Boston riches

Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Certain diaries, and their authors, become short-hand for a time and place: Samuel Pepys’s diary of seventeenth-century London, for example, or Anne Frank’s diary of wartime Amsterdam. The diaries of Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong are often invoked to cover the first half of the nineteenth century in New York; for the Civil War years, readers turn to Mary Boykin (Miller) Chesnut’s Diary from Dixie (1905). Although rich in literary resources, Boston lacks such a diary for the mid-Victorian period. Boston men and women of the period wrote enduring works of fiction and non-fiction, but for this generation no Boston diarist has emerged to capture the tone of the times.

Among the treasures of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (founded in a building on Beacon Hill in 1845) is the twenty-five volume diary of Hedwiga Regina (Shober) Gray (1818–1885). Begun on the first day of 1860, when Mrs. Gray was a bustling matron of 41, the diary concludes on 28 December 1884: “The 24th, a snowy, dark day, was my 66th birthday. (I doubt if I ever see another.)”

[A] subject worthy of her qualities. . . .

In Regina Gray are united several features that make her a superlative diarist. Some were contingent – her sex, her city of origin, her status as a poor relation – but in fact it was her intelligence and humor, and a drive to record her times, that makes the diary live. In its pages she has a subject worthy of her qualities, since by the end of 1860 a civil war between America’s northern and southern states seems inevitable.

The first requirement in a diarist is the ability to see, and then to record what one sees. Mrs. Gray sees (and hears) everything:

A most lovely day; how delicious it must be at Manchester. That is a truly charming seashore place – I should be quite content to spend our vacation there every summer. It was rather aggravating, to be sure, to watch the rising tide swell dreamily up and, falling, ebb sleepily out of our quiet cove, and know all the time with what a sun-lighted green glory the long Atlantic rollers were surging grandly up the white sands & weed-draped rocks just outside, within sound, but out of sight, where the long ocean-swell is ever gathering up its threatening sea-green water-wall, only at last to fling its proudly curved crest down upon the waiting sands, or fall back in a mad frenzy of white foam and scattering spray from the ever baffling yet ceaseless conflict.

 I never weary of the ocean – all day long can I sit entranced with its sameness which is yet never quite the same – its variety which is ever renewing and repeating itself. The utterance of its great voice thrills me like a grand organ peal – with its roar and surge, and sullen plunge, and sweet lapsing flow of mingling & receding waters – a glorious monotone, in which there is yet no trace of monotony. (18 September 1860)[1]

To the diarist’s skill with the pen is added needed distance: she can, as an outsider, be objective. As an insider (a well-connected “lady” from Philadelphia married into a prominent Boston family), she is privy to the news and gossip of the day. She is part of a network of women bound by ties of blood, marriage, and affiliation, and she can extract a novel’s worth of feeling from a chance meeting on the street:

Walked up Beacon St. with Thomas Frothingham yesterday. He looked very pale and worn, but talked calmly of his losses. His oldest and youngest boys – one lying unburied at home, the other laid to rest a week or 10 days since – both of water on the brain. He held his last child, a girl of 4 years, by the hand – I was glad to understand that his wife had the sweet hope of another in prospect for next summer. He says she is a brave hearted woman and does not repine – but it must be a terrible blow to them. (17 February 1862)

*

Regina Shober first visited Boston in 1831, following her father’s second marriage, and thereafter she made frequent trips from Philadelphia to visit Mrs. Shober’s family. As a result, when she married Dr. Francis Henry Gray in 1844, Boston was already well known to her, and she was soon taken into a sewing circle. The Grays had five children between 1846 and 1856: her children’s friends, and their parents, formed another network of relationships for the diarist to mine.

It is the intersection of these successive circles that forms the body of the diary: almost everyone who is not a member of her family (or her husband’s family, or Mrs. Shober’s family) is referred to by name in full. The members of her sewing circle are listed as Mrs. N. Hooper and Mrs. Alanson Tucker, although sometimes greater intimacy leads to a given name (Margaret Tucker) being employed. Elderly ladies are sometimes Madam Pratt; even intimate older friends are Mrs. Lyman or Mrs. I. P. Davis. Her contemporaries can be Miss Grant or Miss Ticknor, Mrs. Sam Rodman or Mrs. Lowell. Only family or old and intimate friends merit first names: Emily, or even E.M.A., denotes Emily Adams, whose brother Charles was once engaged to the diarist’s sister Sue; Rebecca Wainwright, a friend from childhood and an -in-law, is the Gray children’s Aunt Rebecca or R.P.W.

