Winter and Christmas at the Mill

Visitors to the Mill have seen the dozens of graffiti on the walls recording the first snow (and other remarkable weather events) going back to the 1860s. Although our “first snow” was in October this year, we have followed that with a big December snowstorm blanketing the Mill.

Old Schwamb Mill in the snow December 17, 2020

We have yet to find a “first snow” record for December written on the walls, whether in pencil, white gesso, or black paint. But the recent snowstorm and approaching holiday season led us to ask how the Schwambs and their employees celebrated Christmas.

First snow of 1896, one of dozens of such records on the Mill’s walls

Direct evidence from the nineteenth century is scarce. We expect that the Schwambs, with their German heritage, celebrated the season with a decorated tree and other homespun traditions. In this they probably differed little from their native New England neighbors. Whether through German immigration, popularizing of folk traditions, Dickens’s novels, or the influence of Queen Victoria and her German-born husband Albert, Americans were embracing a festive and commercial Christmas season by the mid-nineteenth century. Newspapers in Boston frequently ran articles on German Christmas traditions. Each December, Bostonians could read with amusement accounts of their Puritan forebears frowning on trees and decorations in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Gift giving, family amusements, and making the day special for the children were all part of a Boston Christmas by the time Charles Schwamb opened his factory at the Mill in 1864.

Since Charles’s son Carl William Schwamb played piano in area churches, he often played for Christmas services. Indeed, Carl William organized, directed and performed at Christmas concerts regularly in the later 19th century, at Arlington Heights Baptist Church, Arlington Heights Evangelical Parish, and Follen Church in Lexington. On Christmas Eve, 1877, Carl and his sister played piano as a celebration for the young people of the Sunday School at the Orthodox church, preceded by an appearance of Santa Claus and a Christmas tree, with bags of candy. In 1882, some days before Christmas, Carl played piano to accompany a number of performers at the Baptist Church social, which included a Christmas gift for the pastor, Rev. C.H. Watson, who read “one of Dickens Christmas Carols.” On Christmas eve of 1883, Edith Schwamb gave a reading at the Christmas event for the children of the Pleasant Street Congregational Church Sunday school. Oranges were often the treat handed to children on these holiday occasions.

A very tenuous but charming piece of evidence can be found on the ceiling boards of the Mill’s second story – namely a pair of tickets for a Christmas day matinee at the Howard Athenaeum, the theatre beloved by later generations as “the Old Howard.”

The board on which this and many other Howard Athenaeum tickets are glued was certainly moved from a wall somewhere and repurposed as a ceiling piece. For all we know, this ticket stub curation happened somewhere else entirely, and wound up in a spare wood lot that the Schwambs or the previous owner Henry Woodbridge used to finish the Mill’s second floor.

(left) Tickets for shows at the Howard Athenaeum, a Boston theatre, affixed to a board on the ceiling of the second floor, Old Schwamb Mill. (right) Two tickets for a matinee show on Christmas day, probably 1868 or 1874.

There are two tickets for adjoining seats on December 25 in the Orchestra section. Through a complicated process of matching adjoining and overlapping tickets, examining the sequence of weekdays named on other tickets, and confirming the years the printer CAJ Farrar was in business, we think it most likely the tickets are from Christmas Day 1868 or 1874.

What did the possible Schwamb employee and his companion see that Christmas day? If a matinee was offered in 1868 (only an evening show is listed in the Boston Daily Advertiser), the show was Trowbridge and Hart’s Star Combination which the “Dramatic and Musical” writer for the Advertiser described as “a programme distinguished by variety and vivacity.” J.C. Trowbridge and Josh Hart, managers of the theatre, put on variety shows that included acrobatics, ventriloquism, drama, song and dance.

Show at the Howard Athenaeum as advertised on page 1 of the Boston Daily Advertiser, December 25, 1868

For 15 cents, one could see a Boston comedian;  the strongest man in the world; Harry Gurr the Man Fish (“will remain six nights longer at the request of many of our patrons”); imitations (of birds and other animals) by Sig. Louis Vayo; and the musical production Nymphs of the Caribbean Sea.

If the tickets were for Christmas 1874 (where a matinee was explicitly advertised in print), the show was again variety: acrobats, ventriloquist, comedian, song, dance and minstrelsy. The feature, Arrah-Na-Brogue, was Charles Adolphus Shelley’s parody of Arrah-Na-Pogue, a well received Irish drama by Dion Boucicault.

Show at the Howard Athenaeum as advertised on page 1 of the Boston Daily Advertiser, December 25, 1874

Alas, as this late nineteenth century cartoon in the Mill’s old shipping area attests, not everyone’s Christmas was a carefree as a theatre-goer’s.

“The Carrier at Christmas,” a cartoon on the east wall of the Mill’s second floor shipping room

Beneath an image of the staggering, gift-laden “Carrier at Christmas,” the caption reads, “Don’t increase this poor man’s agony, when he calls at your door tomorrow, by wishing him a Merry Christmas.”

The end of year was usually a busy time at the Schwamb Mill, as we can see from the order books. Neighboring high school student Peter Jerardi, who worked at the Mill in the early 1920s, told interviewers that the Schwambs were more likely to need him after school as Christmas approached. He also recalled receiving a box of ribbon candy from the Schwambs at Christmas time. This is borne out in the accounts that Clinton Schwamb kept after taking over the family business in 1904. Here is a typical entry, from December 24, 1914:

Journal entries from Clinton W. Schwamb Company, Inc., for December 24. 1914, showing expenses for candy (Old Schwamb Mill archives)

Time books of the 1900s and 1910s also show that employees were let off at midday on Christmas Eve, though paid of the full day, a Christmas gift. Employees had Christmas as an unpaid holiday (like all holidays in those days).

Weekly time book from Clinton W. Schwamb Company, Inc., noting half day pay on Christmas Eve. The Schwambs’ work week was Monday to Saturday (recorded in these books starting in the first “Sunday” column). Thus the hours for Thursday (listed under the “Wednesday” column) show a full day, although employees were dismissed early. Since Christmas fell on a Friday in 1908, it appears that the Mill remained closed on Saturday as well. (Old Schwamb Mill archives)

Some other holiday expenses appear as well: cigars, carfare, and holiday cards. One interpretation of all this is that someone from the Mill, probably Clinton, called on customers with a gift at Christmas.

The week after Christmas may have been slow in some years – at least that is our interpretation of this graffiti in the second floor shipping area.

Graffiti in Mill’s second floor shipping room reading “Dec. 28, 1901 The windows were washed.” A wall currently divides the graffiti.

Unknown to the Schwambs in their business days were the holiday crafts fairs and decorations of the Mill’s museum years. While a craft fair and visitation have not been possible this year [2020], we invite our friends to enjoy our buildings from outside in the snow and to visit us virtually at our video page.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

As the year draws to a close, please consider giving to the Old Schwamb Mill’s Annual Appeal. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated.

The view of the Mill from Clinton Schwamb’s house on Peirce Street, ca. 1910. Clinton was buying photographic plates and taking photographs as early as his trip to Colorado by train in 1900. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Schwamb)

4 thoughts on “Winter and Christmas at the Mill

  1. edhg says:

    Excellent curation of material cultural artifacts as always.

    I always enjoy reading these.

    Thanks for all you do!

    DLa Rue
    (a.k.a. Mistress Elizabeth de la Rue)


    • Old Schwamb Mill says:

      Thanks for reading! We are not done examining those Old Howard tickets. There are many more — someone who collected those tickets frequented the place. Note that this theatre was still producing respectable family entertainment in the 1860s and 1870s. The Old Howard had a different reputation by the 1930s and 1940s!


  2. Christy Cunningham-Adams says:

    These “Shares” are such a pleasure to read! The information is so interesting and the stories so charmingly written! I believe they should be printed, bound together, and sold at the Mill as souvenirs of the historic environment.
    Thank you for this delightful and edifying contribution!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s