I have sometimes wished it was my destiny…

In the spirit of Looking Backward, pointing you to this letter featured on the Paleofuture blog, written by Benjamin Franklin to the Reverend John Lothrop of Boston, May 31, 1788.

An excerpt:

I have sometimes wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will before that period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be.”

The first card catalog?

In 1812, William Croswell, an “early nineteenth century eccentric”  – otherwise known for writing little-read, obscure books about astronomy, creating a well-received map of the stars (the first American star-map), and incurring debts to friends – was hired by Harvard to produce a new printed catalog for the library.

The library contained about 20,000 books, and was arranged by donor of the volumes.

Croswell apparently didn’t get on well with students, who played pranks on him including hanging a skeleton in the library. But he slowly and steadily progressed, until he had a list. He then began the task of putting it in a more logical order. Eventually in May of 1817 Croswell began cutting the list into strips, a task which took six weeks. Then he was able to arrange the slips under the appropriate headings.

Croswell eventually got fired for taking too long to finish the catalog.

But in 1840, librarian Thaddeus William Harris wrote that the Harvard Library should compile a slip catalog, listing all the collection’s titles on pieces of paper.

Harvard College Librarian Thaddeus William Harris urges in his 1840 annual report that a “slip catalogue” be created consisting of the title of every work in the library on pieces of card 6 1/2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.  Library historian Kenneth E. Carpenter (who put together a comprehensive history of the library in 1936 [PDF]) gives Croswell the credit.

Lists of a library’s inventory date back much farther, from writing on the walls to scrolls. Harvard at least claims their catalog is the first of its kind. The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science says perhaps not and points back to Europe. The Harvard library was one of the first libraries to hire women, who hand-wrote many of the cards.

Photo via Library History Buff. HCL stamp in the lefthand corner stands for “Harvard College Library.”

Happy Lafayette Day?

An 1824 advertisement in the aptly named Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot advertising souvenirs of the Marquis de Lafayette.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution for his support against the British, sat in seclusion in France. He had been at odds with the French establishment since Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1824,  the American Congress passed a resolution inviting then-President Monroe to invite Lafayette to tour the States. Lafayette first arrived in New York, but traveled throughout the country to great fanfare. In Boston, he was greeted on the Common in “an occasion of special splendor, with a military review followed by a dinner for 1200 people under a marquee erected for the event.”

Festivities on May 20th, Lafayette Day conclude with the annual decoration of the Lafayette Monument (1924, the centennial of his visit) on the Boston Common.

Making way for sleighs during the Great Blizzard

A horse drawn sleigh, 18 March 1888, during the Great Blizzard via the Historic National Weather Service Archives.

Boston’s really really big blizzard dumped 40 to 50 inches of snow over Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State. The storm, also called “The White Hurricane” arrived in Boston without warning (weather forecasters in the 19th century weren’t thought to be too accurate either). The spring had been unseasonably warm and few were prepared for a 36-hour snowstorm.

Cities like Boston and New York, which were more dependent on receiving outside food and supplies than rural areas, did worst. Snow stranded trains and winds downed telegraph lines — The Boston Globe‘s newfangled telephone remained a rare, surviving link to the outside world. Snow cleared from streets blocked sidewalks until men were hired to freight it away. Mass Moments says the blizzard had the belated effect of inspiring some major infrastructure investments, including burying lines and the nation’s first subway.

Clearing away snow wasn’t typical at the time, under less drastic conditions. The normal treatment for roads before the automobile was to use a snow roller to pack it down. Sleighs and wagons could ride on top of the flattened snow. The Brattleboro Historical Society has a fantastic article on the changing modes of snow removal, including one man’s memories of his father getting up to roll the nearby hills and photos of a horse-drawn wooden snow roll.

Primary Primary Sources

letter reads my dear miss mitchell, will you take the job of drumming up votesInvitation to Volunteer for student Government. Simmons College Archives via Digital Commonwealth.

We’ve got all the reading you need to make it through primary day. Advice to vote by.

Eat well. I see absolutely no reason a history blog can’t dig into its own archives. And so, for primary day, you can eat cake, again, election day cake.

Vote wisely. The Smithsonian has a fantastic history of ballot technology (paper to touch screen) with some tremendous images in its online exhibition: Vote.

Think deeply. PhD Octopus has quite a historiography on a small town election — when Frederick Douglass ran for membership in the transcendentalist debate society strangely called the “Town and Country Club.”

Reflect piously. Wall Builders has the text of an election sermon preached by the Reverend Foster before his Excellency John Hancock, Esq. Governour, His Honor Sam Adams Lieutenant Governor, et cetera on election day, 1790. A site with an agenda, but what an interesting document.

Follow through thoroughly. And Digital Commonwealth has some fascinating old election legislation, including a choice 1961 document on what to do if your ballot box is full.

Boston By Water

Reading up on Boston history, it becomes clear how much happened on the harbor — making today’s East Coast waterfront revitalization projects (New York, Boston, Baltimore) seem pretty thin in comparison.

In the early part of the twentieth century, writer William Stanley Braithwaite arrived back in Boston, looking for his first job. He recalls in his memoir, In the House under Arcturus: An Autobiography:

Crossing the harbor on the ferry-boat I beheld the huddled city in the autumnal morning sunlight; the gray shaft of the Ames Building towering beside the gilded dome of the State House on Beacon Hill, a symbol, I imagined it, of my spirit, lofty in its direction and reach, but unable in its repulsing granite surface to absorb and effulge the radiance of the morning sun. There was my native city, the city that I loved, veined with memories, though shadowed as they were with the sorrows of death and the shadows dissolving in the illuminated activities of play and school; and now I was to ask, nay, not ask, but demand of it, the right to labor in a man’s world.

Found in the thorough and pretty amazing Imagining Boston:  A Literary Landscape, by Shaun O’Connell.