J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Questions about James Otis, Jr., in Hull

Here are more anecdotes about James Otis, Jr., in Hull, from the 1866 Historical Magazine article by the son of a man who grew up there:
He was very courteous to the ladies, and quick in his resentments. Madam [Judith] Souther [1735-1801], his landlady, unintentionally offended him, and he put her social knitting needles for ever out of sight. When a young lady, whom we knew, was vaccinated, he officiated very kindly as the physician’s assistant. On long winter evenings Otis kept an evening school for the children of Hull. . . .

Otis was a ready wit. One day a hen flew against the window in a violent passion, owing to the disturbance of her young brood. A young lady being present, who was one of the Collier family, a rather high-spirited race, Mr. Otis, amused with the scene, remarked that the hen evidently possessed the blood of the Colliers, which excited a hearty laugh. . . .

One time, when in Boston, Mr. Otis disguised himself in the attire of a farmer from the country, and proceeded to the T. wharf, in the rear of Long wharf, where was a British man-of-war ship; a quantity of its freight on the wharf was guarded by a regular. Mr. Otis, in his assumed character, approached him, appearing to be very ignorant, designing to show a little spirit, inquired of the soldier whether “it would be safe to go near that ar’ shooting-iron of your’n?” The regular, unsuspicious of any design from such an apparently unintelligent clown, persuaded him to take the musket in his hand. Mr. Otis directly placed it on his foot, and kicked it with great energy into the dock. Then, drawing himself up with an expression of almost superhuman dignity, James Otis remarked to the soldier, “Go back to George the Third, and tell him that an American farmer taught a British soldier discipline. Next time keep your gun!”
That last anecdote has a number of aspects that would have made it appealing for an American audience in Revolutionary times: the supposed fool or rustic getting the better of a condescending person in the city, the crafty Yankee fooling a British soldier.

In fact, it feels too good to be true. What did the soldier and the other British military personnel do immediately afterwards? Would “an expression of almost superhuman dignity” really have been enough to ward off their response? And how did the story get back to Hull?

The story uses “dock” in an old-fashioned way to mean the watery area where the ship was moored rather than a small wharf, as we’d most likely think of it now.

Now does anyone have an idea how “social knitting needles” might differ from any other kind? The magazine definitely says that, but I can’t find the phrase anywhere else.


G. Lovely said...

I'll speculate the phrase "social knitting needles" refers to the kind of "social knitting", my mom used to call a "stitch 'n bitch", and so the needles that Otis hid were perhaps being identified as an elegant (silver, ivory), rather than merely utilitarian (wooden), pair.

atom bomb said...

Knitting needles that are just for show, for when social ladies get together to knit, but don't actually produce finished work. Just a lot of yarn. Sorry, I don't really know, that's just a guess. (I earned quick resentment I reckon...)

New to this blog and I LOVE IT!

J. L. Bell said...

That's the first explanation that occurred to me, too. I was surprised not to see any other reference to "social knitting needles" (or even many to "social knitting") in Google Books for the nineteenth century. If "social knitting" were a thing that everyone understood, and women even had favorite needles for, would more people have written about it?

EJWitek said...

To say I'm skeptical about the story of Otis and the sentry is to put it mildly. I can hardly see a British Marine or Regular guarding cargo or provisions on a wharf voluntarily handing over his musket to a civilian, even one acting as bumpkinish as Otis is alleged to have done. His training wouldn't have allowed it and the punishment he would have received for it would have been harsh indeed. The story also assumes that no one on the ship would have been in a position to observe the sentry.
The term "shooting iron" normally refers to a pistol or handgun of some type and the earliest known reference to its use I could find was 1775.

J. L. Bell said...

Samuel Adams used the term "Shooting Irons" in a letter to Stephen Collins on 31 Jan 1775. That's within a year of when the Otis anecdote would have had to take place. Overall, however, the dialect seems mid-1800s, when the story was written down. And like you, Ed, I doubt it ever did take place.

We know how the British military treated one "country bumpkin," Timothy Ditson of Billerica, when soldiers suspected him of being after their muskets. The 47th Regiment detained Ditson overnight, tarred and feathered him, and marched him around the town. This story asks us to believe Otis didn't suffer the same fate for even more audacious behavior. (It also asks us to believe Otis could walk around town looking like a rural bumpkin when he had been one of Boston's leading politicians only about five years earlier.)

Stephanie R. said...

Actually, it is entirely likely that no one has yet written about "social knitting" in the mid-nineteenth (or late 18th) centuries, as although women's history has grown as a field, not much has been done yet on women's hobbies. I know of only one history of knitting in the US, which was written for a popular audience (Anne McDonald's No Idle Hands, there are also a couple of coffee table books, but this one is the only well-researched one). You might check the work of Rachel Maines, Steven Gelber and Maria Miller's book on women's work during the Revolution for leads.
This is a particularly tricky source as it was written so long after the event and doesn't say when he hid this woman's knitting needles. To correct one suggestion, most needles in the early 19th C. would have been metal or bone, not wood, and very small gauge as the main knitted items made at home were socks and undergarments knit with very fine yarn. These were not handknit sweaters she was making.

Colleen said...

I'm skeptical. Knitting was mostly utilitarian. Tight knitting of that sort seems unlikely to ever merit a special project, like stockings and ordinary caps.

The lace mitts might be worked by one who would wear them, I suppose, but would still require steel pins and reasonable care to work.

Caps That are knit looser are easier worked on wood than bone, appropriste bone needles are heavy!

Pinballs are a special case, and require major focus (24sts/in intarsia????)

Knitted purses might be in between, simple enough for company, fancy enough to look nice, but there don't seem to be all that many of them.

I've not heard the term before. It sounds rather 19th C, to me.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the input! My method of looking for "social knitting needles" was not focused on studies, but just using Google Books to see if anyone else had used that term in any way before the twentieth century: "Mother has lost her social knitting needles," "social knitting needles for sale," and so on. Nothing. Samuel Goodrich used the phrase "social knitting" in a poem titled "Illusions," but his was the only example, and thus too idiosyncratic for "social knitting" to have been a common term.

I also looked up "knitting needle" in the eighteenth century. True to the fact that women's work was discussed in print much less than men's, a great many of the references involved using knitting needles in surgery [!] or comparing other things to knitting needles. So the implements were known but rarely written about in regard to knitting.

Another possibility is that the person writing that 1866 text had another word in mind, and the magazine's typesetters interpreted the handwriting as "social." But no obvious replacement occurs to me.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

hmm, perhaps "special"

J. L. Bell said...

That was my first guess, but it was hard to imagine a typesetter missing the descender in the P.

G. Lovely said...

Saw some of the comments and looking around a bit I found this website. Obviously not really a contemporary source (well for us it is), but still interesting to note they make distinctions between plain and 'fancy' needles.


Anonymous said...

Its a bit skepitical about otis and the sentry-for one thing Otis suffered from Insanity about the time of the outbreak of the revolution