What? This old thing?

A guide to Boston's secret trove of peculiar artifacts
By JACQUELINE HOUTON  |  August 27, 2008


Glossy guidebooks often extol Boston as one of America’s most “European” cities, a euphemism that means that we’re . . . you know, wicked old. But for a town that incorporated way back in 1630, we look pretty damn good for our age — and what’s more, we use our years to our advantage. While other cities bulldoze buildings after only a few decades, we bedeck our centuries-old edifices with bronze plaques, call our crumbling cobblestone streets charming, and use our rich history to rake in the tourist dollars.

But the Freedom Trail, our many museums, and other well-trod tourist stops hardly have a monopoly on historical treasures. Much of the oldest and most valuable stuff ends up at the area’s archives, less-familiar but fascinating institutions that are kind of like our collective civic attic. While you could spend hours rifling through the junk upstairs at your great-aunt Gertrude’s without ever finding even one item worth a 90-second spot on Antiques Roadshow, these carefully cataloged collections allow us to peer into the past (and occasionally lay hands on it) without having to brave clinging cobwebs or the musty stench of mothballs. From the papers of presidents to the diaries of everyday folk whose names have been forgotten, Boston’s archives offer researchers intimate insight into bygone eras. And the treasures they preserve aren’t just rich in history — sometimes they’re downright freaky. We’ve tracked down some of the weirdest artifacts from the archives’ collections, and the strange stories behind them — from a Continental Army cross-dresser, to a Founding Father’s shocking scheme for cooking his Christmas bird, to an author who devoted himself to his story (literally) — are well worth dusting off.

Where to dig it
Many of these antiquarian treasure chests open reluctantly. Some operate by appointment only, and artifacts are sometimes stored off-site, so call ahead and check out the online catalogs before making a visit.

For security's sake, be prepared to fill out a brief application, show ID, and check your bags — nobody wants these treasures wandering off. Laptops and pencils are generally welcome, but pens are verboten to prevent any indelible accidents, and don't you dare let your cell phone's ring tone disturb the peace of the reading room.

BOSTON ATHENAEUM | 10 1/2 Beacon Street, 617.227.0270 | open Mon, from 8:30 am to 8 pm; Tues through Fri, from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; and Sat, from 9 am to 4 pm (except during summer) | reference@bostonathenaeum.org

BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY | Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, third floor of the McKim Building, 700 Boylston Street, 617.536.5400 | open Mon through Fri, from 9:15 am to 4:45 pm | rarebooks@bpl.org

BOSTONIAN SOCIETY | 15 State St, Boston, 617.720.1713 x12 | open Tues through Thurs, from 10 am to 3:30 pm | library@bostonhistory.org

HOUGHTON LIBRARY | at Harvard, Harvard Yard facing Quincy St, Cambridge, 617.495.2441 | open Mon and Wed through Fri, from 9 am to 5 pm; Tues, from 9 am to 8 pm, and Sat, from 9 am to 1 pm | houghref@fas.harvard.edu

HOWARD GOTLIEB ARCHIVAL RESEARCH CENTER | at BU, 771 Comm Ave, Boston, 617.353.3696 | open Mon through Fri, from 9 am to 3:45 pm | archives@bu.edu

MASSACHUSETTS HISTORICAL SOCIETY | 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.536.1608 | open Mon, Tues, Wed, and Fri, from 9 am to 4:45 pm; Thurs, from 9 am to 7:45 pm; and Sat, from 9 am to 4 pm | library@masshist.org

SCHLESINGER LIBRARY | at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, 10 Garden Street, Cambridge, 617.495.8647 | open Mon, Tues, and Fri, from 9:30 am to 5 pm; Wed and Thurs, from 9:30 am to 10 pm; and Sat, from 10 am to 4 pm

Better late than never
Though its libraries boast 15 million books today, Harvard started out with a mere 400 volumes, bequeathed to the two-year-old college by a clergyman in 1638. In exchange, John Harvard got to lend his name to our most venerable institution of higher learning — not bad for a guy who keeled over from consumption 16 months after he arrived in New England. However, his legacy was nearly flambéed by a 1764 fire, which incinerated all but one of the original books.

The HOUGHTON LIBRARY has the only known survivor, a 1634 edition of The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World, and Flesh, a screed brimming with brimstone that escaped its own fiery end thanks to an absent-minded senior named Ephraim Briggs. When Briggs, who’d borrowed the book as part of his theological studies months before the fire, returned the tome to Harvard’s president the day after the blaze, it was quite overdue. Legend (popular among students, but inaccurate nonetheless) has it the president profusely thanked him for safeguarding the treasure — and then, in a show of priggishness that would have made its puritan founders proud, promptly expelled poor Ephraim for his delinquency.

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