What the World Needs Now: Love in the Archeological Record

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we use our blog to highlight interesting and important artifacts we see in National Park Service archeology collections.  Archeology informs our understanding of crucial and complex topics in America’s history.  It teaches us how people worked and played, struggled and triumphed.  As Valentine’s Day approaches, we know it’s been a rough couple of years.  We could use some heartwarming history, and we think it’s time we used archeology to talk about how people LOVED!  Here are a few artifacts we’ve seen over the years that illustrate the act of caring.


Every kiss begins with… Boston National Historical Park?  This pair of rings is from the archeology collection at BOST.  They appear to be an engagement ring and wedding ring and are difficult to date precisely because of their simple design.  Since ancient times, people have exchanged rings as symbols of love and commitment.  Ancient Egyptians wore rings on the fourth finger of the left hand, believing that a nerve ran directly from that finger to the heart.  Thousands of years later, that tradition persists. 

The diamond engagement ring came to dominate the American market in the 1940s.  Before that time, diamonds were just one stone among many that ornamented these rings.  Married men did not typically wear wedding rings until the 1940s, but they have been customary for American women for hundreds of years.  While researching for this post, I read about the gold double-band wedding ring that Alexander Hamilton gave to Elizabeth Schuyler upon their wedding in 1780.  I read about the ring that Abraham Lincoln gave to Mary Todd, engraved with the words “A.L. to Mary, Nov. 4, 1842.  Love is Eternal.”  And I read about a wedding ring made from a red button, cut with a pocketknife and polished smooth, that Exeter Durham gave to his bride Tempie Herndon.  Despite laws preventing their legal union, Exeter and Tempie wed when they were enslaved on the same plantation in the antebellum South. (Reyes 2021)

Rings, archeology collection, Boston National Historical Park (BOST). Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Now, we know that historically speaking, there’s a flipside to the romance of the ring.  Traditionally, an engagement ring was not only a sign that a woman was “taken;” it also flaunted her fiancé’s financial status.  In addition to symbolizing love and devotion, women’s wedding rings indicated men’s ownership of their wives.  But it’s Valentine’s Day!  And we’re feeling optimistic.  Looking for somewhere to spend Valentine’s Day with your special someone?  The National Park Service is full of beautiful scenery, fun activities, and meaningful places.  It’s the perfect time to Find Your Park


Strolling the baby care aisle or selecting a gift off a baby registry can be an overwhelming experience.  The seemingly simple task of choosing a baby bottle can be dauting at best.  Will a standard bottle do?  Do you need a vented bottle or disposable liners?  Are silicone or rubber nipples better for baby?  Is your head spinning yet?  People throughout history have sought the best ways to keep babies happy, healthy, and well fed.  According to recent archeological discoveries, babies have been drinking from some form of bottle for 7,000 years!  This 8-ounce glass baby bottle from the archeology collection at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park is an example of the new and improved style of bottle that flooded the baby care market after the turn of the 20th century.

Baby bottle, ca. 1920s-1930s, archeology collection, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. NMSC Photo.

In the 19th century, many American babies were fed from pear-shaped bottles with rubber tubes and nipples attached.  These bottles were later termed “murder bottles” because of their hard-to-clean design and tendency to breed dangerous bacteria.  The dawn of the 20th century saw an emphasis on sterilizing baby bottles, and bottles like the one from FRSP were touted as easier to clean and safer for baby.  One article that ran in several American papers in 1900 stressed the importance of using these new bottles, not the “old fashioned death-dealing horrors with a long rubber tube.”  I can only imagine the distress of a well-intended caregiver upon learning that they had been feeding their beloved baby with a “death-dealing” bottle. 


Before the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, possessing a portrait of a loved one required a good bit of money.  With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, and the ambrotype and tintype a couple of decades later, people of middling and even modest means could afford to have their photograph taken.  This meant that as soldiers left home to fight in the Civil War, many carried with them likenesses of their mothers, fathers, siblings, sweethearts, and children.  Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes were small enough to fit in a soldier’s knapsack or even breast pocket.  The size of these items can be seen to scale in this daguerreotype of an unknown woman from the collection at Historic New England. (See the cased daguerreotype in her hand?) This brass mat frame from the archeology collection at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park probably once held a cherished likeness.  It was recovered during a systematic excavation at the site of the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, and could have belonged to one of the 30,000 soldiers who were killed or wounded there.

Brass mat frame, archeology collection at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. NMSC photo.
Unidentified woman with daguerreotype case. Historic New England. https://www.historicnewengland.org/explore/collections-access/capobject/?refd=PC005.D06.132

Are you familiar with the story of Amos Humiston?  If not, get your Kleenex ready.  Humiston fought for the Union Army in the 154th New York Infantry.  He was killed in battle in Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, and his body was discovered with this photograph of his three children in his hands.  We can only wonder about the provenance of the empty frame from FRSP.  Did this object bring strength or hope to an anxious soldier awaiting orders at encampment?  Did it offer peace or solace to a wounded or dying soldier?  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that photographs in this era were overwhelmingly portraits treasured by family and friends.  It’s likely that whoever owned this frame cared for the person whose likeness it contained.   


Archeological artifacts recovered at the Abiel Smith School in Boston suggest that teachers and staff may have provided not only lessons, but medicines as well, to their pupils. (Jordan 2021) The Smith School, located in what is now Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, operated as a school for Black children in Boston from 1835 to 1855.  Archeological excavations at the Smith School recovered a large number of medicinal bottles, including Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was intended for use by children.  We now know that morphine and alcohol, two main ingredients in the syrup, are not a good idea for little ones.  At the time, however, this “medicine” was trusted as a cure-all and was dispensed to treat colds, colic, teething pain, and diarrhea (to name a few). 

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle, archeology collection, Abiel Smith School. The Smith School is managed by the Museum of African American History, a cooperative partner of Boston African American National Historic Site.

Mid-19th-century Boston was rife with disease, including yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis.  The Black community was particularly vulnerable to these illnesses because of their crowded living spaces and their lack of access to health care.  (Black people were barred from mainstream health care establishments and doctor’s offices, and the number of Black physicians in Boston fell far short of the need.)  Children attending the Smith School found no better conditions there.  With unhealthy conditions at home and school and nowhere to go for medical care, poor health was not uncommon among the Smith School student body.  It’s hard to pay attention, to learn, to succeed, when you’re not feeling well.  Bottles like this one may represent teachers’ efforts to improve students’ health, and therefore, their chance for an effective education.  As stated by Dania Jordan in her thesis, More Than Just A School: Medicinal Practices at the Abiel Smith School, “administering medicine to the African American children and keeping them in good health not only fueled them with knowledge, but it allowed them the ability to overcome oppression, and combat racism.”  (Jordan 2021)

Well, there you have it! These are just a few artifacts we’ve come across that represent the historical (and not so historical) phenomenon of caring. We’ll probably never see a centuries-old love letter come through our lab. (Paper’s pretty fragile, and usually doesn’t survive all that dirt). But if you look and listen, these artifacts have their own love stories to tell.

Artifacts contribute greatly to our understanding of history, but only when they are preserved in context. Please note that removing artifacts from National Park Service property without the proper permit is against the law. If you see an artifact on the ground, please leave it in place and tell a ranger. Thank you for helping to preserve our history!


Please be advised that some of the websites used to research this post are not maintained by the National Park Service.

Byrd, Michael W., MD, MPH and Linda A. Clayton, MD and MPH.  “Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States: A Historical Survey.”  Journal of the National Medical Association 93(3) (SUPPL), March 2001.

“Civil War Photos: Help Sought to Solve Old Mystery.”  Associated Press.  June 11, 2012.  Accessed via CBS news, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/civil-war-photos-help-sought-to-solve-old-mystery/

Climo, Lillian. “A Note from the Collections: Dangerous “Soothing Syrups:” Patent Medicines.” February 10, 2020. International Museum of Surgical Science. Accessed online at: https://imss.org/2020/02/10/a-note-from-the-collections-dangerous-soothing-syrups-patent-medicines/

Columbia University Digital Collections, https://dlc.library.columbia.edu/catalog/ldpd:113197

Franklin, Maria and Garrett Fesler, eds.  “Historical Archaeology, Identity Formation, and the Interpretation of Ethnicity.”  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0385.  1999.

Gallivan, Peter.  “Unknown Stories of WNY: How a photo of his children helped identify a Portville soldier in Gettysburg.”  WGRZ News, March 23, 2021.  Accessed online at: https://www.wgrz.com/article/news/local/unknown-stories/unknown-stories-of-wny-how-a-photo-of-his-children-helped-identify-a-portville-soldier-in-gettysburg/71-dba141d0-b1cf-491d-9473-95e9988425a0

Gemological Institute of America.  The Origin of Wedding Rings: Ancient Tradition of Marketing Invention?  Accessed online at: https://4cs.gia.edu/en-us/blog/origin-of-wedding-rings/

Holden, Vanessa M.  Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.  Black Perspectives.  African American Intellectual Society, 2018.  Accessed online at: https://www.aaihs.org/slave-and-free-black-marriage-in-the-nineteenth-century/

Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton.  Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North.  Holmes and Meier, 1979.

Howard, Vicki.  “A Real Man’s Ring”: Gender and the Invention of Tradition.  Journal of Social History.  36(4) 2003.

Jordan, Dania D.  More Than Just A School: Medicinal Practices at the Abiel Smith School.  Master’s Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, 2021. 

Kansas Historical Society, “Unidentified Woman in Tintype.”  Accessed online at: https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/unidentified-woman-in-tintype/10262

Lockhart, Bill, Pete Schulz, Beau Schriever, Bill Lindsey, Carol Serr, and Bob Brown.  Whitall Tatum – Part I – Whitall Tatum & Co.  Society for Historical Archaeology.  Accessed online at: https://sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/WhitallTatum1.pdf.

“Mary’s Wedding Ring.”  Lincoln Home National Historic Site.  https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/ring.htm

“Murder Bottles: Baby Feeding Bottles That Could Kill.”  The Baby Bottle Museum.  Accessed online at: https://www.babybottle-museum.co.uk/murder-bottles/

Oller, Mariana S.  “…Upon the Subject of Wife.”  The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, December 14, 2012.  Accessed online at: http://the-aha-society.com/index.php/publications/articles/87-aha-society-articles/126-upon-the-subject-of-wife

Otnes, Cele and Linda M. Scott.  “Something Old, Something New: Exploring the Interaction Between Ritual and Advertising.”  Journal of Advertising 25(1), 1996.

