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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Year's Eve at the Movies

Here's a movie ad that will run as well on my other blog this week, Another Old Movie Blog. A special one performance preview of "Meet Me In St. Louis" is to be shown 11:30 p.m. New Year's Eve, 1944, and this splashy ad for "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" announces the New Year's Day movie at the Loew's Poli in Springfield, Mass. You can the see the price, 85 cents, for the evening show is a bit steep, reflective not only of the Poli's exhaulted status as the place to see MGM films, but perhaps also illustrating wartime inflation. We are urged to buy war bonds and stamps as well.

Not everyone wore paper hats and formal wear to usher in the last year of World War II. Many "swing shift" war workers got off in time to spend New Year's Eve at the movies.

Happy New Year to all of you, and thanks for your company in 2008.

Friday, December 26, 2008

First Congregational Church, Nantucket

Here is the First Congregational Church of Nantucket, or more precisely, the interior of the Summer Sanctuary. This is used for worship during the warmer months, as it is unheated. In use during the winter is the Old North Vestry. It seats far fewer worshipers, but there's heat.

The church's tower offers a lovely and unique vantage point for seeing Nantucket, and is open to the public. It is a practical matter of historical study that many of our New England houses of worship are also tourist sites. It may be that sometimes we forget they are also sacred sanctuaries and refuges for reflection. Below, a poem by Anne Brontë, who here ponders the sacredness of "Music on a Christmas Morning." The younger sister of the more famous Brontë girls, Charlotte and Emily, she was also the daughter of poor Anglican clergyman.

"Music On a Christmas Morning"

By Anne Brontë

Music I love--but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine--
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes borne.

Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music KINDLY bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel's voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;

To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.

While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.

With them I celebrate His birth--
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good-will to men, and peace on earth,
To us a Saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan's power is overthrown!

A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell MUST renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed,
And Satan's self must now confess
That Christ has earned a RIGHT to bless:

Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive's galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.

For more on Nantucket's First Congregational Church, have a look at this website:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wartime Christmas, 1862

(Cannon surrounded by Union graves on the top of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg.)

Christmas, in 1862, was a holiday only just beginning to gain acceptance in New England. For the first two hundred years of our Puritan English settlement, the holiday was ignored. By the Civil War, when a large influx of Irish immigrants brought the holiday with them, and they, like the holiday, were struggling for legitimacy in a still-Puritan New England, the holiday began to take root here.

An advertisement ran in a New England newspaper that autumn:

“Ladies of the right spirit and proper capacity are constantly wanted to act as nurses…” read the ad in the Chicopee Journal. It was an unusual ad for a time when the nursing profession, like the Irish, and Christmas, was struggling to gain acceptance in a skeptical New England. A new field for women, it was considered unrespectable because of the unpleasant conditions of the work and the intimacy of caring for male patients.

But the new profession offered adventure and the opportunity to contribute to the national cause. The ad warned the women would be required “to labor all day, and sometimes all night, performing duties always difficult, and sometimes extremely unpleasant; to live in the midst of suffering, disease, and death; to check the impatient, cheer the despondent, and pray for the dying….”

For many suffering soldiers, prayer was the only comfort as the field hospital conditions of the day were barbaric by our standards.

The Civil War was embarked upon with waving banners and noble slogans from both North and South. There was much at stake, and such social and economic upheaval in so short a space had not been seen anywhere in the world up until that time. Northern halls echoed with fiery orations and determined ladies’ sewing circles. Patriotic fever ran high even as somber reality set in when the letters from the front were received.

The first two years of the war were especially bitter for the Union, prospects discouraging, progress slowed, battles lost. Christmas of 1862 came in on the heels of the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The ladies who answered the ad for nurses were witnessing awful scenes in the Washington, D.C. hospitals.

Western Massachusetts was kept abreast of the news from the frontlines through telegraph dispatches, and from letters from the soldiers. Many of the men volunteering from Chicopee, Westfield, Springfield, and Holyoke, and surrounding towns, served with the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This unit was formed in Springfield in 1861.

The Westfield Newsletter of December 17th carried a letter from a Westfield soldier in the 10th, written to his parents:

“I am on the supply train now, and there is a prospect that I shall remain here for some time to come…On the 26th of November, we started from our encampment with thirty odd head of condemned horses and mules, broken wagons, and dilapidated harnesses. The horses and mules were all so worn out with hard work and by disease that they could not trot and some of them could hardly walk. We went to Aquia creek Landing, and found night upon us…We started Thanksgiving morning, after breakfast (which consisted of a cup of coffee, two crackers and a small piece of pork) for Bell Plains -- camped after dark, then hunted for the yard -- found coffee, pork and crackers but no yard -- started the next morning and went to Falmouth and then about two miles further to Gen. Burnside’s head quarters. There we were told to take some food, which order we obeyed without a second notice. We were so hungry that we could not wait for our pork to be cooked…the worst part of the whole was in lifting and pulling the worn out mules from the mud. Sometimes we had to wade in water and mud up to our knees. That is the manner in which I spent my Thanksgiving day -- also the day before and after it.

