Monday, February 19, 2018

A New Research Library--and a Museum with a View

It's been an eventful several months at the Natick Historical Society!

Remember the overcrowded rear wing of the Museum, crammed with file cabinets, bookcases and books, desks, photocopiers, and boxed archival materials?

Before the move. There's a window behind all those bookcases!

In October 2017, following an intense period of packing and planning, we moved all these items to new quarters: our beautiful new Research Library & Office at 207 Union Street, just around the corner from the Museum.

Partly unpacked: a room at the new Research Library
The clean, well-lit space gives us badly-needed room to store, preserve, and share with users our growing collection of books, photographic materials, and paper archives.

We'll soon have regular open hours at the Research Library. In the meantime, if you need to access materials or would like help with research, please call or email for an appointment.

Meanwhile, back at the Museum, excitement was growing. For the first time in anyone's memory, we could see the space as it must have looked in 1880, when the Natick Historical Society first moved into the newly-built Bacon Free Library building.

 NHS board members Tim Hinton and Terri Evans
 admire the new view
It was a thrilling moment when we could at last open the shutters at the rear of the building, admitting a shaft of October sunlight and a view of the river outside.

The open space inspired new ambitions for the Museum. Guided by architect and NHS board member Steve Evers, a team of experts embarked on what would become a major restoration project.

First, the many hundreds of objects on exhibit at the Museum had to be safely packed, inventoried, and stored.

Sorting and packing decades' worth of artifacts and miscellaneous objects

Museum objects, tagged
and stored

Cynthia Cowan with NHS curator
Marya Van't Hul

Cynthia Cowan, a specialist at
Historic Newton's museums,
helped with this mammoth task.

Carpenter Dan Bache prepares to jack up the Museum floor
 Structural problems--sagging floors in both wings of the Museum--were also addressed. 

Next, cabinetmakers returned the Museum's nine-foot-tall ash-wood exhibit cases to their original configuration. Their work restored the symmetry of the Museum's two side wings, eliminated an unsafe and overcrowded storage alcove, and exposed another long-blocked window.

This overcrowded storage alcove was
 too narrow for a stepladder

Cabinetmaker John Murphy in the opened-up storage alcove

A large free-standing exhibit case, built in 1897, posed a problem: it had to be removed, but no one could bear to see it demolished--especially when we found a penciled signature of the cabinetmaker on the underside of a board.
"Built by C. J. Foskett, Candlemas Day 1897"

NHS member Vin Vittoria saved the day by finding a home for the cabinet at the Walnut Hill School. We were so happy to know the cabinet will remain here in Natick!

Next up: painting of walls, ceilings, and the interiors of exhibit cases--still underway as of this writing. Then the Museum's floors will be refinished. New LED lighting will replace old dim bulbs and tangles of wires.

One wing of the museum, cleared and ready for painting and floor refinishing

All this work will likely be done by May. It's been quite a journey! We can't wait to show you our shining new Museum.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Spilling the Beans till Dawn: A 350-Year-Old Loving Cup

Among the many ceramic dishes on exhibit in our museum is this unassuming little brown stoneware bowl, donated to the Natick Historical Society in 1876. 

The bowl was originally a wedding gift to Hannah Battle on January 1, 1667. As decades passed, it became an heirloom, passed on through generations and given to three more New England women on their wedding days: Hannah Lincoln in 1688, Patricia Lincoln in 1794, and Eliza Lincoln in 1851.

Nottinghamware bowl. Stoneware, c. 1666.
 Nottinghamware bowl. Stoneware, c. 1666
If you look closely at the bowl, you can see the scar from what was probably a handle. If the bowl originally had two handles, perhaps it was a “loving cup,” a shared drinking vessel traditionally used by the bride and groom at wedding feasts.

I consulted Patricia Stamford, director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, who examined photos of the bowl. She writes, "I would say that you do have the lower half of a Nottingham stoneware loving cup. The top edge of the piece appears to be rough in places, suggesting that the piece was broken at some point and then probably lovingly evened off to make a footed bowl."

