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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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Matthias Hammond’s House and Anne Proctor’s Doll

With all these stories about Founders’ children and dolls, I thought I should show an actual doll from the period.

The Hammond-Harwood House Museum stands in Annapolis, Maryland. The architect William Buckland designed it just before he died in 1774, and his assistant John Randall completed the building for a young tobacco planter named Matthias Hammond (1750–1786).

Hammond had just been elected to the Maryland General Assembly by Annapolis’s anti-taxation party. He was also a new member of the vestry of St. Anne’s Parish. With those responsibilities, he presumably wanted a house in town.

However, Hammond doesn’t appear to have ever lived in his Annapolis house for an extended period. Instead he stayed on his slave-labor plantation in what is now Gambril. He also never married, and thus never raised children in the house.

In 1926 St. John’s College bought the building to use as a museum, but ran into financial straits during the Depression. The Hammond-Harwood House Association formed in 1938 to maintain the site as an independent museum of architecture and the decorative arts.

Among the artifacts in the museum’s collection is this doll from a Baltimore family.

The museum’s webpage explains:
She is a Queen Anne style doll and dates to about 1785. She may have been made in England, starting as a block of wood and slowly taking shape as a carver turned the block on a lathe. It is easy to see why six-year-old Ann Proctor would have been attached to her, perhaps so attached that she insisted her doll be included in this portrait of her:
That’s a Charles Willson Peale painting from 1789. The museum notes that the doll is actually smaller than Peale painted it, so as not to distract from Anne (and her parrot). But clearly the doll had a lot of meaning for the Proctors.

Monday, September 25, 2023

“A Doll of the present mode”

The little stories I’ve told over the last two days about Benjamin Franklin’s and George Washington’s grandchildren raise the question: Did any Founders’ children not have to wait more than twelve months for toys to arrive from France?

Founders Online points me to one lucky child.

On 11 Sept 1785, American diplomat Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris to John Langdon (1741–1819), president of the Confederation Congress, enclosing a gift:
I beg leave to renew my acquaintance with Miss Langdon by sending her a Doll of the present mode, dressed in Muslin, a mode which prevailing here to an almost total exclusion of silk, has literally and truly starved a great number of people. I add to it a box in which she will find a small gentleman who will teach her a short-handed and graceful manner of going down stairs.
Elizabeth Langdon was born in 1777 and thus about eight years old when Jefferson wrote. She was living in the house her father had commissioned in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (now preserved by Historic New England). 

Unlike the other cases I discussed, Jefferson lucked out in the choice of ship he sent the toys and that letter on. By 7 December, Langdon was able to write back:
Our dear Bets, begs leave to present you with her grateful thanks, for the great honor you have been pleased to conferr on her, in sending such an agreable present: all Companies who come into the house must be entertained with the sight of her doll, and tumbling Gentleman; and she does not fail to confess her obligations to Governor Jefferson.
I’d like to know more about this “tumbling Gentleman” with “a short-handed and graceful manner of going down stairs.”

I wonder if that toy was designed along the same lines as this tumbling man in the collection of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. That plaything dates from the mid-1800s, but the design was reportedly around well before then.

(To my surprise, I found that Elizabeth Langdon already made an appearance on this blog. In 1796, eleven years after receiving her toys from Jefferson, she recognized the Washingtons’ escaped slave Oney Judge in Portsmouth.)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

“An innocent Baby may become the Victim of strife”

Little Betsy Bache wasn’t alone in waiting a long time for a toy to arrive from France, as related yesterday.

On 15 Apr 1785, Adrienne, the Marquise de Lafayette (shown here), wrote to her husband’s dear friend George Washington:
how happy should I be, to meet with mrs [Martha] Washington, to recall together, all the circumstances of the war, every period of our anguish, and of your glory, and to see our children playing together.

wishing for so happy a moment, anastasie and Georges beg Leave, to send to the two youngest, miss Custis a toilett and a doll that is two play things with which my daughter is more delighted since two months, she is in possession of that she hopes, that her remembrance being some time mingled, with their entertainements, she may obtain some part in their frienship, whose she is so desirous of.

for the eldest miss Custis, we have so exalted an idea, of her reason and gravity, that we have only dared send to her a neeting bag, because she may with it, keep mrs Washington company, because I hear that she Likes this kind of work.

