Saturday, February 28, 2015

Winter : 1830s-Style

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 27, 2015.

The shortest month, February, seems like the longest month of winter. Granted the last month of any season always seems to have outlived its welcome. Yet, in New England we persist in living here even though every winter we have to go into survivalist mode. What’s with us? Have we always been this way?

Well, yes, the New England character seems to relish harsh weather – even as we gripe about it. This was as true in the 1830s as it is today. Paging through the early years of the Exeter News-Letter provides us with some clues about coping with winter. It’s rarely a good thing to fall into nostalgic magical thinking – “when I was a kid things were blah, blah, blah” – but in the case of winter it’s hard to deny that people had to be tougher about cold than we are today. We have moisture-wicking polypropylene underwear and lightweight fleece to layer under our down-filled jackets. And even if we can’t get teenagers to wear such things, at least we don’t commonly encounter newspaper stories like the January 29th, 1833 entry in the News-Letter: “Mr. Elijah Chase of Hampton Falls was found frozen to death on the road from Portsmouth to little Harbor on the 21st.”

Travelling from Hampton Falls to Portsmouth would have been an all-day affair and it would have been undertaken without the benefit of heated seats in a warm car. No mention is made of Mr. Chase’s horse, so likely he was walking. The physical exertion of walking would have kept him warmer than riding in an open sleigh, but it takes longer to walk and eventually the cold caught up with him.

Sleigh riding was both practical and recreational. Roads were rolled smooth rather than plowed and sleighs, encountering less friction than wheels, were faster than carriages. Horse’s hoof beats were muffled in the snow and, much like a Prius of today, people complained that they couldn’t hear them coming. The solution was to require sleigh bells. In February of 1833, the Exeter News-Letter passed along this notice from the New Hampshire Telegraph, “in these times of good sleighing, the law providing that horses travelling in sleights shall wear bells out to be rigorously followed up. The accidents happening from this neglect are numerous. Besides, what is the fun of riding without bells?”

But how could one keep warm in an open sleigh slicing through temperatures in single digits? In the 1830s the warmest material in the United States was the buffalo robe. James Page, a Water Street merchant, advertised annually from November through March, “a large and prime lot of Buffalo Robes, which will sell by the bale or single, as cheap as can be purchased elsewhere.” He also sold, “winter CAPS, consisting of fur-seal, nutra, hair-seal and cloth.”

Gentlemen were advised to grow whiskers. A December 1832 notice, passed on from the New York Citizen, encouraged, “everything in its proper season – cowslips in the spring, cucumbers in summer, cantelopes in autumn, and whiskers in winter.” Women, of course, didn’t have this natural advantage, but they did wear multiple layers of stockings and petticoats. In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society is a knitted all-wool petticoat (seven stitches per inch, for all you knitters out there), which would have kept the wearer as warm as wearing an afghan under her skirts. Not only was this a practical garment, but creating it would have certainly passed the time on long winter days. Knitwear has always straddled necessity and artistic expression. In November of 1832, the News-Letter remarked of a Portsmouth man wearing house cat yarn gloves, “the fine hair was combed from her back at the season when she would naturally shed her coat, and the product of two years has enabled his wife to prepare this new and elegant species of domestic manufacture.” How many months of housebound cold weather is required before you begin to look at your cat and think, “you know, I could make something out of all that fur…?”

Whiskers and blanket-like petticoats aside, we still have to admit that we have it easy. Our complaints about getting out of a warm bed would have fallen on deaf ears to people who were accustomed to having to break the ice in the wash basin every morning. At best our homes are ‘chilly’ in the morning and not actually cold. The scourge of children and the elderly were the dreaded ‘chilblains’ – an ailment that most of us have never heard of. The emergency department nurse practitioner consulted for this article has never seen a case in his 26 year career. Chilblains are an inflammatory reaction to rewarming the hands and feet too quickly after prolonged exposure to cold. It would cause swelling, intense itching with blistering and open sores. The News-Letter advised, in 1832, “it is said raw cotton bound on the feet is an infallible remedy.” Various concoctions and ointments were advertised. Doctor Tilton suggested “Wheaton’s Itch Ointment – cures in less than an hours application.” Likely the ointment did little good. Dr. William Perry’s book of prescriptions and compounded medications includes “Magic Healing Powder,” which consisted of chalk, burnt alum, camphor and calamine. It’s listed in the book right under “Dog Pills” and “Sea Foam Shampoo.” These are all good reasons to avoid time travel.

