Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner With the Marstons

As I reported yesterday, Charles Pratt Marston (Jan. 1775-Oct. 1775) was born into a family with sterling Whig credentials.

While conducting genealogical research on the Marston/Greenwood family, I came across an obscure family history that reproduces a letter written c. 1830 by Charles' eldest brother, John Marston, Jr. (b. 1756), to his cousin, Ann Harrod Adams, the wife of Thomas Boylston Adams. A longer version of the letter appears in a genealogy of the Treat family, but I have not yet been able to trace it back to an original document.

The letter recounts a Thanksgiving dinner at the Marston house that occurred c. 1766, when John was about 10 years old. There is an awful lot of specific detail for a child to have remembered 60 years later, but it seems plausible that John could have described the furnishings of his childhood home with reasonable accuracy. Similarly, he would have been familiar with his own relatives and his father's regular associates, so I think we can take this letter as evidence that the Marstons were socially connected with the people mentioned by John, even if I'm not 100% sure that they were all present at this particular event.

John wrote,
Dear Cousin,

This is Thanksgiving day and we have eaten our plum pudding alone, a circumstance I do not remember having occurred before in the course of my life. All anniversaries bring with them solemn reflections and reminders of former days. I have been cogitating on one of the earliest I can remember when I was about ten years old. My father always invited a large party to supper on the evenings of those days, and by carrying you back to one, I may be able to give you some idea of the "olden times" you express a wish to hear about.

The room in which were to be assembled (in Boston) the invited guests was what we call the Drawing room, but in those days it was called the large parlour. At the upper end of which a large mahogany desk and book case. Between the windows hung a large Pier glass with a black and gold frame, and under it, a mahogany round table, covered with the beautiful chintz of that day. Opposite to this was another glass in a gilt frame, and under it a valuable marble slab on a richly covered mahogany frame. The chairs were carved mahogany with black morocco seats. In one corner stood a clock with a blue enameled case, and in the other corner, a "Beau fet," fashionable in those days, the upper part of which displayed the richest burnt China, enameled, and the lower part a goodly assortment of silver plate which was more common then than now.

The window curtains were blue, made of a fabric not now in use, composed of worsted and cotton, or may be linen, very handsome. The carpet was humble Scotch and considered at the time a great luxury. The walls were hung over with flowered paper, and covered with elegant prints of the King and Queen, Lord Chatham and some others. i do not recollect of a different description. The old fashioned walnut wood fire, must not be omitted, and the brass fire-set. We seldom see now this cheerful accompaniment of a family gathering.

The only children present, were, on that occasion, your aunt Bessie Treat, and myself. We were anxiously looking for the companyas they arrived. And first came our dear old grandfather [Nathaniel] Greenwood with the countenance of a saint, his silver locks flowing on his shoulder, his cambrick neckcloth tucked through the button hole of his coat. And next our venerable grandmother [Elizabeth Venteman Greenwood], with a rich brocade, so substantial it might have stood alone; yet, with the address of her sex, she would occasionally raise her dress, so as to discover a scarlet broad cloth skirt with a broad gold lace round the bottom. Then came my aunt Bowers [Eunice, wife of Ephraim Bowers] in a rich dove colored damask dress. I have since seen many Duchesses while in England, who with all their diamonds were vastly her inferiors in beauty and dignity of port and elegance of manners. She was at this time a widow. Next her sat my good aunt Treat [Anna Greenwood Treat], your worthy Grandmother: dressed in a brocade the color of which I have forgotten. There too was her noble husband, my uncle Robert Treat, your Grandfather, dressed in a blue coat, scarlet vest, black small clothes, and white hose. He had the face of Apollo! with the dignity of Mars. There were also your uncles Nathaniel and Samuel Greenwood in plain suits - their brother Miles [the ex-privateer] was approaching to a Maccaroni - what we now call a dandy. His coat was scarlet with a dash of gold lace. He was naturally fond of dress, but at that time he was secretary to the Governor of Nova Scotia, in which position a young man would wish to appear well dressed. And last, not not least my beloved father and mother (John Marston and Elizabeth Greenwood) - their portraits are familiar to you.

When we recollect, my dear Cousin, our worthy ancestors, who were possessed of high moral worth and most of them of deep and ardent piety, should we not feel proud of our progenitors? On this occasion my father invited other guests. On this occasion I remember the Rev'd Mr. Allan, an English Patriot, James Otis - well known in the history of the Revolution - Dr. [Thomas] Young and some others.

At nine o'clock the company were ushered into the supper room. The first course was served on highly polished pewter. The second on the finest of china. The knives and forks had silver handles. The candlesticks were of pure silver. The table was of polished oak, and covered with the finest linen damask.
One of the things that stood out to me about this letter is the attention John Marston, Jr. lavished on the consumer goods present at the event. His memories of these objects — furniture, textiles, apparel, tableware — sound more like advertisements than like personal memories. He describes a desk by its size and material, not by connecting it to a personal memory of his father sitting at it; he describes curtains by their material and quality, never noting whether they were his mother's favorite color, etc.

It is also interesting that John Jr. decided to make a mental inventory of his family's material possessions while reflecting on his elders' "high moral worth" and "deep and ardent piety." If this dinner took place in 1766, it preceded the height of the non-importation crisis (1768-1769), but postdated the first round of non-importation actions that accompanied the Stamp Act Crisis. Yet, looking back after more than half a century, John Jr. did not try to downplay the material comforts enjoyed by his politically active family. Rather, he took pride in the wealth and refinement on display in his home.

It is very difficult to use a letter like this as direct evidence of what was happening in 1766. There are too many provenance problems to take everything at face value — the writer's age at the time of the event, the elapsed time between the event and the writing, the political climate of the late 1820s-1830s, the battles over the history/memory of the Revolution, family politics (remember that the recipient of this letter is the daughter-in-law of John Adams and sister-in-law of JQAdams), etc. Still, I find it interesting that a veteran of the Revolution would choose to recall the material luxuries of life before the war in a letter that was likely to be passed around to relatives who were very much engaged in shaping the written history of the conflict. What did James Otis say at dinner? I don't know, but I know he ate his second course off of "the finest of china" with a silver-handled fork.


J. L. Bell said...

Royall Tyler's somewhat autobiographical novel The Bay Boy (not published until The Prose of Royall Tyler in the 1970s) also contains a lavish description of Thanksgiving dinner before the Revolution. But he also drew a contrast between that Puritan holiday and an Anglican Christmas.

The Greenwood family was Anglican, as I recall. (Which fits with the uncle's appointment up in Nova Scotia.) And the Marstons?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

John Marston was baptized in the First Church of Salem, so I guess the family were regular old Congregationalists. I have not yet found their church in Boston. For such a large family, they skate pretty lightly over the official record books — I'm having trouble finding birth and marriage records for them.

Grace said...

John Marston and Elizabeth Greenwood are direct ancestors of my husband's. Would be most interested if you could share genealogy of this family; do you have it posted on net?