Monday, January 30, 2023

On Display in the State Library

This February, in recognition of Black History Month, we’re exhibiting a Bird's Eye View of the Town of Nantucket, State of Massachusetts: Looking Southwest, which was published in Boston in 1881. Beginning in the 18th century, Nantucket was home to a community of free Black individuals. By using the Museum of African American History’s Black Heritage Trail brochure, and resources available through the Nantucket Historical Association, we were able to locate and identify a few significant Black history locations on the bird’s-eye view map.

Bird’s-eye view maps rose in popularity from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s and served in part as a way for a city or town to promote their community, industry, and amenities. Bird’s-eye view maps are not technical wayfinding maps and won’t identify all of a town’s streets or buildings but will rather highlight the locations that would be attractive to future residents or visitors. On the Nantucket map, attention has been drawn to the town’s many hotels and churches, and it is one of the churches that we’re going to highlight first. Located to the left of the center of town and with the most prominent spire is the South (Unitarian) Church - identified on the map by number 11. The South Church is significant because its records show that Captain Absalom Boston was married there in 1814. Absalom Boston was born on Nantucket in 1785 to parents Seneca Boston, an African-American ex-slave father, and Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag Indian mother. From an early age, Absalom worked in the whaling industry and by 1822 he was named the captain of the whaling boat Industry. The Industry was the first all-black crew to embark on a whaling expedition. It returned to Nantucket six months later with the entire crew intact. You can read more about Absalom in Whaling Captains of Color by Skip Finley.

The next landmark to highlight is an area called Five Corners, which is identified on the map by five streets converging into one intersection. Five Corners was part of New Guinea, which was the area where free Black people lived and built community in the 1800s and 1900s. One notable building located at Five Corners is identified on the map as Pleasant Street Baptist (#15). From the Nantucket Historical Association, we learned that this was one of the names associated with the African Meeting House. The meeting house was constructed in 1827 and it was “a multipurpose center. It housed both the African Baptist Church (later renamed the Pleasant Street Baptist Church) and the African School, and it was used as a community center for neighborhood gatherings.” The meeting house was the space where residents of New Guinea worshipped, attended school, and gathered, and it was seen as the epicenter of the community. As it nears its 200th birthday, the meeting house is the only 19th century public building constructed and occupied by African Americans that is still in existence today. It is maintained by the Museum of African American History and is a National Trust Historic Site.

The Nantucket Atheneum, identified by number 1 on the map, also played a role in Black history on the island. In 1841, Frederick Douglass was living in New Bedford. He was asked by Nantucket resident William Coffin to speak at Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Convention, which was held at the Atheneum. It would be the first time that Douglass would speak about his experience in slavery in front of a group of white people. The speech was well-received and proved to be a pivotal event for Douglass; abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, was in the crowd and after hearing Douglass speak, he invited him to continue speaking at abolitionist events. Douglass went on to become a member and leader of the Society and participated in its speaking circuit for a number of years.

Stop by the library from February 1 through February 28 to see this map on display in our main reading room. And for those who can’t visit us in person, a high-resolution version of the map an be accessed through our digital repository. There is much more Black history on Nantucket than we can highlight in this blog post, so we hope it serves as a jumping off point to continue your own research, by checking out the organizations linked within this post, exploring the Heritage Trail the next time you’re on Nantucket, and by finding sources at your local library.

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian

Monday, January 23, 2023

Author Talk and Book Signing with William Martin

December ‘41 by William Martin
Monday, February 6, 2023—Noon to 1:30pm
State Library of Massachusetts—Room 341, Massachusetts State House

The State Library is thrilled to resume our in-person author talks with New York Times bestselling author William Martin! We invite you to join us in our historic reading room in the Massachusetts State House at noon on Monday, February 6th, to hear Martin speak about his newest book, December ’41, a World War II thriller! For anyone unable to attend this talk in person, we will be livestreaming this event on our YouTube channel at this link.

