The Massachusetts Historical Society is an often-overlooked gem of the Back Bay, located at 1154 Boylston Street Boston, MA 02215; across the street from the Fens and the Victory Gardens.
It was founded in 1791, and is the nation’s oldest historical society. Technically, it's an independent research library, and serious scholarship goes on there; but it's open to everyone, free, and often houses interesting exhibits.
This summer, the MHS displayed a very eclectic collection of objects from its archives, which a special focus on colonial-era and other antique science and technology artifacts. Here's a sampling.
Paul Revere's Lodestone, in a brass case. (Probably used in his metalworking, to test the magnetic properties of various alloys.)
(Most of these photos were shot through glass cases in subdued lighting; sorry about the quality.)
A pair of hand-ground Nuremberg magnifiers, imported from Germany c. 1700:
Hand-held scales used in Boston in the early 18th century; they were used to check the weight of coins, as the shaving or "clipping" of coins was common:
Chinese "dotchin" scale, and its guitar-shaped case, used for weighing opium and other drugs, c.1790:
Pocket compass/sundial made by James Blake of Dorchester.
A "circumferentor" (surveyor's compass) made in Boston c. 1725:
Below, my favorite item from this exhibit: This French ruler (made in 1793) was the world's official provisional standard meter. France adopted the metric standard six years later, in 1799.
The damage to the meterstick also clearly shows the trouble with using physical objects as reference standards.
Flintlock pistol awarded to John Paul Jones by the US Congress, 1776:
Below, top: Gold-cased pocket watch made in Boston for Rev. Mather Byles, a friend of Benjamin Franklin. The note stuffed in the case reads: He that his watch would keep / this he must do / pocket his watch / and watch his pocket / too.
Below, bottom: Silver-cased repeating watch made in London, and owned by Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The watch was in his vest pocket, as always, when he signed.
Creamware jug, 1790, reading: "Success to the crooked but interesting town of Boston." The MHS somewhat defensively asserts that "crooked" refers not to Boston politics, but to its notoriously winding and illogical street layout, which people were griping about from the start. As proof, they cite this 1664 letter: "Their houses are generally wooden, their streets crooked with little decency and no uniformity."
Today, few of Boston's buildings are wooden, but the crooked streets remain the bane of tourists who expect an orderly urban grid.
Robe, c 1763, worn by Peter Oliver, one of the judges in the Boston Massacre trial, and Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Massachusetts Historical Society
1154 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02215-3695
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