2016: the year in review

Each December I gather up a dozen blog posts from the year just ending, in hopes of giving new (and long-time) readers a sense of the breadth of content Vita Brevis offers.

San Francisco City HallOn 13 January, Zachary Garceau published a post on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, marking the death of the last known survivor, William A. “Bill” Del Monte (1906–2016):

“In addition to the tragic loss of human life, the effects of another significant loss have been felt in the 110 years since that disastrous day. As a result of ruptured gas mains and other structural issues, several massive fires erupted, including one which swept through the San Francisco City Hall and its adjoining Hall of Records.

“Many of the records housed in this facility were destroyed in the fire, but a portion of the records survived and remain intact today. According to expert Nancy Simons Peterson, a small number of civil death records and many of the city’s deeds survived. Additionally, in some cases, ministers retained church records, giving researchers another avenue to pursue.”

Hancock chair 1
The Hancock easy chair with its replaced yellow worsted damask upholstery. The chair is currently on display at the NEHGS Library. Photo by Greg Anthony

Dan Sousa of the Society’s Research Services offered readers an account of the John Hancock chair in the NEHGS collection on 3 February. One of a suite listed in the 1793 auction of Governor Hancock’s effects, the chair passed into the Society’s hands in 1882:

“Although looked upon as a common (or perhaps antiquated) piece of furniture today, the easy chair was somewhat of a novel invention in the eighteenth century. According to furniture historians Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bidwell Bates…, ‘The comfortable easy chair as we now know it was an important innovation from abroad that arrived in this country late in the seventeenth and became popular in the early eighteenth century. Before that time comfort in seating was largely achieved through the use of fully stuffed down pillows.’”

Abbey 3On 15 March, Abbey Schultz guided readers through the steps needed to stabilize the binding of a large and frequently-consulted volume on the NEHGS shelves:

“A standard case book binding is made up of two major parts, the case and the textblock. The case refers to the front and back cover boards and the spine, while the textblock refers to the paper making up the book itself. Binding styles from earlier eras incorporated these elements together, but in modern bookbinding, standard practice is to sew the textblock first and attach the case at the end of the process. The problem with the binding of the Magna Carta Ancestry is a common problem with mass-produced books, and has to do with the weak attachment between the case and the textblock.”

paris civil recordsOn 12 April, Genealogist Rhonda McClure tracked down the date and place of death of Martha Babcock Greene Amory (b. 1812), said by various sources to have died in 1879, 1880, or perhaps 1881!

“It is cases like this where, as researchers, we often assume a previous researcher – like the editor of the published Amory letters – has superior resources and we then neglect to look at, say, subsequent census records. Verification of Mrs. Amory’s actual death date in the records of Paris may not be something that someone would think of doing, especially if they are unfamiliar with record availability in France.

“In the case of the vital records for the city of Paris, though, there are digitized indexes and records available through the Paris Archives.

“The city of Paris is divided into 16 districts (les arrondissements). The digitized records are arranged by event (birth, marriage, and death) and by district. There are 10-year indexes for each district for each event. After using these and locating the correct entry, it is possible for the researcher to then turn to the actual records (actes) and view the original record.”

Resting place 1
The gravestone of Mary Farrington at St. Oswald’s Church, Brereton-cum-Smethwick, Cheshire.

Chief Genealogist David Allen Lambert wrote about surviving gravestones in unexpected places on 13 May:

“It is illegal to sell gravestones at flea markets and antique stores, but they still end up surfacing from time to time. I recall in the 1980s seeing an original slate stone from the 1750s being used to prop a door open at Faneuil Hall marketplace. In Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, the gravestone purchased from an antique dealer in the 1960s for their churchyard turned out to derive from a cemetery in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, and was returned in 1991.”

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Samuel Parkman house, Bowdoin Square, Boston, by Philip Harry, 1847. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

And on 15 June, Curt DiCamillo ­– the Society’s new Curator of Special Collections – showcased a Philip Harry painting of the Samuel Parkman house on the now-vanished Bowdoin Square in Boston’s old West End:

“With the loss of so much of the West End, the NEHGS painting of the Parkman House transforms from a lovely scene to a valuable record of lost Boston. And there’s more than just the documentation of a demolished house in this painting – to the right of the house is a corner of Bowdoin Square Baptist Church, a site occupied today by the circa 1930 New England Telephone & Telegraph Company building. In the bottom right corner are two African American porters (an extraordinarily rare depiction of African Americans in a nineteenth-century painted view of Boston) from the nearby Revere House, one of Boston’s most prestigious mid-nineteenth-century hotels. Named after the famous Paul Revere, this luxurious Bowdoin Square hotel hosted many of the luminaries of the day, including Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII of Great Britain)…”

Concluded here.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

3 thoughts on “2016: the year in review

  1. Thanks for the post on the SF earthquake & fire. The California Genealogical Society has compiled a good summary of those records which survived. I also have a manuscript draft that is a fairly extensive inventory of record survival.

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