ICYMI: The Philadelphia box

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 26 December 2015.]

Hedwiga Gray diary1
Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

In 1860, when Regina Shober Gray began keeping her diary, gift-giving was spread between Christmas and New Year’s Day: indeed, the latter day was the more important of the two in the eyes of the Gray children. For at least the period of the Civil War, the Gray family of Boston impatiently awaited the arrival of “the Philadelphia box” – containing presents from Mrs. Gray’s siblings[1] – with shipment timed for the days around January 1.

Mrs. Gray’s entry for 23 December 1860[2] is instructive:  “Our Christmas dinner went off much in the usual fashion, a small party of us, Annie Gray[3] being out of town, but Tom Clay[4] filled her seat. The children were amply endowed with étrennes [New Year’s gifts] – books, games &c from myself, each other, J.B.S.,[5] and from Mrs. Shober,[6] who surprised us with a nice package of books.”

“And from Sallie Gray a magnificent ball-dress moiré antique, [of] blue & white stripes…”

“Mary and Sam[7] enjoyed the party at Charlie Jenks,[8]  and came home quite loaded with odds and ends from off the Christmas Tree. Many of which found their way into the hands of Santa Claus for disposal in Christmas stockings. Rebecca[9] sent me the nicest quilted silk hood – Miss Jones[10] a breast-pin, Roman mosaic, white dove on a blood red ground – the most unique thing. And from Sallie Gray[11] a magnificent ball-dress moiré antique, blue & white stripes with cluster[s] of Satin spots over it – a regal looking thing – and as if that were not enough, there came with it a set of Valpy’s edit. [of] Shakespeare[12] in 15 vols., small hand size – a charming book beautifully half-bound and profusely illustrated – and a $10 bill in the note, wherewith to make up the dress. All this is really overwhelming.”

Boston, Friday, 27 December 1861: Our Christmas dinner went off well. Only Mrs. Gray,[13] Annie & Fred.[14] The children had a small tree, on which were hung all their own presents to each other, consisting of card photographs, pocket gimlet,[15] jews’ harps,[16] tapemeasures, rebel-scrip,[17] stamped envelope[s], &c – also some things Fanny[18] sent over, and a few bon-bons. It looked quite pretty enough to delight them on Xmas morning, especially the Santa Claus, which Mary [Gray] dressed in cotton-flannel ermine! and tied to the topmost bough. The children each gave me a card photograph. I gave Frank[19] 25 of “Prang’s celebrities”[20] – all that are published in addition to those I got him in Philad[elphia]; to Mary a wrought pocket hdkf.; to Sam 100 envelopes for his collection; to Rege a book and Morris[21] a toy gun.

And on Wednesday, 8 January 1862:

The New Year’s box arrived from Philad. yesterday full of charming things – a sachet for Mary, in which lay an exquise Brussels lace head-dress for me from Mary & Lizzie,[22] and a lovely hdkf. wrought in crimson from Sue[23] & a smaller one for M.C.G.[24] – and Sallie[25] sent me a pair of slippers & M.C. the loveliest Marie Stuart hood – Am Mai[26] giving the sontag[27] & Sleeves to match. Frank [Gray] had a picture for his room and a taper case of Chinese jed-stone[28] – and [the] Darley edit. of the “Last of the Mohicans”[29] from Mrs. Shober, who sent Mary sleeve studs – and Sam “Plutarch’s Lives,”[30] to his great delight.

“[The] usual delicious confectionary was there also…”

Regie & Morris had toys and games, a “log cabin” among them which amuses the older children as much as him. A splendid box of preserves as usual from Mary [Shober] – beside several small jars of currant jelly and boxes of gelatin with which she “filled up chinks” in the big box. And the usual delicious confectionary was there also…

Sunday, 21 December 1862: Yesterday p.m. I shopped for Christmas presents, commissioned by Horace Gray[31]; my own have been bought sometime [ago], we succeeded quite satisfactorily. I found three very nice japanned dressing cases for the three girls at no. 20.[32] A good game for Edward[33] – nice bibles for my Mary and Morris – English ones – Morris illustrated, Mary’s brass bound with clasps. F.C. will get a handsome pair of skates with his 10 dollars – and the other children’s I shall look after tomorrow.

“The children were up before daylight as usual…”

Thursday, 25 December 1862: Our Christmas Day has passed very pleasantly. Mother Gray’s household dined with us – the plum pudding was a great success, and the whole dinner satisfactory. The children were up before daylight as usual – and as usual have all taken heavy colds in consequence. They had the usual array of presents from each other and various young friends, beside their Uncle Horace’s and mine…

By the end of 1863, household worries were mounting in Philadelphia: indeed, Mrs. Gray’s brother John would die in 1864, and their sister Elizabeth in 1865.

Thursday, 31 December 1863: My letters from Philad. are very sad – and give little hope of being other than sad, at any time. No one knows the trials, anxieties, sufferings, & worries hidden under the smiling faces and genial manners of that darkened household. Nor can any thing be done to ease those anxieties or avert those worries. Ah me, it seems a mockery even to say the common salutation of the season to them – I know their Christmas cannot be merry, nor their New Year happy – God help them!

For our own household the year has brought its daily cares and its daily strength. It has been crowned with blessings, in that we all gather, an unbroken band – no link missing – our children in fair health, full of comforting promise in many ways to the hearts of their parents…

Even after John Shober’s death during the fall of 1864, Mrs. Gray could see the funny side of life:

Sunday, 18 December 1864: Regie has amused himself this week by taking casts in sulphur and in plaster of Paris from some medals &c, with very good success. But the sulphur had to be melted over the nursery fire, and consequently we seemed to breathe the fumes of the bottomless pit!

Morris and Sam have each bought new skates this past week for Christmas presents. Regie is delighted to hear how pleased all his aunties are at the prospect of his visit[34] – and the two men there, Wesley & Joseph, are delighted about it. Wesley says he will teach him “horseback, as well as any riding-school man – he’s teached many a boy.” So Rege will have his heart desire – riding on [his uncle’s horse] “Kearney.”

She had news from Philadelphia shortly after the New Year:

Sunday, 8 January 1865: We hear good accounts from dear Regie. His cough scarcely troubles him at all – and he is very happy. They are doing tout leur possible to make him contented. A gymnasium and workroom are fitted up in the attic for him, the yard is flooded nightly for his slides. His boy friends are allowed to come in and romp with him – often, I fear, to the distress of aching heads and the detriment of the usually quiet & orderly household &c – altogether he seems to be in clover, and will we hope to be content to stay, long enough to be much benefitted. And with all the turmoil he makes in the house, yet his aunties are delighted to have him, and his visit will cheer them a little & do good to them as to himself. We miss him so much here. The children say it seems months since he went.

“[With] all the turmoil he makes in the house, yet his aunties are delighted to have him…”

The boxes from Philad. arrived on Thursday, one with several jars of nice preserves – and the other with confectionary & étrennes. Frank had a pair of beautiful sleeve buttons from Mrs. Shober, and a cravat & handsome hdkfs from Aunts E. & S.[35] Mamie has worked hdkfs from Aunt Sue and from Mrs. S., and a very beautiful mourning pin & earrings containing her Uncle John’s hair from her other Aunties. Sam had the exquisite “Christmas Carol”[36] from Aunt S[allie] – Dickens’s “Christmas Stories” illus.d by Darley[37] from Mrs. Shober – and Mossie had a game from Am Mai, 2 books from Mrs. Shober and a knife. And there were other things wh. I cannot remember just now…


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober (1818–1885) was married to Dr. Francis Henry Gray of Boston 1844–80. The diarist’s unmarried brother and sisters shared a house in their native city of Philadelphia.

[2] Possibly misdated for 26 December.

[3] Dr. Gray’s sister Anne Eliza Gray (1819–1884). (See also Note 14.)

[4] Dr. Gray’s first cousin Thomas Carolin Clay (1841–1897).

[5] The diarist’s brother John Bedford Shober (1814–1864).

[6] Mrs. Gray’s stepmother Lucy Hall Bradlee (1806–1902) was married to Samuel Lieberkuhn Shober 1830–47.

[7] The diarist’s daughter Mary Clay Gray (1848–1923) and second son Samuel Shober Gray (1849–1926).

[8] John H. Jenks had a house at 2 Mount Vernon Street in 1860.

[9] Mrs. Gray’s best friend, Rebecca Parker Wainwright (1820–1901).

[10] Anna Powell Jones (1807?–1864), like Miss Wainwright one of Mrs. Gray’s closest friends

[11] Sarah Frances Loring (1811–1892) married Dr. Gray’s brother William in 1834.

[12] The Works of Shakespeare, published 1832–34 by Abraham John Valpy (1787–1854).

[13] Mrs. Gray’s mother-in-law, Mary Clay (1790–1867), was married to William Rufus Gray 1809–31.

[14] Dr. Gray’s brother Frederic (1815–1877), who shared a house with his widowed mother and unmarried sisters Annie and Ellen (1830–1921).

[15] A tool used in the process of attaching skates to leather boots.

[16] Per Sandy Johansen: “a small metal harp, held in the mouth and plucked with a hand to make interesting ‘plunking’ – ‘boing-ing’ rhythms.”

[17] The paper money of the Confederate States.

[18] Dr. Gray’s niece Frances Loring Gray (1843–1919), who married William Adams Walker Stewart in 1874.

[19] The diarist’s eldest son, Francis Calley Gray (1846–1904).

[20] By Louis Prang (1824–1909), the “father of the American Christmas card.”

[21] Mrs. Gray’s youngest sons, Reginald Gray (1853–1904) and Morris Gray (1856–1931).

[22] The diarist’s sisters Mary Morris Shober (1816–1873) and Elizabeth Kearney Shober (1821–1865).

[23] Mrs. Gray’s sister Susanna Budd Shober (1823–1898?), who married Dr. John Davies of Fayal in the Azores in 1867.

[24] The diarist’s only daughter.

[25] Mrs. Gray’s youngest sister, Sarah Morris Shober (1825–1917), who married their cousin the Rev. William Phillips Lewis in 1868.

[26] A Gray family nickname for Mrs. Gray’s sister Mary Shober.

[27] A pleated bodice.

[28] The diarist probably means jade stone.

[29] An edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels (1859–61) illustrated by Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822–1888).

[30] An edition of Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch (46–120).

[31] Dr. Gray’s brother Horace Gray of New York (1821–1901).

[32] Number 20 Mount Vernon Street, home of the elder surviving daughters of William and Sallie Gray: Isa Elizabeth Gray (1841–1923), Fanny Gray, and Anna Greely Gray (1845–1932).

[33] William and Sallie Gray’s younger surviving son, Edward Gray (1851–1907).

[34] A visit meant to cheer Mrs. Gray’s sisters following the death of their brother John.

[35] Lizzie and (probably) Sue Shober.

[36] By Charles Dickens, first published in London in 1843.

[37] Published in New York in 1861.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

2 thoughts on “ICYMI: The Philadelphia box

  1. Enjoyed this post very much. This glimpse into 19c Boston was an early Christmas present for readers. This cannot have been too many decades after descendants of the first settlers in Massachusetts began to celebrate Christmas. In some places, I believe it was still rather daring.

  2. Loved reading this. It reminds me of the excitement my brother and I felt when the boxes of Christmas presents arrived from relatives in Bangor, Houlton, or Boston. Today they all seem to come from Amazon.

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