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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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Legend of Polly Sumner

In the July 1879 issue of Wide Awake magazine, Emma E. Brown wrote about “Children’s Hour at the Old South.”

Every Saturday “Miss Baker” was telling children stories about the history of Boston. These events were part of an ongoing campaign to save the 1729 building, nearly destroyed by the Great Boston Fire of 1870.

Brown’s article included pictures of the teacher, the children, and historic artifacts on display in Old South. Those included the weathervane from the Province House, David Cobb’s umbrella, a chair that George Washington sat in, and a doll:
The children always like, too, to take a peep at “Polly Sumner,” that wonderful Quaker doll of old English oak, that has been fondled by four generations of children, and is still as fresh and bright as ever!
The following year, the magazine publisher, D. Lathrop, collected that article and others into a volume titled Some Curious Schools. That was the earliest mention that I’ve found of the doll called Polly Sumner, said by family tradition to date back to colonial times.

Several years later, the 13 Dec 1891 Springfield Republican mentioned this “doll of pedigree and antiquity and English oak,” reporting that she “is to dictate her reminiscences of bygone times and people presently, and they are to be published in book form.”

Those reminiscences appeared in a May 1893 article for the New England Magazine titled “A Historic Doll.” The author was Caro Atherton Dugan, a writer and librarian from Brewster. She began:
Beside me, as I write, sits me latest and most distinguished visitor; a quaint little lady in Quaker gray, Polly Sumner, aged one hundred and nineteen years. . . .

She made her first appearance in Boston on the morning of December 16th, 1773, being then placed in the window of a shop where England goods were sold, on Cornhill, not far from the Old South Meeting House.
This doll, Dugan wrote, thus witnessed the Boston Tea Party before being purchased for £1 by a young woman from Roxbury. What’s more, the article went on to day, that woman presented the doll to her newborn girl one day before the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Dugan’s article traced the doll over many more years, at least two changes of clothing, and some touch-ups to her painted face. She spent two years at Old South alongside a card:
Polly Sumner, purchased by Mrs. [Mary] Williams, a relative of Gov. [Increase] Sumner, in 1773. The old English oak of which she is made enabled her to withstand the caresses and abuses of five generations.
The Langley family then took their doll home for a couple more decades, creating yet another set of clothing. In 1919, they donated Polly Sumner to the Bostonian Society.

In 1967 the story of that doll inspired a book by Edna Boutwell called Daughter of Liberty, later reissued for the Bicentennial. By then the lore included the detail that Polly Sumner arrived in Boston aboard the Dartmouth, the first of the ships carrying East India Company tea.

Revolutionary Spaces, successor organization to both the Bostonian Society and Old South, recently commissioned a reproduction of this doll since the original is no longer in condition for display. Its website explains:
Originally made entirely of wood, her arms and legs were replaced with horsehair-stuffed leather by an owner in the late nineteenth century. As leather ages, it loses moisture and cracks, and the leather on her arms has split apart where it was overstuffed.
Read about that reproduction process here.

Visitors can now see the reproduction doll alongside two other artifacts linked to the Dartmouth: a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems, Religious and Moral and a trace of tea that fell into the pockets of John Crane as he helped to destroy most of that remaining cargo.

There’s also a new illustrated storybook by Richard C. Wiggin and Keith Favazza titled Polly Sumner: Witness to the Boston Tea Party. It retells the legend of the doll in her own voice. In the long tradition of Miss Baker, Emma E. Brown, Caro Atherton Dugan, and Edna Boutwell, this book uses one historic artifact to draw young readers through the events of history.


Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for this entertaining doll-oriented series, John. Pretty Polly has certainly had plenty of modernizing "glow-ups" over the years - her painted face doesn't have much of the 18thc left to it. Interesting how the earlier versions of her story (erroneously?) include that she was made of oak, doubtless to make her sound more stoutly British. Any idea if her "Quaker" designation was also a later story-telling enhancement to make her sound more quaint?

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect the “Quaker” label reflected late-19th-century ideas of dress color and style more than how the doll was originally dressed or how she had been re-dressed in the intervening years.

Unfortunately, none of the early sources about this doll that I found include any clue about where the writers got their information. Obviously the family that owned the doll was involved, but those informants didn’t put their own names out there.

Rick Wiggin said...

Thanks, John, for shining the spotlight on this wonderful historical relic. Like so much of history in general, what we know about Polly Sumner is a mix of verifiable fact and reasoned interpretation. Where (as in this case) verifiable facts are limited, oral history can often serve as a valuable tool for filling in missing details and enriching or clarifying the interpretive context.

Two years before Emma Brown’s piece in Wide Awake magazine, the Boston Post (Feb. 12, 1877) noted the addition to the Old South collection of “’Polly Sumner,’ a doll bought by Mrs. John Williams of Roxbury in 1773 . . . Mrs. Williams was a relative of Gen. Sumner, and the doll has always borne the name of ‘Polly Sumner.’”

Revolutionary Spaces has an undated photograph from around that time of a little girl (identified as Mary Langley) holding the doll. This cross references nicely to Caro Dugan’s mention (in her 1893 New England Magazine article), that two years after being loaned by Mrs. Langley to Old South, Polly “was taken home to be the temporary playmate of little Annie Williams, the youngest grandchild of Mrs. Langley, who was then visiting her Boston relatives.”

Whether the photograph is of little Mary (b. 1872) or her younger sister Annie (b. 1879) hardly matters. What is inescapably clear from Dugan’s article is that the source of her information about Polly Sumner was “Mrs. Langley, the selfsame Mary Williams who had been Polly’s little mistress and playfellow years before.” Notwithstanding Dugan’s fanciful and dramatic storytelling style, her story is what today we would call oral history, reaching back to about 1817, when “the selfsame Mary Williams” (b. 1811) played with Polly.

This “selfsame Mary Williams” was the granddaughter of Mrs. John Williams of Roxbury, who reportedly bought the doll in 1773. No bill of sale exists. Nor is there a bill of lading or ship’s manifest to verify that Polly was a “passenger” aboard the Dartmouth (or the Beaver or the Eleanor). And Dugan’s representation of Sumner/Williams/Langley family history doesn’t exactly match the genealogical record (the newborn girl to whom Mrs. Williams supposedly presented the doll the day before the Battle of Bunker Hill, for example, was actually born in 1772). It would be nice if all the details could be verified, but rarely is that ever the case.

But like the precise identity of the little girl in the photograph, and except for personal or intellectual satisfaction, it hardly matters. Far more important is Polly’s extraordinary ability to connect with young minds and to inspire them to learn about revolutionary history. She personifies this history, speaking to kids with authenticity, and making the history real and relevant. She even inspires fan mail from young admirers. “At first I thought Polly was a costume doll dressed up to show the style that ladies wore long ago,” explained one admirer who corresponded with Polly for six years. “When Mr. Hurd told us how very old she was, and of the terrible war she lived through . . . she was no longer a doll to me, but someone very real from Colonial days. Now that I am studying Colonial history in school, Polly Sumner means more to me than ever.” Even if many of the precise details of her story are unverifiable, Polly is very real to kids, and that makes the history relevant. For me, that’s what makes Polly Sumner so vital. A treasure! What else could anyone ask for from a 250-year-old historical relic?