we send master Georges also, an optick with different wiews; but we have been moved by a personal interest, making him this gift. I hope that Looking at it, he will become fond of travelling that his travels will conduct him, into france, and perhaps he may bring you and mrs Washington here.
In that year the eldest of Martha’s grandchildren, Elizabeth Parke Custis, turned nine years old. Martha turned eight, Eleanor six, and little George Washington Parke Custis four. The two eldest lived with their widowed mother while George and Martha Washington were raising the two youngest at Mount Vernon. To the marquise’s credit, she sent something for everyone.

Lafayette himself alerted Washington that those things were on their way, writing the next day: “By mr Ridout’s Vessel my children Have Sent to yours at Mount Venon a few trifles which are very indifferent But may Amuse them two or three days.”

Unfortunately, due to various postal mix-ups, those gifts didn’t arrive at Mount Vernon until May 1786, thirteen months later.

Also to be lamented, we don’t appear to have any letters or other accounts from Mount Vernon describing how the children received those playthings from France.

But there may be a little hint in what Washington learned from watching children in letters he wrote in December 1798. By then two of the Custis sisters had married; settled in Washington, D.C.; and had babies named after them:
  • Martha Peter, born in January 1796.
  • Eliza Law, born in January 1797.
Meanwhile, Washington was serving as President in Philadelphia. There he often met with Elizabeth Powel, and she promised to help him pick out gifts for his female relatives. On 4 December Washington wrote:
let me tresspass upon your goodness to procure the second edition of the present (on my acct) that you intend for Eliza Law. Without which, a contest (regardless of right—no unusual thing)—in which an innocent Baby may become the Victim of strife.
Three days later Washington told Powel: “Your letter to Mrs Law shall be safely delivered to her and I will endeavor to do the same by the Doll to Eliza.” The doll cost $2.50.

So it looks like Powel told Washington she was going to supply a doll for Eliza Law, and he asked her to buy another for him to give to someone else, who I’m guessing was her older cousin Martha. That way both little girls, and both mothers, would be content.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

“Send her a doll not a fine one”

On 16 Sept 1779, Sarah Bache wrote from Philadelphia to her father, Benjamin Franklin, in France with news of his grandchildren:
Willy and our little Black ey’d parrot [Betsy] who I am sure you would be fond of if you knew her, (she is just the age Will was when you came from england, and goes down stairs just like him) both join in love to you, she desires you would send her a doll not a fine one, but one that will bear to be pul’d about with a great deal of Nursing, there is no such things to be had here as toys for Children
Betsy Bache had just turned two.

It took a long time for Sarah Bache’s request to get across the Atlantic and the gift to return. Not until 23 June 1781, when Betsy was well over three and a half, did she receive a present from her grandfather. Her mother wrote:
The things you sent me by C[ap]t. Smith came to hand safe he arrived in Boston, and I got them brought in a Waggon that was comming . . . Betsy was the hapiest Creature in the world with her Baby told every body who sent it
On 1 October, Sally Bache gave birth to another daughter. Her husband reported that they would name this baby Deborah after her grandmother, Franklin’s late wife.

Sarah resumed writing to her father on 19 October, saying:
the Children are delighted with their new Sister, and Betsy has gone so far as to say she loves her better than the Baby that came from France
A few weeks later we find the new Bache baby now nicknamed by her toddler brother, and we catch a last glimpse of that hard-to-find, long-traveled French doll:
Willy, Betsy, Luly Boy and Sister Deby De join in duty the last two names are of Louis’s making, they have just been striping the French Baby and dipping her in a tub of cold water—
(The first letter quoted above can be viewed here, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.)

Friday, September 22, 2023

“The first English children’s novel” and Its Arrival in America

This month the Smithsonian Magazine website published V. M. Braganza’s article “The Revolutionary Influence of the First English Children’s Novel.”

What novel is that? Braganza writes:
Before her name became synonymous with sickly-sweet virtue, Goody Two-Shoes was the protagonist of the first English children’s novel, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. First published in 1765, the book was a groundbreaking work. It tells the life story of an orphaned girl, Margery Meanwell, whose poverty reduces her to rags—and to wearing just one shoe. When her fortunes improve and she acquires some new footwear, her excitement earns her the nickname “Goody Two-Shoes.” . . .