Mrs. Gray calls her husband Dr. Gray; once, when he faints at home, she refers to him, jarringly, as Frank. Her siblings and Dr. Gray’s siblings have nicknames and their respective sets of initials, while the diarist’s sister Mary (Moll, M.M.S.) has a name bestowed by Mrs. Gray’s children: Am Mai, for Aunt Mary.

It is the intersection of these successive circles that forms the body of the diary. . . .

The result is a mixture of formality and informality that is surprising to modern eyes. Yet the diary surges on like the waves at Manchester, from dancing classes to lectures to intensive sessions with that modern marvel, the sewing machine; from battle reports of Vicksburg or Richmond to an appraisal of the Grays’ new minister at King’s Chapel, a list of recently-engaged couples, or sad stories of deaths from diphtheria or cholera.

And Mrs. Gray’s diary is, finally, a chronicle largely arrayed around Boston Common. Her friends lived in houses stretching from Beacon Hill (Beacon, Bowdoin, Chestnut, Hancock, and Mount Vernon Streets) down Park Street to a line of houses, all long-since demolished, on Tremont Street, thence along Boylston Street to the new Back Bay, with a focus on Arlington Street, Commonwealth Avenue, and (again) Beacon Street. The 1842 Sewing Circle sometimes met in Chester Square, in the South End, but Mrs. Gray was apt to leapfrog the Back Bay development to her numerous friends living in Roxbury, or perhaps in the country in Dorchester and Brookline.

When she wasn’t working with seamstresses on the never-ending project of clothing her children, she was out calling on friends and acquaintances; in the process she collected information she wove together into a lasting document. The 1860–65 diary is a fitting introduction to Mrs. Gray, who comes to life in its pages.

Note

[1] All entries from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

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.

17 thoughts on “Boston riches

  1. Thank you for your many entries from Mrs Gray’s diary. I tho’t at first to ignore them as I was trying not to immerse myself in still another tale but could not resist. I succumbed to temptation one time too many, I have become thoroughly entranced and now hurry to read them. This overview is a perfect foil for the fun and enlightenment one finds in her diary and I appreciate the introduction. It seems we have a Boston diarist after all.

    1. I agree. I sometimes chastise myself for wasting time reading things not related to my own genealogical research projects — but I too am hooked on these diary quotations. What a well-read mind she had, and what beautiful observations were recorded by this very intelligent woman. Thank you for the opportunity to get to know her.

  2. I have enjoyed them, too– first, because I am related to Mrs. Gray’s mother-in-law (Mary Clay Gray); second, because it has been interesting to read how the Gray family viewed the Civil War, given they had Southern cousins; and third, because it’s fun to read! Keep the selections coming!

  3. My great great grandfather, William Warland Clapp, Jr. and the Clapps before and after must have known the Shober/Grey, etc. extended family. He was an owner and editor of the Boston Journal. His daughter married E. B. Wight who became a nationally-prominent Washington, D. C. correspondent for the Journal, several Chicago and other papers. He was a founder of the Gridiron Club.

  4. I have been riveted by all these selections and hope you keep them coming. And what a writer–her description of the ocean, the waves, the beach was truly poetic.

    Speaking of Mary Boykin Chesnut, as I’m sure you know ‘Diary from Dixie’, which I have read, was sanitized by her friend who did the good deed of saving it from the trash and getting it published after Mrs. Chesnut’s death. It was not until 1981 that the unexpurgated diary was published as ‘Mary Chesnut’s Civil War’, courtesy of one of the premier historians of the American South, C. Vann Woodward. I have also read this full version–memorable.

    This is one vote for you doing the same for Mrs. Gray.

    1. And thank you for your diligent work. I really feel like I am the friend of Hedwiga (what were her parents thinking with that name?!) I wish I could tell her how much I respect her knowledge, caring for her children, and brilliant observations.

      1. Thanks, Linda! She was named both for her aunt, Hedwiga Regina Shober (d. 1866), and for a great-grandmother, Hedwiga Regina Schubert. The Shobers had a story that the earlier Hedwiga Regina was a daughter of Frederick William I of Prussia — which seems unlikely!

  5. Your description of Mrs Gray’s “backstory” adds another layer of depth to the excerpts from her diary. Though I’m not much interested in Boston society culture, nonetheless I much enjoyed reading her take on the doings of people from close up. I think I might enjoy reading it in book form even more, as I am one who likes to flip back and forth to pick up details that shed light on later events!