The end of February is always eagerly anticipated, but fair warning: March is a habitual tease. Even in 1833, John Sleeper, the editor of the Exeter News-Letter lost patience with lingering winter. On March 12th he noted, “the weather, with the exception of a few days lately, has been astonishingly cold. The thermometer running from a few degrees below, to a few degrees above zero. Our ideas are absolutely frozen, and we fear will not be properly thawed until dog-days: which must account, satisfactorily we hope, for the frigidity of the matter contained in our columns lately. It was but a few days since, having succeeded with great labor in thawing an idea, we attempted to transfer it to paper, but meeting with ill success, we examined our slylum, and found we were writing with an icicle.”

Photo: Front Street buried in the depths of winter, probably taken in the 1890s.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Valentine’s Day in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 13, 2015.

Like Halloween, Valentine’s Day is a holiday that is not really a holiday. Any fourth grader will explain that unless they get the day off school, it’s not a holiday. But like Halloween, Valentine’s Day is more fun at school, so it all works out. Valentine’s Day is also a day one either loves or hates – depending on age and relationship status. So, there are some real mixed-feelings about the day. Whatever your view, it’s hard to ignore the day when everywhere you go there are red hearts and cupid decorations.

The holiday is old, that much we know. Depending on the source, it’s a pagan Roman holiday or a Catholic saint’s day or a combination of the two. The tradition that the date of Valentine’s Day – February 14th – was the day that birds begin mating in the spring indicates that it was definitely not native to New England. There’s no sign of mating birds in mid-February around here. Our birds are mostly hunkered down on the power lines questioning why they didn’t fly south months ago. Considering Exeter, and most of the Puritan northeast, didn’t even celebrate Christmas, one would think that Valentine’s Day would not be celebrated here. Christmas finally caught on in the late 1850s, so it was actually quite a surprise to find that Valentine cards are advertised in the Exeter News-Letter in 1848. “Stand Back! Stand Back!” the advertisement shouts, “Don’t crowd – you will be favored with an opportunity to select in season for the day, from the finest, richest, and best selected collection of Valentines ever offered in this vicinity. Wit and humor, fun and frolic, ridicule and sarcasm, as well as the most chaste and delicate compliments in the form of Valentines at Lovering’s Bookstore.”

These were most likely cards designed by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. Howland was a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College and had received a commercially produced Valentine from England, where sending the cards had long been a tradition. Looking for a venture for her father’s stationary shop, she designed and marketed Valentines and is considered the founder of the practice in the United States.

In 1889, the News-Letter noted, “the number of Valentines received and sent from the local post-office yesterday showed a decided increase over last year. Batchelder reports a very satisfactory sale.” The postcard craze of the 1890s gave Valentine’s Day a boost throughout the country. Costing only a penny to buy and a penny to mail, people happily sent cards not only to sweethearts, but to children and family members as well. In 1909, young Betty Tufts recorded, “got 28 Valentines in all, 9 at school.” Valentine’s Day parties became quite popular around this time, and since then the ritual of opening and sorting the little cards has become part of the school year tradition. In the early 1970s, the classroom party included cookies, cupcakes and Hawaiian Punch. Probably kids today have healthier snacks, but sources from both Lincoln and Main Street schools in Exeter indicate that they still exchange Valentine cards in school.