About the book: Described by critics as “an absolute page turner” and a “pedal-to-the-floor historical spy thriller,” December ’41 tells the story of the ultimate manhunt, as a Nazi assassin sets out to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt at the national tree lighting on Christmas Eve. This historical thriller, which is set in a time when the nation is coming to terms with the reality of war, describes the growing friendship between FDR and Winston Churchill, who will be joining the president as the surprise guest at the tree lighting ceremony. 

About the author: William Martin is the bestselling and award-winning author of twelve novels, including two enduring Massachusetts classics, Back Bay and Cape Cod. In addition to novels, Martin has also written magazine articles, book reviews, a PBS documentary, and even a cult-classic horror movie, and he also serves on the boards of many of Boston's historical and cultural organizations. You can read more about Martin and his works on his website: 

If you’re able to join us in person for this talk, not only will you be able to participate in the question-and-answer session at the conclusion of the talk, but you’ll also have the opportunity to purchase a copy of December ’41 signed by the author.

For more information about the State Library’s author talk series, please visit our website at

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

City and Towns Nicknames

It’s no secret that Massachusetts loves a good nickname. The state itself has many - the Bay State, Old Colony State, and the flattering, Baked Bean State. Similarly, many cities and towns within the Commonwealth have their own unique nicknames. Whether derived from the town’s industry, famous resident, or landmark, these nicknames demonstrate the state’s eclectic history.

Read on for some fun monikers and how they came to be!
One of Gardner's chair monuments.
Image via Digital Commonwealth.

Chair City - First settled in 1764, granted township in 1785, and incorporated as a city in 1923, Gardner has had a long history in the woodworking and furniture industry. From cane chairs to school furniture, Gardner had not one, but twelve furniture companies. These factories produced over 1.2 million chairs annually, rightfully making Gardner, the Chair City of the World (City of Gardner). The most well-known chair manufacturing company was the Heywood Company. Established in 1826 and later merging to become the Heywood-Wakefield Chair Company, the Heywood Company produced beautifully crafted wood and cane chairs, as well as more utilitarian chairs you see in public schools. Today, the city of Gardner honors its chair history with its ‘Big Chair,’ a 20-foot monument which sits outside the Helen Mae Sauter Elementary School. 

Shovel Town - Located about 25 miles south of Boston lies the town of Easton. Due to the area’s natural supply of bog iron, Easton became an industrial center, producing hoes, hammers, cut-nails, and shovels. Established in 1803 and situated on the Shovel-Shop Pond Dam, Ames Shovel Works became a leader in the shovel industry. Producing shovels, shovel handles, and later supplying the shovels which assisted in laying the nation’s railroads, Ames Shovel Works became a giant in the area’s iron industry. In 1844, Oliver Ames, who purchased the original property on Shovel-Shop Pond, left his business to his sons, Oakes and Oliver. Eventually the two sons would reorganize into the Oliver Ames & Sons Corporation. By 1875, Ames shovel productions were valued at $1.5 million (Town of Easton). The industrial and commercial impact from the Ames family is still seen within Easton today. Generations of Ames bequeathed stately public buildings and land to the town. And the impact of the shovel works is also still part of the community. If you ever find yourself in Easton, stroll the grounds at Borderland State Park to see the Ames mansion and afterwards stop in for refreshment at the local Shovel Town Brewery! 

Ames Shovel Works. Image from History of Easton, Mass. 1886.

Waltham Watch Company advertisement.
View more ads here.
Watch City - Incorporated as a city in 1884, Waltham is known for its watches! The city was once home to the Waltham Watch Company. Established in 1854 with a factory along the Charles River, the Waltham Watch Company was founded by Aaron Dennison who aspired to bring the factory machine process to the production of watches. This aspiration would prove successful as Waltham Watch Company became the first to manufacture watches on an assembly line (City of Waltham). The company would expand to make clocks, and played a large part during World War II. Stopping production of civilian watches, from 1942-1944, the company produced aircraft clocks, compasses, springs, speedometers, and watches for navigation and general military service (Moore, p.276). The company would declare bankruptcy not too long after the war’s end with the company closing in 1957. Today, you can see parts of the remaining factory and surrounding area as part of the American Waltham Watch Company Historic District. 

