taken on the same day.  Why?  If you look very closely at the first photograph, above, you’ll notice in the extreme lower-right corner, the same chair that the child in the photograph at the right is sitting on.  The photographer didn’t quite succeed in moving it out of the picture.  So, the woman from 1888 had a two-year-old child.  But, I still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the photograph had been taken.  From what I knew about the branch of the family, the most likely choices were Lowell, Massachusetts or Manchester, England.  Of course, there was a chance that the photograph could’ve been taken somewhere else entirely.

That’s when I found this carte-de-visite (CDV) photograph, at left.  Do you recognize the background?  I did too.  That’s even the same chair.  This game of matching was paying off.  On the back of the CDV was the photographer’s mark (right), which can be used to help date a photograph too.  Armed with a set of city directories, I quickly determined that the photographer, Napoleon Loupret was at 51 Central Street in Lowell, Massachusetts from 1885 to 1893.  Bingo – I had a probable date (1888 or so) and a city (Lowell, Massachusetts).  I also knew that I had a family, a woman, who was about 30 or so, who had children, born sometime between 1882 and 1890.

A List of Photographers in Lowell, Massachusetts 1886

When I first started researching this photograph, I had a hunch that the woman was my second-great-grandmother, and that the children were my great-grandmother and her older brother.  The age differences were just about right.  But – once I narrowed the date range to 1885-1893, and later to about 1890 – the ages no longer worked.  My great-grandmother was the youngest of her family, but born early enough that she would have been 12 at the time of the photographs, not 2 or 3 as the children pictured clearly are.  So, the search continues, and the mystery remains unsolved, but when I do uncover and add a woman to my family tree who was born around 1855, with children born in the late 1880′s, I’ll already have photographs that just may show what she looked like in life.

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Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

So, say you’re writing a scene about Edwardian-era police officers in New England, or researching the life and times of a police officer ancestor.  Or, perhaps you’re trying to get an idea of how people got into trouble with the law in the first years of the twentieth century.  You’ll need to know why Edwardian-era people got arrested.

West Gate Towers and Museum, St Peter's Street, Canterbury, Kent. Victorian photograph of policemen, via Wikipedia

In writing newspaper columns and blog posts, it’s interesting to see which topics attract the most interest.  And one of the most popular topics tends to be crimes.  But, what were the most common crimes a century ago?  In a typical year (1904), in a typical New England mill city, like Lowell, Massachusetts with its population of about 100,000 people, police made just over 5,000 arrests.

Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Lowell City Jail (now apartments) on Thorndike Street.

What was the nature of the typical arrest in 1904?  Nearly 73% were for public drunkenness.  Another 13% were for other crimes against the public order, like truancy, which tended to happen in good weather.  Other crimes against the public order were for things that people today are no longer arrested for:  adultery, fornication, lewd cohabitation, and something called bastardy, which today would be called ‘failure to pay child support’, but in this case for a child born out-of-wedlock.  About a dozen arrests were made for those ‘violating the Lord’s day’ in 1904, or operating a business on a Sunday.
A far smaller component of the number of arrests in 1904 was for crimes against property, at just over 10%.  Almost all of these were for larceny, the theft of personal property; a smaller percentage of these arrests were for breaking & entering.  Lastly, the smallest percentage (4%) of arrests involved crimes against people.  In 1904, most of these arrests, about 80%, were assaults; only one was for murder.
The typical person being arrested was likely to be adult and male, nearly 80% fit this description.  About 12% were adult women; the remainder were minors.  Nearly half of those arrested were US-born; about 20% were from Ireland.  The remainder came from other countries.
Knowing how people got into trouble years ago not only tells us what sort of dangers our ancestors faced, but also what sort of dangers they caused too.  And, for those of us with police officers in our family tree, it gives an idea of the nature of the arrests that they made and the demographics of the people they arrested.  Either way, it makes for a fuller picture of the past and for a more interesting story to accompany a family tree.