Penner, Barbara.  “A Vision of Love and Luxury”: The Commercialization of Nineteenth-Century American Weddings.  Winterthur Portfolio 39(1), 2004.

Reyes, Angelita D., PhD.  “Antebellum Plantation Weddings Among Enslaved Women and Men.  Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 4.”  October 18, 2021.  National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Accessed online at:  https://savingplaces.org/stories/antebellum-plantation-weddings-among-enslaved-women-and-men#.Ygj7thso7IV

“Science Guards Baby’s Dinner: An Object Lesson to Young Mothers Regarding the Proper Care of the Nursing Bottle.” The Star.  Reynoldsville, PA.  October 24, 1900.  Accessed via Library of Congress, Chronicling America.  https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

“The History of Baby Bottles.”  My Mom’s A Nerd. Accessed online at:  https://mymomsanerd.com/history-of-baby-bottles/#:~:text=Baby%20bottles%20were%20invented%20as%20early%20as%20800%2D1200%20BC!&text=Researchers%20uncovered%20three%20ceramic%2C%20spouted,study%20in%20the%20journal%20Nature.

Vaugh, Emily.  “Prehistoric Babies Drank Animal Milk From Bottles.”  NPS, The Salt.  September 25, 2019.  Accessed online at: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/09/25/764243209/prehistoric-babies-drank-animal-milk-from-a-bottle

Williams, Susan S.  “The Inconstant Daguerreotype: The Narrative of Early Photograph.”  Narrative 4(2), 1996.

Willis, Deborah and Barbara Krauthamer.  Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.  Temple University Press, 2012. 

Wills House Virtual Identify: Philinda and Amos Humiston.  2021.  Gettysburg National Military Park.  https://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/wills-house-virtual-identity-philinda-and-amos-humiston.htm

Yates, Juliet.  “Put a Ring On It: Marriage and Symbolism in Pilgrimage.” Pilgrimages: A Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies No. 9 (2017)

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Tale of a Taler: A Pierced Coin from the Jacob Jackson Home Site

If artifacts could talk, we’d love to hear this one’s tale.  This pierced German coin from the 17th century was recovered during a systematic excavation at the Jacob Jackson Home Site, part of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (HATU).  Jacob Jackson was a free Black man who helped Tubman lead her brothers to freedom from the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1854.  No structures remain on the home site, but artifacts found there can provide clues to the site’s history.  So, what can we learn from this beautiful coin?  Let’s explore the mystery and meaning behind this remarkable artifact. 


This silver taler was made in Dresden, Germany, in 1691.  Talers are silver coins that were issued by various German states from the 15th through the 19th centuries.  (Fun fact – what’s the English form of the word taler?  Dollar!)  This one was issued upon the death of this imposing-looking fellow, Saxony-Electorate Johann Georg III.  Johan Georg III was Elector of the German state of Saxony, and Marshall of the Holy Roman Empire, from 1680 until his death (likely from cholera or the plague) in 1691. 

Saxony-Electorate Johann Georg III.
Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Because the colonies did not produce much metal coinage, European coins were quite common in colonial America.  Spanish reals, for example, were legal tender in the United States until 1857, and turn up fairly frequently on American archeological sites.  Silver coinage in circulation in early America also came from France, the Netherlands, and, case in point here, the German states.  As Europeans made their way to America, so did their currency.


German coins on an American site are a cool find!  The hole in this one makes it even more interesting. The perforation along the edge of this coin suggests that it was modified to be worn as a pendant.  Maybe someone thought it was pretty and would make a good necklace?  That’s possible.  But it turns out that altering and wearing coins in this way was not unusual and was inspired by a lot more than fashion sense.  Documentary, folkloric, and archeological evidence indicate that silver coins have been pierced and worn as protective talismans and good luck charms for centuries.   

The use of coins as magic or ritual objects dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece, Rome, and Great Britain in the pre-Christian era.  They were used as votive offerings, placed in burials, and concealed in building foundations to ward off witches and evil spirits. You may not worry about witches interfering with your life, but chances are you’ve participated in some con magic yourself. Ever pick up a lucky penny off the sidewalk? (Heads up, lucky; tails up, not so much, right?) And who among us hasn’t made a wish and tossed a coin into a wishing well or fountain? 

This coin from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park is one of two coins discovered within the foundation of an 18th-century dwelling in Concord, Massachusetts. Sure, people drop coins all the time. But the location of these coins points to more than carelessness. We suspect white magic was at work!  

Early 18th-century coin from archeology collection at Minute Man NHP. NPS photo.

You may have heard of the bride’s tradition of having “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” on her wedding day.  The traditional rhyme continues, “…and a silver sixpence in her shoe,” for luck.  According to 18th-century English folklore, a silver coin in one’s shoe could protect against the evil eye.  This leather shoe sole is from the archeology collection at Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site.  The circular impression near the toe suggests that the wearer made use of this protective measure many years ago. 

Leather shoe sole from archeology collection at Saugus Iron Works NHS. NPS photo.

Various cultural festivities throughout the world include a cake with a coin baked inside of it for good luck.  The traditional English Christmas pudding and Greek New Year’s vasilopita both contain a secret ingredient: a coin!

Christmas pudding. Image courtesy of the Royal Mint.

In some parts of Africa, people have worn pierced coins as protective charms and items of personal adornment for centuries. (Singleton 1992) If you look closely at this Berber headdress from Morocco, you’ll see that it includes several coins as ornaments.


Now back to the pierced coin from HATU!  Pierced coins are exciting, but not uncommon, finds on American archeological sites.  We read about examples recovered at Historic Jamestowne, Harmony Hall in Georgia, Portici Plantation in Virginia, the Charles Carroll House in Maryland, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Tennessee, Charles Town in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Thomas Jefferson’s homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest in Virginia, to name a few!  The archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts contains two pierced coins: a Spanish real and a 1766 Danish silver skilling.

According to folklore studies, pierced coins were worn to ward off evil spirits, protect against disease, and bring good luck.  In some cases, it is difficult to assign these artifacts to specific cultural groups.  Michael T. Lucas notes in his article Empowered Objects: Material Expressions of Spiritual Beliefs in the Colonial Chesapeake Region that in the colonial settlement of Charles Town in Prince George’s County, Maryland, European colonists, Africans, and Native Americans lived and worked side by side in shared spaces.  Coin magic was a part of all three cultural traditions, so it is hard to interpret pierced coins found on the site as belonging to one distinct group.  By the 19th century, however, this had changed in some places.  Archeologists have recovered several pierced coins from contexts directly associated with enslaved African Americans, like these examples from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. (Images courtesy of Poplar Forest Archaeology Facebook page.)


And now, for the million-dollar (pun intended!) question.  Who wore the pierced coin recovered at the Jacob Jackson Site? Alas, without any further evidence, it’s impossible to know who modified or wore the coin.  It could have been worn by a European colonist and deposited there before Jackson’s time.  It could have been lost by a colonist then found and worn many years later by an African American slave or a free Black person (like Jackson) living and working in the area.  We wish we knew how this coin ended up on the Jackson Home Site, but that remains a mystery.  What we do know about this coin is that the minute someone cut a hole in it, it became more than a coin.  The process of piercing this taler imbued it with new meaning and importance.  It could be strictly an object of adornment, selected and displayed because of its aesthetic qualities.  Research suggests, however, that there is probably more to the story.  It’s likely that this coin was worn as a protective charm, intended to keep evil at bay or bring good fortune.  Now, where’s my lucky penny? 

Pierced coin from archeology collection at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHP. NPS photo.

Artifacts contribute greatly to our understanding of history, but only when they are preserved in context. Please note that removing artifacts from National Park Service property without the proper permit is against the law. If you see an artifact on the ground, please leave it in place and tell a ranger. Thank you for helping to preserve our history!


Cofield, Sara Rivers.  “Coin Magic.”  The Magic and Mystery of Maryland Archeology.  Maryland Archeology Month, 2019.

Cofield, Sara Rivers.  “Keeping a Crooked Sixpence: Coin Magic and Religion in the Colonial Chesapeake.”  Historical Archaeology 48(3):84-105. 

Cook, Barrie and Gareth Williams, eds.  Coinage and History in the North Sea World c. 500-1250.  Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2006.

Cressey, Pamela J. “Pierced Coin Pendants Worn by Blacks in 1800s.”  Alexandria Gazette Packet, May 5, 1994.

Davidson, James M.  “Rituals Captured in Context and Time: Charm Use in North Dallas Freedman’s Town (1869-1907), Dallas, Texas”. Historical Archaeology 38(2):22-54.

Gary, Jack, Dr. Eric Proebsting, and Lori Lee.  Poplar Forest Department of Archaeology and Landscapes.  “Culture of the Earth: The Archaeology of the Ornamental Plant Nursery and an Antebellum Slave Cabin at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.” 

Glass, Alex.  “Pierced Silver Coin.”  Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.  Curator’s Choice, July 2010.

Hanna, Jennifer.  “Journeying toward Freedom and New Beginnings.”  Article on www.nps.gov/hatu/index.htm

Hume, Ivor Noël.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Lee, Lori.  “Beads, Coins, and Charms at a Poplar Forest Slave Cabin 1833-1858.”  Northeast Historical Archaeology Volume 40 Article 6. 

Leone, Mark.  The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis.  University of California Press, 2005. 

Lucas, Michael T. “Empowered Objects: Material Expressions of Spiritual Beliefs in the Colonial Chesapeake Region.”  Historical Archaeology 48(3):106-124.

Merrifield, Ralph.  The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic.  New Amsterdam Books, 1988.

Michael, Thomas and Tracy Schmidt, eds.  Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700.  Krause Publications, 2018.

Orser, Charles E. Jr.  “The Archaeology of African American Slave Religion in the Antebellum South.” In Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Religion and Culture.  Walter H. Conser, Jr. and Rodger M. Payne, eds. University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Singleton, Theresa A., ed. African American Archaeology.  No. 6, 1992.

Smith, Julian.  “Unearthing Magic of Slaves and Immigrants.”  Summary from American Archaeology Vol. 19 No. 2, Summer 2015.  Accessed via The Archaeological Conservancy Website. 

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Jubilation on Joy Street: Celebrations of Freedom at the African Meeting House

Boston is a great place to be for the 4th of July.  Much of the story of America’s birth as an independent nation is rooted here: the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill.  The iconic Freedom Trail connects historic sites and buildings related to the Revolutionary War and America’s freedom from British rule.  Given such history, it might not surprise you to learn that Bostonians have been celebrating Independence Day with fanfare for centuries. 

Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular in Boston, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Image found on wbur.org

Period newspapers describe celebrations in Boston throughout the 19th century to commemorate the 4th of July.  The American Statesman and the Columbian Centinel document processions, public addresses, and dinners held in Boston in honor of independence.  In 1824, the American Statesman reported that in honor of the occasion, a procession would begin at Faneuil Hall, which “will be tastefully ornamented with national flags, pendants portraits, evergreens and flowers.”  The Washington Society’s dinner at Concert Hall the same year was also advertised: “About one hundred and fifty persons are expected to unite in this celebration.  Dinner to be on the table at half past three o’clock.  Concert Hall will be handsomely decorated with flags, national paintings, portraits of eminent revolutionary worthies; with pendants, evergreens and flowers.” The wonderfully detailed historic image shown below depicts Independence Day festivities held at Faneuil Hall in 1853. 

Fourth of July Festivities at Faneuil Hall, Boston, 1853. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital Collections.

Did you know that just miles away from these lavish events, Bostonians were gathering for other celebrations of freedom?  The Fourth of July festivities so beautifully depicted in 19th-century newspapers and prints were intended for and attended by Boston’s white community.  Black people were rarely welcome at such events celebrating the new republic.  Historians also attest that in the early 19th century, many Black men and women did not feel cause to celebrate Independence Day while so many African Americans remained enslaved.  (Sweet, White, Waldstreicher)  Consider Frederick Douglass’s powerful words in 1852: “This Fourth July is yours, not mine… I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!” 

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, free Black men, women, and children in Boston gathered at the African Meeting House on Belknap Street (now Joy Street) in Beacon Hill to celebrate freedom throughout the world and to call for freedom and full citizenship for all African Americans.  With public dinners, concerts, addresses, and soirees, they celebrated the abolition of the slave trade, Haitian independence, and emancipation in the British West Indies.  We have not been able to find images like the one of Faneuil Hall that document these celebrations.  But archeological artifacts recovered at the Meeting House, along with historical resources like period newspapers, can help us paint of a picture of what they may have entailed and what they might have looked like. 

African Meeting House, ca. 1892. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In 1807, Great Britain abolished the transatlantic slave trade.  Black Bostonians first celebrated this event the following year on July 14, 1808, by marching from Elliot Street to the African Meeting House for an address and a communal dinner.  According to historian Shane White, “July 14 quickly established itself as a major event in the calendar of African Bostonians.” (White 1994: 35)  In his article on Black citizenship in antebellum Massachusetts, Hal Goldman claims that Abolition Day was a substitute for July 4th.  (Goldman 1997)  On July 9, 1825, the American Statesman reported on a July 4th dinner held at the Marlboro Hotel in Boston.  A few days later, on July 12, an article in the same paper read, “The Africans and their Descendants, will hold their Anniversary Celebration on the 14th inst.” 

American Statesman, July 12, 1825. Accessed at the Boston Athenaeum.

On August 1, 1834, slavery was abolished in the British West Indies.  From the 1830s right up until the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Americans and the abolitionist community celebrated the First of August with parades, dinners, picnics, soirees, and other festivities.  In Boston, some of these joyous events took place at the African Meeting House.  Throughout the late 1830s and the 1840s, The Liberator reported on assemblies, speeches, and concerts held at the Meeting House in honor of the First of August, as well as evening soirees that took place in its first floor Infant School. 

The LIberator, Volume 12, Number 30; July 29, 1842. Accessed via Digital Commonwealth, bpl.org.

We don’t know what was served at the celebratory dinners at the Meeting House in the early 19th century, but we do have some hints.  Some reports in period newspapers use similar language to describe Fourth of July festivities and events at the African Meeting House.  On July 7, 1824, the American Statesman described an event in Boston commemorating the 48th anniversary of American independence, which included a “splendid dinner” at the Marlboro Hotel and an address delivered “immediately after the cloth was removed.”  On August 31, 1825, the Columbian Centinel described the Africans’ “Celebration of Haytien Independence,” which included a procession, a sermon, and a “repast in the African School-House, which was beautifully decorated for the occasion…”  And, “after the cloth was removed, the following toasts were drunk…”  I love that these words allow us to picture both dinners as beautiful and splendid.  Was there really a tablecloth at both events?  Was “removing the cloth” this just a 19th-century saying implying the end of dining and the beginning of toasts?  Do you know?  Tell us!

Faunal and ceramic assemblages recovered archeologically at the African Meeting House suggest a typical urban, middle class diet.  (We’ll talk more about that later.)  So, what were middle-class Bostonians eating in the early 19th century?  What was being served at their public dinners? 

Lamb and mutton – among other meats – were primary staples on middle- and upper-class American tables in the 19th century, both in private homes and at public events.  The menu for a public dinner in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Boston in 1824 lists meat, meat, and more meat.  Boiled tongue, boiled ham, boiled mutton, roast lamb, roast pig, and roast beef were just a few of the savory offerings.  The bill of fare for the City Dinner at Faneuil Hall on July 4, 1844, promised a similar plethora of meats, including boiled mutton and caper sauce, boiled ham, boiled tongue, roast pig, roast veal, road beef, and lamb with mint sauce. 

Menu for Public Dinner in honor of General Lafayette, 1824. American Broadsides & Ephemera, Series 1. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Bill of Fare for Fourth of July City Dinner, 1844. Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society.

Cookbooks and servants’ directories provide little gems of information as to how lamb and mutton were served and what they were served with.  In 1796, Amelia Simmons advised serving mutton with vegetables and caper sauce.  Eliza Leslie’s 1837 Directions for Cookery implores cooks to serve lamb with mint sauce, roast mutton with currant jelly (“an indispensable appendage to roast mutton”) and pickles (“pickles are always eaten with mutton”), and boiled mutton with melted butter and capers or nasturtiums.  And she insists: send those sauces to the table in boats! 

Clues to early 19th-century dining in Boston can also be found in The House Servant’s Directory, published by Robert Roberts in 1827.  Roberts (the first Black person to publish a book through an American publishing house) recommends many of the same meat dishes as well as vegetables, sauces, and jellies to accompany them.  He mentions sauceboats and sauce ladles and specifies where they should be placed on the table before, during, and after their use. 

These wonderful period sources paint a colorful picture of platters of meat (including a lot of mutton and lamb), dishes of vegetables, and sauceboats and ladles for holding and serving things like caper sauce, mint sauce, and melted butter.  The faunal and ceramic assemblages recovered at the African Meeting House assemblage recovered at the African Meeting House suggest that communal dinners there may have resembled this scene.  Faunal remains indicate types and cuts of meat that were generally fashionable at the time and that are found in period cookbooks and menus (Landon et al. 2007).  Cattle, pig, and sheep bones predominate, and suggest a preference for the meatiest and most costly portions of meat.  Archaeologists have suggested that “serving leg of lamb or mutton might have been one of the traditional practices for community meals at the African Meeting House.” (Landon et al. 2007: 116)

Like the faunal remains, the ceramic assemblage from the African Meeting House also suggests that communal dinners there may have resembled typical middle-class fare in the early 19th century.  Domingo Williams was a Black man who worked as a successful caterer in Boston and occupied the basement apartment in the Meeting House from about 1819 until 1830.  Some of the ceramics recovered at the Meeting House may represent dishes he acquired and used for his business.  But they could just as easily represent the festive events held there and attended by Boston’s Black community.  Shell-edged pearlware plates and platters, ladles (for sauce, perhaps?), and sauceboats recall the meat, vegetables, and ever-important sauces so popular at the time. And maybe this elegant stemware was used for toasts! 

One of the artifacts from the African Meeting House collection that captured my attention is a single fan strut.  Fans in the early 19th-century were indicative of status and high fashion, and as such, the strut symbolizes gentility among Boston’s 19th-century Black community. (Landon et. Al 2007)  Perhaps a Black lady brought a fan to one of the soirees celebrating the First of August.  Or maybe a Black woman brought a fan to the “splendid ball given to the ladies” upon yet another celebration of freedom at the Meeting House – Boston’s celebration of the acknowledgement of Haitian independence by the King of France.  (Kachun 260)  Fans are pictured in plenty of period images depicting stylish ladies in elegant dress.  (Can you spot the fans in the charming examples below?)  Fans are pictured frequently, but Black women are not.  The presence of a fan strut at the African Meeting House allows us to picture an early 19th-century Black woman in a similar fashionable situation. 

Ballgown, La Belle Assemblee, 1818. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Fashion plate, 1830s, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Reluctance among some 19th-century Black people to celebrate the 4th of July was not indicative of a lack of patriotism.  In The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion within the Context of the Black Experience, Leonard Sweet claims that proponents of colonization adopted the Fourth of July as “their holiday” in the early 19th century.  Sweet writes of “the intense insult blacks felt by the colonizationist intrigue to deprive them of their American nationality” (266).  Other historians point to the public processions organized by Black Americans (like those that began and ended at the African Meeting House in Boston) as a means of asserting their identity as members of the new republic and their place in American public life.  (White 1994; Goldman 1997) 

While Black soldiers were recruited into military service during the American Revolution, they were excluded from military service – which was often equated with citizenship – once the war was over.  (Goldman 1997)  On August 23, 1825, Black Bostonians gathered at the African Meeting House to celebrate Haitian independence.  According to reports the next day in the Columbian Centinel, toasts given that evening included “The black Regiment of the American Revolutionary Army.  – The Goddess of Liberty was not then ashamed to own them as her sons and her defenders.”  This toast suggests ardent patriotism among the Black community, pride in their role in creating the new republic, and their dissatisfaction with exclusion from full American citizenship. 

The Columbian Centinel, August 24, 1825. Accessed at the Boston Athenaeum.

The presence of this tiny sherd of transfer-printed creamware in the African Meeting House archeology collection also speaks to patriotism among Boston’s Black community.  The whole of this vessel was likely decorated with a pattern celebrating the new republic and reading “E PLURIBUS UNUM” – the motto of the new United States of America.  The vessel may have been included in Domingo Williams’s catering supplies, but it also may have been used at communal dinners at the Meeting House.  If so, its selection and use suggests pride in the new nation and, like the parades, assertion as equal citizens. 

Creamware sherd from African Meeting House archeology collection.
Complete creamware jug, Winterthur.