  6. What a treasure your posts are particularly because she writes wonderful insights and tidbits about my great, great grandmother: Frances Loring Gray Stewart. Her description of W A W Stewart on learning of Frances’ engagement to him is priceless! I have spent some years researching and writing about her and her daughter, my grandmother, Frances Violet Stewart Thomas (who you mentioned in a post.) Luckily, my cousin found over 150 letters from FLGS to my grandmother over a 20 year period from 1884 to 1905 in a battered box in my aunt’s attic. She frequently visited, and describes, her parents, William Gray and Sarah (Sallie) Loring Gray (who Regina writes about) before their deaths in 1892. But until I came across your posts of Regina’s diary I had found very few descriptions of my Gray family’s lives during the period before Frances (Fan, Fanny, Francesca) married in 1874. I do have a picture of Morris Gray, Regina’s son, taken in 1877 if you are interested.
    Frances did write a little booklet about her ancestors in 1919. She said this about Regina and Frank in a recollection from her girlhood: “Some of the Gray family came occasionally, among them our dear Uncle Doctor (Frank Gray, Regina’s husband) who took care of all of us when we were sick and never sent a bill. He had a beautiful, gracious Quaker wife, our Aunt Regina, who came from Philadelphia. I remember hearing her tell of a remark her husband made on their honeymoon. They had only been married a short time when he looked very sad, and when she asked him what was the trouble he answered, “My dear, I am homesick for my family.” “But thou hast me!” exclaimed Aunt Regina and he replied, “Yes, dear, but thou art only a married relation.””
    I too have been looking into the Gray’s feelings about the Civil War since my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Clay Gray, was living with them. Her southern family was in the path of Sherman as Carolyn Clay Swiggert has written about in a wonderful book, “Shades of Gray”.
    Thank you for the marvelous work you have been doing! I look forward to more.
    Patricia Libbey

    1. Dear Patricia: Many thanks for your lovely note! Your story about Frank and Regina Gray’s honeymoon makes me laugh: that, in a nutshell, is the Gray tone about which Mrs. Gray writes frequently throughout the diary. (She attributed it to her mother-in-law, Mary Clay Gray.) I have a couple of ties to the Stewarts: my aunt and godmother was Beatrice Anne Curry Steward, daughter of Nancy Stewart Curry Pearce and a great-granddaughter of Frances Loring Gray Stewart; a more distant relation is a Le Roy cousin who married Nancy Pearce’s brother, William Adams Walker Stewart.

      Yes, by the way, I would love to see your portrait of Morris Gray! Do you have an image I could reproduce? Mrs. Gray probably talks about Morris being photographed, if that was the medium, as she often mentions when she or other family members sat to be photographed.

      Finally, your grandfather Thomas sounds like a fascinating man! All my best, Scott

      1. I will take a snapshot of the photo of Morris and hope it comes through well. Just as fascinating is my grandmother, Frances Violet Stewart Thomas (1881-1947) who participated with my grandfather Norman Thomas in everything he did beginning with his work as a minister in Harlem the first 8 years of their marriage (while she bore 5 children all the while with a weak heart!).They joined the Socialist Party in 1918, he was kicked out as minister of his church in Harlem, and the Stewart and Gray families ostracized them except for her mother, Frances Loring Gray Stewart! Learning about both of them through their letters and more has been my passion. They were both extraordinary women, but for all my life, the Gray and Stewart family stories were off bounds for our generation since they were wealthy capitalists and we were raised very liberal to say the least. Little did anyone know what generous and generally liberal leaders in philanthropy and government in New York City and Boston they were. These values were clearly passed down through most of the Boston Grays and New York City Stewarts to my grandmother who inherited her mother’s strength and easily transitioned into Socialism.
        My mother knew Nancy Stewart well! Fun knowing of our family connection.

        1. Are you in touch with Nancy’s grandchildren — my first cousins — Chip Steward, Thad Steward, and Babbie Chimera? I don’t think I ever met Nancy, although I have a great photo of Nancy and John Pearce with Anne Curry and Charlie Steward at the time of Anne and Charlie’s engagement.

          1. No. But my first cousin in New York City, Nancy Stewart Gates Gerber, knows Nancy Stewart Pearce and may know some of her grandchildren. I’ve passed on your question.
            Best.
            Pat

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