Monday, July 30, 2018

The “Zimmer” Newspaper Index

Although the State Library’s “Zimmer” newspaper index has been mentioned in some of our previous blogs, it’s such a great resource that I felt it deserving of its own post.  Developed and maintained by library staff, it was a card index to the “current events” of the time that were featured in late 19th and 20th century Massachusetts newspaper articles.  The bulk of the index covers the years 1878-1937, with some selected entries for earlier and later dates.  Entries include obituaries, political events, speeches, visits of foreign dignitaries, disasters (fires, floods, etc.) and other general newsworthy events.  A later index, which focuses primarily on political and governmental articles featured in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, covers the years 1960-1983.

The card index is nicknamed after Lowell native George Dana Zimmer, who was first appointed as an assistant in the library’s newspaper department by State Librarian Edward H. Redstone in 1924, and later became a senior library assistant.  Its history, however, can be traced back to the year 1891—over 30 years prior to Mr. Zimmer’s appointment.  State Librarian John W. Dickinson, in the library’s 1891 annual report, expressed a dire need for a newspaper index:

The modern newspaper covers so wide a field, in addition to the news of the world embodying carefully prepared special articles upon almost every subject of modern thought or material activity; it has become such an encyclopaedic treasure-house of information upon all subjects which are of interest to the historian or genealogist, the publicist or the student of political, economic or social questions, the merchant or the mechanic, the scientist or the man of letters, that the advisability of the employment of some competent person to make a comprehensive card index to some leading current newspaper, which shall also embody special features and the most important articles in other papers so far as may be practicable, is hereby commended to the careful consideration of the Legislature.  Such an index would save the patrons of the library a vast amount of time which is now spent in research, -- often to no purpose, -- and it would render accessible to public use a vast store-house of valuable material which is now practically unavailable after the day of its publication.

The next year, in 1892, the legislature, via Chapter 140 of the Acts, authorized the library trustees and the librarian “to cause to be prepared, at their discretion, an index to current events, and such other matters as they may deem important, contained in the newspapers of the day.”  James F. Munroe, who was in charge of the newspaper department at the time, created and maintained the “Current Events Index” (as it was previously known) until Zimmer succeeded Munroe in 1924.  Munroe’s “patient care and good judgment” to the project is noted in the library’s 1911 annual report.

The State Library has scanned the main part of the index (1878-1937) and hopes to make the collection available online in the future.  If you have any questions or would like for us to look up a person or event in the index for you, please send us an email ( or call our reference desk at 617-727-2590.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department

Monday, July 23, 2018

For Every Seal a Story: Town and City Town Seals in the Commonwealth

The Massachusetts state seal, which adorns the commonwealth’s flag, is easily identifiable by most Massachusetts residents. In 1629 King Charles allowed the Massachusetts Bay Colony to create and use a seal as part of their charter, and though the symbol changed several times the local government always had an official seal during the colonial period. In 1780, the new state legislature settled on a new design to represent the Commonwealth, submitted by Nathan Cushing: an Algonquin Native American holding a bow and arrow pointed downward, signifying peace, against a blue shield; a white star in the upper left corner of the shield signifying their status as one of the 13 original colonies; and an arm holding a sword above the shield, illustrating the motto inscribed on the blue ribbon: “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem” (“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”).

The seal, and consequently the flag, has persisted despite some controversy regarding the design, but it is certainly not the most interesting of the many seals that exist in the commonwealth. In 1899, the General Court passed Chapter 256, dictating that “the city government of every city not already having a seal shall by ordinance establish a seal of the city and designate the custodian thereof” and further that “every town not already having a seal shall… establish a seal of the town, which seal shall be in the custody of the town clerk.” While some cities and towns already had seals in place, this order required the rest of the towns to create official symbols that uniquely represented their identity.

Chapter 256 of the Acts and Resolves of 1899

As the cities and towns in the commonwealth acquiesced to the new law, many of the towns looked to their past. Many of the local seals reference the Native American tribes that lived in the area before the arrival of European settlers, though not all depictions are accurate to the various tribes’ way of life. For example, the Natick town seal originally showed a scene of Puritan missionary John Eliot preaching to several Wampanoag men (a common image seen in many town seals in the commonwealth) with a teepee in the background, despite the fact that the Wampanoag traditionally built and lived in wigwams. The seal has since been changed to correct this inaccuracy.

Other towns portrayed their founding namesakes or legends on their seal, such as Taunton. Paul Revere is featured on Revere’s seal, Alexander Hamilton on Hamilton’s seal, and E.N. Holbrook on Holbrook’s seal. The first town founded by a woman in the United States, the seal shows Elizabeth Poole purchasing the land from the Nemasket Native Americans in 1637, though in reality she was not involved in the direct purchase.

Seal of the city of Taunton
Other towns and cities created seals that looked to the industries that helped put them on the map. Merrimac’s seal celebrates the carriage-building industry that began there when it was still named West Amesbury, while Medford’s seal is one of many that gives prominence to the ship-building industry. The town of North Adams has a particularly original seal featuring the Hoosac Tunnel, a great feat of engineering that resulting in the longest tunnel in North America at the time it was opened in 1875.

Town Seal of North Adams
Every seal has a story, and thankfully there are many resources that include these stories. The State Library of Massachusetts has several resources regarding local, county, and state heraldry such as Civil heraldry; a roll of arms of cities and towns in the United States including those of some counties, councils and courts. A more comprehensive collection is the multi-volume Town and city seals of Massachusetts published in the 1950’s, which includes not only the seal, but some history and anecdotes regarding each town and its seal. Our Special Collections department even has a scrapbook from the Department of Agriculture featuring embossed and printed seals for towns and cities in Massachusetts. You can also reach out to your town clerk or otherwise designated custodian of your town or city’s seal for more information.

Further reading:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

We Hold These Truths

We celebrate America’s independence on July 4, but Bostonians in 1776 did not hear the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence until it was read from the balcony of the Old State House on July 18. For those who were not part of that large crowd, the Declaration was also published in Boston on the same date. Three Boston newspaper publishers--John Gill, Edward E. Powars, and Nathaniel Willis--came together to print the Declaration as a broadside and in newspapers. Similar to modern-day posters, the broadside was a large piece of paper with printing just on one side that was posted and shared throughout the city. To spread the news of the Declaration even farther, its text was printed in Gill’s Continental Journal and Powars and Willis’ The New-England Chronicle. These are the only two newspapers in Boston that published the Declaration of Independence, though it appeared throughout Massachusetts in newspapers in Newburyport, Watertown, Worcester, and Salem. The State Library has a copy of the printing from The New-England Chronicle as part of its Special Collections holdings.

Full image and detail of The New-England Chronicle,
vol. VIII number 413, published July 18, 1776.

The first official printing of the Declaration of Independence was a broadside made by John Dunlap in Philadelphia on the night of July 4, 1776. Copies of that broadside were then distributed to the Committees of Safety in the other colonies, and the text from Dunlap’s printing was used by printers throughout the colonies to set their own versions in type. The copies that were printed by Gill, Powars, and Willis are significant because they mark the first time that the Declaration of Independence appeared in type in a Boston newspaper. If you look closely, you’ll see that in many instances it looks like the letter “f” appears in the text where an “s” should be. Powars and Willis didn’t pepper their version with typos; what looks like an “f” is actually known as a “long s.” This form of the lowercase s is used when it appears in the beginning or middle of a word, and as the first s in a word that includes a double s. The “long s” was used in the majority of books published in English during the 17th and 18th centuries, but most printers stopped using it by the early 1800s. Since the newspaper and broadside versions were set in type by many different people throughout the colonies, each version differs slightly in terms of punctuation, capitalization, and even some human error. It was not as easy to make an exact copy in the 1700s as it is today!

As the Preservation Librarian, I couldn’t end this post without a note on the newspaper’s condition. I spend a fair amount of time working with yellowed paper from the 1900s that is extremely brittle, and I’m always struck by how much better preserved paper is from the 1700s. The reason is a difference in paper quality. Paper in the 1700s was sometimes referred to as “rag paper” and it contained a higher content of cotton, which resulted in a strong and durable paper fiber. By the 1900s, paper was more commonly made with wood pulp, which is more acidic and would degrade faster. This is part of the reason why this newspaper from 1776 is in good condition, but the newspaper you might have tried to save when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 is likely starting to deteriorate!

By Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian

Monday, July 16, 2018

Massachusetts City and Town reports: Paper and Electronic

The State Library holds a large collection of annual reports of Massachusetts towns and cities dating back to the nineteenth century, largely because of Massachusetts General Law chapter 40, section 50, which mandates that towns have to send us their annual town reports.  These reports provide much useful information about the Commonwealth’s many towns.

The cities and towns put a variety of information into the reports, and they are not uniform with their coverage.  Some cities or towns include vital statistics, including birth, marriage and death statistics.  Other town reports include the town budget, departmental reports of various offices in the town such as the town clerk, and information from the most recent town meeting.

For instance, the town report for Hadley 2017, which we have so far only in paper, has their town seal on the title page, a table of contents and some statistics about the town including the year settled (1659), year incorporated (1661), current population (5198) and registered voters (4035).  The town has some vital statistics which include the number of births, deaths, and marriages in the last five years.  They have various town agency reports.  This includes a report from the Public Health Nurse with a chart of reported diseases with Influenza and Lyme topping the list; and a report from Animal Control with the number of barking dog complaints, and other incidents.

In the last few years we have also collected some of the annual reports electronically.  We make these reports available in our Digital Repository called DSpace.  (See Hadley’s 2016 annual report here.) One can access the electronic reports from any computer.  We have a list of cities and town annual reports that we have currently in paper and electronically.

Naomi Allen
Reference Librarian