I have been privileged to catch glimpses of the African Meeting House collection while working on other projects at NMSC.  I fell in love with this collection because of the unbelievable potential it has to inform our understanding of the history of the city of Boston and its Black residents in the 19th century.  The artifacts recovered at the African Meeting House illuminate a vibrant, successful community that fought against injustice, succeeded economically despite racial prejudice, and proudly partook of fellowship, celebration, and joy. This blog post is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the celebrations of freedom that took place at the Meeting House in the 19th century.  It builds off the incredible work of other archeologists and historians and leaves so many fascinating and vital questions unanswered.  Now, it’s your turn!  Come and do research!  Let’s raise up this incredible resource and the stories it has to tell. 

*A note about the title of this post – In the 19th century, Joy Street was known as Belknap Street.  As we hope we have evidenced in this post, joy has always had a place at the African Meeting House.

**The African Meeting House is managed by the Museum of African American History, a cooperative partner of Boston African American National Historic Site.  The Smith Court Stories website, referenced in this blog post, offers valuable information about the African Meeting House and individuals and events associated with its history. 


Fabre, Genevieve.  “African-American Commemorative Celebrations in the Nineteenth Century,” in History and Memory in African-American Culture, ed. Fabre and Robert O’Meally (New York, 1994): 72-91.

Goldman, Hal.  Black Citizenship and Military Self-Presentation in Antebellum Massachusetts.  Historical Journal of Massachusetts Volume 25, No. 1 (Winter 1997).

Gravely, William B.  The Dialectic of Double- Consciousness in Black American Freedom Celebrations, 1808-1863.  Journal of Negro History, 67 (Winter 1982): 302-17.

Kachum, Mitch.  Antebellum African Americans, Public Commemoration, and the Haitian Revolution: A Problem of Historical Mythmaking – Mitch Kachun – Journal of the Early Republic Vol 26, 2006. 

Kachum, Mitch.  Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915.  Amherst, MA: 2003.

Landon, David B. and Theresa D. Bulger.  Constructing Community: Experiences of Identity, Economic Opportunity, and Institution Building at Boston’s African Meeting House.  International Journal of Historical Archaeology Vol. 17, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 119-142.

Landon, David, ed.; Teresa Dujnic, Kate Descoteaux, Susan Jacobucci, Darios Felix, Marisa Patalano, Ryan Kennedy, Diana Gallagher, Ashley Peles, Jonathan Patton, Heather Trigg, Allison Bain, and Cheryl LaRoche. Investigating the Heart of a Community: Archaeological Excavations at the African Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts.  Andrew Fiske Center for Archaeological Research and Publications, 2007. 

Leslie, Eliza.  Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches.  1837.

Roberts, Robert. The House Servant’s Directory: or, a Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants’ Work… and Upwards of 100 Various and Useful Receipts, Chiefly Compiled for the Use of Household Servants. 1827.

Simmons, Amelia.  American Cookery.  1796.

Sweet, Leonard I.  The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion within the Context of the Black Experience.  Journal of Negro History, 61 (July 1976): 256-75.

Waldstreicher, Dennis.  In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Chapel Hill, NC, 1997.

White, Shane. “’It was a proud day”: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834. Journal of American History, 81 (June 1994): 13-50.   

The Liberator, accessed via Digital Commonwealth, bpl.org. 

The Columbian Centinel, accessed at the Boston Athenaeum.

The Boston Statesman, accessed at the Boston Athenaeum.

Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic. The Library Company of Philadelphia.  

Shamefully Abus’d: Bobolition Day Broadsides in 19th Century Boston. Massachusetts Historical Society, http://www.masshistory.org, July, 2015.

Smith Court Stories: Domingo Williams.

Smith Court Stories: Food and Community Gatherings at the African Meeting House.

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Slips and Stamps! A Second Look at a Redware Chamber Pot

“That toilet is gorgeous!”  Said no one ever.  Well, at least not in the last one hundred years or so.  While most people might not consider modern toilets pretty (feel free to challenge me here!), chamber pots in the 18th and 19th century were often downright beautiful.  We’ve come across some stellar examples in our work with NPS archeology collections, including these from Saratoga National Historical Park. 

19th-century chamber pots from the archeology collection at Saratoga National Historical Park.

Handpainted, transfer-printed, cabled, and with pretty handles – we’ve seen some nice chamber pots.  But today, I’m going to talk about one special chamber pot from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park (MIMA).  Over the past several years, NMSC’s archeology team has become well acquainted with MIMA’s archeology collections via rehousing and inventorying projects as well as public outreach programs.  Earlier this year, while attending Historic Beverly’s virtual conference on redware, I watched Boston City Archaeologist Joe Bagley’s presentation on Charlestown redware, and was reminded of this chamber pot from Minute Man.  And so began my descent down this wonderful rabbit hole. 

Redware chamber pot from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park.

Charlestown was home to several redware potteries during the 17th and 18th centuries.  While discussing these potteries and vessels excavated in Boston that are likely attributed to them, Bagley showed this fragment of a redware milkpan with stamped slip decoration.  The term “slip” refers to liquid clay that was used to decorate pottery.  It was often “trailed” onto a vessel to create patterns, images, or words.  (Imagine the piping tools used to write on a birthday cake.)  In this case, Bagley explained, the slip was stamped onto the milkpan to create these crescent-shaped arches.  Hmmm….I thought to myself, I’ve seen those before. 

Redware milkpan with stamped decoration. Photo courtesy of Joe Bagley/City of Boston Archaeology Program.

After thinking about the chamber pot in question all weekend (no joke), Nikki and I were able to examine it a few days later.  While the pot had been cataloged years before as having “trailed slip decoration,” there was now no doubt that it had the same stamped arches.  Can you see the small spaces between the arches?  A trailed decoration would likely be more fluid and continuous, like cursive handwriting.  Those little spaces look like the spot where one stamp ends and the next begins. 

In the archeology cataloging world, we usually think of the term “stamped” to mean impressed.  Stoneware storage vessels, for example, are often stamped/impressed with a maker, city of manufacture, or quantity of liquid.  But of course, not all stamps cause impressions; some just mark the surface.  Take this beautiful charger in the collection at the MET that was likely made in Huntington, Long Island in the mid-19th century.  This design resembles a lot of trailed designs but was actually created by dipping a tin stamp into slip and then pressing it onto the vessel.     

Redware charger with stamped design, the MET. Image, public domain.

The stamped design on the Minute Man pot is clearly less elaborate than that on the above charger.  It honestly reminds me of those kids’ art projects where you dip the rim of a cup in paint and then use it to stamp bright colors onto a piece of paper.  (I may have had a bit too much fun experimenting with this process at home…)  It’s possible that the arches were created with a formal stamp, but the shape and size had me wonder whether the potter may have used something much simpler and close at hand:  a broken cup!  Nikki and I tried holding a period mug from MIMA’s archeology collection up to the arches, and voila!  A perfect fit. 

Cool, you may be thinking.  But, so what?  I am thrilled about the stamped design on this chamber pot for several reasons.  First of all, we are always looking to improve our cataloging, to better understand the artifacts we work with and to more accurately present them to park staff and the public.  I also love these stamped arches because I can just see the potter creating this design.  In addition to the spaces between stamps, you can also see drips of slip along the rim and on the pot’s interior, suggesting, as Nikki pointed out, that the potter was quickly moving his or her dripping stamping device over the top of the vessel to get to the other side.  I also love the idea that a broken cup that never made it to the kiln or the marketplace may have had a second life as a decorating tool.  While we identify artifacts based on their form, we are fascinated by the idea of function, both intended and repurposed. 

Drips of slip along rim and on interior of vessel.

Stamped designs may also help us attribute redware vessels to specific places and dates of manufacture. Some material culture experts attribute American redware with elaborately stamped motifs to Huntington; the online catalog record for the MET charger calls such decoration with tin stamps “a novel technique unique to Huntington.”  According to Joe Bagley, it is likely that the chamber pot from MIMA was produced in Charlestown.  So, what were Charlestown potters using to stamp simple designs onto their wares?  Maybe there was some sort of crescent-shaped stamping tool that created the arches on these vessels.  Many several potters had one.  But if potters were using things like broken cups to decorate their pots, maybe we can get even more specific.  If we could identify the same shape and size arch on different vessels, would that suggest one specific broken cup, at one specific pottery, over a finite period of time?  I would love to spend some time comparing stamped arches across vessels. 

Traditionally, redware has been a bit neglected in the historic ceramics world.  Because so much of it is utilitarian and minimally decorated at best, it was often brushed aside in past scholarship as difficult to attribute to a specific date or manufacturer.  More recently, experts are realizing its importance and its potential research value.  A recent conference dedicated to redware sparked my renewed interest in this humble but important ceramic type and led to my rediscovery of a beautiful stamped chamber pot at Minute Man that we now know was probably made in Charlestown.  We hope that future research may be able to tell us more.  So take out your redware!  Take another look!  You never know what you’re going to find. 

NMSC’s Nikki and Jessica (author) with the star of the show, the stamped chamber pot from MIMA.


*Thank you to Boston City Archaeologist Joe Bagley and potter Rick Hamelin for providing helpful information while researching this blog post. 

Bagley, Joseph M. and Jennifer L. Poulsen.  “Boston, Massachusetts.”  In Ceramics in America, Chipstone, 2017.

Butera, Anthony W., Jr.  “Informed Conjecture:  Collecting Long Island Redware.”  In Ceramics in America, Chipstone, 2003. 

Daniel, Seth.  “Reviving an Industry:  Research Restores Info About Charlestown Pottery.”  In Charlestown Patriot Bridge, November 25, 2020.

Thomas, Justin.  “A Charlestown Sugar Bowl:  The Rediscovery of a Redware Masterpiece.”  In Antiques Journal, February, 2016.

Massachusetts Historical Commission, Archaeological Exhibits Online.  MHC’s Archaeological Exhibits Online – Parker Harris Pottery (state.ma.us)

Turnbaugh, Sarah Peabody.  “17th and 18th Century Lead Glazed Redwares in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”  In Historical Archaeology, 17 (1)

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The Museum of 2020: Considering Context During a Historic Year

The first holiday card my family received this year didn’t say, “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.”  It said, “PEACE OUT 2020!”  As December 31 approaches, many of us are eager not only to welcome the new year, but also to say good-bye to a very long and difficult one.  For many people, 2020 has been characterized by loneliness, anxiety, and devastating loss.  At the same time, it has inspired resiliency, creativity, and compassion among our families and communities.  It’s been quite a year.

