Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Bedford’s Fawn Lake – and its Sweetwater Hotel

The memory of the Sweetwater Hotel lives on in the name of Sweetwater Avenue, off Bedford’s North Road.

If you were to travel Bedford’s North Road in, say, 1908, you would see, as you progress into the town’s northern reaches, a road named Sweetwater Avenue.  Sweetwater Avenue led to Dr. William Richardson Hayden’s Sweetwater Hotel, built in 1897 near Fawn Lake, itself well-known for its ‘restorative properties’ that were said to cure many stresses and ailments.

Dr. Hayden, well-known in the Bedford area as the president of the New York Pharmaceutical Company, had built the Sweetwater Hotel on the site of the former Springs House, which had been constructed about 50 years earlier, in 1843.  The fame of  the ‘sweet water’ found in Fawn Lake dates back many years before that, however.

In Katharine Mixer Abbott’s 1908 book, Old Paths and Legends of New England, the magic of Bedford’s sweet water is traced back to an ‘Indian’ legend, which told of the Nipmuck Indians, who once inhabited the forests surrounding the three mineral springs that were eventually constructed into Fawn Lake.  As the story goes, the Nipmucks had captured a young pioneer and tied him to a tree.  Before the pioneer could be put to death, however, Sweet Water, a young woman well-known not only for her beauty, but also for being the daughter of Chief Mancomee, took the brand warming in the embers of the bonfire and cried:

“The great spirit is angry.  The pale-face shall not die, unless Sweet Water dies with him.”

Soon after, Mancomee spared the man, and unbound him.  He eventually married Sweet Water and became a counsellor of the tribe.

From the Automobile Blue Book, 1911 ed.

Several generations later, in 1843, the Springs House rose near the site.  The Springs House, later the Hotel Sweetwater, quickly became an attraction for city-dwellers seeking relief from their ailments and stresses.  Access to it quickly became much easier with the construction of the Billerica & Bedford Narrow Gauge Railroad in 1877.  With the increased revenues, Dr. Hayden built out the hotel, and added a pharmaceutical laboratory there in 1892, capitalizing on the fame of the water’s restorative powers.

With its well-appointed dining rooms,  the Hotel Sweetwater offered afternoon tea for ladies, and steam-heat to keep its guests warm.  The hotel boasted a ballroom, billiards, a pool, and even a bowling alley.  The Sweetwater’s grounds included a nine-hole golf course.  It even had a garage that offered gasoline and oil, in 1911, as automobiles were just emerging on town roads.

Bedford’s Fawn Lake Today – Photo taken by Author – June 15, 2012

Dr. Hayden died in 1903, at the age of 82.  Several years later, in 1917, the hotel was demolished.  The pharmaceutical laboratory built on the site was converted years later, in 1985, into condos now known as Sweetwater Place.  Today, Fawn Lake remains at the site of the former Sweetwater Hotel, a twelve-acre lake framed by an additional 25 acres of forests and walking trails.  The memory of the Sweetwater Hotel lives on in the name of the road leading to the Lake, which intersects with another road, named after Dr. Hayden.  The descendants of Dr. Hayden sold the lake to the town of Bedford, Massachusetts in 1978.


Lowell High’s Entrance Exam in 1865 – Difficult Questions and High Expectations

High school entrance exams during the Civil War era were hard, really.  For arithmetic, 14-year-olds in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to calculate the diameter of a cannon ball weighing 250 pounds, if the diameter of a 128-pound ball was 8 inches.  In grammar, they were asked for the plurals of Mr. Smith, Miss Smith, and Dr. Brown.  In the area of geography, they were asked to draw the Merrimack River and its branches, and locate the important towns on its banks.    And in history, students were asked which European nation had been the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, and to name the year in which it occurred.

The man behind the questions was Abner J. Phipps, a Superintendent of Schools in Lowell.  At a time when the very worth of his position was being questioned, Phipps was a firm believer in a good education for Lowell’s children.  Phipps had been known to say that ‘a parent who sends his son into the world uneducated, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family; he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to us a nuisance.’  He apparently extended this responsibility to the Lowell school system.