Want to know what your city or town nickname is? The State Library has many city and town history books, annual reports, vital records, maps, and more. Browse our online catalog or contact the Reference Department, You just might learn something new about your hometown!

April Pascucci
Reference Librarian

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Puffins are in the Library!

Two puffins (plate 213) have made their way to the library and are on display in our reading room from January 10 through February 7. The puffin, with its vibrantly colored beak, is sometimes referred to as a sea parrot! In addition to the full print, we’ve also included a close-up image of one of the puffins so the detailing in its face can be seen.

Audubon wrote that he saw a good number of puffins as far south as Georgia in the winter of 1831 and 1832, though they are more abundantly seen in northern locations like Canada's Bay of Fundy. Read more from his account here.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Boston’s Gilded Grasshopper: Its Legend and History

The State Library was established in 1826, so as you can imagine, we have quite a lot of materials here. We’ve also had lots of different staff members over the years and with such a vast collection, each member of our staff ends up finding something--or several things--that they think is cool or interesting or different. One day while looking through some old files, I came across a folder labeled “Grasshopper: Faneuil Hall Weathervane.” I had no idea what it could be about, so my interest was piqued. Here’s what I found:

As any good librarian does, I set out to find more information about this and what I discovered was a fun story about Boston’s history. Faneuil Hall was a gift to the City of Boston from Peter Faneuil, a wealthy merchant, who believed that Boston needed a center of exchange. He hoped that his gift would improve trade for Boston and serve as a marketplace for crops and livestock, as well as a meeting hall. A weathervane was placed at the top of Faneuil Hall and on top of the weathervane sits a gilded grasshopper statue.

Courtesy of WBUR

The grasshopper was designed by Shem Drowne, a coopersmith and tinplate worker, as well as the first documented weathervane maker in America. The grasshopper has been on top of Faneuil Hall since the building’s construction in 1742, though it has endured extreme weather events and even theft.

In 1761 a fire damaged both the weathervane and Faneuil Hall. Thomas Drowne, a blacksmith and the son of Shem Drowne, repaired the weathervane and Faneuil Hall was rebuilt as well and reopened to the public in 1763. Five years later Thomas Drowne inserted a time capsule in the grasshopper’s stomach. As the grasshopper has been refurbished over time, historical newspapers, coins, and letters from mayors have been added to the capsule, which is inscribed "Food for the Grasshopper.” Luckily the grasshopper has stayed strong and has always made its way back home to the top of Faneuil Hall.

Courtesy of
You may be asking yourself though, “why the grasshopper?” There is a theory as to why Drowne chose a grasshopper. According to legend, Shem Drowne was discouraged by his failures in colonial New England. He was sleeping in a large, open field and when he woke up, he saw a boy chasing a grasshopper. Shem chatted with the boy and the boy then took Shem home with him. The boy’s wealthy parents gave Shem dinner and later on they adopted him. Shem chose the grasshopper as a way to commemorate this turning point in his life.

While a fun story, it's still just a legend and there is what seems to be a more plausible story out there as to why the grasshopper was chosen. In 1571, a grasshopper weathervane was put on top of the Royal Exchange in London and it was recognized as a symbol of British commerce around the world. When Peter Faneuil had Faneuil Hall built on Boston’s then-shoreline, he also wanted it to be a center of commerce and trade. The grasshopper is a nod to the grasshopper above the Royal Exchange, signaling Boston’s role as a commercial center as well.