2020 has added new events to our repertoires, new words and phrases to our vocabularies, and new norms to our daily lives.  (Think drive-by birthday parades, “alone together,” and remote schooling.)  It has also added new objects to our everyday material culture, perhaps the most recognizable being the face mask.  Other, less obvious objects took on new meaning this year within the context of a global pandemic, a powerful social justice movement, and a heated presidential election. 

Context.  It’s a very important word for those of us who study history and curate historic artifacts.  What gives an object the ability to tell a story is its context: where and who and when did it come from? A coat may be just a coat, until you find out that it’s the one Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.  An inkwell is just an inkwell, until you learn that it was recovered from the yard of the first school for Black children in Boston. 

Earlier this year, we discussed the importance of context in a blog post about the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920 (commonly known as the “Spanish Flu”).  Pharmaceutical cure-alls like Hood’s Sarsaparilla were ubiquitous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and these bottles turn up frequently in museum collections and on archeological sites.  Would you think about them differently, however, if you knew they were purchased in 1918, when people were desperate to avoid or recover from a deadly epidemic? 

As 2020 draws to a close, we know it will be a new chapter in the history books.  And we wonder, what objects would best tell its story?  A face mask, for sure.  A holiday card reading “PEACE OUT 2020!” might be a good candidate for the archives.  What ordinary, everyday objects have taken on extraordinary meaning within the context of 2020?  We asked our staff:  What one object sums up 2020 for you, and why?  The following items are NMSC’s contributions to The Museum of 2020. 

Dining Table – Jessica

If I were to choose one item to represent my life in 2020, I’d choose my dining room table.  There’s absolutely nothing special about this table.  It’s not an antique (unless the 1990s count), it’s not well made, and honestly, I don’t really like it.  But this year, it’s served as my work-from-home space, where I’ve researched artifacts I couldn’t wait to get back to in person.  It’s also been a classroom, where I’ve helped my two school-aged kids navigate the world of remote learning.  There’s nothing special about this table, but this year, it’s my family’s headquarters. 

“All Done” – Alicia

“All Done” card. Photo found on etsy.com

My daughter uses visual prompts to communicate. This card and the phrase “All Done” were, without a doubt, the theme of 2020 for both of us. Too many changes had to be explained, “All Done”: school, shopping, swim lessons, play dates and more. For me, the changes brought about the reality of being a stay-at-home Mom, Museum Curator, Homeschool Teacher, and about 8 other specialists my daughter works with during a typical week. I am “All Done,” 2020. I miss artifacts more than words can communicate.

Flower Bulb Catalog – Margaret

My choice of object to symbolize the pandemic year is the flower bulb catalog.  The blooming of the daffodils I planted in fall 2019 provided profound solace this spring.  Those clever flower merchants sent their catalogs just as tulips were peaking.  I spent hours reading the booklets and imagining a bright, Corona-free Spring 2021.  So much to choose from — Sir Winston Churchill Narcissus, Parrot and Triumph Tulips, Blue Grape Hyacinths …  I felt that I was, in the words of E.B. White when he described his wife planning her spring garden, “plotting the resurrection.” 

Canoe – Brynn

If I had to choose one object to represent my life in 2020 it would be our family canoe. After all summer plans were cancelled my wife passed me a note while I was on a conference call. It said, “I found our canoe, it is in CT, I am buying it.” This canoe provided me and my family with a new sense of adventure and get away. We ended up taking 18 day trips from June to November. I can’t wait for next summer.

Baking Cartons – Jenn

While the evidence of my baking might not immediately seem worthy of preservation in a museum, what if I told you that this baking took place during the COVID-19 Pandemic? These simple objects are from a time when most of the country was sheltering-in-place, and so many people decided to learn to bake bread that we had flour and yeast shortages! Given that parameter, these everyday remains might evoke a larger story. (Maybe we wouldn’t actually put a butter wrapper in the museum collection, but you get the idea).

We visit museums to understand our history.  We appreciate historic artifacts for their ability to connect us to times, people, and places in the past.  The things we’ve chosen for the hypothetical Museum of 2020 are just things, until you consider what they mean in the context of one historic, emotional, and trying year.  Objects are powerful storytellers, when you know how to listen. And now, without further ado, peace out, 2020.

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Who’s Afraid of the Dark? Dusk ’til Dawn in Early America

We can romanticize daily life in the past all we like.  The clothes!  The dishes!  The houses and furniture!  But let’s face it, a few general truths must be acknowledged.  Germs were not well understood, and getting sick was scary.  Bathing was not really a thing, and people were usually pretty dirty, pretty smelly, and pretty itchy.  And, from the time the sun went down until the time it came back up in the morning, it was DARK. 

How many times a day do you turn on or off a light switch?  It’s so wonderfully easy!  Before the electric lightbulb, creating and maintaining even the smallest bit of artificial light in one’s home was a big pain in the you-know-what.  Families often huddled before the fireplace during the evening hours, which afforded warmth and a source of light for reading, embroidery, or busywork.  Besides the fireplace, people used candles and lamps for light.  Both typically lit to only about arm’s length, providing small pockets of dim light in a sea of darkness. 

Kitchen Scene, Pehr Hilleström, Nationalmuseum (Stockholm), public domain.

Period literature offers us vivid descriptions of the level of darkness people dealt with in the past.  Darkness is so prevalent in 19th-century Gothic literature that it is practically a character.  This makes for some deliciously creepy reading!  Consider Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, A Christmas Carol, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, all of which contain frightening nighttime scenes, and graphic descriptions of just how dark it was:

When Scrooge awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his chamber. -A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843.

Marley’s Ghost from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Illustration by John Leech, 1843. British Library, public domain.

All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper into the sky… -The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, 1820.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by E. Hull, Cassell’s Illustrated Readings, public domain.

If you think stumbling around in the dark is scary, let’s talk about this poison bottle from the archeology collection at Minute Man NHP.   During the 19th century, many new and toxic substances were developed for household use like cleaners and pest control agents.  To prevent people from unknowingly reaching for the wrong bottle in faint candlelight, poison bottles were designed to be easily identifiable even in the dark.  (Oops!  This is not your cough elixir!)  They were often a striking cobalt blue or emerald green color, and usually had distinctive shapes and patterns that could be recognized by touch.  Some even had raised lettering that spelled “POISON” or “DEATH” or a raised skull-and-crossbones design.

19th-century poison bottles. Left: Minute Man National Historical Park. Center and Right: Corning Museum of Glass, www.cmog.org

Not only were candles and lamps a sorry source of light (compared to modern-day standards, anyway); they also required endless attention and maintenance to keep them functional and to prevent accidents.  Candles were sometimes made of beeswax but more commonly of cheaper tallow, which melted quickly, dripped messily, and produced lots of smoke and unpleasant, animal-fat odors.  Tallow candles needed to be watched carefully and snuffed every couple of minutes.  Oil lamps required daily cleaning, filling, wick-trimming, and chimney-polishing, and were also notorious for heavy smoke and offensive smells.  Kerosene lamps, which were the dominant type by the 1860s, could explode suddenly and were a frequent cause of fire.  (Remember the incident with the cow and the kerosene lamp in Chicago in 1871?)  Gas lighting produced a brighter, more far-reaching light and was widespread by the latter half of the 19th century.  Gas had problems too, though:  it cast a layer of soot throughout the room and produced noxious fumes that caused nausea, headache, and dizziness. 

Left: Collins-style lamp chimney from Petersbug National Battlefield. Right: Early kerosene lamp with similar chimney, Historic Deerfield.
Chicago in Flames, Currier and Ives, 1871. Chicago Historical Society, public domain.

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented an incandescent light bulb that burned steadily for 13 hours.  By the 1930s, most communities in the United States had access to electricity and now, candle snuffers and lamp chimneys are largely things of the past.  I’m a history nerd.  I love the image of the American landscape lit by candlelight, oil lamps, and gasoliers.  I love the romance and mystery in those dark, 19th-century novels.  Then again, tomorrow – October 31 – we lose an hour of daylight AND the ghosts and goblins come out full force.  I’m happy to be able to turn on the lights!

Replica of Edison’s first light bulb. NPS photo.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Garrett, Elisabeth Donaghy. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie’s Behavior Book: A Guide and Manual for Ladies as Regards Their Conversation, Manners, Dress, Introductions, Entree to Society, Shopping … with Full Instructions and Advice in Letter-writing, Receiving Presents …

Woodhead, E.I., C. Sullivan and G. Gusset. Lighting Devices in the National Reference Collection, Parks Canada, 1984.

Collectors Weekly, Antique Poison Bottles.

Marathon County Historical Society, Rural Life Before Electricity.

Science Museum, London. Electrifying: The Story of Lighting Our Homes.

The Electric Light System, Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

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Maggie L. Walker: Activism in the Archives

Sandra, author

NMSC archives technician, Sandra (author)

This blog post was written by NMSC’s archives technician, Sandra!  Sandra has a joint degree in Archeology and Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and a Certificate in Museum Studies from Harvard Extension School. She has been working in the archives department at NMSC for about 2 years. Her work has included digital archives projects for Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and Women’s Rights National Historical Park as well as processing archives for Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River and Lowell National Historical Park. Sandra’s interests include care of museum collections and improved access to collections through digital projects.

This week we celebrate the birthday of an important African American woman whose life signifies perseverance, success, and love of community.  That woman is Maggie Lena Walker, businesswoman, community organizer, and civil rights activist.

Over the past two years, as an Archives Technician at the Northeast Museum Services Center, I have had the honor of working on a digital archives project for Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site located in Richmond, Virginia.  The project involved creating metadata for a collection of Maggie L. Walker’s documents and photographs.  Once the project is complete, the collection of documents and photographs will be available online for the general public and academic researchers to access.

Maggie L. Walker’s archives reflect many aspects of her life including her tireless work to improve the lives of African American people and her success as the first African American woman to found a bank.   Her success in business allowed her the stature and financial means to make real change in her community.

Working with her archives, I was able to see snapshots of the work she did and the causes that she fought for.  Last week, I was reminded of some of these documents while watching a ranger talk from Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site by Ben Anderson entitled “Maggie L. Walker:  A Catalyst for Change.”  Ranger Anderson talked about the different ways that Maggie L. Walker was an activist for change in her community.  He pointed out that she worked on such issues as fighting for African American women’s right to vote and to end racial segregation.  His talk brought to mind several specific documents and photographs from her archives that illustrate Maggie L. Walker as an activist.  Below are a few examples of those items.

Maggie L. Walker was a member of many organizations that were working to improve the civil rights of African American people in the United States in the early 20th Century.  In the collection of documents that I worked on there were many publications and other documents recording the work of these organizations and Maggie L. Walker’s involvement with that work.

For example, in November 1926 she donated money to the NAACP and received a certificate that recorded her contribution.  The certificate lists the organization’s mission as being “To Safeguard the Full Potential, Civil and Legal Rights of Colored Citizens and Secure them Equality and Opportunity.”

Certificate from NAACP, recognizing a contribution from Maggie L. Walker. Dated November 7, 1926.

The collection also includes brochures and pamphlets that Maggie L. Walker may have used to educate herself and others.  These publications documented the inequality suffered by African Americans during her lifetime and actions that could be taken to make a change.  For example, lynchings were taking place all across the United States, especially in the Southeast.   A pamphlet  from the Commission on Interracial Cooperation records the statistics of lynchings while calling for an end to this disturbing trend in the United States.  The pamphlet recommends steps that can be taken to help eradicate lynchings and even records some progress that had already been made in some states.

Maggie L. Walker’s activism also included supporting and inspiring her community.  She was very interested in working with African American youth to help them achieve successful futures despite the obstacles they faced due to racial injustice.   The below photograph from the collection of Maggie L. Walker with a group of neighborhood boys seems to illustrate her love of children as well as her stature in the community.

Maggie Walker outside St. Luke Hall

Maggie L. Walker with neighborhood boys outside of St. Luke Hall. Circa 1917.

Walker contributed financial donations, food, and her time to schools for African American girls.  This can be observed in her documents in the form of donation receipts including one made to the National Training School for Women and Girls in Lincoln Heights, DC.  The money was for a student prize for the ‘Best advanced student business.’

Receipt for contribution made by Maggie L. Walker for a student prize to the National Training School for Women and Girls, Inc. Dated June 5, 1931.

She was also on the Board of Managers for the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls.  A letter in her archives from the school superintendent illustrates that Maggie L. Walker was loved and respected at the school by the staff and students for the work she did to assist them.  The letter reads, “We all missed you so much at our annual exercises.  It did not seem complete without you.  The girls looked for you until it was over…”  The letter also requests that she make an impromptu speech about interracial cooperation at an upcoming event.

Letter To Maggie Walker 1931

Letter from Janie Porter Barrett, Superintendent of the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, to Maggie L. Walker. Dated June 17, 1931.

Maggie L. Walker was well known for her public addresses.  She spoke eloquently on a number of subjects that were important to her.  Her fight for civil rights and equal opportunity for women were a theme in many of her speeches.  Her public addresses can be found in her collection of documents since they were carefully typed up and, in one case, bound into a book.

A page from Maggie L. Walker’s public address titled “Race Unity” from her 1909 volume of public addresses.

My favorite Maggie L. Walker public addresses are those in which she expressed her activism both for racial justice and women’s rights.  For example, in her public address titled “Race Unity” she calls for all African Americans to shop at and use African American owned businesses as a way to support their community. An excerpt from ‘Race Unity’ reads “..when we realize our family, the Negro Race, is spending more than a quarter of a million of dollars every week in these twin cities, and spending that money with a family which will not recognize us as citizens, will not employ our fathers nor our mothers, will not give out sisters or brothers the slightest chance to be benefited by this stream of living water, which we continually furnish daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and that without ceasing, we are going to see if we can try and turn the course of that almighty stream of dollar..”  This idea of patronizing African American businesses as a way to work towards racial equality lives on today in the ‘Buy Black’ movement.

Maggie L. Walker (2nd from right) with some of her female employees at the accounting office at St. Luke Hall. Circa 1900-1917.

Another common theme in Maggie L. Walker’s public addresses was African American women’s equality and rights.  In her address titled, “Women in the Business World” she encourages African American women to pursue varied careers by saying, “What women of other nationalities can do, we can do.  The fact that we are at the very bottom of the ladder should not dishearten us. Faith in God and faith in ourselves can work miracles…”  She not only talked about women’s careers, she also employed many African American women in her businesses and at the Independent Order of St. Luke, a Fraternal organization that she led for many years.

A page from Maggie L. Walker’s public address titled “Women in the Business World” from her 1909 volume of public addresses.

A page from Maggie L. Walker’s small spiral notebook, possibly notes for a public address regarding voter registration requirements. Undated.

Maggie L. Walker also fought for access to voting for African Americans in her community. In her archives are typed notes, possibly for a public address, that spell out the hoops that people had to jump through to register to vote in 1917.  It appears that she was using this information to educate African American men to ensure that they knew how to register. She notes that literacy had been added as a requirement to register to vote by 1917.  This was in addition to other requirements including a poll tax and property ownership.  These hurdles must have discouraged many people from even trying to register to vote or made it outright impossible for others.  It is clear why people fought so hard to change voting laws since at that time the requirements disenfranchised so many people.  Maggie L. Walker was not able to change these laws in 1917, but she was able to educate people on the voting laws to ensure that as many people as possible from her community could register to vote.

The above notes on how to register to vote were from three years before women were given the right to vote.  Maggie L. Walker’s diary for September 11, 1920 records that she paid her poll tax and registered for the first time in her life.  Throughout the September 1920 entries in her diary she mentions that she was working with people to ensure that African American women registered to vote.  For example, on September 20th she wrote “Visits City Hall – makes plea for additional help to register colored women.”

She clearly worked tirelessly to ensure that as many African American women as possible were registered and able to take part in the historic first vote for women in November 1920.  Her diary reflects that important day in history.  She wrote “Election Day – Holiday. 1st voting day for Women.”

November 2nd page from Maggie L. Walker’s 5-year Diary for 1918 – 1922. The entry for the year 1920 documents the 1st day women voted in the United States.

Maggie L. Walker’s archives are vital documentation of the work she did for the civil rights movement in the early 1900s.  They are important for understanding how long and how difficult the fight for equal rights for African Americans has been in the United States.  Maggie L. Walker was one of the women in history who fought that fight and her archives will ensure that her civil rights work is not forgotten.

The project to make the MAWA archives accessible online is funded through the NPS Civil Rights Initiative. In addition to competitive grants for non-NPS sites, the initiative supports NPS cultural resource and education projects to document, interpret, and preserve the stories and sites of the Civil Rights Movement.



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The Mysterious Case of the Brooks Brothers Button

Author photo

NMSC museum technician, Hayley (author).

This blog post was written by one of NMSC’s talented museum technicians, Hayley!  Hayley graduated from the University of Vermont in 2019 with a dual degree in History and Anthropology with a concentration in Archeology.  She is currently an archeological museum technician at NMSC, where she assists in cataloging and rehousing archeological objects from National Parks across the Northeast.  For the past three years, Hayley has helped run an archeological field school in Italy and hopes to continue teaching others in the field during her off-seasons.  Thank you, Hayley, for this fascinating history of Brooks Brothers and its tie to NPS museum collections!


Brooks Brothers. You’ve probably heard of them. The clothing brand founded in 1818 featuring the mythical golden fleece once captured by Jason and the Argonauts.

At the ripe old age of 23 (not very ripe at all mind you), I had only heard of the clothing brand once when talking to my father about history and what not. It wasn’t until one rainy day when I was cleaning out my room that I discovered a strange little button. The button in question came into my possession, we suspect, with my grandfather’s collection of random coins and stamps. Nothing valuable, mind you, just a small box no larger than my hand filled with coins from over the years and from around the world. Researching this random button actually had a connection to my job as a museum technician with the National Park Service.

As an archeologist, I have a fascination with three things: old things, finding answers, and organizing/cleaning/sorting. I began to clean the old button I had discovered with a small tipped needle and some ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) to keep me company.

I am no button expert, but I could make out some engravings on the button including the double “B” in the center of two laurel branches, an empty scroll at the bottom of the figure and a crown with a cross at the top. Equally confusing was the cross-stitch background on the face of the button and the questionable material it was made from. Although I first thought it was made of metal (since it was cool to the touch), I began doubting it was metal due to how lightweight it was and therefore I suspected plastic. This element is still debated among my family members, who are equally divided on the subject.

After combing through internet results for crowns, laurels, BB, and scrolls, I was nowhere closer to finding my answer as to what the button was used for, let alone how old it was. I began looking at button charts and enthusiastic button collectors’ websites while diving even deeper into museum collections that were available to the public online.  None of these endeavors proved fruitful, however.

At this point, something in the back of my mind was bugging me, suggesting that I had seen that double B logo before.  Feeling exasperated, I went to the source of all riddles: my father. Upon showing him the button, he immediately suggested Brooks Brothers and began his own internet spiral into the subject. The logo was indeed that of Brooks Brothers, but my quest did not stop there as I had yet to find an exact match to the button now in my possession. From Civil War uniforms produced by the company to more modern fashions, I have yet to find a button with this cross-stitch background and particular logo. (Have you seen this button before?  Please share your knowledge in the comment section!)

Despite my failure to tie up this loose end, I found myself diving deeper into the history of the company itself and realized that Brooks Brothers actually has quite the place in American history and National Park Service museum collections.

From mass producing Civil War uniforms (complete with scandals) to proudly providing clothes for 39 presidents, Brooks Brothers has a deep and fascinating history intertwined with national figures whose personal clothes ended up in museum collections in National Park Service sites throughout the United States.

The Civil War

In 1861, a government contract for 12,000 uniforms was awarded to Brooks Brothers as they stated that they, unlike other companies at the time, could produce the ready-made uniform in the short time frame made from army cloth. Upon receiving the contract, Brooks Brothers negotiated the terms of the agreement by substituting army cloth with what was declared by the company as “equivalent cloth.” The government accepted this change in cloth type after reviewing some samples and were assured by the company that the quality of the uniforms was to be of high quality. Feeling the pressure from recent Union losses and desperately needing the New York volunteer regiment (which needed to be clothed), the government accepted the change in contract. With the new contract in hand, the government agreed upon the price of $19.50 for each uniform.

These uniforms, issued to new recruits, were found to be missing buttons and button holes and were made from a woolly substance consisting of sawdust and scraps of fabric which had been hastily glued and ironed together [i]. The resulting uniforms were shoddy at best and proceeded to fall apart when they were first exposed to rain. In fact, their tattered integrity gave birth to the term “shoddy.” [ii] 48,000 of these fraudulent uniforms were paid for before a government Board of Inquiry caught on.


Brooks Brothers red wool jacket thought to belong to Frederick Billings or John Harcourt McDill. Ca. 1890-1900. Photo courtesy of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

The man who composed the contract (William H. Anthon) after reviewing the initial sample cloths from Brooks Brothers testified to the Board of Inquiry:

“I have seen the gray cloth of which the uniforms of Cols. Quimby and Walrath’s regiments are made, during my recent visit upon official business to the city of Washington. The cloth of which those uniforms are made is rotten, and may easily be torn with the fingers. It is not like the sample cloth, which is strong, and cannot be so torn. The shade of color also is different, having a rusty faded appearance.” [iii]

When the board required the leader of Brooks Brothers, Elisha Brooks, to testify to the types of fabric used and the possible profit margin the company experienced by using these types of materials, Brooks stated, “the uniforms were made, some army cloth some of petersham, some of satinet, some of felt cloth, and some of mixed cassimere and some of mixed coating” and that he could not “ascertain the difference [in profit] without spending more time than [he] can now devote to that purpose.” [iv]

These resulting low quality and mixed colored uniforms (originally ordered to be blue but appearing gray) have been theorized to result in mistaken friendly fire among the Union troops. A reporter for the New York Tribune at the time described the uniforms as “shoddy, poor sleazy stuff, woven open enough for sieves, and then filled with shearman’s dust. Soldiers, on the first day’s march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the wind in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.” [v]

The investigators issued a statement to the Board of Inquiry suggesting that those soldiers who had paid for their uniform (issued by Brooks Brothers) be given new uniforms of the original quality promised in the contract and that the cost of new uniforms be deducted from the contract with Brooks Brothers. The board further suggested that the government no longer conduct business with the company unless such business was free of charge and the defective uniforms were replaced. [vi]

Two years later riots began to break out in Manhattan’s 19th ward as city inhabitants were drafted for the Civil War. During these riots, the Brooks Brothers store and manufacturing space were raided and sacked by rioters. Despite this large case of clothing fraud, Brooks Brothers proceeded to manufacture uniforms for World War I.

Brooks Brothers buttons

Brooks Brothers bronze buttons, ca. 1902. Photo courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.


During President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration (1865), Brooks Brothers gifted a unique coat featuring an embroidered lining bearing an eagle and the inscription “One Country, One Destiny.” This was the same coat he was wearing when he was murdered at Ford’s Theatre two weeks later. The coat was reportedly given to Alphonse Donn, Lincoln’s favorite White House doorkeeper, by Mrs. Lincoln after her husband’s untimely death.

Alphonse kept and treasured the coat for the rest of his life, storing it in a trunk and occasionally displaying it for guests [vii]. The coat, a desirable memento, was taken apart over time as pieces of the great coat were sought after and its pieces passed down through the family. Eventually, the left sleeve of the coat was detached and further years of displaying the coat weakened the fibers of the silk lining. Two replicas of the coat were later made by the Brooks Brothers to be kept by the Ford Theatre and the Brooks Brothers corporation.

Passed down through generations, the coat, after more than 100 years after Lincoln’s assassination, found its way back to Ford’s Theatre in 1968. Through a donation made by the American Trucking Association to the United States Capital Historical Society, the coat was bought from Alphonse Donn’s great granddaughter and donated to Ford’s Theatre. The coat remained on display at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site since it was donated and installed on April 24, 1968 till 2009 when museum curators made the difficult decision to let the coat “rest” as it had suffered light damage from display. [viii]

The Brooks Brothers fashion trend continued as a Lieutenant Colonel and future president, Theodore Roosevelt, sent a note to clothing manufacturers in 1898 asking for a new uniform which he would later wear during the charge of San Juan Hill.


The Crowned Hour at San Juan, July 1, 1898. Statue by James Edward Kelly. Photo courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.


Letter sent by Theodore Roosevelt. Brooks Brothers photo.

Additionally, Franklin D. Roosevelt was often seen wearing capes and although two of his U.S. naval boat cloaks were often favored, he also wore a finer Brooks Brothers version made from wool with a silk lining.

In 2009, President Barack Obama became the 39th of 44 sitting U.S. Presidents to wear Brooks Brothers. [ix]

Through my button research I was able to draw connections to my family and National Park Service collections: two very integral aspects of my life. It’s interesting to think that I may have never investigated this button had I not been avidly missing the office and the work I do for the Park Service. The button’s unique history has inspired further investigation of my house and its many “knick knacks” as I bide my time waiting to return to the office when the time is right. And so, I pose the question to you dear reader: what’s in your house?



[i] https://www.gentlemansgazette.com/brooks-brothers-history/

[ii] https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/the-unions-shoddy-aristocracy/?_r=0

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/1861/09/05/archives/the-state-army-contracts-the-alleged-clothing-fraud-statement-of.html

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/1861/09/05/archives/the-state-army-contracts-the-alleged-clothing-fraud-statement-of.html

[v] http://www.civilwarbummer.com/lincolns-war-profiteers-or-the-gruesome-twosome/

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/1861/09/05/archives/copy-certificate-of-inspectors-furnished-to-brooks-brothers-report.html

[vii] https://www.fords.org/blog/post/a-great-coat-and-a-great-tragedy-the-life-of-lincoln-s-brooks-brothers-overcoat/

[viii] https://www.fords.org/blog/post/a-great-coat-and-a-great-tragedy-the-life-of-lincoln-s-brooks-brothers-overcoat/

[ix] https://www.brooksbrothers.com/about-us/about-us,default,pg.html

Image Sources:

MABI jacket – https://museum.nps.gov/ParkObjdet.aspx?rID=MABI%20%20%2014025%26db%3Dobjects%26dir%3DCR%20AAWEB%26page%3D1

GETT buttons – https://museum.nps.gov/ParkObjdet.aspx?rID=GETT%20%20%2036882%26db%3Dobjects%26dir%3DCR%20AAWEB%26page%3D1

Lincoln coat photos:  https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/lincoln-s-great-coat-brooks-brothers/1AEGQkvOyTBTVQ and https://www.brooksbrothers.com/about-us/about-us,default,pg.html

The Crowned House at Jan Juan – https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/art-of-sagamore-hill/nQLiVHOCgDXMJA

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt – https://www.brooksbrothers.com/about-us/about-us,default,pg.html

FDR cape – https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/elro/gallery/cape_HOFR1585.html

Yalta Conference – http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/collections/franklin/index.php?p=digitallibrary/digitalcontent&id=2322

President Barack Obama – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama

List of Presidents – https://www.brooksbrothers.com/about-us/about-us,default,pg.html



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Kiss Me Kid, And Pass the Swamp Root: The 1918 “Spanish Flu” in Lowell

schools closed lowell

Lowell Courier Citizen, September 27, 1918


As wearily familiar as you may be with headlines like this, the above news report actually appeared in a local newspaper in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1918.  Residents of Lowell at the time were dealing – as was much of the entire country (and planet) – with a fierce influenza epidemic known commonly as the “Spanish Flu.”*  Artifacts recovered archeologically at what is now Lowell National Historical Park can help us to understand what it was like to fear, battle, and survive a harrowing epidemic over one hundred years ago.

The Boott Mills Boardinghouse was built as lodging for the “mill girls” who worked in the Lowell mills in the early- to mid- 19th century.  The Kirk Street Agent’s House housed the agent for the Boott Mill on one side and the agent for the Massachusetts Mills on the other.  By the early 20th century, the nature of the workforce in the mills had shifted to predominantly immigrant labor.  The boarding houses were subdivided into tenements for immigrant families, and the Agent’s House was sold and operated as a rooming house.  Early 20th-century artifacts recovered during excavations at both locations largely reflect the hard-working immigrant families (mainly French Canadian, Greek, Portuguese, Polish, and Russian) that were living and working at the mills during the time of the Spanish Flu.  The tenement area was hit particularly hard by the epidemic.

boardinghouses np gallery

Boardinghouses, Lowell, MA. NPS photo.

The city of Lowell was hit by the severe second wave of the Spanish Flu, which broke out in nearby Fort Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts in July of 1918.  Reports of the flu were frightening, many including the dreaded, telltale mahogany-colored spots that appeared under the cheekbones.  Many young, robust, healthy people were succumbing to the flu or the pneumonia that it caused.  So… what to do?

There was no cure or proven treatment for influenza in 1918.  Doctors and their patients turned to plant-based remedies as well as the myriad of questionable patent medicines available in the early 20th century.  Medicines that had been around for years were suddenly assigned new importance as preventatives, treatments, and restoratives for those trying to avoid or recover from the flu.  Manufacturers of patent medicines exploited the public’s fear, advertising, for example, that a cough left people more susceptible to the flu.  A 1919 ad for a cough remedy in a Washington paper read, “From a Sneeze or Cough to Spanish Influenza – People who suffer with colds and coughs are more liable to this insidious disease.”  (So buy our product and get rid of that cough!)  The Lowell Courier Citizen featured this ad for local druggists, encouraging people to buy their lung-enhancing products to avoid the flu.

Lowell Courier Citizen, Oct 12, 1918

Lowell Courier Citizen, Oct 12, 1918

A bottle of Kemp’s Balsam was recovered during excavations at the Boott Mill Boardinghouse.  The paper label on a bottle of Kemp’s Balsam in the collection at the National Museum of American History reads, “Cures coughs, colds, bronchitis, catarrh, asthma, influenza and all throat and lung diseases. Affords immediate relief in the severest cases of whooping cough, croup and all throat disorders.”  We don’t know who bought the Kemp’s Balsam found at the Boardinghouse, or exactly when, or exactly why.  But we do know that sales of these tonics increased significantly in 1918, when they were marketed as flu preventatives.  According to flu-time advertising, your cough wasn’t just painful and bothersome – it was deadly dangerous too.

In addition to being marketed as preventatives, common patent medicines were also touted as restoratives, which one had to buy in order to fully recover from the Spanish Flu.  Two such products were Hood’s Sarsaparilla and Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, both of which are represented in the archeology collection at Lowell NHP (a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla was recovered at the Agent’s House site, and a bottle of Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root at the Boott Mill Boardinghouse).  Both of these products had been sold for years as cure-alls (who wouldn’t buy something called “Swamp Root” to feel better?) and were rebranded during the flu epidemic as necessary restoratives.  The Indianapolis News advertised in December of 1918, “No Tonic Like Hoods Sarsaparilla For a Time Like This, After Influenza, the Grip, when purified blood, rebuilt strength, and regulated bowels are essential.”  The Bemidji Daily Pioneer reported in February of 1919, “Druggists report a large sale on Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root which so many people say soon heals and strengthens the kidneys after an attack of grip.”