Betty also received a 2 pound box of candy in 1909. Chocolate and flowers were an important part of Valentine’s Day as early as the 1920s. Oddly, there wasn’t much advertising about this in the 1920s. But in 1930 something triggered an explosion of Valentine’s Day advertising – maybe it was the Great Depression or maybe it was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre in gangland Chicago. Whatever the cause, Valentine’s Day cards, candy and flowers are all heavily advertised beginning in 1930. A 1933 advertisement for Spauldings on Water Street read, “A Valentine is a priceless messenger of your friendship. Ask to see our friendly Valentines. Your little friends will feel really important if you send them a Valentine through the mail. We have some delightful child mechanical novelties at 5 and 10 cents.” Batchelder’s Bookstore asked, “Is your wife still your sweetheart? Send her a Rust Craft Valentine.”

But maybe a card wasn’t enough. “The best Valentine of all,” encouraged Hilliard’s Flowers, “and the most appreciated is the gift of flowers.” Seward Drug store went with the candy angle offering “Valentine Hearts by Whitman, Colecrest, Lowney and Apollo” along with a counter full of perfume selections.

Valentine’s Day competed with both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays. It’s not like these two long-deceased presidents threw a wet blanket on mid-winter fun – the Washington’s Birthday Ball was a common event – but Valentine’s Day added something that the patriotic holidays couldn’t have – expressions of love. If nothing else, this is something we could all use to break out of our cabin fever during these cold, snowy weeks, and with the beginning of Lent breathing down our necks, February 14th is as good a day as any to enjoy some cupcakes with friends.

Photo: Valentine’s Day advertisement from the Exeter News-Letter, 1930

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Exeter History Minute - Lamson Pottery

There have been potters in Exeter since colonial days. They were a staple of the community because they produced so many necessary items for the colonial home. In this episode of the Exeter History Minute - click here to watch - we explore one such pottery associated with the Lamson family, which became famous locally. This history minute is generously sponsored by Commonwealth Dynamics, Inc.

Check it out and please share it with your friends! Also, if you enjoy our Exeter History Minutes and would like to support the Exeter Historical Society, please click here to become a member. Thank you!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mary Taylor Gilman Gordon – Noted Teacher to the Deaf

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 30, 2015.

Mary Taylor Gilman Gordon was not born in Exeter, but she was born to Exeter parents and moved to Exeter at a young age. Her career as teacher of the deaf at the institution that would become Gallaudet University would span 40 years. The daughter of Stephen Gordon and his second wife, Elizabeth Gilman, Mary was born in Berwick, Maine, on September 23rd, 1832. By the time her sister Ellen was born in 1837, the family had moved back to New Hampshire. Her father, Stephen, is listed in the 1839 Portsmouth directory as a ‘professor of music’. His death in 1842, left Elizabeth with two small daughters aged 9 and 4. She moved back to her hometown of Exeter and scraped by, somehow providing her daughters with a solid education in music. Both girls would eventually become music teachers. Mary is listed as ‘teacher of instrumental music’ in the catalog of the Exeter Female Academy in 1854. She travelled to Washington, D.C. in 1860, to teach at the fledgling Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, leaving Ellen and her mother behind in Exeter.

What drew her there is a mystery, but the school did have some thin ties to New Hampshire. On the board of directors of the school was Chester, NH, native, Benjamin French – the half-brother of Exeter’s favorite judge, Henry Flagg French. Perhaps Judge French recommended Mary for the position. We do know that she was a frequent guest at Benjamin French’s home in the capital, where he worked in various government positions including congressional clerk and commissioner of public buildings.

Mary began her work at the school teaching blind children music and literature. Not only did she excel teaching blind students, she picked up manual sign language. The 1900 Annual Report of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb reported, “She performed these duties successfully for five years, when our blind department was discontinued. Miss Gordon then became a teacher of the deaf and taught classes under the manual method with marked success for thirteen years until 1878.”