Nottinghamware was salt-glazed brown stoneware made in Nottingham, England, from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. “Salt glazing” is just what it sounds like: during kiln firing, salt is introduced into the kiln, where it reacts with the clay to create a shiny, pitted glaze that makes brown stoneware look a bit like bronze. Nottinghamware was quite fine stoneware. This bowl is evenly thin, not thick and clunky like some more utilitarian pieces.
The underside of the bowl
Many 17th-century New England colonists owned ceramics imported from Europe. Along with locally-made pottery, a typical Massachusetts household might have had pieces from Holland, Spain, England, Portugal, and even China. England continued to import stoneware to the colonies until the end of the Revolutionary War.

We'll never know how or when this loving cup came to be broken, or who decided to give it a second life as a bowl. But I like to imagine Hannah Battle and her new husband, more than 350 years ago, sharing their first drink as a married couple from the cup.

Next time you visit the Natick Historical Society, take a look at the little brown bowl. You can view many examples of Nottinghamware loving cups on the websites of English museums--including the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, whose collection includes the example on the right.

While you look, you might like to listen to the Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" (1972).

Monday, July 3, 2017

Note from the Curator

picture of Marya Van't Hul
Marya Van't Hul

I am lucky enough to be the new curator at the Natick Historical Society. I am so happy to be here! The Natick Historical Society’s collections are endlessly interesting, and I learn every day from the visitors, researchers, and volunteers who spend time here.

I’ll continue to use this space to share items from our collections and the stories they illustrate. Meanwhile, if you have questions about our museum or any of the objects on exhibit, please leave a comment, find me at the museum, or send me an email at

--Marya Van't Hul

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Note From the Curator:

As a new year starts, we have a lot of changes to look forward to at the Natick Historical Society. Our newly revived  programs committee has been keeping the museum busy with regular events, we’ve expanded our range of educational programs for local school groups and we’ve just published our newest book! Unfortunately, I will not be around to take part in these exciting new developments. I will be moving on from y position as curator later this month to pursue new opportunities. Working at the Natick Historical Society has been a wonderful experience and I now I can leave feeling confident in all the work we have achieved in the past two years. While I’ve greatly enjoyed my time working here and I know I’m leaving you in capable hands of our wonderful staff of volunteers and our new director Aaron Dougherty. There are some very exciting things to come and I hope you’ll stay tuned to see what NHS will be up to next!

-Ben Federlin

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Guest Post! Newly Opened Collections

This month we're happy to have a guest post from our archival intern Caleigh Ross. Caleigh has just finished processing  a new donated collection about the lives of some fascinating Natick residents: 

Newly Opened Collections:
Erica Ball Personal Papers and Jay Ball Personal Papers

The Natick Historical Society is pleased to announce that the Erica Ball and Jay Ball collections are open and available for research.

Erica Ball
Erica Esther Weisz (Ricky) was born in Vienna in 1937. She and her parents emigrated to Trinidad in 1938. When she was ten years old, Erica and her parents moved to Passaic New Jersey, where she attended high school before attending Brandeis University. She married her husband, Jay Ball, in 1958, and had three sons: David, Alan and Jonathan. David became a nurse and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, and Alan is a professional actor in Chicago. Their son Jonathan was killed in a school bus accident in 1967, and the tragedy galvanized their efforts to ensure greater school bus safety measures. Their ‘no standees’ initiative is now state law, and many communities employ the school bus monitor concept they promoted.     
Ball entered politics by way of the League of Women Voters (LWV), which she joined in 1967 and in which she was a driving force for 21 years. She served as President of the Natick LWV for two terms, playing a major role in the formation of the Lake Cochituate Watershed Association, and serving on the League’s State Legislative Committee from 1972 to 1974. From 1968 to 1980 she represented the League on the South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC), an agency that she later served as President (1974-1975) and Vice President (1976-1977).
In 1975 she campaigned for a seat on the Natick Board of Selectmen, and became the first woman in the town’s 350-year history to serve in that capacity. She has been a Natick Town Meeting Member since 1973. Ball served on the Natick Ad-Hoc Day Care Committee, initiating and coordinating efforts to offer extended day childcare in Natick.