The 1864-65 school year was Phipp’s second in the office.  Abner Phipps was something of a superstar in the Massachusetts school superintendent circuit of the mid-1860′s.  He had been superintendent of schools in New Bedford, Massachusetts for the four years prior to the same position coming open in Lowell.  When that happened, very late in 1862, a committee including Lowell’s mayor and other local dignitaries short-listed Phipps and decided, unanimously, that he would be the best (and could really be the only) man to lead the city’s schools.

But, would he accept?  His contract in New Bedford had just been renewed, and, worse, when the committee approached him regarding Lowell’s superintendent post, he declined, saying the salary was too low.  Lowell’s leaders were not deterred.  Showing an ingenuity not possible today, Lowell’s Mayor Hocum Hosford proposed paying Phipps whatever salary he required, and Hosford himself would pay the difference from his own pocket.  Phipps accepted and took up his post during the 1863-64 school year.

A successful teacher with a solid track record in Massachusetts and a member of the State Board of Education, Phipps took a personal interest in the quality of instruction at Lowell’s High School.  He personally prepared the questions delivered to eighth graders hoping for admission into Lowell High School and oversaw the grading of their answers.

Thanks to the recent digitization of Lowell’s municipal documents at the Internet Archive, we can now see the questions that Abner Phipps developed for Lowell’s eighth graders.  A sample of these questions have been reproduced below.  During 1864, 140 children were given the examination; 122 passed.  Of the 18 who failed, 14 were girls, 4 were boys.  The average age of the students was slightly older than today’s children entering eighth grade:  14.1 years.  Girls scored much better at spelling and grammar.  Boys excelled at the remaining topics:  reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

Abner Phipps included the results of his most recent Lowell High School entrance examinations with his 1865 Superintendent’s Report.

Phipps’ questions were difficult.  A sample of the questions from his Lowell High School admission exam have been included below:

Series of Questions Proposed for the Examination of Applicants to Enter the High School – July 1865

General Directions “No book or helps of any kind will be allowed on the desks, and none are to be used during the Examination.  All communication to be avoided.  Each answer should be numbered to correspond with the number of the question.  Attend carefully to the writing, and to the use of capitals and marks of punctuation.”

Arithmetic

1.  What is the difference between 15 ÷ .15 and .15 ÷ 15?

2.  If I should sell a wagon which cost me $85 for $95, on a credit of six months, what would be gained by the bargain, and how much per cent?

3.  Divide $1800 among A, B, and C, so that A shall receive $150 more than B, and B $75 more than C.

8.  What is the difference between half a cubic yard, and a cube whose edge is half a yard?

19.  If the City of Lowell tax rate were 1.5 per cent, and the State and County tax were .18 of one per cent, for what sum would John Smith be taxed, who pays $143.46, including a $2.00 poll tax?

20.  What will be the edge of a cubical box that will contain 216 times as much a box measuring 1 foot each way?

Grammar

1.  Write out correctly the following sentences:  He could not learn me to write good.  I never studied no grammar, but I can talk just as good as them that talk grammatical.  Many a youth have ruined their prospects for life with one imprudent step.

2.  Define a verb, and state the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

3.  State the different ways of distinguishing between the sexes, and give an illustration of each.

8.  What is a root?  A prefix?  A suffix?  Illustrate by an example.

19.  Fill up the blank with the third person plural, pluperfect tense, potential mood, passive voice, of the verb to steal.  These books

20.  Write one sentence that shall contain all the different parts of speech, or as many of them as you can.

Geography

1.  Through what waters must a vessel pass in sailing from New Orleans to Quebec?

2.  Bound British America.

3.  What city is on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario?

8.  Which of the Southern States extends the furthest east?

19.  Name the chief curiosities in Kentucky, Virginia, and California.

20.  Name three gulfs on the north of Asia, and three on the south.

History

1.  Describe the civil war in the colony of Virginia in 1676.

2.  Who became King of England in 1685, and how was he regarded in England, and in the American colonies?  Who succeeded him in 1689?

3.  In what years were settlements commenced in the following places:  Albany, Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence and New Haven?

8. What acts of parliament were passed in 1767, and how were these regarded by the colonists?

19.  When and where did John Quincy Adams die?  How many years had he been employed in the service of our country?

20.  What remarkable events took place on the 4th of July, 1826?

Abner J. Phipps’ questions were difficult, and must have been difficult for graduating eighth-graders hoping for admission into Lowell’s high school during the wake of the US Civil War.  Students, in 1865, scored worst in the areas of arithmetic (24% correct), geography (46% correct), and grammar (62% correct).  Their strongest areas were reading (92% correct), writing (91% correct) and spelling (83% correct).  Some differences emerged across Lowell’s different schools, and others between the genders (as shown in the above graph).