The book appeared in many editions in England and the United States, and it was beloved among famous writers like Robert Southey and Jane Austen, who kept her childhood copy until her death. One of the earliest works of children’s literature, Margery Meanwell’s adventures offered a striking alternative to prevailing gender norms. Over the course of the novel, Margery teaches herself to read, foils a major robbery, founds a school, earns her own living, stands up for animal rights and overcomes accusations of witchcraft. She was everything that 18th- and 19th-century British society thought women shouldn’t be: poor, well-educated, self-made and unmarried (at least until the last few pages).

Margery was wildly popular and one of the first heroines whom juvenile readers admired. It’s no stretch to say that the novel launched and definitively shaped children’s literature as a genre intended to entertain young readers while teaching foundational values like generosity, hard work and the virtues of education. It continues to exert an enormous, if forgotten, influence on culture today: Anyone who unconsciously quotes its title has been shaped by this book without knowing it.
The first edition of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was published in London by John Newbery, whose name the American children’s book field appropriated over a century later for its highest award. Writers attributed the story to Oliver Goldsmith, or possibly the brothers Griffith and Giles Jones; all of them wrote for Newbery.

I’ve found the book advertised in Philadelphia in 1769 along with other “LITTLE BOOKS, Adorned with a great Variety of PICTURES, calculated for the Improvement and Amusement of Children.”

Hugh Gaine published his own edition of Goody Two-Shoes in New York in 1775. Because people now expected children’s books to have pictures, that meant commissioning new woodblocks. The photo above shows one of two surviving blocks from this edition, sold by Heritage Auctions from the Justin G. Schiller collection in 2020.

A century ago some studies credited Isaiah Thomas as the first to publish the book in America, but Thomas’s edition appeared in 1787 and followed at least three other American editions.

Berganza has more to say about the storytelling and influence of Goody Two-Shoes, and Wilbur Macey Stone’s 1939 study in the American Antiquarian Society Proceedings can be downloaded here.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Informed Discussion of Peter Faneuil and His Legacy

This month the Boston Globe published Brian MacQuarrie’s article, many months in the making, about Peter Faneuil, the Atlantic slave economy, and what that might mean for Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

It’s a long and thoughtful article, presenting recent primary-source research and including many voices. The web version includes animated maps.

I hadn’t known this:
A 2021 survey suggested that Bostonians support renaming the hall, with 51 percent in favor, 36 percent opposed, and 12 percent undecided or declining to answer, according to the MassINC Polling Group. Black voters overwhelmingly backed the change, while white voters were nearly evenly split.
Of course, support for renaming would probably divide if people were asked about different possibilities instead of a generic change. But the minority strongly opposed to renaming are certainly overrepresented in this article’s comments section.

I wrote a series of postings about the name of Faneuil Hall back in 2020 (starting here), and in June reported on the site’s exhibit about slavery in Revolutionary Boston. My thinking, including the value of visible iconoclasm and highighting the many people involved in the building, hasn’t changed.

Renaming landmarks is something all societies do, of course. Revolutionary Boston included King Street, Queen Street, Hutchinson Street—all changed for political reasons in the new republic. For a while King’s Chapel was called the Stone Chapel. Prolonged public discussion of such issues highlights divisions in society, but being able to resolve those questions collectively should be a sign of health.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Preparing for the Battle Road Sestercentennial

The staff at Minute Man National Historical Park is already planning for the Sestercentennial of the Battle and Lexington and Concord in 2025.

And that means planning for the battle anniversary in 2024.

The park is alerting Revolutionary reenacting groups who want to participate in 2025 that they must sign up for and participate in the 2024 so they’ll know how to navigate the park and its rules before the crowds get huge.

Furthermore, in order to maintain the Battle Road standards for accuracy, units must register for the 2024 event between this month and 13 January.

The park explains here:
Q: Does my group really need to attend Battle Road prior to the 250th in order to attend in 2025?