An inveterate political campaigner, Ball has actively participated in and volunteered for countless campaigns, including her husband Jay’s campaign for Natick’s Board of Selectmen in 1997. Ball was a founder of The Center of the Arts, a growing and vibrant venue for the performing and visual arts, located in downtown Natick, and continues to remain actively involved as a member of the Board of Directors, focusing on Development. In 2010 Ball ran for a position on the Board of Commissioners for the Natick Housing Authority, and continues to serve on the board.
Ricky Ball’s numerous contributions to the Natick community, infrastructure, and people are reflected in her newly processed personal papers. The collection contains correspondence, photographs, news clippings, notes, and ephemera related to Ball’s extensive work in local government and service organizations, including the town of Natick’s Board of Selectmen, League of Women Voters, and Housing Authority, among others. This collection also contains letters, memos, and reports created during her 1982 campaign for Massachusetts State Representative. Through her collection, researchers can learn about the challenges that Ball faced, the pitfalls she experienced, and the victories she enjoyed throughout her long career. This collection also serves to promote a deeper understanding of the shared experiences of female politicians and community organizers in the late twentieth century.  If you would like to explore the Erica Ball Personal Papers, please feel free to call or email to make an appointment!

Jay Ball
Jay Ball was born in 1935 in Brooklyn New York. He completed his primary and secondary education in New York before attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He graduated from MIT with a degree in engineering in 1956, and married his wife Erica (Ricky) that same year. Jay received his Masters degree in engineering from MIT in 1961. The Balls had three sons, David, Alan, and Jonathan. David became a nurse and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, and Alan is a professional actor in Chicago. Their son Jonathan was killed in a school bus accident in 1967, and the tragedy galvanized their efforts to ensure greater school bus safety measures. Their ‘no standees’ initiative is now state law, and many communities employ the school bus monitor concept they promoted.
In 1997 Jay campaigned for a seat on the Natick Board of Selectmen. He served three terms as a Selectman from 1997 to 2006. As a Selectman, he was an integral force behind the creation of the annual Natick Days event, and also served to facilitate the transition when the Town Administrator passed away in 2002. Ball has also been actively involved with the Temple Israel Congregation, particularly as a member of the Ark Builders, who have built and donated several woodworking creations to the Temple and to the local community.
Personally, Ball is an avid photographer and actor, participating in many of The Center for the Arts Natick (TCAN) productions. His photographs have been featured in local exhibits and newspapers, as well as in the Old Town Calendar.

The Jay Ball Personal Papers contain documents, correspondence, photographs, news clippings, notes, and ephemera related to Jay Ball’s extensive work in local government and service organizations, including the town of Natick’s Board of Selectmen, the Temple Israel Ark Builders, and the School Bus Transportation Safety Study Committee, among others. This collection also contains materials relating to Ball’s business interests and personal interests, in photography and theater. Through this collection, researchers can learn about the work, the interests, and the activities of one of Natick’s true Renaissance Men. If you would like to explore the Jay Ball Personal Papers, please feel free to call or email to make an appointment!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A One Of A Kind Desk

Daniel Takawampbait's Pulpit Desk
The museum of the Natick Historical Society isn’t the biggest space. We sometimes don’t have room to display all the unique artifacts from Natick’s past. Furniture in particular can sometimes be a problem. There is one piece however, that we always are sure to make room for. Daniel Takawampbait’s pulpit desk is one of the most special artifacts in our collection and rightly, gets a place of honor right in the center of the museum.  Today the pulpit desk sits at the center of our museum space in a case focused on the lives of John, Eliot, Daniel Takawampbait and other members of the early ‘Praying Indian’ community in Natick. The piece is not only a connection to an important figure from Natick’s history; it’s also a unique example of early American furniture.

Desk Foot, Shaped
Like a Deer's Hoof
The pulpit desk was made by Native Americans in Natick between the years 1676-1678.  Very few example of furniture made by Native Americans in this period survive. The desk is distinctive for a few reasons. The upper portion of the pulpit desk is removable and was designed so that it could be detached and carried as a small speaker’s podium. The sides of the pulpit desk are patterned with symmetrical lines, an unusual pattern for furniture made in the 17th century. The feet of the desk are carved to resemble deer hooves, another distinctive feature on wooden furniture from this period. Because few pieces of furniture made and designed by native people exist from the early years of European settlement a desk like this one is an interesting example of Native American craftsmanship and aesthetic.