Abner J. Phipps didn’t stay long as Lowell’s school superintendent, leaving before the completion of his third year when he was named Agent of the Massachusetts Board of Education.  In the School Committee’s report for 1867, his short tenure in Lowell was memorialized.

“In closing their report, the Committee with profound regret, announce the withdrawal from office and the contemplated removal from the city, of Abner J. Phipps, Esq.  They feel that the education department of the city has met with a great loss.  The scholarship and culture of Mr. Phipps have been invaluable to our schools, while his uniform courtesy and geniality, his scrupulous faithfulness, fairness, and impartiality, his untiring industry, his zeal in educational matters and his intelligent interest in the city at large and its general welfare, have earned alike our confidence, our gratitude and our esteem.”

The digitization of Lowell’s City documents allows some great insights into many aspects of Lowell’s historical past, and into larger society as a whole.  Published in a series of volumes, each includes the annual reports from the various superintendents of the different departments included within Lowell’s city government.  Reports from the school committee, the directors of the city library, the superintendent of the alms-house, the superintendent of burials, and the superintendent of streets are all included, among others.  To see the directories, please follow the link:

http://archive.org/search.php?query=lowell%20city%20documents


The First Years of Sacred Heart Parish: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1880′s

Decidedly more rural in the years before the construction of Sacred Heart Church, the land that would eventually sit under the parish’s buildings was then owned by the Meadowcroft and Andrews families.

Moore, Andrews, Whipple, Meadowcroft:  If you spent a good span of your childhood years in Lowell, Massachusetts attending school or church at Sacred Heart, all of these names will be familiar to you.  The streets closest to Sacred Heart carry those names, which date back to the decades before Sacred Heart’s founding when the area was much more rural, and formed the southern edge of the city.  But, who were they?  And how did Sacred Heart come to be built in South Lowell?

On June 7, 1880, James Meadowcroft owned precisely 39 acres of land on the southern side of Moore Street.  Some was tilled; some lay  fallow.  Meadows formed some of his land; the rest was forest.  Meadowcroft was a wealthy man.   He also owned the farming implements, machinery, and livestock to sustain a healthy income.  He had year-round help in running the farm.  And, his farm had produced hay, milk, butter, eggs, and potatoes during 1879.

By no means a young man at 63 in 1880, James Meadowcroft was what that age called a gentleman farmer.  He had retired from his profession as a blacksmith.  His wife, Alice, 60, was just a bit younger.  Both had been born in England.  He had become a naturalized citizen in 1852.  By 1880, all of their children had moved on; only a nephew, George Green, lived with them.  He was 48 and without occupation.  A servant named Sarah Moody saw to their needs.

Some years before, James Meadowcroft had cut out a small portion of his land for his oldest son, John, who lived in a home on the western edge of his Moore Street property with his wife Bertha.  John made his living as a real estate agent.  His other three children had grown up and moved on.  To steal a term from a much later age, the Meadowcrofts were ‘empty-nesters’ and were probably looking to move on from the Moore Street property they had occupied for at least three decades.  Across the street in the former home of William Andrews, a marble worker, the Litchfield family had just moved in.  Paul Litchfield, 46, listed his occupation as a mill owner in 1880.  He and his wife, Sarah, raised their family of five children on the future site of the Sacred Heart School, who ranged in age from 6 to 22 years old.

Moore Street was still a dirt road in 1883 when church officials approached the Meadowcrofts about selling their land to the church.  The street had at least been macadamized (paved with gravel) by 1891, when they approached the Litchfields about the sale of their land to allow for a parish school to be built.  The area had remained very rural and quiet, but the Catholic population was growing in what was then the city’s southern extreme.  By some accounts, the Catholic population in South Lowell had reached 3,000 by that time.  A church was needed, and St. Peter’s was thought to be rather distant for those living in the Bleachery and Ayers City sections of Lowell.  Some folks even came up from Wigginville, just down Lawrence Street – which, at that point, hadn’t yet been annexed from Tewksbury (and wouldn’t be until 1906).

Sacred Heart Church, just a few years after its completion – 1900 (From A City of Spindles – Lowell Trades and Labor Council)

Until Sacred Heart Church performed its first mass in 1884, those 3,000 Catholics remained assigned to the St. Peter’s Church district.  Ground was broken for the new parish on Eastern Sunday, 1884; church fairs were held to raise funds.  Construction progressed rapidly.  Father Joyce, an Oblate father and an assistant in the Immaculate Conception Parish, oversaw the founding of the parish, the buying of its land, and presided over the dedication of its basement, on August 10, 1884 by Archbishop Williams, after a solemn high mass was said by Rev. Father Lefevre of Montreal, the provincial of the order.  While the basement was used for services, the church proper was constructed.  Its corner-stone was laid in June 1896.

The Sacred Heart area, some 20 years later, in 1896. The area has experienced significant development, notably along the western side of Andrews Street and the south side of Moore Street.

The first Sacred Heart School building was constructed to accommodate some 400 students – though, initially, the school had far less.  It opened for the 1892-93 school year.  By 1899, 250 students attended.  Opposite the church, it fronted Andrews Street on one side, Moore Street on the other – though it was still separated by a single building, which was eventually razed and replaced in 1909 by what later became known as the “new old school” that burnt to the ground decades later, in 1967.  As the school neared completion in 1892, plaster was applied to the woodwork in each of its eight classrooms, each 32 by 24 feet.  Each classroom had its respective cloak room, measuring 4 feet by 18 feet.  Lots of attention was paid to the woodwork, to the doors, and to the circular transoms above each.  As the school was completed on its ‘garden lot’, a contemporary writer commented that the setting was ‘very quiet’, ‘surrounded by beautiful trees’ and had an open field in front of the building that was ready for construction to support the parish’s expansion.

Readers – Do you remember the gleaming hardwoods, the transoms, and the cloakroom of the 1892 school building?  Do you have other memories of the church, or any of the three Sacred Heart school buildings?  During my time there, the 1892 school building was used for the primary grades, with the 1968 building housing Grades 4 and up.  If you have any Sacred Heart photographs that you’d like to share, I will work them into a future post.    


The Construction of St. Peter’s Church – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1892

Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church.  Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building.  St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations.  The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.

The Post Office building, located at the intersection of Lowell’s Gorham and Appleton Streets, marks the site of the original St. Peter’s Church, which had been demolished several years before this 1896 map was drawn. St. Peter’s Orphanage still stood on Appleton street, just two doors down from the original church location, at this time.

As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880′s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building.  Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office.   The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building.  The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.

Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction.  As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation.  That building’s size was still considerable:  120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height.  The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people.  Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.

The map above, from an 1896 Atlas, shows the new St. Peter’s Church, in gray, across the street from the Courthouse, and the temporary church, in yellow, located slightly up the street, where St. Peter’s School would stand.

Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years.  The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.

St. Peter’s Church, which stood on Gorham Street in Lowell, as it appeared in 1905. The building stood until its demolition in 1996.

Construction began in 1892.  Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather.  Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people.  Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass.  Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams.  Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century.  Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high.  Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986.  The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed.  Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90′s.  Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse.  Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site.  The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory.  Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church).  An insurance agency now occupies the building.  St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.


Pollard’s Department Store – Lowell Born . . . Lowell Owned . . . Lowell Managed

Late on a Thursday afternoon on June 3, 1926, every available firefighting resource raced to Pollard’s Department Store on Merrimack Street in Downtown Lowell.  All of Lowell’s fire department was joined by men and equipment sent from Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Lawrence in the fight to save Pollard’s from a raging fire.  Pollard’s, also known as A.G. Pollard Co., traced its beginnings to 1836 when Hocum Hosford founded a dry goods store on Lowell’s Merrimack Street, in the same location that would one day house the much larger Pollard’s Department Store.

The fire did not result in any deaths, but many firemen were temporarily overcome by the billowing smoke and illuminating gas.  Others were cut by flying glass or hit by falling debris.

The fire had been discovered at 4:40 PM by workers from the nearby Lowell Electric Light Company.  Four hours later, despite firefighting efforts, only the walls remained of the 90-year-old institution known as the A G. Pollard Department Store on Merrimack, Palmer, and Middle Streets.