A: Yes. Battle Road is unique for its complexity and physical demands. Also, in 2025 we are expecting possibly tens of thousands of visitors and even a Presidential visit. Park volunteers and staff can expect large crowds and even heavy traffic getting to the site. It is important for units to experience Battle Road in a more quiet year so they know where they need to go and what is expected of them so to avoid confusion in 2025. . . .

The entire unit does not have to participate in the 2024 event. Three or four members, preferably officers and NCOs, can attend and adequately represent a unit with the assumption that they can report back to the other members and help them make sense of the important information.

Q: I can't make it to the inspection, how do I get approved?

A: In 2024, the Battle Road Muster will be held on Saturday, March 30th. The main purpose of the muster is, primarily, to provide safety briefings, to drill and rehearse the tactical demonstrations. Also, it is a good opportunity to get eyes on participants and identify any last minute, hopefully minor, issues with drill, clothing, or equipment and take steps to correct them before the event on Saturday, April 13th.

However, in 2023 we learned that for groups with multiple or major issues, identifying these at the muster is too late. Therefore, we will open registration for 2024 in September of 2023 and will close it on January 13, 2024. Units must submit photographs no later than January 13th. New units may be asked to also provide a drill video if requested.

If sending group photos, please have the unit formed in one rank and provide front and rear photographs and a list of names (from right to left) of those in the photo. Any member not present must submit a photograph solo, through their unit commander, to the committee no later than January 13th.
Note the date for the 2024 commemoration: Saturday, 13 April. There will, of course, be a plethora of other events around that date, and an even larger number of celebrations, or even larger celebrations, in 2025.

(The image above is a screen capture of Grayson1Video’s recording of the 1975 parade, filmed on Super 8. It’s not meant to show current standards.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

O’Brien on Loyalists via Old North, 21 Sept.

On Thursday, 21 September, Old North Illuminated will host a virtual talk by G. Patrick O’Brien on “‘This Perilous Hour of Trial, Horror & Distress’: Loyalist Exile and Return.”

The event description says:
Between April 1775 and the early months of 1783, more than 75,000 colonists fled the upheaval of the Revolution for the protection of the British Empire. Nearly half of these refugees, including many New Englanders, landed on the rocky shores of Nova Scotia.

The most prominent of these exiles called themselves “loyalists,” a label they fashioned to accentuate their own unwavering fidelity, and the broader collective’s shared dedication to maintaining Britain’s empire in North America. . . .

Concentrating on a few loyalist families from the greater Boston area, including that of Rev. Mather Byles Jr., the rector of Old North Church until 1775, Dr. G. Patrick O’Brien of the University of Tampa will explore what it meant to be a loyalist during the American Revolution.

The talk will pay special attention to how marginalized loyalists, including women and enslaved people, grappled with the hardships of wartime exile and the role these figures had in bringing families back to their American homes after the war.
It’s notable that although the Rev. Mather Byles, Jr. (shown above), left with the British troops, his father, the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr., remained in Boston, as did his two half-sisters. The Boston Byles family continued to profess loyalty to the king, even in the new republic. While some Loyalists came back to the U.S. of A., or tried, these Byleses never left.

G. Patrick O’Brien is professor at the University of Tampa. He is working on a book about the experiences of loyalist women and families during the Revolution, their exile in Nova Scotia, and the social networks repatriating loyalists created between British Canada and the United States.

This online event will run from 7:00 to 8:30 P.M. Register for the link through this Eventbrite page; make a donation of of any amount to Old North Illuminated to support the preservation and interpretation efforts at Old North Church in the North End.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Taking a Scrap of History

Earlier this month Independence National Historical Park shared the photo above on Facebook.

That posting stated:
This scrap of newspaper was excavated from a privy at the National Constitution Center site where it had likely been used as toilet paper. That's right - this piece of paper likely wiped a bottom in ye old outhouse sometime following November 5, 1790, the day it was published. Sometimes the most fascinating objects are those that capture the most private moments of the past.
The clipping might also have come from the 8 Nov and 12 Nov 1790 Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser. Before and after those days, wine merchant Benjamin W. Morris’s advertisement differed slightly.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Case of the Adapted Anecdote

Today is Constitution Day, declared to commemorate the date on which the delegates at the Constitutional Convention signed off on their work.