If you were to walk . . . or race a sleigh through Downtown Lowell’s Streets – 1906

Did you know that Jingle Bells was composed by James Lord Pierpoint in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850?  It’s claimed that the town’s 19th century sleigh races inspired the song, and that it was originally written as a Thanksgiving, not Christmas song.  Why “jingle bells”?  Music historian James Fuld informs that the horse-drawn sleighs of the Victorian era, passing on its snow-covered streets, moved very quickly and in almost complete silence, and needed to “jingle” their bells as they approached intersections to alert other sleighs of their presence.  The first modern traffic light didn’t see an American street until 1914.

By Timmis, Reginald Symonds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Two-Horse Open Sleigh - in Toronto, 1913

But, as our ancestors “dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh”, what did they see as they passed “over the hills” and “laughed all the way”?  In the horse-centric world of Victorian-era cities, they would have seen streets that looked much more residential (read: less congested) than today’s downtown area roads.  In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, if your sleigh got ‘upsot’ by drifting into a snow bank, as the song’s lesser known second verse narrates, your great-grandparents would have seen some fairly gnarled and mistreated trees surrounding them.  On Lowell’s Dummer Street, which connects the city’s Acre neighborhood with its historic downtown district, Great-Grandpa would have seen lots of trees – with some uses that would be considered quite unorthodox today.

He would have seen some trees used as hitching posts for horses, some used as trolley poles, and some even used for billboard supports!  All of these uses caused significant damage to trees in Victorian-era cities.  On two of Lowell’s downtown area streets, the aforementioned Dummer Street, and Dutton Street (one of the thoroughfares leading into the downtown area), he would have seen lots of trees, like the one below, with severe damaged caused by . . . well, hungry horses.  When the horses weren’t otherwise occupied pulling sleighs or wagons through the city’s streets, they were often tethered to trees while their owners attended to downtown business or called upon friends. The horses, hungry and bored, would then gnaw on the trees, which caused some fairly significant damage.

From Lowell's Municipal Records - 1906 City Forester's Report

From Municipal Records of Lowell - City Forester's Report - 1906

Sometimes, cities provided hitching posts for travelers to hitch their horses.  When they didn’t, people improvised.  In the Dutton Street photograph at right, you’ll notice a hitching ring protruding from the tree’s severely damaged trunk.  City foresters of the era advised that tree trunks should be enclosed to a proper height in wire netting and, evidence of what this looked like appears in the Broadway photographs below.  One might surmise, however, that the true intent behind protecting that tree, rather than roadway beautification, was to protect the tree’s use as a trolley pole.

Billboards existed even in Victorian times, and they vexed city residents even then.  Billboards escape mention in Pierpoint’s Jingle Bells, but the use of trees as billboard supports persisted in Lowell as least as late as 1905, when the city passed its own sort of early Highway Beautification Act.  By the end of 1906, the city forester’s department had spent considerable resources removing the billboards from city trees.  It’s said that Lowell’s Branch Street and Dutton Street had the most cases of signs attached to trees.

From Municipal Records - Lowell City Forester's Report 1906

Can’t you just picture dashing through the snow on a road such as this one (below) from Lowell’s Middlesex Village a century ago?  Just add a little snow and some windows glowing with gaslit lamps inside, and you’d have a scene fit for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  But – this photograph, taken in 1906, doesn’t actually show a winter scene.  Instead, these trees are lifeless due to poisoning by “illuminating gas” – the same gas used, in an era before electricity was common, to power lighting in houses.  According to period sources, a considerable leak from a gas main could kill a group of trees in a single night.  Even a very slight leak could kill trees over a long period of time.

As I ponder the third verse of Pierpont’s jingle, and how it recounts the narrator’s rival laughing at him after he falls from the sleigh:

A day or two ago, the story I must tell. 

I went out on the snow,And on my back I fell.

A gent was riding by, In a one-horse open sleigh. 

He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.”

I feel I have a better idea of just what the fallen sleigh rider saw as he looked up at the long ago night sky, past his tormenting rival and into the branches beyond.  I can also envision the trunks of the trees outlining the roads he walked as he made his way home to his gas-lit home and his waiting family.

