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.
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.
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 must have played for Christmas services – though we’ve found no specific performances yet in the local papers. [Update, 2/9/2021: 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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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, 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.
This period of reduced visitation due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!