Not the day on which that proposed constitution for the new U.S. of A. was ratified by a supermajority of the people’s representatives, nor the day on which it went into effect. But that’s another story.

Speaking of stories, I’m continuing to investigate the anecdote that James McHenry wrote and then rewrote about Benjamin Franklin telling Elizabeth Powel that the convention provided for a “a republic—if you can keep it.”

Two Supreme Court justices have written books using that phrase as their title. The more recent is by Neil Gorsuch, who alluded to the story only in passing.

The earlier was by Earl Warren in 1972, after he had retired from the bench. It offers this page at the start:

After a detailed description of Franklin encountering a woman outside the meeting hall, Warren cited the “Notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of the delegates,” adding, “Adapted from Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States, Government Printing Office, 1927.”

When I looked up that government publication, however, I found only the transcription of what McHenry wrote at the end of his convention notes, as published in Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 in 1911.
A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.

The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.
Warren accurately quoted Elizabeth Powel’s question about “a republic or a monarchy.” He didn’t insert the word “Madam” into Franklin’s response as some authors did.

However, none of the emotional detail in Warren’s anecdote—how the “delegates trudged out,” the “anxious woman in the crowd waiting at the entrance”—came from the source he cited. The phrase “Adapted from” shows that Warren must have realized how his telling differed from the original. Most likely, he had been influenced by other detailed retellings and imagined the scene that way.

American authors had been setting this exchange on the street for at least thirty years by then. (McHenry wrote that it happened indoors, and Powel insisted that it had happened in her salon if it had happened at all.)

Previous writers had described the questioner as “eager,” “concerned,” and “inquisitive.” This is the earliest version that I’ve found using the word “anxious,” an adjective repeated in reviews of this book and in later narrations. (Powel would have hated that characterization.)

This version of the anecdote appeared in a book by a former Chief Justice of the United States, with what appears to be a citation to a highly authoritative source. But tracing back that citation shows how many details of this tale were spun out of nothing.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

“A Sett of Controversial Discourses agreed upon by the Society”

In October 1722, almost a year after being inoculated against smallpox, Ebenezer Turell found a new use for his notebook.

He wrote out what he called “An account of a Society in Har: Colledge.” This was a more serious endeavor than the Telltale essay exchange the previous year.

Ten young men from the Harvard College class of 1721 plus four from nearby classes pledged to meet regularly for intellectual pursuits. One might share “a Discourse of about Twenty minuits,” or the group could engage in philosophical disputations, readings, and epistles.

They also promised “That if we see or hear of any Extraordinary Book, we will give ye best account we can of it to ye Society.”

As an example of what this society (formally) talked about, Turell’s two lectures were:
1 Upon Light, a Phisico-Theological Discourse
2 Upon Providence.
The group was still meeting in October 1723 when Turell took the lead in a new format, combining the discourse and the disputation into a single discussion:
E T read a Lecture to show that it is a point of Prudence To prove & Try all Doctrines in Religion, wch was to serve as an Introduction to a Sett of Controversial Discourses agreed upon by the Society to be successivly carried, one every week.
The last record is from January 1724 when the group agreed on topics for upcoming lectures and discussions. There’s no record of those meetings, however. It’s possible Turell switched to another notebook since he was coming close to the pages he’d already filled with the Telltale material, and that second document didn’t survive. It’s also possible this extracurricular activity just petered out in the winter of 1724 as members moved on.

In 1909 William C. Lane pointed out to the Colonial Society that nearly all the young men in that society went on to be ministers. Those included the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy and the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton of Boston and the Rev. John Lowell (shown above) of Newburyport, ancestor of the celebrated Lowell family.

Ebenezer Turell himself started to train for the pulpit under the Rev. Benjamin Colman of the Brattle Street Meeting in Boston. He became the minister in Medford in 1724, and Colman’s son-in-law two years later. Jane (Colman) Turell shared Ebenezer’s love of writing, though she had a religiously anxious life until she died in 1735.

Turell remarried twice, each time to women in the upper class. As a minister he was a firm Old Light and later a supporter of the Whigs. The Medford congregation granted him a pension in 1773, the year before he preached his last sermon, and he died in 1778. In all, the current church says, Turell oversaw the construction of two church buildings, admitted 323 communicants, baptized 1,037 people, and married 220 couples.

