A Boston Schoolgirl in 1771

IN the year 1771, a bright girl of twelve, Anna Green Winslow, was sent from her far-away home in Cumberland, Nova Scotia, to be “ finished ” at Boston schools, by Boston teachers. She kept, for the edification of her parents, who were New Englanders by birth, and her own practice in penmanship, a most interesting and quaint diary, portions of which have been preserved, and were indeed printed once in a very scarce historical pamphlet. These pages form the most sprightly picture of the daily life of a young girl of that time that I have ever read ; there is not a dull word in it. And it is astonishing to find how much we can learn from so few pages: not only the particulars of little Miss Anna’s simple and rather prim life in provincial Boston, but also many distinct details of the lives of those around her.

It is an even chance which ruling thought in the clever little writer, a love of religion or a love of dress, shows most plainly its influence on this diary. On the whole, I think that youthful vanity, albeit of a very natural and innocent sort, is more pervasive of the pages; and from the frankly frivolous though far from self-conscious entries we gain a very exact notion of the dress of a young girl of that day. She writes thus in the early pages of her journal:

“ I am to leave off my black ribbins tomorrow & am to put on my red cloak & black hatt. I hope Aunt wont let me wear that black hatt with the Red Dominie for the people will ask me — what I have got to sell as I go along street if I do, or how the folk at New Guinee do ? Dear Mamma you dont know the fations here — I beg to look like other folk; you dont know what a stir would be made in Sudbury Street were I to make my appearance there in Red Dominie & black Hatt.”

Certainly no feminine reader can think of the child “ begging to look like other folk ” without a thrill of sympathy for her. At this day can be recalled the agony of mind caused to one schoolgirl, many years ago, who was forced to walk to church through Boston streets clad in a green-and-white-plaided silk, when every other schoolfellow wore a gown of plain stuff. Life has brought since no such keen sense of noticeable singularity, no such galling mortification.

But Miss Anna was not destined to long or deep annoyance on this score. We soon learn that “ Aunt has bought a beautiful ermin trimming for my cloak,” and in a few days this complacent entry appears : —

“ I was dress’d in my yellow coat, my black bib & apron, my pompedore shoes, the cap my Aunt Storer since presented me with (blue ribbins on it) & a very handsome locket in the shape of a hart she gave me, the past Pin my Hon’d Papa presented me with in my cap, My new cloak & bonnet, my pompedore gloves, &c. And I would tell you that for the first time they all on lik’d my dress very much. My cloak & bonnett are really very handsome & so they had need be. For they cost an amasing sight of money, not quite £45, tho’ Aunt Suky said that she suppos’d Aunt Deming would be frighted out of her Wits at the money it cost. I have got one covering by the cost that is genteel & I like it much myself.”

As this was in the times of depreciated values, £45 was not so large a sum to expend for a girl’s out-door garments as at first sight appears.

She gives a very exact account of her successions of head-gear, some being borrowed finery. She apparently managed to rise entirely above the hated “ black hatt,” which she patronizingly said would be “ Decent for Common Occations.” She writes: —

“ Last Thursday I purchased with my aunt Deming’s leave a very beautiful white feather hat, that is the outside, which is a bit of white hollowed with the feathers sew’d on in a most curious manner ; white and unsully’d as the falling snow. As I am, as we say, a daughter of liberty I chuse to were as much of our own manufactory as pocible. . . . My Aunt says if I behave myself very well indeed, not else, she will give me a garland of flowers to orniment it, tho’ she has layd aside the biziness of flower-making.”

Miss Anna had caps for every-day wear, apparently of different shapes and modes. A young lady had offered to make her a cap of new fashion, and the offer had been in the beginning declined, as her journal shows. The queen’s nightcap in question was the shape worn by Martha Washington and shown in her portraits, and was much in vogue at that day. Miss Anna thus explains in two entries the transaction and the cap:

“ My Billet to Miss Vane was in the following words. Miss Green gives her compliments to Miss Vane and informs her that her Aunt Deming quite misunderstood the matter about the queens nightcap. Mrs Deming thou’t that it was a black skull-cap linn’d with red that Miss Vane ment which she thou’t would not be becoming to Miss Green’s complexion. Miss Green now takes the liberty to send the materials for the Cap Miss Vane was so kind as to say she would make for her, which when done she engages to take special care of for Miss Vanes sake. . . . This minute I have receiv’d my queens night-cap from Miss Caty Vane — we like it. Aunt says that if the materials it is made of were more substantial than gauze it might serve occationally to hold anything mesured by ½ peck, but it is just as it should be, & very decent, and she wishes my writing was as decent. But I got into one of my frolicks upon sight of the cap.”

For full dress, Miss Anna’s hair, as soon as she became a miss in her teens, was dressed high with feathers and furbelows, as were the heads of her elders. Monstrous towers or talematongues of gauze, flowers, and ribbons rose on every modish Boston dame, — so stated the Abbé Robin,—and the little daughters wore rolls and towers, also. The description of the manufacture and assumption of her fashionable head-gear is most vivacious and witty ; in fact, is far more clever than any similar account that I have read by any other writer: —

“ I had my HEDDUS roll on; Aunt Storer said it ought to be made less, Aunt Deming said it ought not to be made at all. It makes my head itch and ach and burn like anything Mama. This famous roll is not made wholly of a red Cow Tail, but is a mixture of that & horsehair (very coarse) & a little human hair of a yellow hue that I suppose was taken out of the back part of an old wig. But D. [the barber] made it (our head) all carded together and twisted up. When it first came home, aunt put it on & my new cap upon it, she took up her apron & measur’d me & from the roots of my hair on my forehead to the top of my notions I measur’d above an inch longer than I did downward from the roots of my hair to the end of my chin. Nothing renders a young person more amiable than virtue & modesty without the help of fals hair red Cow tail or D.”

She had ere that seen D. at work upon a lady’s head, and the observing little creature wrote : —

“ How long she was under his opperation I know not. I saw him twist & tug & pick & cut off whole locks of grey hair at a slice, (the lady telling him he would have no hair to dress next time,) for the space of an hour & a half, when I left them, he seeming not to be near done.”

Truly our grandmothers deserved to be beautiful. They won their charms by much torture, at the expense of much comfort.

Now let me show the close attention to religion of this vain little Puritan devotee, and her ready memory. She made many entries in her journal of the sermons and religious conversations which she heard, and her frequent use of Biblical expressions and comparisons shows that she also remembered what she read. Here is what she wrote on Monday, November 18, 1771 : —

“ Mr Beacon’s text yesterday was Psalm cxlix. 4. For the Lord taketh pleasure in his people ; he will beautify the meek with salvation. His doctrine was something like this, viz; That the salvation of Gods people mainly consists in Holiness; The name Jesus signifies a Savior. Jesus saves his people from their Sins. Mr Beacon asked a question, What is beauty, or wherein does true beauty consist ? He answered, in holiness, and said a great deal about it that I cant rember, and as Aunt she hant leisure now to help me any further so I may just tell you a little that I remember without her assistance, and that I repeated to her yesterday at Tea. He said he would lastly address himself to the young people ; My dear young friends you are pleased with beauty, & like to be tho’t beautifull but let me tell ye — you ’ll never be truly beautifull till you are like the King’s daughter, all glorious within. All the ornimints you can put on while your souls are unholy make you the more like whited sepulchres garnished without, but full of deformity within. You think me very impolite no doubt to address you in this manner but I must go a little further and tell you, how cource soever it may sound to your delicacy, that while you are without holiness your beauty is deformity — you are all over black and defil’d, ugly & loathsome to all holy beings, the wrath of the great God lies upon you & if you die in this condition you will be turn’d into hell with ugly devils, to eternity.”

In spite of this not too alluring report of Minister Beacon’s sermon, she writes enthusiastically that she likes him better every time she sees him ; and also that when she visited the minister’s wife much notice was taken of her, — “ the kinder without doubt because last Thursday evening when he was here & I was out of the room aunt said that I minded his preaching & could repeat what he said.” As time passed on, and Miss Anna became decidedly mixed and very ambitious in her theological records, her aunt — who must have been a most sensible person — thought best to check her precocious sermon notes, and the consequent injudicious praise of the minister, as the diary thus attests : —

“ My aunt says a miss of a years old cant possibly do justice to the subject in Divinity & therefore had better not attempt a repetition of particulars that she finds lie (as may be easily concluded) somewhat confusedly in my young mind.”

One other entry must be given, written after she had dropped her stilted abstracts of the sermons, — a record that shows, in a characteristic and cordial dislike of any approach to episcopacy, that the blood and spirit of her Pilgrim ancestors were warm within her : —

“ Dr Pemberton & Dr Cooper had on gowns. In the form of the Episcopal cassock ; the Docts deign to distinguish themselves from the inferior clergy by these strange habits (at a time too when the good people of N. E. are threatn’d with & dreading the coming of an episcopal bishop). N. B. I dont know whether one sleeve would make a full trimm’d negligee as the fashion is at present, tho’ I cant say but it would make one of the frugal sort with but scant trimming. Unkle says they all have popes in their bellys. Contrary to 1 Peter v. 23. Aunt says when she saw Dr. P. roll up the pulpit stairs, the figure of parson Trolliber recorded by Mr. Fielding occur’d to her mind & she was really sorry a congregational divine should by any instance whatever give her so unpleasing an idea.”

The little Puritan had also the true New England attitude towards Christmas, saying, “ Tomorrow will be a holiday, as the Pope and his associates have ordain’d.” She apparently made no special observance of the day, not even by the exchange of gifts. But of New Year’s Day she writes: —

“ I have bestow’d no New Years gift as yet, But have receiv’d one very handsome one Viz : the History of Joseph Andrews. In nice Guilt & flowers covers.”

Other friendly fashions of gifts does she record : tokens in the form of pincushions to new-born babies or their mothers ; of watch-strings, patchwork, mitts, ribbons. A pincushion has remained to this very day, in some parts of New England, a highly conventional gift to a newly made mother. Here is her description of a cushion made by her aunt at that time, the record being kept as a memorandum for her own future use : —

“ My Aunt stuck a white sattan pincushin for Mrs Waters. On one side is a planthorn with flowers ; on the reverse just under the border are on one side stuck these words Josiah Waters; then follows on the end Decr. 1771 ; on the next side & end are the words Welcome Little Stranger.”

She tells of formal visits “ to see the baby,” when she bought cakes of the nurse (could these be “ groaning cakes ” ?), and thriftily ate them before she paid for them ; and also of calls upon brides. One of the latter, Mrs. Jarvis, received her visitors in a “ white sattan nightgound.” A night-gown was in those days a garment whose functions resembled those of our modern tea-gown or dressing-gown, while the garment worn to sleep in was called a night-rail.

She had few amusements, compared with the manifold pleasures and holidays that children have nowadays. She saw the artillery company drill on trainingday, when they were “ entertained genteelly and generously at Mr. Handcocks on cake and wine ; ” she went each week to the sober Thursday Lecture. She had one holiday which the Revolution struck from our calendar, the King’s Coronation Day, celebrated by beat of drum, discharge of artillery, and burning of fireworks. She sometimes had the pleasure of attending a funeral. And when she was twelve years old she " came out,” — became a “ miss in her teens,” — and went to a succession of little routs, or parties, to which only young maids of her own age were invited, — no rough Boston boys. She has left several prim and quaint descriptions of these parties. Here is one : —

“ I have now the pleasure to give you the result, viz: a very genteel well-regulated assembly which we had at Mr Soleys last evening, Miss Soley being mistress of the ceremony. Miss Soley desired me to assist Miss Hannah in making out a list of guests which I did sometime since, I wrote all the invitation cards. There was a large company assembled in a handsome large upper room at the new end of the house. We had two fiddles & I had the honor to open the diversion of the evening in a minuet with Miss Soley. Here follows a list of the company as we form’d for country dancing. Miss Soley & Miss Anna Green Winslow; Miss Calif & Miss Scott; Miss Williams & Miss McLarth ; Miss Codman & Miss Winslow ; Miss Ives & Miss Coffin ; Miss Scollay & Miss Bella Coffin ; Miss Waldo & Miss Quinsy ; Miss Glover & Miss Draper; Miss Hubbard & Miss Cregur (usually pronounced Kicker) ; and two Miss Sheafs were invited but were sick, or sorry, & beg’d to be excus’d.

“ There was a little Miss Russel & the little ones of the family present who could not dance. As spectators there were Mr & Mrs Deing, Mr & Mrs Sweetser, Mr & Mrs Soley, Mr & Miss Cary, Mrs Draper, Miss Orice, Miss Hannah — our treat was nuts, raisins, cakes, Wine, punch hot & cold, all in great plenty. We had a very agreeable evening from 5 to 10 oclock. For variety we woo’d a widow, hunted the whistle, threaded the needle, and while the company was collecting, we diverted ourselves with playing of pawns, no rudeness, Mamma, I assure you. Aunt Deming desires you would particularly observe that the elderly part of the Company were Spectators only, they mix’d not in either of the above describ’d scenes.

“ I was dressed in my yellow coat, black bib & apron, black feathers on my head, my past comb & all my past garnet, marquesett & jet pins, together with my silver plume — my loket, rings, black collar round my neck, black mitts & yards of blue ribbin (black & blue is high tast), striped tucker & ruffels (not my best) & my silk shoes completed my dress.”

How clear the picture ! Can you not see it? — the great low-raftered chamber softly alight with candles on mantel-tree and in sconces ; the two fiddles soberly squeaking ; the rows of demure little maids, all of New England Brahmin blood, in high rolls and feathers, soberly walking and curtsying through the stately minuet, “ with no rudeness, I assure you,” and discreetly partaking of hot and cold punch afterwards ; for children in New England at that time drank cider and beer and wine as universally, if not as freely, as did their elders.

Though she dearly loved to dance, Miss Anna was also an industrious little wight, active in all housewifely labors and accomplishments, and attentive to her lessons. She could make fine network, knit lace, and spin linen thread and woolen yarn ; she could sew, and make purses, and embroider pocket-books, and weave watch-strings, and piece patchwork. She learned “ dansing — or danceing I should say ” — from a master ; she attended a woman’s school to learn fine needlework, and a writing-master’s to learn that most indispensable and most appreciated of eighteenth-century accomplishments, fine writing.

Let me show from her entries her diligence and industry, and compare it with the work of a week of any girl of thirteen in a corresponding station of life nowadays: —

“ I have finished my shift, I began it 12 oclock last Monday ; have read my Bible every day this week, and wrote every day save one. ... I have spun 30 knots of linning yarn & partly new footed a pair of stockings for Lucinda, read a part of the pilgrims progress, coppied a part of my text journal (that if I live a few years longer I may be able to understand it, for Aunt sais that to her the contents as I first marked them are an impenetrable secret), play’d some, tuck’d a great deal, laugh’d enough and I tell Aunt it is all human nature if not human reason. . . .

“ Aunt says I have been a very good girl today about my work, however I think this days work may be called a piece meal, for in the first place I sewed on the bosom of unkles shirt, mended two pair of gloves, mended for the wash two handkerchiefs (one cambrick), sewed on half a border of a lawn apron of aunts, read part of the xxist Chapter of Exodus and a story in the Mothers Gift.”

Physical pain or disability was no excuse for slothfulness or idleness in the young in provincial days. Anna was not always well, — had heavy colds, was feverish; but, well or ill, she was never unemployed. Even with painful local afflictions she still was industrious.

“ I am disabled by a whitloe on my fourth finger & something like one on my middle finger. But altho’ my right hand is in bondage, my left is free. And my Aunt says it will be a nice opportunity if I do but improve it to perfect myself in learning to spin flax. I am pleas’d with the proposal, and am at this present exerting myself for this purpose. I hope when two or at most three months are past to give you occular demonstration of my proficiency in this art as well as several others. My fingers are not the only part of me that has suffered with sores within this fortnight, for I have had an ugly great boil upon my right hip & about a dozen small ones. I am at present swathed hip & thigh as Samson smote the Philistines, but my soreness is near over. My aunt thought it highly proper to give me some cooling physick, so last Tuesday I took ½ oz. Globe salt (a disagreeable potion), & kept chamber. Since which there has been no new erruption.”

We find her ere the “ bandage is off the fingure ” knitting and writing and sewing, improving every moment. Constant references to criticisms from aunt Demiag appear throughout the little book, — criticisms of the form of expression, of the penmanship, and of the spelling, though I find her orthography better than that of most grown persons of her day.

“ Aunt hopes a little fals English will not spoil the whole with Mamma.”

“ Aunt Dont approve my English, and has not the fear you will think her concerned in the Diction.”

“ Last Wednessday — you taught me to spell the 4 day of the week, but Aunt says it should be spelt Wednesday.”

“ It is a grief to Aunt that I dont always write as well as I can, I can write pretily.”

She could cook, too, — make Thanksgiving “ pyes ; ” though she says her father and mother did not deign to partake of her “ Cumberland performances.” She read much, the Bible constantly; and, wishing to perfect herself “ in reading a variety of composures,” she also went through “ Gaffer Two Shoes, The Female Oretars, Gulliver’s Travels Abreviated, and the Puzzleing Cap.” The latter book was a collection of riddles frequently advertised in Boston newspapers of that date.

She was a friendly little soul, eager to be loved ; resenting deeply that her aunt Storer let “ either one of her chaises, chariot, or babyhutt” (booby hutch) pass her door every day without sending for her to visit, as she would “ if she had wanted much to have seen me ; ” visiting her cousins, the wealthy Barrels, and going cheerfully tea-drinking from house to house of her friends. And she was merry, too, full of life and wit: jesting about getting a “ fresh seasoning with Globe salt; ” calling the minister’s journal his “ I & Aunt &c.,” in laughing reference to her own I-and-aunt-filled pages; and after she had made herself a dozen new shifts, writing to her mother in high spirits : —

“ By the way, I must inform you (pray dont let papa see this) that yesterday I put on No. 1 of my new shifts, and indeed it is very comfortable. It is long since I have had a shift to my back — I dont know if I ever had till now. It seemed so strange too to have linen below my waist.”

She was subject, too, to “ egregious fits of laughterre,” and fully proved the statement, “ Aunt says I am a whimsical child.”

With the last words of her journal ends the knowledge I have of her life, and I have not tried nor cared to know of her grown-up life, if she chanced to live to grow up.1 I like to think of her as always a loving, endearing little child; not so passionate and gifted and rare a creature as that star among children, Marjorie Fleming, but a natural and homely little flower of New England life. For if she lived she may have had her heart-strings torn by loss of lover in the war of the Revolution, or she may have grown old and feeble and dull and sad ; but now she lives in the glamour of eternal, laughing, happy youth through the few pages of her little time-stained journal.

Alice Morse Earle.

  1. Perhaps it serves even better to preserve this idea of youthfulness to know that the young girl died when she was about nineteen years of age. — ED. ATLANTIC MONTHLY.