Newspapers across the country also provided practical advice as to how to avoid getting the Spanish Flu.  Some could be borrowed from 2020 news bulletins:  keep your distance from people who are coughing and sneezing; wash your hands before eating; wear a mask.  Other recommendations sound distinctly old-fashioned, like the suggestion in the Chicago Herald and Examiner to “keep your head cool, your feet warm, and your bowels open.”  One rule topped several lists we found of “dos” and “don’ts” in 1918:  NO KISSING.

The LOWE archeology collection includes this celluloid pin-back button, which was excavated at the Boott Mills Boardinghouse.  The pin reads “Kiss Me Kid, I’m Sterilized!” and features a woman and a man in early 20th-century dress leaning in for a kiss.  Pin-back buttons date to the late 1890s, and buttons with this particular playful phrase were popular by at least 1913.  Available vaccines in the 1910s included those for smallpox and typhoid, but after much research, the archeologists who excavated the Boott Mill Boardinghouse attributed this pin to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

kiss me both

Pin-back button from Boott Mills Boardinghouse; Intact example found online (WorthPoint) for reference

If you’re thinking, but wait, there was no flu vaccine in 1918, you’re right.  In the fall of 1918, doctors at Tufts University School of Medicine produced trials of an influenza vaccine that they hoped could stop the Spanish Flu epidemic.  Unfortunately, doctors and scientists in the early 20th century attributed influenza to bacteria, not a virus, so the vaccine they developed was ineffective.  The trials, however, were highly publicized in hopeful bulletins in local and national newspapers.  The Boston Globe featured a photo of Mayor Andrew Peters smiling as he got his shot, which he claimed wasn’t nearly as bad as the smallpox vaccine.  With such widespread optimism surrounding the vaccine, we can just picture recipients proudly wearing pins like this one – and finally going in for that kiss! – after getting their shots.

boston globe mayor peters vaccine

Former Boston Mayor Andrew Peters receiving an experimental vaccine in 1918.  Photo-The Boston Globe.

Looking at artifacts through a specific historical lens can give them a whole new meaning.  As illustrated by period newspapers and advertisements, products used normally as cough elixirs and general cure-alls were marketed, and undoubtedly purchased, as treatment for the dreaded Spanish Flu.  Finding these artifacts in the boardinghouses and tenements in Lowell helps us to imagine what measures the occupants may have taken to try to safeguard their health during an epidemic.  I find it comforting to learn how our communities in the not-so-distant past experienced and endured a situation that is similar to what we’re going through right now. To me, the “Kiss Me Kid!” pin represents humanity’s determination to triumph over adversity.  The 1918 vaccine was ineffective, but flu shots are now available.  If you’re tired of seeing your family on a computer screen and sick of staying 6 feet apart, take heart.  At some point, we’ll be saying, “Kiss Me Kid!” again.


*Because the common name at the time for the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 was the “Spanish Flu,” we will refer to it as such in this post.


Barry, John M.  How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.  Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017.

Mrozowski, Stephen, Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry.  Living on the Boott:  Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts.  University of MA Press, 1996.

Spinney, Laura.  Pale Rider:  The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.  New York:  Public Affairs, 2017.

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919:  A Digital Encyclopedia.  Produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library.  https://www.influenzaarchive.org/index.html

Library of Congress, Chronicling America database.  https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past online archives – https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Utah Historical Quarterly, Spring 1980, Vol 58, No. 2

Additional websites:







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What Features at the African Meeting House Can Tell Us About Life in 19th-Century Boston

This blog post was written by one of NMSC’s archeology research assistants, Erica!  Erica is also a second-year master’s degree candidate in UMass Boston’s historical archeology program. While at NMSC, she is working to catalog artifacts from the African Meeting House, which is managed by the Museum of African American History (a partner of Boston African American National Historic Site).  Erica is using the collection to study the impacts of institutionalized inequality on dress and adornment practices of the free African American community that would have used and occupied the African Meeting House. 

The following post was written by NMSC research assistant, Erica.


NMSC research assistant, Erica, in the field.

Built in 1806, the African Meeting House in Boston was used as a church, school, and community gathering place for the free African American community residing on Beacon Hill in the 19th century. Archeological excavations at the African Meeting House, a partner of Boston African American National Historic Site, began in 1975 and continued until 2005. These extensive excavations uncovered not only thousands of artifacts, but also a number of features. Features are parts of an archeological site that cannot typically be removed from the site still intact. They include things like building foundations, hearths, and privies. Archeologists studying the African Meeting House have even been able to connect some of the artifacts found in features to individual people. This post will examine three important features from the African Meeting House site:  two privies, and a privy/sheet midden.

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

African Meeting House, Boston (Massachusetts Historical Society)

Privies are essentially historical bathrooms. It may seem gross, but archeologists love privies. This is because in addition to being used as bathrooms, privies were also used as trash piles in the days before municipal garbage removal. High amounts of discarded ceramics, glass, clay pipes, buttons, animal bones, seeds, you name it, commonly made their way into privies. The artifact assemblage recovered from privies can be used to date the site as well as telling us about the people who occupied or used the space.


44 joy street ex

2005 excavations of the 44 Joy Street Privy, Fiske Center for Archaeological Research

Privy #1

At the Meeting House, not one, but TWO intact privies were found and excavated. Neither of these intact privies belonged to the Meeting House, but they do represent domestic life from the surrounding area. The oldest privy dates to approximately 1790-1806, predating the Meeting House. It likely belonged to the first structure built on 44 Joy Street, property that abuts the Meeting House on the east. At the time, the tenement building was owned by Augustin Raillion, a white hairdresser, and his wife, Sally (Bower 1987:9). There were five wig curlers recovered from the privy, evidence of Augustin Raillion’s profession. Wig curlers are cylindrical, with wider ends and a narrow center, and were typically made of white clay. Wigs were frequently a marker of status, and wig curlers were used to shape them into their often elaborate styles. Unfortunately, Augustin Raillion was not a success story. Despite referring to himself as a “Gentlemen” and “Trader,” historical records tell us that he struggled economically (Bower 1987:5). He was constantly selling and mortgaging the property he owned on Beacon Hill- including the land where the African Meeting House currently stands (Bower 1987:5). He ultimately died destitute sometime in the 1820s (Bower 1987:5).

wig curler

Wig curler fragment from 2005 excavations, Fiske Center for Archaeological Research

Privy #2

The second privy found on the property has also been associated with 44 Joy Street, but from a later time period. In 1811, Raillion mortgaged the 44 Joy Street lot to Anne Collins, a white spinster, who owned the property until 1836. During her ownership, she built a tenement on the land and rented to African Americans (Landon et al. 2007:64). The privy dates to approximately Anne Collins’ ownership of the property, and it provides archeologists with an insight into the lives of her tenants. From historical documents, we know Cyrus Barrett, a cordwainer (shoemaker), occupied 44 Joy Street from 1828-1833 (Landon and Bulger 2013:126). Archeologists found fragments of men’s and women’s shoes in the privy.  Organic artifacts often break down in the ground, but luckily the waterlogged conditions of the privy preserved them. A single naval officer uniform button was also recovered from this privy. This could potentially be linked to Robert Curry, a mariner who resided at 44 Joy Street from 1826–1828 (Landon and Bulger 2013:136).

Privy/Sheet Midden

Our final feature is a little more complicated than a clearly defined privy. It’s both a privy AND a sheet midden. A midden is essentially an area used for garbage, and a sheet midden specifically refers to a widespread trash accumulation that may only comprise one excavation level. So considering that a privy and a sheet midden are two vastly different things, how can a feature be both? This privy/midden feature was first discovered in 1975, the very first year of excavations. It was initially described as a trench with a high amount of nineteenth century material culture and decayed wood (Bower and Ritchie 1975:5). However, further excavations in following years revealed that this feature was truncated by 1855 construction to the Meeting House, which destroyed the privy and spread out its contents (Landon et al 2007:92). Thus, the privy became a midden. It is thought that the privy, when it was still intact, belonged to the Meeting House (Landon et al 2007:62).

Again, this midden/privy feature has artifacts that can be linked to an individual and his profession. Domingo Williams was a caterer who lived in the African Meeting House basement between the years 1819 and 1830 (Bower 1986: Figure 15A). He had a long and successful career, and frequently catered events at the African Meeting House (Bower 1986:24). The midden excavation level included thousands of ceramic sherds, including many table and tea wares that probably came from Domingo Williams, who would have supplied his own ceramics at catered events.




Examples of ceramics from the African Meeting House, Fiske Center for Archaeological Research


After intense study, archeologists have been able to link artifacts recovered from these three features at the African Meeting House to individuals who once lived and worked in the vicinity. This was only possible because of ongoing site preservation. If artifacts are disturbed, archeologists are unable to offer interpretations like the ones described here. An artifact on its own is not meaningful, but when understood in the context of a feature or in relation to other cultural material and the site as a whole, archeologists are able to tell the history of a site.

The three features excavated at the African Meeting House can help us understand what life was like for African Americans in 19th-century Boston.  Archeologists have been able to connect occupational artifacts in domestic contexts to individuals, highlighting the fact that many of these free African Americans were running their businesses from their homes. They were finding ways to economically support themselves and their community, despite the fact social institutions of the era would have actively worked to exclude and disadvantage black Americans.


Bower, Beth.  1987 Report on Feature B7, African Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts. Museum of African American History, Boston. Report #25-778 on file at the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

1986    The African Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts: Summary Report of Archaeological Excavations, 1975-1986. Unpublished Draft Manuscript. The Museum of African American History, Abiel Smith School.

Bower, Beth and Duncan Ritchie.  1975    Preliminary Archaeological Excavations at the African Meeting House, Boston, Mass. May-June 1975. The Museum of African American History.

Landon, David B.  2007    Investigating the Heart of a Community: Archaeological Excavations at the African Meeting House, Boston Massachusetts. Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research Cultural Resource Management, Study No. 22.

Landon, David B. and Teresa D. Bulger.  2013    Constructing Community: Experience of Identity, Economic Opportunity, and Institution Building at Boston’s African Meeting House. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17(1):119-142.

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