Friday, September 15, 2023

“Argumentive dialogue concerning inoculation”

The Telltale essays by Harvard College students in Ebenezer Turell’s notebook come to a stop on 1 Nov 1721.

In the preceding month, 411 people in Boston had died of smallpox. The epidemic had been spreading and killing since April.

People at Harvard were contracting the disease, including the maid of undergraduate Samuel Mather (1706–1785).

Samuel’s father, the Rev. Cotton Mather, had heard about inoculation against smallpox from his enslaved servant Onesimus and then from reading accounts of the procedure in Turkey. He urged Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to try this approach infecting people with a mild case of the disease in hopes of immunizing them for life.

In June 1721, Boylston inoculated his young son, an enslaved man, and that man’s son. When they didn’t die, he and Mather went public. Boston’s selectmen told him to stop. Boylston didn’t, inoculating young Samuel Mather among others.

Dr. William Douglass opposed inoculation with his pen and his authority as a Scottish-educated physician. The Rev. Benjamin Colman (shown above) supported Boylston and Mather with his Narrative of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-pox in New England. Other doctors and ministers divided on the question.

In that atmosphere, around the start of November Ebenezer Turell opened his Telltale notebook from the other end and wrote out a fourteen-page “Argumentive dialogue concerning inoculation between Dr. Hurry and Mr. Waitfort.” Dr. Hurry was, of course, eager for the new procedure, and Mr. Waitfort was still hanging back.

The dialogue consisted of exchanges like this one:
W[aitfort:…] He that bring sickness upon himself Voluntarily Breaks one of the divine Commandment (the 6th)…

H[urry:] I never heard yt the Bringing Sickness upon our selves was a Breach of ye Divine Law Absolutly for by vomitting Purging letting of Blood &c We make our selves sick and that voluntarily too
In the end Dr. Hurry prevailed. The essay concluded with this verse:
Theres none but Cowards fear ye Launce,
Heroes receive ye Wound
With rapturous joy they Skip & Dance,
While others hugg ye Ground.
According to Dr. Boylston’s published account, on 23 November he “inoculated Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton, and Mr. John Lowel, each about 18.” Both those young men were in Turell’s college class and in his circle. (Indeed, I suspect this John Lowell was the student he started the Telltale with.)

The next day, he administered the procedure to a Harvard professor, a tutor, and seven students, including “Mr. Ebenezer Turil.”

Turell went back into his notebook and added that his “Argumentive dialogue” was “Compos’d about three weeks before I was inoculated.”

TOMORROW: Ebenezer Turell’s Society.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Theophilus Evedropper and the Chair Lifters

As I wrote yesterday, on 9 Sept 1721 a Harvard College student—quite possibly Ebenezer Turell—using the signature “Telltale” wrote a short essay inviting a friend to write back about “The shamfull impertinences & monstrous inconsistencies yt daily perplex us.”

Instead, someone else found that note and wrote back. Turell didn’t record the reply.

“Telltale” then wrote directly to his target reader, “J. L.”—perhaps John Lowell, like Turell in the Harvard class of 1721. (The president of the college then was John Leverett, but he seems a less likely addressee.) That second letter said: “If you have any inclination for an epistolary correspondence with me you may deposit your Letters in that Famous tree call’d the Pliable Crotch on Monday Ev’ning.”

J. L. did write back, and other authors joined in the exchange, sharing essays over such pen names as Blablonge and Courage. Telltale himself also used the name Theophilus Evedropper. He collected the essays in a notebook under date headings with classical or literary mottos underneath, imitating British magazines like the Spectator.

Evidently someone else at Harvard was circulating similar essays under the title “The Censure or Muster Roll.” The 30 September offering from Telltale was devoted to criticizing this rival, as in: “The Subject he would treat of is Learning wch I entirly forgott before I had finish’d the first Page.”

Other essays appear to lampoon fellow students, and it’s not clear whether those were friendly joshing within the group or snaps at rivals. By October, the articles veer toward setting up a group called the Spy Club (and sniping at something called the Mock Club).

The Harvard Archives has called the Telltale material “the first student publication” at the college. However, there’s no suggestion the material was ever printed, and I’m not convinced it counts as a publication without more copies. It definitely appear to be an extracurricular activity, however.

John Lowell and Ebenezer Turell were in the college class of 1721, which meant they had graduated by September when these essays started to circulate. They were probably still in Cambridge, reading for their master’s degrees. It’s possible that the greater freedom accorded graduates empowered them to write and share these essays.

On the other hand, the Telltale articles do offer some glimpses of life that seems undergraduate (and remember that at this time most college students were what we think of as high-school age):
There [are] a number of Persons in Colledge who delight in nothing so much as in doing Mischief. This is what they call clean, showing their Parts &c. The great Number of these Persons adds to the Vexation. They are of very different inclinations & each of ym has his particular Art wherin he excells.

I was t’other Day in Company with some of them who go by the Name of Chair Lifters. These Cowards attack you while you are sitting in a Chair (a most defenceless Posture) flinging you to the Ground with Great Violence. For wch Sometimes you[r] Head, arms and Posteriors curse them a fort night after. . . .

There a[re] Divers other Troblesome Fellows of other Species…as rappers, clappers, Trippers, nippers, Thigh Duffers, Stroakers, Pokers, &c all of them when I have opportunity shall be satyrically animadverted upon.
All in all, the Telltale appears to have been motivated by a wish to chide others into proper behavior rather than the satirize the powerful. In that respect, among Boston-area writing it was more like the establishment Boston News-Letter and Boston Gazette than the cheeky New-England Courant.

TOMORROW: Serious matters.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

“Essay’d on the following Saturdays”

The Boston News-Letter was launched in 1704, the first ongoing newspaper in British North America.

The Boston Gazette followed in 1719. Like the News-Letter it was a weekly licensed by the province and indeed funded by government officials.

On 7 Aug 1721 James Franklin began the New-England Courant with the support of several gentlemen opposed to Boston’s Puritan orthodoxy. That meant poking fun of government officials, Congregationalist ministers, and their public concerns, such as the Rev. Cotton Mather’s ludicrous support for smallpox inoculation. 

Slightly more than a month after the Courant began running, a group of Harvard College students started “a Paper call’d the Telltale, or Criticisms on the Conversation & Beheavour of Schollars to promote right reasoning & good manner.”

The text of this “Paper” survives because Ebenezer Turell (1702–1778, shown here) from the Harvard class of 1721 copied the contents from Saturday, 9 September 9, to Wednesday, 1 November, into a little notebook. Indeed, Turell might have been the organizer of the Telltale to begin with.

That document came to the Harvard University library almost two centuries later, and it’s now digitized. Back in 1909 William C. Lane did a presentation on the manuscript to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and we can read his text here, including transcriptions of some parts of the Telltale.

As the Telltale told its own history, the first item was a little handwritten essay titled “The Preface”:
Tis a common observation, he yt remarks ye Folly of others has his own severly remark’d upon. However abjiciendus Timor quoties urget necessitas [throw away disgrace whenever necessity urges]. The shamfull impertinences & monstrous inconsistencies yt daily perplex us must have their career obstructed by some seasonable animadversions wch (Divino anuente numine [with God’s divine approval]) shall be essay’d on the following Saturdays.

Perhaps your enquiries will run more after my Person than the reason of my Discourses. But take this Caution. I am so envelop’d with clouds & vizards yt the most piercing eye can[not] distinguish me from Stoughton’s Hall. In this I am happy. What I intend is for the benefit of the Society & tho in some passages I may seem pritty facetious (wch erroneously call light & vain) It must be attributed to my natural constitution. I hope ther’s no Gentleman (I know ther’s none of worth) will be my antagonist in so laudable an undertaking. But if any man will appear so vain & foolish I defy his strength & Laugh att his attempt.

I would propose and desire ye Gentlemen of Witt & good Sense (of whom we have a considerable number) would unite in the Servasable affair & assume their rights in the other 5 Days. The time yt would be taken up in this matter would not amount to above an hour in a week, & yet how great the advantage!

Sign’d Telltale
The author of that notice left it “upon a pair of Stairs.” Someone picked it up and wrote something underneath in reply. But that someone wasn’t the person that Telltale wanted to hear from.

TOMORROW: “that Famous tree call’d the Pliable Crotch”.