Daniel Takawampbait, the previous owner of this desk is a fascinating figure from Natick’s past. Daniel Takawampbait was a Native American from the Nipmuc tribe who converted to Christianity and initially moved to a praying Indian village near Natick. Following the King Philip’s War in 1675, Takawampbait, like many ‘praying Indians’ was displaced from his community. Many of these displaced Christian Native Americans moved to Natick, where the Christian Indian community was able to mostly survive the bloody conflict which had displaced them. Takawampbait became integrated into the community and became an important leader in Natick. In 1681 he was ordained as a minister, the first Native American to become a puritan minister in North America. He took over the pulpit as leader of the congregation in South Natick after John Eliot passed away in 1690. Daniel Takawampbait remained minster in Natick for twenty six years, until his death in 1716. During his tenure as minister Takawampbait preserved a number of elements of native culture and language despite the growing incursion of English settlers. He was buried in South Natick and his headstone still stands, though it was moved in the 1980s to be in front of the Eliot Church of South Natick.
Daniel Takawampbait's Headstone

The desk was later used by Natick ministers Stephen Badger and Oliver Peabody. Today the desk is owned by the First Congregational Church, the spiritual successor to Eliot’s original meetinghouse, who have been kind enough to loan it to us so that it can be displayed and studied here in the museum.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

What's the Point? Projectile Points, Stone Tools and More

Part of our goal here at the Natick Historical Society is to collect anything and everything related to Natick’s past. Doing this allows us to better to tell every individual part of Natick’s story. These objects can vary pretty significantly. One particular collection that we have been working with quite a bit recently is our collection of stone tools, most of them made by native people from the Natick region thousands of years ago.

Though the town of Natick was founded in 1651, people had been living in this area for thousands of years before that. While we have little evidence of any major permanent settlement in most of Natick prior to the 1600s, archaeological evidence left behind can tell us quite a bit about the lives of the people who were living in what would day become Natick.
A Selection of Some of the Projectile Points 
Objects from the early years of Natick’s founding are relatively rare. We can consider ourselves lucky to have as many objects as we do from the early years of a human presence in this area. The majority of these objects are stone tools, which survive for a variety of reasons. These tools can be dated as far back as 8,000 to 5,000 years ago to the Archaic period, though we have  a few pieces from the more recent Woodland Period (3,000 to 2,500 years ago). Native people would have used a variety of different tools in their daily lives, not just stone tools however the stone tools and lithics are generally the only objects that survive. Stone is obviously much less likely to be broken or discarded than other materials and it’s significantly more long lasting. In temperate or wetter climates organic material deteriorates more easily overtime and we are left with very few wooded, reed or cloth materials from the distant past.  

The majority of our stone tools are what are referred to by archaeologists as ‘projectile points’. This is a general term used by archaeologists, anthropologists and historians to refer to sharp, pointed objects that could be used for a variety of different purposes. Previously we had attempted to define the uses of individual artifacts more specifically, often just based on size or general appearance and while styles; materials and certain general statements can always be made about projectile points, knowing their exact purpose is quite challenging to us today. This is one of the reasons that the term ‘arrowhead’ is rarely used by archaeologists today. Stone tools would usually be used with some element that was made of wood, fiber or another organic material which would have decomposed over time. Without these pieces of archaeological context it can be very difficult to classify exactly how these objects would have been used. Though they were obviously used for cutting, piercing or similar activities the exact usage is difficult to state with certainty and thus the more general term of ‘projectile point’ fits better.  These objects were likely used for a variety of purposes including, but not limited to arrowheads, spearheads, darts, scissors, knives and scraping tools.

Most projectile points in our collection come from locally available stones like quartz or felsite. There are a few examples of objects found in Natick made of non-locally occurring stones which may have arrived here through various trade routes that existed between native communities of Algonquin speaking peoples along the East Coast.
Despite their seeming simplicity creating lithics like these took a high degree of skill to manufacture. Chiseling stone into very specific shapes, which would be almost identical in each manufactured piece, took years of training in skills that would have been passed down between generations.   

Not all the stone tools in our collection meet these descriptions of course. We have a number of other sorts of stone tools that were used by indigenous people living in the Natick area including hand axes, chisels, fishing sinkers and mortars and pestles. As is the case with our projectile points it can sometimes be difficult to determine the use of these artifacts without the natural materials that would have been used to use them.