A Victorian Christmas

A number of years ago, one of my student’s fathers bought a wealth of photographs from the 1800’s.  When we reviewed them, we found pictures from a Victorian Christmas at an English home.  We also found pictures of old trains, decorations, and a picture of the original Middlesex Canal.  It was quite a Yard Sale find.   I was surprised to find a Victorian Christmas decorated house.  Instead of Christmas trees, which the Anglican Church apparently did not take to, there were pine garlands wrapped around the fireplace.  The garlands were all around the rooms of the house,  but there was no tree.  The Germans brought over the Christmas tree.  The Germans and the English were not really talking at the time, and a Christmas tree was against the mores of the time.

Dickens wrote a Christmas book back in 1852.  I have a copy.  There are many mentions of Christmas but the quote I liked was about New Year’s Day.  It ran like this;

“The Year was old that day…The New Year, the New Year.  Everywhere the New Year!  The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap, like some drowned mariner’s aboard ship.  Its patterns were Last Year’s, and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone.  Its treasures were mere dirt, besides the riches of its unborn successor.”  (Stories for Christmas by Charles Dickens)  It is kind of interesting that Dickens was enamored with the New Year more than Christmas.  In this “Christmas Story,”  Christmas is not even mentioned.  Interesting.

This is the time period when some of our favorite Christmas songs were composed.   One horse open sleighs were the proper way to get around.  Now there was a problem with excrement from the horses but the City Fathers anticipated this problem.  They hired young boys to pick up horse manuer off of the cobblestones and even the snow.  “Silent Night” was written at about this time.  It was a guitar song, like some of Billy Joel’s songs.  It was a good guitar song, written for a guitar when the church organ was not usable.

Mistletoe was a big thing.  Young couples in love were supposed to find the mistletoe and kiss under it.  Everybody could see who was a couple.  That is basically early Christmas’s.  There were presents, often homemade.  There were books on how to make everything from wooden trains to small towns and cities.  Christmas was a time of intensive work in the workroom.  Women knitted or sewed, men worked with wood.  The results were deeply appreciated.  I remember when my parents made all of us toys out of everyday items.  My mother sewed small octopuses made out of yarn.  I loved mine.  It had eyes and a mouth.  I talked to it.

I have a great deal to talk about in my favorite school system, Lowell, Massachusetts.  I would first like to thank the 309,014 people who have responded to my blog.  That is quite a number.  Thanks to all of you.  I will try to get back to some of you, but I cannot get back to all of you so I am using this as my opportunity to acknowledge your many kind notes.

The Lowell School Department was started in 1826, when Lowell was incorporated as a town.  It continued on through the start of the Incorporation of the city in 1836.  In that time the great experiment, education of the mill girls on their own time, necessitated the start of a high school, which was formally founded in 1834 and built on Merrimack Street.  For some reason the start and location of the high school was stated to happen in 1831.  School Meeting Minutes of the School Committee stated that it was 1834 which was the start of the high school, and that it was not founded in 1831 on Middlesex Street, but in 1834 on Merrimack Street.  The legal document here was the act of the School Committee which started the high school.  That happened in 1834.  The new high school was ready for an August deadline.

So that is that.  Looking over some of my notes, I notice that the schools were the pride of many of the citizens of Lowell.  We were the first, probably in this country, to establish a night school program.  That was done so the average mill girl could attend school at night and learn to read and write.  That catapaulted the students to write.  Lucy Larcom was an example but certainly not the only one.  She is the one, however, we made a downtown park in her name.

Lowell was known for its water power.  The Merrimack River followed its own pathway until the canals and dam were built around 1826.  They were based on the brilliance of Frances (his friends called him Frank) Cabot Lowell.  He wanted the people working at the mills to have a good life.  He instituted a church for the girls to attend, and a downtown in which they shopped.   There were close ties between the mill owners and southern plantation owners.

One mistake, if you were looking at it from Kirk Boott’s perspective, was the hiring of the Reverend Theodore Edson as the pastor for what became the girl’s church.  They were mandated to go to church on Sunday, and that would be the only day that they could meet their boyfriends after church services.  There were parks for the girls, and schools as well.  Theodore Edson was closely tied to the schools, becoming the Chairman of the School Committee in 1826 and taking it upon himself to reach out to all of the girls in his domain.  For this he incurred the wrath of Mr. Boott.  The two remained enemies for years.

The other mill owners were not quite as stringent as Boott.  The Merrimack Mills, part of which were owned by the Lowell family, started the first school in the mills.  Lowell High School was always open to either girls or boys.  It was always integrated, with some free African Americans in the school.  The Lew family would barber and clothe African Americans running from slavery.  The better they looked, it was thought, the better their chances of settling in the North.  Linus Childs was the Manager of a mill.  He raised enough money to buy a slave known as Mr. Nathaniel Booth, back.

Interestingly, Preston Brooks, a southern Congressman, beat Senator Charles Sumner almost to death with his cane.  Mr. Sumner came back to his Senate seat but never was the force he was before the beating.

The city of Lowell was not as adverse to the issue of slavery as most of the North.  Slavery, it appeared, kept many of the mills in cotton, which they needed every day.  Lincoln did well in Lowell, but did not get one Electoral Vote from the South.

Lowell was a major cog in the path to freedom for many blacks.  People in Lowell had Underground Railroad leanings, but were very effective in assisting one another.  So the railroad, as it was called, was very effective.

Lowell was not as conservative on the slavery question, as people seemed to be.  Despite the fact that in the 1830’s they came out in droves to cheer for President Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder, they maintained a strong feeling on slavery and its need to be curtailed, right through the 1860’s.   Men by the hundreds, or maybe even the thousands, signed up to be the first volunteers active in the army as a result of state secession.  The 6th. regiment was based in Lowell, and the first two soldiers to die in that bloody war were members of a Massachusetts infantry unit, Ladd and Whitney, whose graves were dug outside of what eventually became Lowell City Hall.  They are still there.

Well, I did not get into much education today.  Suffice it to say that Lowell did its part in the Civil War, with over 700 dead and their names etched in stone in the Memorial Library.