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, September 09, 2016

Thomas Apthorp’s Whizzer

Speaking of Boston archeology and Joseph M. Bagley (who’ll be speaking at Old South on 13 September), I recently enjoyed looking through his A History of Boston in 50 Objects.

That book highlights fifty artifacts found during digs in greater Boston, ranging from pre-Columbian stone tools to twentieth-century household items.

My favorite object is shown above: a metal “whizzer” inscribed with the name of Thomas Apthorp, found near Faneuil Hall.

This is a child’s toy. A loop of string goes through the holes. By twisting the loop and then pulling it taut, a child can cause the metal disk to spin around and make noise. (Simpler times.)

The archeologists surmised that this whizzer was made by hammering a lead musket ball flat and then clipping its edge all around. I’m intrigued by the question of why it was made so elaborately. Why did someone go to the trouble of customizing this toy, stamping Thomas Apthorp’s name on the metal letter by letter? This is not a silversmith stamping his mark on the bottom of an expensive teapot. Thomas Apthorp wasn’t a toymaker advertising his craft, and he almost certainly didn’t make this whizzer. Rather, it was made for him.

Bagley links this whizzer to Thomas Apthorp, born in 1741 to the wealthy merchant Charles Apthorp (1698-1758). Charles’s wife Grizzell inherited Caribbean sugar plantations, and he had a major transatlantic trading business (including slaves), but his real fortune came from military contracts during the mid-century wars.

Apthorp was a commissary, supplying goods for the British army. Later he handled the money to pay the king’s soldiers in North America, keeping a share of all the specie he transported from Europe. That wasn’t actually coining money, but in terms of steady income it came close.

Apthorp’s status as an important contractor may explain this elaborate whizzer: a smith might have made it for young Thomas as a way to curry favor with his father, or show off his craftsmanship.

Another possible reason for the name-stamping: Charles and Grizzell Apthorp had a large, healthy family. Thomas was their twelfth child and eighth son. There might have been a lot of arguing over toys in the Apthorp home. If a smith stamped each boy’s name on a whizzer, that might have cut down the quarrels about which one belonged to whom, and who had lost his near Faneuil Hall.

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