With his entire store gutted by the city’s worst fire on record, many expected 83-year-old Arthur Gayton Pollard to retire from retailing after what had been a lengthy and successful career.  Instead, barely a month later, he opened a temporary store, at the Number Six mill of the Bigelow-Hartford plant on Market Street.  Just months later, in 1927, he reopened his full store, at its historic Merrimack Street location.

Arthur Gayton Pollard lived long enough to oversee the return of his store to full operations.   He died on June 4, 1930, just one day after the fourth anniversary of the devastating fire.  So great was his reputation among the Downtown Lowell community that the merchants division of the city’s chamber of commerce voted to close downtown stores for one hour on June 6, during Pollard’s funeral.

Arthur Pollard’s influence stretched far beyond his department store.  During his working years, he was involved many of Lowell’s companies and institutions.  Pollard served as president of Lowell’s Union National Bank, Stony Brook Railroad Company, the Lowell Hosiery Company, and Lowell General Hospital.  He was also a trustee of the Lowell Cemetery Association, Lowell Textile School, the Ayer Home for Little Children, Rogers Hall School, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.  He was also active in the Republican party.  Although he never held or sought office, he served as treasurer on the Middlesex County Republican Committee for nearly 20 years.  In 1900, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which nominated McKinley for a second term.  Pollard had also amassed quite a reputation in free masonry, and attained high honors in the York and Scottish rites, both in Lowell and nationally.

A Pollard's Ad from 1944 touts its Lowell heritage.

Arthur Pollard was a native of Plaistow, New Hampshire.  He was born on January 5, 1843, the only son of Colonel Joseph Smith and Luella Josephine (Tucker) Pollard.  He moved to Lowell at 11 years old, and, five years later, began working, first with Hilton, Keyes & Lewis of Lowell, and next with the Lowell Board of Assessors.  By the time he turned 18, he had found work with Hocum Hosford, a prominent Downtown Lowell dry goods merchant and sometime mayor of Lowell.  (Hosford Square carries his name).  After three years, Pollard became a partner in Hosford’s firm.  Hosford and Pollard continued their partnership for two decades, until Hosford died in 1881.

A WWI-era advertisement for A. G. Pollard's Department Store

Until 1886, Pollard continued the firm as he had when Hosford was alive, but then bought out his interest from Hosford’s estate and became its sole owner.  Arthur Pollard renamed the concern, A. G. Pollard & Co.; his department store was born.  By the 20th century’s first years, the A.G. Pollard Company had become one of the largest stores in Massachusetts, rivaled only by a couple of stores in Boston.  Pollard became so well-known in Lowell circles that hundreds gathered on Lowell’s Merrimack Street to watch him be the first man in Lowell to drive an electric car.  In retailing innovations, Pollard was credited with the invention of the bargain basement.

From the 1943 Lowell City Directory

Despite his many successes in Lowell, Plaistow, Pollard’s hometown, was never far from his mind.  Over the years, he became known as the “father’ of the town.  Some of his many gifts to the town included a tower clock for the Town Hall, a flagpole for the Village Improvement Society, a site for a school building, and an oil painting of his father, Colonel Joseph S. Pollard.  He also funded the creation of a soldiers’ monument erected in Plaistow’s Pollard Square.  Its pedestal was made of granite and topped with a bronze figure, standing some eight feet in height.  The pedestal bears four bronze tablets, containing the names of 102 citizens of Plaistow who served in the Civil War.

Pollard's Logo, circa 1965

Pollard’s Department Store held on long after Arthur Pollard’s death.  During his lifetime, Pollard admitted his son, Harry G. Pollard to the business, who later succeeded his father as its president.  And, in the decades following Pollard’s death, his other descendants played prominent roles in the department store’s management.  By 1961, two of Pollard’s great-grandsons, William Pollard Bartlett and Sheppard Bartlett managed the company as its executives.

A November 1970 Advertisement for Lynch's Department Store (Formerly Pollard's)

After 133 years of existence and 88 years under the ownership of Arthur Pollard or his family, the store eventually came to be sold on August 21, 1969, to Dexter D. Gould of Manchester, who owned and operated a chain of stores spread across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  At the time of the acquisition, Gould controlled the Miss Lynch Shop, located across the street from A. G. Pollard.  He also controlled Lynch Co. of Manchester and Kimball Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  As the sale was announced in the local press, promises were made that Pollard’s would retain its name.  Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. The adjacent Hosford Block stands just beyond.


