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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Sunday, September 11, 2016

“The most stupendous sight we poor mortals are allow’d to see”

In the summer or autumn of 1806, Susan Bulfinch of Boston wrote a letter to her brother Thomas Aphthorp in Britain with news of a recent family event:
Now, my dear Brother, I will attempt to give you some account, but by no means a description, of the most stupendous sight we poor mortals are allow’d to see, a total eclipse of the Sun, which took place the 16th of June, more apparent to us, the inhabitants of Boston, than those of any other part of the Globe.

It was progressing an hour, during which we watch’d it with Smoak’d glasses. Total darkness, three minutes and a half, when many stars were perfectly brilliant, particularly in the West. It was truly sublime and magnificent, notwithstanding the chill, which equall’d that of night. Myself and children assembled in the yard, as we wish’d to observe it in every stage of its progress, which we could with common window glass, smoak’d in different degrees. My little Grandchildren were at their Aunt [Anna] Storer’s, of whom they are very fond, each accommodated with a glass, their countenances quite philosophic, their minds fully engag’d, and their noses partaking of the smoak in contact with them.

When the darkness was evident, but not total, the effect upon Animal nature was wonderful. The pigeons precipitately flew to their homes, the little birds, of which we have many nests in our trees, ceas’d to sing, and the more domestic animals compos’d themselves for the night, and when the Glorious Luminary again broke forth, with his refulgent brightness, they each in their several ways hail’d the return of day with animated joy. Indeed, it was so stupendous a sight, it was worth living seventy years to see, and now if I was as good as old Simeon I should be apt to say, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy Servant depart in peace.”
The “Smoak’d glasses” that Bulfinch wrote about were just that—pieces of glass covered with smoke. An 1888 pamphlet titled Instructions for Observing the Total Eclipse of the Sun, January 1, 1889 tells how to make them correctly:
This can be made of a small pane of good window-glass by holding it over the flame of a lamp or candle until a black film is deposited on it. If possible, it should be smoked so that the tint will be so dense at one end that the full light of the sun seen through it will not dazzle the eye; while at the other the film should be so thin that objects in an ordinarily lighted room may be seen distinctly through it. Smoke the glass as evenly as possible from one end to the other. Paste a narrow strip of thick paper across each end of the glass, on the smoked side, and lay on it a sheet of unsmoked glass of the same size. Then secure the two sheets together by a strip of paper pasted around the edges of both plates.
Boston was indeed an ideal location for viewing this eclipse, according to N.A.S.A. Others who wrote about it included the West Springfield minister Joseph Lathrop; the young printer Andrew Newell, writing as an anonymous “Inhabitant of Boston”; and “A number of gentlemen in Boston, who had furnished themselves with proper instruments,…at the house of Mr. Benjamin Bussey.”

This anecdote is a little outside the period I ordinarily cover, but I couldn’t resist the image of those well-bred children all watching the solar eclipse, “quite philosophic,” with black dots on the ends of their noses.

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