One of the most prominent figures in Natick’s past was a Vice President of the United States, Henry Wilson. We’ve previously discussed Wilson on our blog and it’s more than likely he’ll come up again. Wilson was one of the most famous people to have ever lived in Natick and he spent the better part of his life here, really immersing himself in the community (Wilson was originally born in New Hampshire). This immersion included his marriage to Natick native Harriet Howe. Harriet and Henry met in 1837 and were married just a few years later in 1840. Their wedding was attended by both families and was presided over by their good friend, the Congregationalist minister Samuel Hunt.
Henry and Harriet seemed to have had a very happy marriage; the couple had one son, Henry Hamilton Wilson, who was born in 1846. Harriet was a strong proponent of women’s suffrage and rights for women, views that influenced her husband, who would argue for greater rights for women in his political career and push legislation he thought would benefit women. Mrs. Wilson suffered from ill health for much of her life which unfortunately limited the amount of time she could spend outside her home or on the campaign trail with her husband, sometimes remaining in Natick during his trips to Washington. Wilson remained an attentive husband throughout their marriage. He even retired from political life for years at a time to tend to Harriet’s health when needed. Sadly, Harriet Wilson passed away in 1870, just before Henry became Vice President.
|Harriet Wilson's Silk Parasol|
Our collections relating to the life of Henry Wilson contain a large variety of objects. While many of these are political pieces, like Henry Wilson’s writings against slavery, many are simple household objects. These kinds of pieces-- teapots, eyeglasses, pens etc.-- give us an idea of Wilson as a man, not just as a famous politician. Personal items owned by members of the Wilson family further humanize this important historical figure and put his personal relationships into a more human context and illuminate the lives of people who did not leave behind as much in documents.
One of these objects, which is currently on view as part of our exhibit on the life of Henry Wilson, is a parasol owned by Harriet Wilson. The parasol was donated to the Historical Society by Margaret Coolidge Sturtevant, who had purchased it from Harriet Wilson’s estate. Parasols were quite common among members of the upper classes in the mid-nineteenth century. Mrs. Wilson’s parasol is made of black lace, and while it wouldn’t do much in a rain storm, it would certainly help her stay out of the sun and maintain a fashionably pale complexion.
Parasols were more than just a shield from the sun. They also served as fashion accessories and would have been a part of any society woman’s ensemble. Women were generally expected to carry a number of accessories in the Victorian period including not just parasols, but also fans, gloves and a purse. Like fashion accessories today, these were expected to match the outfit in question. Harriet Wilson’s parasol’s black color may have meant it was used with a mourning outfit, possibly bought after her son Henry tragically passed away in 1866.