“It begins to look like stopping here for some time. It is too bad, as I want to see this war finished.”

The Springfield Republican’s correspondent was attached to the 10th Mass, who signed himself R.W.B. He recorded the battle as the Union forces in their disastrous campaign at Fredericksburg, Virginia, finally crossed the Rappahannock River.

“About 10 this morning the firing commenced in front of us, and now, about 1 p.m. the shells are bursting all around us as I write. Gens Newton, Devens and Cochrane, Col Eustace, Major Parker and several staff officers went out in front of us a few minutes ago to take a look, and the rebs trained a gun on them and exploded a few shells near them, inducing them to leave that place, which they did with some witticisms, not the least of which was one by Liet. Knight that ‘There were too many stars in that constellation….’”

It grew closer to Christmas, and stereopticons, hair receivers, and books were advertised for sale, as well as Christmas fairs to aid the soldiers. After this one Fredericksburg campaign, 1,284 Union men were killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,760 were still missing.

(Above, the Sunken Road at the bottom of Marye's Heights, Frederickburg, where hundreds of Union men were killed.)

“A report may be spread that Chaplain Fuller of the 16th Massachusetts, was killed yesterday while accompanying his regiment as a volunteer in an attack upon the houses. It is not true; the deceased was a man resembling him.” Small comfort to the family of the man resembling Chaplain Fuller. Among the men of the 10th Mass: John Hazlett of Company A, whose spine was severed.

On Christmas Day, the Republican contained a report from RWB sent from Virginia the week before. The battle over…

“…there is prospect of our resting a little. We had a large mail yesterday and were made very happy thereby. We can write to our friends now, a privilege we have not had for a long time.”

Perhaps some of the letters from the men of the 10th Mass found their way to their friends and families in time for Christmas. The Westfield Newsletter’s war correspondent reported on Christmas Day from Washington:

“The wounded soldiers in our hospitals have been treated to-day to a Christmas dinner -- Benevolent ladies and gentlemen here have had the matter in hand for sometime, and the result has been a sumptuous dinner for the invalids. There is some difference of opinion in regard to whether it will benefit them…

“The day has been beautiful -- such as one would be appropriate to the month of April.”

Two days before, on the 23rd, RWB also noted the break in the weather, and described a funeral. It is an interesting letter, thoughtful, and touching in its simplicity.

“This is a beautiful morning, the sun is warm, and the out of doors life is quite agreeable today. I can sit by a campfire and write without overcoat and gloves. How nice!...

“…Day before yesterday we buried D.A. Buswell of Company H. The members of his company speak highly of him, and he is believed to have died a Christian. Oh, how solemn are these funerals of our comrades, and how soon do we forget the admonitions. We perform the last rites with sorrow, and turn away to mingle with the others in what first attracts our attention, with the same heedlessness as before.”

RWB and the men of the 10th were human, even under inhuman conditions. According to the regimental history, “Christmas day in camp was not a merry one though some brave hearts attempted some betterment of their regular rations by resorting to the sutler. The general tone of the army was low.”

In such conditions, one finds comfort where one can. In the same dispatch, RWB noted that the troops of the 37th Mass were kept amused by a four-footed member of their unit. He was a cat named Picket, who belonged to a soldier from Pittsfield.

“It is amusing to see her on the march, perched upon the top of the shoulders of the captain’s servant, or on the roll of blankets he usually carries, where she jolts along when he runs, and reposes quietly when he walks. ‘Picket’ feeds from the same plates and drinks from the same cup with the officers, not always being particular to wait until they have finished.”

This is how Christmas of 1862 was celebrated by some New England men far from home. It was the second wartime Christmas of the Civil War, and the people back home were adjusting to privations and becoming hardened to losses and bad news.

The year before, on the first Civil War Christmas, an editorial in the Westfield Newsletter reflected on the task at hand and the hope that was necessary in times like these.

“The people of the free states are in great measure exempt from the horrors of this war, and enjoying their Christmas festivities in comparative quiet…Our friends and relatives are on the tented field, or, perhaps engaged in deadly conflict, and for this our hearts may be sad. But we will yield not to despair! In this distant future we behold the fulfillment of the promise to the shepherds, and the advent of the Messiah, of ‘Peace on Earth and good will to men’ Then, let us be joyful to-day, for rich blessings are in store for us and for our children.”