Mary had entered the field at a time when education for the deaf fractured into all-out civil war. There were two very reasonable philosophies battling it out for the best of all possible outcomes. On one side were the manualist teachers – led by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in the United States. These educators had discovered that the most effective way to teach the deaf was through the use of sign language, which by 1860, had grown into its own language. Early American educators viewed sign language as artistic, beautiful and natural. Its use, it was believed, brought the deaf closer to God and allowed them to also learn written English. Deaf children picked up sign very quickly and were able to communicate easily and fluently with their teachers and one another.

But it was felt that sign language limited the deaf in a hearing world. Hearing parents found signing difficult to learn and gradually saw their deaf children linguistically drifting away. What was needed, they believed, was to teach the deaf to communicate in the hearing world. This philosophy, championed by Alexander Graham Bell and others, believed deaf children should be taught to lip-read, speak and function in spoken English to avoid the isolation that was perceived in signing-only education. The two camps had intractable differences, with each believing the other should be banned from the education of the deaf.

The Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which by this time had evolved into both grammar school and college level, supported the manual education system until yielding to the pressure of both parents and the international consensus in the 1870s. Oral educational methods entered both Columbia Institution and Gallaudet College in the later years of that decade. Mary Gordon altered her teaching in 1878. “She then pursued a course of training in the oral method,” continues the Annual Report, “and for twenty-two years has been a successful teacher of speech.”

Gordon became so proficient in teaching speech articulation that, in 1891, she moved into the teacher training (or Normal School) program to instruct new teachers. Whether she worried over the development, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘dark time of oral instruction,’ we do not know. At the time of the controversy no one thought to ask the Deaf community which system they preferred, and when it came to a head in the 20th century, the Deaf overwhelmingly preferred to sign – their own language. Mary, of course, was fluent in both.

After her mother’s death in 1882, Mary brought her younger sister Ellen – herself a music teacher – to work at the school. She served as matron, managing the student’s boarding life, for 18 years. Both women retired in 1900, Mary ultimately having taught at the school for 40 years. It was teaching that drove her. “I never put the key in the lock of my school room door without a sensation of pleasure,” she once said. Mary visited Exeter often during her tenure in Washington. In one photo, she is seen happily with four friends – all of them seeming to be giggling over an inside joke just as neighbor Albert Buzell took the picture. A long-time member of Phillips Church, at the time of her death in 1911, she was remembered in Exeter as an extraordinary woman. She died in Washington, D.C., but was laid to rest in the Exeter Cemetery with her mother.

Photo: In this photo, taken in the early 1890s in Exeter by Albert Buzell, Mary Taylor Gilman Gordon (seated third from left with tilted head) and her friends, Ellen Wentworth, Sarah Chandler Perry, Eliza Bell (standing) and an unknown woman, seem amused with some unknown joke. Gordon was visiting Exeter during a brief vacation from her job teaching deaf students in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Pine Tree Shilling Hoard

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 16, 2015.

Recently, a time capsule was discovered in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse. The contents, placed there by notables including Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, dated back to 1795 when the building was constructed. According to the Boston Globe, the box contained, “five tightly folded newspapers, a medal depicting George Washington, a silver plaque, two dozen coins, including one dating to 1655, and the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” The coin, struck with the date ‘1652’ was called a ‘Pine Tree Shilling’ and was one of the earliest coins minted in America.

Pine tree shillings were used at a time when colonists were not legally allowed to mint their own coins. Money was in short supply but the local economy was booming. Massachusetts Bay Colony decided that if England wasn’t inclined to send adequate coin their way they’d simply make their own. So what if it was technically illegal? England was going through a rough patch in the 1650s. King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and for the next eleven years the nation was ruled as a republic, and the chaos of that period left the colonies somewhat on their own. A coin was designed without the face of a monarch, but with one of the most valuable resources of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – a pine tree. They could have gone with the other valuable asset – a cod fish – but anyone willing to sail to the Grand Banks could catch fish. Pine trees, and lumber in general, grew in the colonies in such abundance that the largely deforested Britain lusted after them, reserving the tallest and straightest for the navy. Putting the pine tree on their illegal coinage was basically showing off.