Happy Holidays, Readers!  And Best Wishes for a Successful 2012!


A Window into the Past: Ancestors’ Letters as Genealogical Records

So, say you’ve inherited a large stack of family photographs showing ancestors who are far up your family tree – such as great-grandparents, or their siblings, cousins, or close family friends.  As you stare into the moment in time captured in that cabinet card or tin type photograph, do you ever wonder what their voices sounded like, or what sort of accent they spoke with?  Do you wonder what words they chose when they spoke?  Or what perspective they brought to their life experiences?  Or even what activities filled a day in their lives?

In some very rare cases, a home movie might surface, allowing you a glimpse of your ancestors (or someone else’s) living through some long-ago day.  For most of us, though, home movies from that far back just don’t exist (and likely never existed).  But, if we’re looking to learn more about the faces in our old photographs, we might be able to rely on letters that have survived through the decades.  Letters provide a sense of immediacy, a glimpse into a moment or day otherwise completely lost to living memory – and it’s all captured in the yellowed pages that you hold in your hands.

I was fortunate to marry into a family who saved . . . everything – photographs, family bibles, letters, journals, Christmas cards, insurance bills . . . and, yes, even old tissues – you know, the ones from long ago that came in shades of hot pink and cool blue.  I’m not sure when those came off the market, but it’s been some time.  I view these as a testament to how dedicated they were in saving just about everything for posterity.

The photographs and family bibles are great, but the letters really go the furthest when I try to flesh out the names, dates, faces, and personalities that have emerged on that side of the family.  Letters can tell you a lot about what words and expressions ancestors used when they spoke, how they pronounced them, what an average day was like for them, and what perspective they brought to their everyday lives.

A Page from the 1900 US Federal Census

In this page from the 1900 US Federal Census, the Hamlett Family appears in Lines 30-35

The Hamlett Family posed for this photograph several years after the 1899 letter was written. Frank is the older man standing in back, at left. Mae stands to the immediate left of her brother, in the photograph's center.

Among the many letters I’ve come across in my in-laws’ collection of family artifacts, was the one below, written in the first days of 1899, by an 11-year-old girl to her father, who was, quite literally, a traveling preacher.  Tessie Mae Hamlett (‘Mae’ to the family) was the second-oldest daughter of the four children of William Franklin Hamlett and his wife, Samantha Ann (Peck) Hamlett.  When the letter was written, the family lived in Americus, Indiana, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana.  The attached page from the 1900 US Federal Census shows the family, just 17 months later, in June 1900.

Frank Hamlett, as he’s come to be known by his descendants, was a preacher in his mid-40′s at the time of the letter.  Mae, just a few days past her 11th birthday, wrote the letter below that reached him at some location whose name has been lost to history.

Below, I’ve attached the front and back of the letter, as well as a transcription.

The Front Page of the Jan. 3, 1899 Letter

From Americus, Indiana – Jan. 3, 1899

Dear papa:

I thought I would write to you this evening to let you know that we are as well as usual and hope this may find you the same.  George and Ann was up to day.  Aunt Susie is sick.  She has got a swelling on her hip.  They butchered to day that little pig. It weighed 125 pounds when it was dressed.

Bessie got a letter from Bennie Pepper to day.  He got home all right.  George said to tell you that he got a letter from worth judgement to day.  Bessie is making her a apron and manson is fixing her shoes.  Manson got mad at Bessie on Saturday but he wasn’t mad long.

We was at Kurkehains saturday night.  We popped pop corn, had lots of fun.  Well, papa, when are you coming home?

We have not heard from Jessie Emmons since they went home.   They left here friday morning about 6 o’clock in the morning and it was 10 o’clock before they got to go

Tessie Mae closes the January 1899 letter on Page 2.

away.

Well, I guess this is all for this time so good night, answer soon, good by.