It would be months until spring, years before the war’s end, and many miles for the soldiers of both armies to trod. But a letter, a few days warmth were momentary blessings enough to dispel the gloom. They were hopeful, and the spirit of Christmas which represents a great hope, brought comfort to those of the 10th Mass, and the folks at home on Christmas Day.
An earlier version of the above essay was published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine. Sources for this essay include:

The Chicopee Journal
The Springfield Daily Republican
The Westfield Newsletter

“Tenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-64” by Alfred S. Roe (Tenth Reg. Veterans Assoc., Springfield, Mass., 1909)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Milton Bradley's Toys and Games

Gearing up for Hanukkah and Christmas, let's have a look at one of New England's foremost makers of toys and games, Milton Bradley.

An earlier version of the following article was originally published in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine. The images belong to the Milton Bradley Company, a Division of Hasbro Corporation.

In the 1860s, an era when what few idle hours there were in the day were left to sleep, self improvement or prayer, Milton Bradley applied the Puritan work ethic to defying the Puritan work ethic, by encouraging the playing of games and having fun. His games were toys not merely for the amusement of children but to entertain the family, yet still tinged with guilt-edged propriety, such as his first game The Checkered Game of Life. With board moves toward “Honor,” “Disgrace,” and “Happy Old Age,” the game was more like a morality play than sidesplitting fun, but it was the shape of things to come.

Milton Bradley was born November 8, 1836 in Maine . When his father’s business failed, the family traveled from town to town and eventually came to Lowell, Massachusetts where his father found work in the mills. Milton graduated from high school in Lowell in 1854, and with his love of drawing, became apprenticed to a draftsman. Two years later, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and Milton headed up river to Springfield, Massachusetts to find work.

He was 19 years old, and found a job at the Wason Car Works because of his drawing abilities. After that firm failed in 1858, Milton decided to open his own office in mechanical drawing. His biggest success for the Wason Company was to have designed a railroad car for the Pasha of Egypt. Now he applied his drawing to securing patents for his mechanical designs, and in 1860, bought a press for lithography, a new art in the United States.

His largest venture at the time was to publish and sell copies of a portrait of a then beardless Abraham Lincoln, who had recently been nominated for President. Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican and a Lincoln supporter, brought the project to Bradley. Bradley sold thousands of the portraits. Unfortunately for Bradley, Lincoln then decided to grow a beard. The picture was now outdated. Bradley destroyed most of the remaining unsold prints, but the beardless Lincoln photo is now a rare historic piece.

The story goes that his friend George Tapley tried to pull Bradley out of his despondency over the bearded Abe incident with a parlor game. This got Milton Bradley’s creative juices flowing again, and he decided to invent and print his own game, which was The Checkered Game of Life. He took the first of many trips to sell his inventions in New York City.

During the Civil War, Bradley worked at the Springfield Armory as a draftsman to help design the new model Springfield Rifle. The sight of a group of encamped soldiers in Springfield, far from the battlefield and idle in the fall of 1861, gave him the idea to make game kits for the Union Army. When not engaged in battle, most of army life in camp was tedious. Bradley filled the void with a small light kit of games which included chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, and the good old Checkered Game of Life. A success, the “Games for Soldiers” was ordered by charitable organizations to distribute to the troops.

After the war, leisure time was pursued, and by some people, found. Bradley invented more games like Patriot Heroes and Curious Bible Questions, and a card game that was a forerunner to the latter-day Easy Money called What Is It or How to Make Money.

Bradley also manufactured croquet sets and developed a set of rules which are still used today. One of his most unusual toys was the “Myrioptican,” a series of pictures drawn on a paper roll in a drum device. The drum was turned by a crank and the produced the effect of illuminated scenes before a lamp. This was precursor to the “Zoetrope.” Additional scenes could be purchased for $2.50, and included the animated actions of a woodchopper, a hurdle race, a rope jumper, and a trapeze artist.

Bradley died in 1911, but his company continued to produce games, some of which, like Flight to Paris which fed on the excitement of Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 solo Atlantic flight did not stand the test of time. Others, like Yahtzee, are classics. One game died and was reborn. The Civil War era Checkered Game of Life was brought back in 1960 as part of the Milton Bradley Company’s centennial celebration, now called The Game of Life. The object of the 1860 version was to live a clean and moral “life.” In 1960, it was about how to end up at Millionaire Acres and not the Poor House. Priorities change.

Been to "Millionaire Acres"? Let us know.