The coins were used – all with the date 1652 – for the next thirty years. It was a time period that coincided with the time when Exeter was part of Massachusetts. We rarely talk about these dark days when New Hampshire and Massachusetts overlapped. It was an uncomfortable period for all involved. Massachusetts ignored English laws at roughly the same rate New Hampshire ignored Massachusetts laws. But in one area they agreed – the pine tree shilling was the favored currency.

It’s no wonder that rumors of the coin in Exeter tend to surface. We even have a business building on Court Street called “Pine Tree Shilling.” Older residents may remember it as the Marshall Transportation bus depot, in 1986 it was spruced up and given its new name. Was a hoard of pine tree shillings found on Court Street? The Massachusetts Statehouse time capsule has reignited the mystery.

For once, an old Exeter story turns out to be true. There was a coin hoard of pine tree shillings found in Exeter, although not on Court Street. An entry in the July, 1877 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics noted, “sixteen pine-tree shillings bearing the date 1652 were found in Exeter, N.H. October last. They were discovered when unloading sand, and were as bright as they were when coined. They were evidently in a box that had decayed. The sand was then sifted, and fourteen more were afterwards found.”

The Exeter News-Letter gave further details on the great find. “Some men in digging a cellar at the grocery store of C.H. Emerson, on Middle Street, were the first to make the discovery. The earth, as it was excavated had to undergo several cartings and the money must have been pretty well scattered when the first piece was found, as others were found in several places more or less distant. The remains of what might have been a box were found in a very decayed, dilapidated condition, giving color to the supposition that the money had not been buried in a loose condition. The pieces, some thirty in all, are for the most part bright, and bear the same date, 1652.”

So, where was the spot? Middle Street no longer exists in Exeter. At one time, the stretch of Main Street from Cass Street to Epping Road was called ‘Middle Street.’ The grocery store owned by Charles Emerson is today the Exeter Flower Shop, which, according Kevin Blair the current owner, still has a partial dirt basement. “Maybe I should go dig around down there,” he observed when the coin hoard was mentioned. Probably not, though. The News-Letter in 1876 when the coins were found commented, “that pile of earth was pretty well dug over when the news of its richness had gone forth, and one of the men who had carried away two loads of it to spread on his garden probably gave it a thorough stirring up, which will help to enrich his crops if not his pockets.”

Pine tree shillings are very valuable on the market today – some in good condition are worth many thousands of dollars. Alas, none of Exeter’s pine tree shillings remained in town. The News-Letter noted, ruining all our dreams, that “the coins found a ready market from twenty-five cents to $2.50.” They are long gone, along with our troubled memories of when Exeter was part of Massachusetts. 

Caption: The Massachusetts Bay Colony coined pine tree shillings from roughly 1652 – 1680 all with the same date. They were used throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

1915 – Looking Back 100 Years Ago

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 2, 2015.

As we launch ourselves forward into a new year, it’s always interesting to look back one hundred years, with a great deal of hindsight, to see what was happening. There was a lot of change happening in 1915 and a great deal of anxiety about changes that were unmistakably coming. Picture 1915 to be like a plane sitting on the tarmac waiting for take-off, only the passengers and pilots has no idea where the destination will be.

Europe had erupted with war the previous year, but the United States was still not involved in 1915 – nor did it want to be. The Exeter News-Letter took no stand on the issue. There were no dueling letters to the editor on isolationism v. involvement. Yet it is clear that the war in Europe could not be ignored. The steamship Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in May with many Americans on board. What to think about this? We’d been warned by the Germans that shipping might be at risk. John Templeton, the News-Letter editor, took issue with the sinking, commenting, “the vessel itself would have been her rightful prey, but its sinking with hundreds of innocent non-combatants, scores of babes included, was simply massacre.” Yet, as appalled as we were, no one was ready to call this an act of war, although there was growing unease in 1915 that we would not be able to avoid it.