If Ancestors Could Talk: The Words of Nineteenth-Century New England

Eastern Massachusetts has its own way of saying things. Whether you’re drinking a tonic, or slurping a frappe, or quenching your thirst with water from a bubbler, you know you’re near Boston when the letter “r” starts migrating within sentences (think ‘supah idear’).  To linguists, New England breaks into two dialect regions:  Eastern New England and Western New England.  To speak with linguists in their jargon and to make ‘supah idears’ a topic worthy of the lecture hall, Eastern New England English, including the infamous Boston accent, is academically described as having “non-rhoticity” and as having a “broad A”.  Non-rhoticity basically means that the letter “r” is only sometimes pronounced (in words like ‘ring’ and ‘caravan’, but not in words like ‘Harvard’ or ‘yard’).  The broad “A” explains why your niece from South Boston calls you “Auntie” with the broad A of ‘saunter’ instead of pronouncing the word similar to ‘ants’.
But, if you sit down with the task of re-creating New England speech from the past, the task grows more difficult.  For one thing, as you regress back through the Victorian era, things like frappes, bubblers, and jimmies (yes, the New Englandism for “ice cream sprinkles”) begin to disappear.  And, writing phonetically – think Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn – takes some time and can try the patience of your readers.  So, how do you re-create the speech of Eastern Massachusetts in, say, 1840?
Just as regional accents or dialects exist today, is there a ‘historical accent’ that we would encounter if we were to talk to a New Englander of the mid-nineteenth century?  YouTube abounds with voice recordings of past presidents:
There’s the unforgettable accent of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who grew up in Massachusetts:
There’s the lesser-known accent of Calvin Coolidge, the nation’s 30th president, from Vermont:
James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, Image via Wikipedia

 

But, say you’re trying to get a sense of speech from even earlier, before recordings.  Say you’re trying to recreate the speech of the “common man”, or “woman”.  As you regress further and further back into the 19th century, their recorded words grow scarcer.   Unless you come across The Biglow Papers by James Russell Lowell.  In The Biglow Papers, James Russell Lowell sought to capture the speech of mid-nineteenth century New Englanders.  Published in 1848, its fame went on to inspire similar approaches to the representation of regionally influenced dialogue by Mark Twain.

So, if you could meet some of those New England-based multi-great-grandparents in your family trees, you might start to get a sense of the words they would choose and how they would pronounce them by reading The Biglow Papers.
As you read through The Biglow Papers, you’ll see familiar pronunciations of words that we still hear today:
  • ‘Actually’ becomes ‘act’lly’;
  • ‘Ask’ becomes ‘ax’;
  • ‘Dirt’ becomes ‘dut’.
It’s debatable whether these pronunciations are unique to New England or just the result of having less time for formal education and for worrying about things like annunciating every syllable.  It is interesting to note that pronouncing ‘ask’ as ‘ax’ isn’t unique to our living generations, as our grade school teachers may have insinuated when they were chiding us years ago.

"Kiss me quick", a humorous 1840's Currier and Ives print that would have been considered slightly naughty at the time. Image via Wikipedia

Further examination of the pronunciations and speech captured within the Biglow Papers picks up expressions like “to deacon off”, which means “to give the cue to do something”.  Years before Lowell wrote The Biglow Papers, a custom existed within New England churches that, as deacons read out hymns at Congregational services, the congregation was to sing them back, thus giving rise to the expression.

If someone within the congregation rubbed you the wrong way in their singing, or their mannerisms, he or she would have been known as a “crooked stick” in Lowell’s time.  And if you were to tell them, you might just “wake snakes” (get into trouble) for giving them “sarse” and they would grow “ferfle ugly” (very angry).  This is where the speech of early- to mid-19th century New Englanders really comes alive, and allows us a glimpse into just what our New England ancestors in our family trees might sound like if they could speak from the still images of those tintypes and paintings.

This post marks the first in a series on New England speech of the past.  Traveling across the United States exposes us to the country’s different accents.  Traveling across time, if it were possible, would probably expose us to the different accents of each historical era.  Listening to old recordings, the words, cadence, syntax of language all seem just perceptibly different.  What would our ancestors sound like, and which words and expressions would they use, if we were able to talk with them today?

1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

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One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.