Tessie Mae to papa

As I typed up the transcription, I kept the original word choice, but not the misspellings, since they appeared to be more the product of an 11-year-old girl learning her spelling than that of a true guide to her pronunciation.  This isn’t always the case, though, especially with letters written by adults.  It’s interesting to see how much contact Mae had with her family.  She makes mention to Bessie, her older sister, an Aunt Susie, and Jesse Emmons, an uncle, who lived with them at the time of the 1900 census, several months later.  There’s a bit of a rural feel to the letter too, encouraged by the talk of the butchered pig.  There’s also talk of clothing made at home – an apron, by her sister, Bessie.  And, perhaps most interesting, there are hints at the way Mae talked, when she notes “we was up at Kurkehains saturday night.”

Letters, sometimes tucked in with stacks of photographs inherited from older family members, or pressed within the pages of yellowed family bibles, provide valuable insight into the lives of ancestors and help us understand them as whole people, and not just sets of names and dates.  After reading some of our Hamlett family letters, I began to get a sense of what their voices sounded like, the accent they might have spoken with, and what words they used when they spoke.  It’s not as telling as a video or a face-to-face interview, but with the upper branches of a family tree, letters may be one of the best available and sometimes most overlooked resources.

Readers, have you come across some interesting family letters from long ago?  Did they help you learn some interesting facts about your ancestors?


If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, 1886

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Faneuil Hall - circa 1903, via Wikipedia Commons

If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, you would encounter a large assortment of the city’s vegetable and meat merchants, selling their wares from the many wagons crowding the scene.  Today, although these merchants have long since moved on to other areas of the city, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still a great place for people-watching.  Traversing its brick walkways, you’ll see commuters rushing for trains, tourists following the Freedom Trail, shoppers carrying bundles, and even street performers entertaining passersby.  But, even amidst so many reminders of present-day Bostonian life, the history of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are still very evident.

Faneuil Hall, first built in 1742, has served as a marketplace since its beginnings and has witnessed speeches by historical figures such as Samuel Adams and James Otis as well as more recent lawmakers like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who declared his candidacy for president there in 1979.  Quincy Market, built a generation later in the mid-1820s, accommodated the  growing demand for shop space on what was then Boston’s waterfront, and provided an indoor shopping pavilion for shoppers and merchants seeking staples like eggs, cheese, and produce.  Butchers selling meat began coming soon after.  Evidence has been found that the butchering occurred on site.

While researching posts for this blog, I found an article in an 1886 edition of the Boston Daily Globe that vibrantly captured life at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market 125 years ago, in Boston’s Victorian era.  When looking through old newspapers, it’s rare to find such a vibrant first-hand account as the one below that shows Boston scenes that transpired so long ago.  What follows is a transcription of that account, from the pages of the Boston Daily Globe, November 25, 1886, Page 4:

Great Fun Buying Fowl.

The Market Jammed with Thanksgiving Shoppers – Sights Seen and Bits of Curious Conversation Overheard.

uincy_Market,_Boston,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views_2

Quincy Market, Boston, via Wikipedia Commons

She had come to the market with her mamma the afternoon before Thanksgiving to buy a turkey, and for the want of anything else to do for a minute jumped upon some scales that stood empty on the sidewalk just back of the Cradle of Liberty.  She couldn’t manage the weights very well; but a rosy-cheeked, auburn-whiskered marketman, who doubtless looks as handsome as any in his Sunday clothes, threw himself into the breach.  The young woman weighed 132 pounds.

“That isn’t very much, ” said the marketman, becoming acquainted in spite of himself.  “I’ve got a daughter at home who is only 14, and she weighs 140.”

But 132 wasn’t bad, for the daughter of the old lady who was buying a turkey, besides being a favorite by her very looks and manner, was short and shapely.  She must have been solid, too.

There are a hundred funny things at the market the day before Thanksgiving, because the stalls of Faneuil Hall and Quincy market and the narrow alleys between the rough counters improvised in the streets are crowded from early morning till late at night.  The dealers are prepared for business.  They not only stock the stalls fully, but buy loads of fowl that are brought in from the country and get men to sell them on commission at the stands.  Perhaps twenty rows of these extend almost to the south sidewalk of South Market street, and perhaps 200 men, eager for a trade, stand by.  A thousand people throng around and purchase, if they can decide to do so.

It is an odd sort of person who doesn’t buy a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Here are a tall young man and a tall young woman, who looks like his wife, taking a lesson in social economy together.  They depend a good deal on the honesty of the man who is extolling the youth and beauty of his birds.  Here is a grey-haired matron who feels the breastbone of a turkey over with her black kid gloves to see if it is as soft as indifferently as if they could be bought for seventeen cents a pair.  Here is a stylish young maiden with a music roll on one arm and

A Turkey, or the Legs of One, 

sticking up, like the handle of a parasol, over the opposite shoulder.  Here is a fat woman, dressed in a shawl that must have been brought from the old country, looking the counters over again to make sure that she had struck a good bargain; and little Mamie, looking satisfied in spite of the big load of fowl she is carrying, trudges along by her side and tries not to get lost till after Thanksgiving.  Here is a policeman, majestic and self-possessed, paying for his dinner like other people out of a very ordinary-looking pocket-book; for why should the spirit of mortal be proud in a crowd like this?  Here is a large-eyed, dark-skinned Italian boy ruinously selling thirty-six bundles of matches for twelve cents; at the risk, too, of seeming out of place.  Here is a little man selling roasted chestnuts out of measures which have their inside bottoms half way up the sides.  Here is a slight, pale-faced dame, in gaudy plush bonnet and ill-fitting threadbare cloak, making her way homeward as well as she can with a live duck under each arm.  Here is General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, inquiring the price of turkeys at a stand where they are thirteen cents a pound, and passing sedately on.

A well-kept elderly gentleman, who seemed to know a great deal, stood on the steps of Quincy Market yesterday and surveyed the crowd.  “There will be more of them here later,” said he, “when they get out of work.  These commission men have been here since 4 or 5 in the morning.  They sell for these fellows inside.  A good many seem to think they get better bargains outside.  Well, they do get fowl cheaper, but they get it poorer.”

“Oh, they are selling all the way from ninepence to eighteen and twenty cents a pound.  These fellows don’t make more than 2 per cent profit on the whole, though a good seller will clear $10 or $12 or even $20 a day.  It’s lively, though.  I suppose they will be all sold out by 9 o’clock.  Or, if there are some left, they go to the cold storage to be sold in sixty days, perhaps, or three months, at 4 or 5 cents a pound, for Sunday dinners at the boarding-houses or cheap hotels.  There isn’t any waste.”

A GLOBE young man did not loaf for half an hour in the crowd without catching some curious bits of conversation.

Artist:  Jean Béraud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An 1880's Street Scene, Showing Period Fashions

Mrs. McCarty and Mrs. McIntyre

who both live over in the seventh ward, came face to face in the middle of Quincy Hall, dropped their turkeys in the sawdust, and shook hands.  “Well, now,” says Mrs. McCarty, “ain’t you a stranger.  Ain’t ye niver coming over?”  “Sure,” says Mrs. McIntyre, “I couldn’t tell where ye lived no more than a fool ; but Jamesie he told me it was number 15.  Has the old man got work, thin?”  “Faith, he has,” says Mrs. McCarty, “and the children won’t go hungry tomorrer.”

A rustic couple came down the hall looking this way and that, but faithfully keeping hold of hands.  A fat, good-natured fellow selling bologna sausage in one of the stalls saw them, and said to his companion in arms who was cutting up a rib:  “He needn’t cling to her so; nobody in her wants her.”

One of the marketmen outside very much hurt the feelings of a fine old Irish gentleman by talking to another customer because he wasn’t very quick to purchase.  “These are all young, as you can see, and you can’t do better than fourteen cents.”  remarked the marketman.  “I find no fault with your fowl, my friend,” said the old fellow.  “I know they were born yesterday; but if you don’t sell them cheaper now you will have to before night.  I don’t believe that bird weighs twelve pounds anyhow.”  “Oh, yes,” put in a neighboring marketman, in a low tone; “he’s all right with the scales.  I’ve been watching him all day.”