Photo of the grasshopper weathervane on top
of the Royal Exchange, courtesy of Londonist

If you’d like to learn more about Faneuil Hall, you can read our copy of Faneuil hall and Faneuil hall market : or, Peter Faneuil and his gift by Abram English Brown (1901). A copy of the cover of this book is shown in the first picture of this blog post and is one of the items that got me interested in finding out more about the grasshopper weathervane to begin with. The grasshopper has quite the history and I’ve only briefly touched upon it here. For an easy-to-read timeline, take a look at Walking Boston’s page and don’t forget--next time you’re in Boston, be sure to look for the grasshopper on top of Faneuil Hall!

Jessica Shrey
Reference Librarian

Thursday, January 5, 2023

State Library Newsletter – January Issue

Welcome 2023! Start your new year by catching up with the library’s January newsletter. Pictured here is a preview, but the full issue can be accessed by clicking here. And you can also sign up for our mailing list to receive the newsletter straight to your inbox.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

On Display in the State Library

Happy 2023! For the past few years, we’ve started the new year by displaying some of the historical almanacs from our collection. This year, we’re going all the way back to 1815 and 1818 to display two editions of The New-England Almanack, which was compiled by Stoddard Capen, Jr. The publisher of these volumes varies over the run of years, but the ones in our collection were published and sold by Charles Callender in Boston (an appropriate name for someone selling almanacs!). The cover includes the notation that it was “calculated for the meridian of Boston, but will serve for any of the New-England states" and as such, the almanac was distributed and sold by booksellers throughout New England.

We've chosen to display the 1815 almanac (pictured here) closed, so that the front cover is visible. You likely recognize the image, as it is a variation of the Great Seal of the United States. While not identical to the official seal, the image shows a stylized version of an eagle with wings outstretched, a bundle of arrows and olive branch in its talons, and a shield with the American flag. From its beak is a scroll with the motto “E pluribus unum” which translates to “Out of many, one.” In keeping with the patriotic theme, the almanac identifies the year 1815 as “thirty-ninth of the Independence of the United States of America” which is the calculation of how many years had passed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 

Within the pages, The New-England Almanack provides much the same information as other 18th and 19th century almanacs, including lunar charts and weather predictions, and regional information like a listing of courts and lists of elected officials. However, it is the extra details found within the pages that make each of the almanacs in our collection unique and interesting, since each author selected different additional information that they thought would be useful and entertaining to their readers. To illustrate this, we’ve displayed the 1818 edition open to the page for January. The monthly chart lists moon phases interspersed with observable days like “Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin born” on January 17, 1706 and “Peter [the] Great died” on January 28, 1725. At the top of the page is a verse that describes the month, which for January reads in part as “fast falls the fleecy shower; the downy flakes, descending and with never ceasing lapse, softly alighting upon all below.” The verses continue from month to month and culminates in one long poem that describes the entire year.

On the facing page is some less typical information. This almanac lists out the vacation schedules and academic calendars for a number of colleges located throughout New England, such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth. In the entry for Harvard, it also lists that “the public exhibitions of the students are in the college chapel, on the third Tuesday in October, the last Tuesday in April, and the Thursday preceding commencement, beginning at 11 o’clock A.M.” From what we can ascertain, this was a chance for students to present their work to the public, almost like a dissertation. Also of note are the pages following the monthly charts, which is a section titled “useful hints.” This includes a selection of miscellaneous tips like “rubbing cheese with red pepper prevents maggots” – which notes that rubbing cheese with butter and a red pepper, “gives a very fine colour to your cheese, but it is so pungent, that no fly would touch it.” There’s a food storage tip from 1817 to kick off your new year!

Visit us from January 6 through January 31 to see The New-England Almanack on display in our main library reading room, and if you’d like to start off your year with even more almanac content, be sure to check out our previous posts. In 2022 we featured Peter Parley’s Almanac for Old and Young, in 2021 we highlighted Fleet's Pocket Almanack for the year of our Lord 1789, and in 2020 we showcased a selection of Isaiah Thomas’s New England Almanac, which can also be viewed in our digital repository

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian