Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Study in Contrasts: Renaissance Revival and Aesthetic Design under One Roof

Part of why the Gibson House Museum serves as such an integral part of Boston’s historical landscape is its ability to capture, under one roof, the shifts in decorative and sociopolitical trends in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Upon visiting the museum, you will likely notice a distinct change in decorative moods depending on which room you are in. The entrance hall, for example, is primarily decorated in the 1860s Renaissance Revival style that would have been popular in Gibson matriarch Catherine Hammond Gibson’s time. The console table and matching mirror to your left as you walk into the museum are both carved in ebonized black walnut, which would have been an expensive and highly desirable material. Placed in the first room the Gibsons’ guests would see, this Renaissance Revival furniture would have showcased the family’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, an older, revered age of artistic innovation and achievement.

After Catherine Gibson’s death in 1888, her son Charles and his wife Rosamond Warren Gibson began to redecorate and modernize parts of the house, including the entrance hall. The beautiful Japanese “leather” wallpaper, one of the highlights of the house, was Rosamond’s choice and serves as a rather bright contrast to the room’s darker, more authoritative palette. The wallpaper, gilded and embossed with gold flowers and fruits, adds an airier feel to the entrance hall that resists the severity of Catherine’s Renaissance Revival style. The Aesthetic Movement that appeared in America during the 1870s heavily influenced this design choice and others like it in the house. It rose to popularity under the motto “Art for art’s sake” and called into question the notion that art had to convey a concrete sociopolitical message. Instead, Aestheticism, as its name might suggest, placed value on the craftsmanship and detail of decorative art.  It prided itself on delicacy, prioritizing lighter colors and fabrics over the heavier and darker Victorian materials.
The 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, held in Philadelphia, was absolutely integral to the rise of the Aesthetic Movement. It hosted manufacturers and dealers from thirty-eight nations and was the first world fair of its kind to be hosted in the United States. While the exhibition succeeded in showcasing America’s growing industrial and economic might, it also introduced the country as being a hub for artistic innovation and creativity. The sheer number of the exhibition’s East-Asian manufacturers combined with the recent opening of trade between Japan and the western world in 1854 also triggered a sort of obsession for Japanese ceramics, prints, and designs. At the Gibson House, this design interest is reflected in both the dining room and the music room. The Centennial Exhibition and the Aesthetic Movement it fostered were nothing short of revolutionary in that they allowed the general public, including families like the Gibsons, to invest in a type of cross-cultural exchange, as well as to blur the line between domestic and artistic space.

by Tiara Sharma, museum guide and intern

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1997. Accessed 19 July 2017.

Burke, Doreen Bolger. In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.

MacCarthy, Fiona. “The Aesthetic Movement.” The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2011. Accessed 19 July 2017.

Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. “Centennial Exhibition (1876).” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University, 2013, Accessed 28 July 2017.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Boys in White Dresses: Childhood Gender Expression in the Nineteenth Century

Based on today’s norms, the children in the above photographs might appear to be girls. Even early museum records reference the drawing on the right as “Portrait of Two Young Girls” and the painting on the left as “Little Girl with Dog.” Many visitors are surprised to hear, however, that two of the three children pictured above are boys.

The hyper-gendering of young children’s clothing in the U.S. today is a recent phenomenon, not common before the 1940s. Previously, little boys wore dresses and long hair until the age of six or seven. White dresses, since they could be bleached clean, were the most functional clothing option for all children.

Once thought to be Marion Hammond, “Little Girl with Dog” is Marion’s brother Mason Hammond (1868–1899) and his dog Fluffy, as marked on the back of the frame (image below). Mason was Rosamond Warren Gibson’s nephew, the son of her sister Mary and Mary’s husband Samuel Hammond. (Samuel Hammond was also Catherine Hammond Gibson’s nephew.) This portrait from the 1870s hangs next to the fireplace, watching over guests in the dining room.

The second portrait hangs in the library along with similar renderings of other members of the Gibson family. The charcoal image does not depict Rosamond and Charles Gibson’s two daughters as previously believed, but rather young Mary Ethel (the eldest daughter) on the left and Charles Jr. (the museum’s founder) on the right.

Recent research tells us that the concept of gender only begins to emerge in the minds of children around age three or four and is not more fully grasped until six or seven. Coincidentally or not, this is about the same time little boys would switch to wearing pants in the nineteenth century.

Gender-neutral clothing is making a strong comeback as gender norms and assumptions are being called into question. Perhaps we are cycling back to an age where the gender of many young children once again becomes indistinguishable by their appearance.

By Barbara Callahan, Museum Assistant


Maglaty, Jeanne. "When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?", April 07, 2011. Accessed May 12, 2017.

Paoletti, Jo B. "Dresses are for Girls and Boys." In Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, 19–41. Indiana University Press, 2012.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Housekeeper's Scrapbook

Domestic life of the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is illuminated at the Gibson House through its authentically preserved rooms and collections. One item that provides insight into the house’s history of domestic service is a paperback entitled “A Housekeeper’s Scrapbook.” Located in the kitchen pantry on the ground floor, the volume contains a collection of printed recipes, as well as loose clippings of other recipes and home remedies.
This scrapbook is a simple encapsulation of one aspect of servant activity—kitchen work—and is instrumental to the telling of the story of servant life during this time period. The meticulously detailed recipes reflect the specificity and accuracy required of a household cook.  
Many house museums like the Gibson House are constantly trying to discover more information about their domestic staff and making efforts to incorporate their stories into the site’s larger narrative. The history of servants, many of whom were Irish, is a significant part of not just the Gibson House story, but of Boston’s history. The wave of Irish immigration in the nineteenth century helped make Boston the city it is today.

By Emma Rose Cunningham, museum intern

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Forgotten Midnight Rider

William Dawes
Paul Revere Statue, Boston
One of the many connections the Gibson family has to Boston history is its link to William Dawes (17451799), uncle to Catherine Hammond Gibson (18041888), builder of the Gibson house. William Dawes, the half-brother of Catherine’s mother, Sarah Dawes Hammond (17681859), was the Boston Patriot who rode alongside Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride of April 18, 1775. While Paul Revere has been commemorated in Longfellow's famous poem and by a bronze statue in front of Boston's Old North Church, William Dawes has not been so honored. In an attempt to remedy this, Helen F. Moore published a poem in 1896, one verse of which reads:
'T'is all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear —
My name was Dawes and his Revere.
Hancock-Clarke House, Lexington
As the British prepared a raid on Lexington and Concord, both William Dawes and Paul Revere set out on horseback from Boston to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington's Hancock-Clarke House and rouse the Minutemen. They took separate routes, spreading the alarm along the way. Meeting up again in Lexington, they set out for Concord, but along the way were ambushed by British soldiers. Paul Revere was captured and William Dawes escaped. Although he never made it to Concord (a third rider who had joined them in Lexington, Dr. Samuel Prescott, did), William Dawes had bravely stood up for his cause.
A family story has it that William almost didn’t make his ride because of his younger sister, Sarah, Catherine Hammond Gibson’s mother. William had earlier aided Paul Revere by traveling in and out of  Boston, exchanging money for Revere’s copper, press, and tools. In order to sneak past the British as he served as a go-between for Revere and his business interests, William would often dress up as a farmer pretending to be selling produce, or he would feign drunkenness and subsequently follow the officers on guard to wherever they went in the city. One day he passed by his father’s house and was recognized by young Sarah, who cried out loudly, “Brother Billy! Brother Billy!” William managed to get away before Sarah inadvertently destroyed his cover.

By Emma Cunningham, museum intern

Photo credits:
Portrait of William Dawes by Daniel J. Strain from Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, Mass.,; Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, Mass., Lexington Historical Society,

Paul Revere statue photo taken by the author. 

Forbes, Esther. Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942.

“History of the Military Company of the Massachusetts, Now Called, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts: 1637–1888, vol. 1.Holland, Henry Ware.

William Dawes and His Ride with Paul Revere. Boston: John Wilson and Son, 1878.PBS webpage:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Pink Brooch

Social status was very important during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and many women were judged and critiqued on what they wore and how they presented themselves. This beautiful, statement-making brooch that belonged to Rosamond Warren Gibson (1846– 1934) descended through the Gibson family. In 2010 it was acquired by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Purchased through Skinner Auction House, the brooch had an estimated sale price of $1,500–$2,000 but ended up selling for $7,110.
An evocative time piece, the brooch is made of 18-carat gold and displays pink topaz and old mine-cut diamond accents. Suspended from the brooch is a tear-drop-shaped pendant set with matching pink topaz and diamonds. Its original leather fitter box bears an applied sticker on the underside that reads “Jones, Ball, & Poor.” Jones, Ball, & Poor was a prominent silversmith company on Boston’s Washington Street during the nineteenth century.
We’re not sure how Rosamond acquired the brooch—whether it was inherited or given to her as a gift—but it seems the type of piece she would have reserved for special occasions.

By Emma Rose Cunningham, museum intern

Photo Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Museum of Fine Arts Boston website:

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gibson Ladies and the Vincent Club

A century ago, most Bostonian women of a certain social standing participated in any one of the numerous, yet highly exclusive, women’s clubs in the city. Exclusivity characterized the nature of the clubs, but the majority actually focused their energy on various types of charity work—a noblesse oblige approach to social groups.

The Vincent Club was one such philanthropic organization. Founded in 1892, the club originated to support the Vincent Memorial Hospital, established one year earlier in the memory of Mary Ann Vincent, a magnanimous Boston actress. The Vincent Memorial Hospital, originally located in the West End, filled a niche in Boston; the hospital’s medical staff cared primarily for wage-earning, indigent women.

Vincent Club fundraising techniques exceeded the common luncheon. The club’s annual fundraising show—a vaudeville performance inspired by Mary Ann Vincent’s theatrical career and featuring the “Vincent Ladies”—arrived on the social scene every year beginning in 1893 to great anticipation. The “Vincent Show” typically took the form of a topical satire, featuring Boston’s finest young women performing a multitude of acts. Themes ranged from the inaugural “Breaking the Ice” show to the 1959 musical depicting life on an “interplanetary space platform.” The show also served as a light-hearted debutante ball, in which young women made their “stage debut as singers and dancers.”

Unlike a traditional debutante ball, however, there was a strict ladies-only rule on stage and in the audience. In 1899, the Boston Daily Globe published its annual Vincent Show preview feature, stating, “It was distinctly stated and printed on the tickets that no gentlemen would be admitted…. [T]hose who appeared in the leading roles had the supreme confidence of appearing before a friendly audience and were as much at ease as if entertaining in their own drawing rooms.”

Mary Ethel Gibson (1873–1938), referred to in the Boston Daily Globe as having “always been popular in society,” was a founding member of the Vincent Club along with her mother, Rosamond Warren Gibson (1846–1934). Rosamond planned and directed the first theatrical performance, while Mary Ethel performed in that 1893 show, starring as a man named Lord Adonis Fickleton.

In 1941, the Vincent Memorial Hospital merged with Massachusetts General Hospital, providing gynecology services while maintaining its own identity. When the Vincent let its independent hospital license expire in 1988, MGH agreed to keep the VMH’s name associated with its former programs. 

The Vincent Club is still extant, with a current membership of 1,200 women. A fancy spring gala has since replaced the Vincent Show as the main fundraising event. Male attendees are welcome at the gala, as the “no men allowed” rule was rescinded in 1920.

By Maddie Webster, museum guide and intern

“Boston's Vincent Club: Elite and Thriving.” New York Times (1923–Current File), Feb. 20, 1971.

Laura Haddock, “Traditional Vincent Club Drill to Renew Memories of Show’s Women’s Activities.” The Christian Science Monitor (1908–Current File), Feb. 28, 1947.

“History,” Vincent Memorial Hospital,

“Mary Gibson a July Bride.” Boston Daily Globe (1872–1922), Jul. 21, 1911.

“Society Women in a Vaudeville Show.” Boston Daily Globe (1872–1922), Apr. 28, 1899.

“Vincent Club Headliners Through.” Boston Daily Globe (1928–1960), Mar. 22, 1959.

“Vincent Club Revue Promises Gala Opening.” Boston Daily Globe (1928–1960), Mar. 8, 1936.

Gail Wetherby, e-mail message to the author, August 12, 2016.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Charlie Gibson’s Prison Reform League Targets the Deer Island Prisons

Charles “Charlie” Hammond Gibson, Jr., often referred to as “Mr. Boston” by neighbors, was deeply involved in his community. Ever the public servant, he volunteered in various city government departments and interest groups over the years. Making a foray into the social movement known as progressivism, Charlie proposed significant prison reforms as the secretary for the Massachusetts Prison Reform League from 1913 to 1916.

A principal concern of the League during that time was the bleak Suffolk County House of Correction on Deer Island. Since Boston’s earliest years, Deer Island had been designated as a place to send pariahs—a holding area for the enemy, the ostracized, and the ill. The island was first used as a detention facility for Indians during King Philip’s War in 1675, then as a quarantine station in the late 1600s and again in the 1840s for sick Irish famine refugees.

Thousands of society’s unwanted had been buried on Deer Island by 1858, when the House for the Employment and Reformation of Juvenile Offenders, a misdemeanor detention center for boys, was established there. Various incarnations of low-security prisons inhabited the area thereafter, most notably the Suffolk County House of Correction, which included two prisons, from 1882 until 1991.

The Massachusetts Prison Reform League was born out of the Social Gospel branch of progressivism, which applied Christian ethics to social issues, including inequality. The League was recognized by one local newspaper for having “won the international medal from two Worlds Expositions for its success in the abolition of dark, solitary confinement, known as dungeons, and for other advanced reforms.” It was also praised for its efforts to work “in unison with the clergy of Boston, the judges, prison commissioners, and other officials” to “build up libraries where most needed, to brighten and cheer the sentence of the friendless despondent inside the prison, the sick and dying.”

The League’s mission in 1913, as printed in the City Record of Boston, centered on reforming Deer Island’s prisons, guided by the belief that “influences surrounding prisoners should fit them rather than unfit them to be better citizens after their release.” As the “honorable secretary,” Charlie Gibson wrote out the recommendations; his name appears under them in the City Record.
The Suffolk County House of Correction dealt only with misdemeanor-level crimes, and the League’s reform campaign focused on making sure the prisoners’ treatment was commensurate with the crimes they committed. Charlie scribed, “It is important to erect buildings or shelters at a moderate cost and without the usual precautions of iron bars and cells for the housing of prisoners who have simply offended against public order.”

Many of the prisoners were serving terms for public drunkenness. The League proclaimed, “Habitual drunkenness should be treated more as a disease than as a crime.” It also argued that those convicted of public drunkenness “should not be brought into contact with criminals convicted of more serious crimes.” For a group with religious affiliations, this type of thinking appears to have been an anomaly, as most contemporary Christian reform associations viewed alcoholism as a vice and a sin.

In 1991, the Suffolk County House of Correction moved its inmates off the island to a building in South Boston, and the three-century-long history of involuntary residency on Deer Island came to an end. It is not clear how long the Massachusetts Prison Reform League existed past 1916, when Charlie left, but it is clear that the reformers improved the circumstances of Massachusetts inmates, having abolished the electric chair and the use of “dungeon-like” cells in the state’s prisons.

By Maddie Webster, museum guide and intern


Albert Nelson Marquis, Who’s Who in America, 1922–1923, vol. 12 (Chicago: A. N. Marquis and Company, n.d.).

“Deer Island Prison,” New England Magazine (1898).

“Facts About History: Deer Island” (Massachusetts Water Resources, November 1999), Government Documents Collection,

“The Prison Reform League,” The Sacred Heart Review 38 (November 1907),