There was also a sense of unease about technology. 1915 was the year that electricity became more commonplace in town. Electric street lighting was approved at the town meeting in March, although they did not approve installing electric lighting in the public library. Electricity was safe, everyone was told, safe enough to have in your own home. Yet lineman Gilbert French was seriously burned after touching a wire with 4000 volts and Robert Ballard, an electrician with Exeter & Hampton Electric, was similarly injured. Both men recovered, but to many it seemed like electricity was dangerous and unpredictable. A lightning storm in August “burned all the fuses on the telegraph switchboard of the Boston & Maine ticket office. The fuses were thrown in all directions and the brass cap of one was driven into the switchboard. A ball of fire danced about the office, which was filled with smoke.” Reports such as these in the News-Letter, gave people pause.

If growing discomfort with world events and the frightening world of technology weren’t enough, social issues continued to trouble people. The two major issues of the era, prohibition and women’s suffrage, continued to vex the population. Exeter was a strongly prohibitionist town – there is scant evidence that drinkers were willing to challenge the rising tide of temperance. But women? Come on, did they really need to vote? There seem to have been equal numbers of suffragist and anti-suffragists in town – both male and female. Their meetings and missives lobbed back and forth all year. “Suffrage should not be forced on women!” screamed one headline, while Thomas Leavitt mourned, “I see that all four of the men sent to represent Exeter at the General Court voted against the bill extending to women the right to vote in municipal elections. Did they truly represent the sentiment or wishes or opinions of the town in so doing?”

Health was also changing in 1915 as the idea that germs might really be a thing continued to catch on. Dentist Dr. Charles Gerrish got it, advising “cleaning the teeth may be the most important and expert thing you can do. Thus cometh the gold days of ‘prevention.’” But the esteemed Dr. Otis – a nationally recognized expert on tuberculosis who lived on Front Street – advised clean air, nourishing food, adequate rest and exercise to avoid catching the killer disease, without any comment on hygiene. Regulations passed in 1911 that outlawed common drinking cups and shared public towels seemed to many to be unnecessary restrictions.

The landscape of the town changed in 1915. There were three major building projects taking place from the very beginning of the year. Phillips Exeter Academy was still scrambling to replace its main building, which had burned on July 3rd the previous year. Updates on the construction appear nearly every week up to its dedication and opening on September 15th. Judge Edward Mayer announced in January that he was building a new theater – the Ioka – that would be fully equipped for moving pictures. It opened on November 3rd with a showing of “Birth of a Nation” – a film based on a novel called “The Clansmen.” Although boycotted by the NAACP in most major cities, the film ran for three nights in Exeter with no obvious objections. Promoted with “two horsemen in Ku Klux costume” riding through town, it was viewed as a great success. The Smith Block on Water Street opened in early October with the new Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store bringing mass-marketing to town.

All this newness, both the good and bad, led editor Templeton to marvel at the way the world was going. At the end of the year, his one overriding concern continued to be the war. “The outstanding feature of the waning year has been the great war, which has convulsed half the world and has in more ways than one affected all neutral nations. We, of this favored land, have enjoyed increasing prosperity and the blessings of peace. It is devoutly to be hoped that the year about to open will see the closing of the deplorable war, now far protracted beyond all expectations.” It was not to be. The war raged on and in 1917 the United States was drawn in.

Image: (ad for Exeter & Hampton Electric) In 1915, people still had to be coaxed into installing home electricity. This advertisement ran in the Exeter News-Letter in July during the worst of the summer heat.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Exeter History Minute - Christmas in Exeter

Have you often wished for a more traditional holiday season -- to celebrate Christmas the way our ancestors did? In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara explores the history of Christmas in Exeter, and it's a little different than you might expect. This history minute is generously sponsored by Exeter Hospital.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute