Tag Archives: Boston

NEHGS in 1920

Façade of 9 Ashburton Place, NEHGS headquarters in 1920.

During this 175th anniversary year, I wondered how we marked an earlier NEHGS milestone, one hundred years ago. To learn about the state of the Society in 1920, I looked at Boston newspapers online and NEHGS Proceedings and a scrapbook in our R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

On Thursday, 18 March 1920, NEHGS celebrated its 75th anniversary of incorporation—to the day—and recognized the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. From 2 to 6 p.m. that day, the Society welcomed the public to an open house at “its spick and span headquarters,” then located at 9 Ashburton Place in Boston, near the Massachusetts State House. Guides greeted the visitors and introduced them to the Society and its collections. Tea was served. Continue reading NEHGS in 1920

The last founder

In researching the origins of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, I came across an article about the Society’s fiftieth anniversary in the Boston Post dated 20 April 1895, which omitted the names of founders Charles Ewer, Lemuel Shattuck, Samuel Gardner Drake, and John Wingate Thornton, but credited the efforts of William H. Montague specifically.[1] Surely the Post had a reason to single out Montague; though he had died by 1895, he was the last surviving founder of NEHGS. Continue reading The last founder

Some Back Bay houses

121-129 Commonwealth Avenue, ca. 1875, viewed from the steeple of the Brattle Street Church. (The house into which the family moved in 1922 was just around the corner on Dartmouth Street.) Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library

When my grandmother[1] was a girl, she could walk down the front steps of her parents’ house in Boston and along Commonwealth Avenue into the houses of her paternal grandparents and her father’s sisters nearby. Using the Back Bay Houses database, I can trace the staggered arrivals of her father’s family in Boston; in the process, I find I’m encountering a number of family and contemporary friends.

My great-grandfather[2] seems to have been the first member of the Ayer family to move to Boston, soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1887. Next came his father (my great-great-grandfather) and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Lowell,[3] who rented 232 Beacon Street in 1899-1900[4] while building their new house at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.[5] The family[6] was occupying the house by the end of 1900, although it appears that work continued for sometime thereafter. Continue reading Some Back Bay houses

‘A remarkable old lady’

When I joined NEHGS with my aunt in 1992, we were the first members of our family to join this organization. While several members of our family had an interest in genealogy, no one was near enough to the Boston area to join NEHGS. (Now, of course, with our vast online presence, physical proximity to our library is less essential, and a few family members across the U.S. are members.) As this year marks the 175th anniversary of NEHGS’s founding in 1845, a new database of membership applications, “1847-1900,” has gone online, and I was curious to search it to see if more distant cousins were members in the past.

The earliest cousin I found was Isaac Child (1792-1885) of Boston, a life member admitted on 9 June 1846, one year before the founding of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. His was the thirteenth membership file for 1846, and as there are 88 files for 1845 (the Society’s inaugural year), I could say Isaac Child was our 101st member, although the files appear to be in alphabetical order by year! Continue reading ‘A remarkable old lady’

Built environment

Today, the NEHGS headquarters at 99—101 Newbury Street stands eight stories tall, several stories higher than the neighboring buildings. However, the present building at 99—101 Newbury was not always the tallest on the block. It began as a three-story bank building.

After the Back Bay was filled in during the second half of the nineteenth century, a new neighborhood sprang up, filled by desirable Victorian brick rowhouses. Newbury Street was no different. It had been built up by 1890 and families had moved in. Numbers 99 and 101 Newbury Street were two separate residences (though attached, like all the other row homes in the area) which faced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology buildings across the street. Continue reading Built environment

‘Decidedly frosty’

Researchers unfamiliar with the history of the New England Historic Genealogical Society may assume women have been members since the organization’s founding in 1845. In fact, for the first fifty years, women were denied membership. In 1894, some members began to propose opening membership to women: “The reaction was haughty and dignified, if not decidedly frosty.” Women quietly persisted in submitting their applications to male members courageous enough to offer women’s names for election. When a woman’s name was read, though, it was greeted by silence. Several men went so far as to argue that “membership was limited to persons,” and women could not join because they were not “persons.” In early 1897 the issue was put to a vote by special ballot and passed, 451 in favor and fifty opposed, with thirteen offering qualified approval. On 2 February 1898, thirty-six women were nominated, twenty-nine accepted membership — and a new chapter began at NEHGS.[1] Continue reading ‘Decidedly frosty’

Salient points

Mrs. A. C. Burrage Jr. and Mrs. C. F. Ayer, ca. 1915.

One of my great-grandmothers[1] was a penniless orphan, the kind found in storybooks: beautiful and, secretly, a dispossessed member of a once proud family. As often happens when a child’s parents die young, much of this background was lost: my grandmother’s mother, born Sara Theodora Ilsley in Newark, was the daughter of a composer (and member of a distinguished family of musicians), granddaughter of one of the men who owned the yacht America,[2] and the descendant of a notable set of families along the Eastern Seaboard, including the first Congressman from New York City (and an aide-de-camp to General Washington)[3] and the Attorney-General of the Colony of Pennsylvania.[4]

Her descendants knew almost nothing of this when I was growing up, perhaps because of that break occasioned by Theodora’s father’s death in 1887 and her mother’s death in 1895, when she was fourteen. Continue reading Salient points

In the beginning

Shortly after the founding of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845, the first issue of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register was published. The Register first appeared in January 1847 and was the visionary work of the Society’s first president, Charles Ewer. Mr. Ewer envisioned a society made up of hundreds of members, offering a physical library to house thousands of volumes of books, where a publishing program would expand upon the work of John Farmer’s Genealogical Register.

Mr. Ewer’s goal was to create a quarterly journal of history and genealogy that “would give members of the Society a further vehicle for research, discussion, and writing about New England’s Puritan fathers as well as fill a deficiency in historical literature by providing information on families.”[1] Additionally, he wanted to rescue records that were being destroyed in public offices and present them as transcribed and printed resources for future research.[2] Continue reading In the beginning

The start of something big

Boston in 1846. Courtesy of the Harvard University Library

When the five founders of the New England Historic Genealogical Society met in January 1845 for the first meeting of the board of their new society, life in the city outside their windows was on the precipice of colossal change.

As Charles Ewer and his cohort were establishing NEHGS 175 years ago, Boston was a city on the rise. Already a celebrated international trade port, Boston saw an economic boom in the 1840s as it welcomed a busy new network of railroads and thoroughfares which further accelerated industry and commerce in the area. By 1845 Boston was one of the largest and wealthiest manufacturing cities in the country, and still growing at a swift rate. Continue reading The start of something big

2019: the year in review concluded

On Friday, I wrote about the first six months of 2019 as reflected through Vita Brevis posts. Herewith, the rest of 2019:

In July, Jan Doerr – whose family has long been settled in the area around Augusta, Maine – reflected on the uses of old business records:

I wanted to know how my late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century ancestors interacted with the people of the Fort Western Settlement every day, what they traded or bought from the Howard store, and why. I have no primary source material from those Fisher, Williams, or Read families, and only a few pieces from my side of the Coney family. Fortunately, other residents weren’t as reticent as my family (or as inclined to paste newspaper clippings over old account book pages!). Continue reading 2019: the year in review concluded