Sources for this article include:
Springfield Homestead. May 31, 1911.
Charles Mercer, Springfield Sunday Republican. February 21, 1960, p. 2A.
Milton Bradley Company, a Division of Hasbro Corporation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brigham's Ladies Apparel, Springfield, Mass.

Perhaps you remember shopping at Brigham's in Springfield, Mass. This ad is from a 1940 Springfield Daily Republican. I'm not sure when the store closed, but it was a fixture in the first half of the 20th century. Apparently from the number of years it had been in business noted in the ad, it had been present in the latter part of the 19th century as well. Ladies' apparel, hats, and general notions was their business, though I wonder if today we would casually use the term "Mecca" to describe a store as the best place to shop for Christmas.

Been there? Shopped that? Let us know.

Friday, December 12, 2008

First Congregational Church, Woodstock, Connecticut

Here is the 1st Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Woodstock, Connecticut. Though we may view such buildings as something that should be slapped on a Christmas card, there is more here than is just picturesque. The beautiful old church is the heart of a vibrant congregation just as connectect to the present as to the past.

This "quiet corner" of Connecticut was settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony pioneers around 1690, bringing with them the "New England Way" which subscribed that each individual congregation should govern itself. This meeting house, the third one to be constructed, was built in 1822.

For more on this church and its congregation's activities, have a look at this website.

Been to the "quiet corner"? Let us know.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breck's Shampoo

(A World War I-era advertisement in a Springfield, Mass. theater program.)

An earlier version of the following post was previously published in History Magazine (July 2006).


There was a time when a Massachusetts firefighter learned firsthand the axiom, “necessity is the mother of invention”. It served John H. Breck well, though not in the manner he intended, when he developed his Breck Shampoo.

Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1877, Breck was only 14 years old when he started work in one of Holyoke's factories. When he was about 19, Breck's family moved across the Connecticut River to Chicopee, where he joined the fire department. At the age of 21, he was reported to have been the youngest fire captain in the country.

It was about this time that Breck began studying chemistry in his off hours under an Amherst professor, which led to Breck developing a formula for shampoo. He was really searching for a scalp treatment for himself. Still in his 20s, Breck was going bald.

The first commercial shampoos had been developed some 10 to 15 years earlier in Europe, but they had not gained much popularity in North America. Washing hair, when it was done at all, was usually accomplished with a bar of gray-colored soap. This soap was obtained from the wandering neighborhood soap-and-bone man. This fellow went door to door for bones, to which the women of the neighborhood responded with their saved meat bones to trade for hunks of soap, which was produced by local rendering companies. The animal fat was treated with an alkali, and presto, gray soap. Some people, especially in rural communities, continued to make their own soap at home.

The soap was used on dishes, the floors, the dog, and humans, including their hair. Breck blamed in this soap for his hair loss.

In 1908, John H. Breck decided to give up firefighting, and opened an office in Springfield, Massachusetts. As a “hair specialist”, he began with three employees, and by 1920, local hairdressers began using his preparations in their salons.

When Breck's pH-balanced liquid soap shampoo was marketed, it was one of the very first in the US, and it revolutionized the cosmetics industry. By 1929, the company was incorporated as John H. Breck, Inc. The business grew rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s as hair care products became a major industry, and went on to gross millions of dollars in more than 70 countries.

Breck still went bald, though. One presumes that his success made him rich enough not to mind.

Remember the "Breck Girls"? Know any? Let us know.

For more on the Breck Girls Collection of artwork at the Smithsonian Institution, see this website.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Season of Anticipation

Here's the Mt. Tom Range across the river in Holyoke as we travel north through the Connecticut River town of South Hadley in western Massachusetts. It's late November, some years ago, and we're in that season of anticipation like we are now. Not anticipation over the holidays, but over when and how much it will snow. The gray naked trees need covering, and the bare ground is unseemly, and even if the sky is blue, those gray and purple clouds that streak over us this time of year make us New Englanders wonder when the other shoe is going to drop. The shoe that brings a foot or more.

It's a deceptively pretty scene. There's more to it you can't see, and we know that. Any minute now. Yes, sir, any minute now. Can't fool us.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

One by Land, One by Sea

Two state capitals, one view by land and the other by sea, were established at roughly the same time. The Dutch trading post on the Connecticut River begun in 1623became a thriving English colony a decade later. The pennisula settled in 1625 became the City on a Hill and to future generations, the cradle of liberty.

Hartford has the oldest continually published newspaper in the country, the oldest art musuem. Boston has the oldest school and the oldest college. Somewhere along the way, Saukiog became Hartford and Shawmut became Boston, and both are wrapped in confusing ribbons of superhighways now. Parking might still be a challenge, but getting to these cities has never been easier.

Been there to the Freedom Trail or the Wadsworth Atheneum? Let us know.

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