A sad-eyed lady approached a young man who rested for a moment on the big stone steps.  “Can you tell me, sir,” said she, “how much a 9¼ lb. turkey would come to at fourteen cents a pound?  I think he charged me too much.  But I was so confused with looking around that I couldn’t think.  I could do it out in a minute if I was home.”

“Let’s see,” replied the young man, slowly, “9¼ lbs. at 14 cents a pound.  Nine times 10 would be 90, and 9 times 4 would be 36; that’s $1.26.  Fourteen times 1/4 would be 3½; that’s 1.29½.  How much did he charge you?”

“He charged me $1.32,” said the woman not very disgustedly; “but that ain’t much.  I guess he can have it,” and she took her basket up and went away.

Two portly, well-to-do gentlemen, both on Thanksgiving errands, met near the door of Faneuil Hall.  One had made a purchase.  “That’s a good turkey,” said he proudly, “and it only cost ninepence a pound.  “Why don’t you try this man?”

“I think I will later,” replied the other.  “Er – we lost Dr. Withrow, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” said the first, “I guess it’s all right; though I can’t help thinking it would have been better if he had come right out and said in the first place that he’d better go.”

“Yes, yes,” answered the second again; “he’s done right.  Here’s this row coming on and there was a tempting offer.  It’s all right.”

“How your daughter has grown,” exclaimed the first as he hurried away.  The daughter was indeed a bouncing girl of 8.


Turkey Drovers – Traditions from Thanksgiving Days Past

Female wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) take...

Wild Turkeys, Image via Wikipedia

It turns out that wild turkeys are incredibly difficult to move across long distances.  In the days before refrigerated travel, a national roadway system, and even railroads, driving turkeys across long stretches of land was the province of men called turkey drovers.  From 1790 to about 1830, turkey drovers walked turkeys to market, literally, at a top speed of about one mile per hour.  In Massachusetts, this meant driving, or walking, a flock of turkeys from Central Massachusetts to the meat market in Brighton, just outside of Boston.

Each fall during the nation’s first decades, turkey drovers could be seen driving their turkeys across the lesser travelled byways of New England; the horse traffic of the day apparently proved a worthy distraction that slowed the driving of the turkeys even more.  Turkey driving was a dawn-to-dusk activity.  At the first sign of darkness, turkeys bolt for trees, ascend into them, and roost for the night.  For this reason, turkey drovers, usually travelled in covered wagons and took turns protecting the roosting turkeys from predators (both animal fauna and humans) as well as from simply wandering off.

Another peril in turkey driving: turkeys tend to crowd together when being driven and will trample each other.  To overcome this, men called shooers divided the turkeys into lots of up to 75 birds, and led the turkeys along their route using a long pole, with a piece of red flannel attached to the end.

So, when picturing the Thanksgiving Days of yore during this year’s holiday season, add the turkey drover and his large flock of turkeys to your conjured images.  Happy Thanksgiving, readers!

 


Slice of Victorian Life: Skunking with a Ten-Foot Pole

Modern 120-hole cribbage board

A Cribbage Board, Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, when researching a column or even a post, a view into a slice of life from the past will emerge.  Today’s ‘slice of life’ comes to us from late 19th-century Bath, Maine.  As November wore on in 1895, skunking became popular in town.  Being a card player, ‘skunking’ makes me think of cribbage – specifically, winning a cribbage game by more than 30 points (or by more than 60, which qualifies as a double-skunk).  The men and boys of Bath, Maine, though, had a different activity in mind.  Skunking, to them, meant gathering together poles and guns, and a couple of lanterns, and setting off to hunt down skunks of the black-with-white-striped variety.  They soon discovered that guns left quite a mess; so, the preferred way to skunk was with, of course, a ten-foot pole.  Besides ridding Bath, Maine of its native skunk population (skunks were viewed as pests), they could then sell the skins for $1 to $2.50, and even sell the oil.  The skins, when dressed and dyed, were considered quite fashionable.

Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis)

Skunks, Image via Wikipedia

Source:

“Fall Fun.” The Bath Independent. Bath Me. 16 Nov. 1895, 3.