A December in Duxbury, 1841

Letter by William P. Webster  Jan. 1, 1842 Gift of John and Polly Nash

Letter by William P. Webster
Jan. 1, 1842
Gift of John and Polly Nash

Carolyn Ravenscroft – Archivist

I have many “favorite” letters at the Drew Archival Library, but one, written on New Year’s Day, 1842, by a young teacher named William Pingrey Webster, is the holiday-themed correspondence I like best.  It is interesting for many reasons – it is witty, tells of seasonal happenings and mentions some Duxbury folk by name, but perhaps the reason I place it so high on my list of wonderful letters is because William wrote it on an extremely large piece of 28” x 40” paper, filling every bit of it. In a time when postage was paid by the recipient, we can only imagine the joke that was played on William’s unsuspecting brother, Walter R. Webster, when the large missive was delivered to his Plymouth, NH home.   William’s sense of humor is sprinkled throughout the letter, some allusions we understand and some short-hand comments are clearly inside jokes between the brothers that we cannot possible decipher.

William P. Webster was born in 1817 in Bridgewater, NH to Walter Raleigh Webster and Betsy Pingrey. When he was twenty-two years old he did what so many educated young men did during that time, he set out to become a teacher. Being an educator in the 1830’s and 40’s in America was often a temporary, itinerant job for men. It was something they did prior to establishing themselves in a more lucrative and, as teaching younger children increasingly became the domain of women, more masculine career.  Men in their late teens and early twenties would often arrive in a town and advertise for pupils or go door to door looking for families that had children in need of tutoring. In the case

Certificate issued by Town of Duxbury, 1839 stating William P. Webster is qualified to teach.

Certificate issued by Town of Duxbury, 1839 stating William P. Webster is qualified to teach.

of William P. Webster, he was hired by the town of Duxbury to teach in one of its public school districts in 1839. Interestingly, at the time of this letter, he had just started a new position at a school that had “been used to a Democratic form of government heretofore .” My guess is that he took over the Point School, the home of the first Student Government, after its former teacher, Edmund Gifford, had moved on [see Journal of the Point School].  The boys in his class were rambunctious and rang the bell hard enough crack it, but teaching did have its advantages, for William was able to “get acquainted with all the ‘pretty’ girls.”

Pilgrim Hall, c. 1870

Pilgrim Hall, c. 1870

In his spare time William was quite busy. From the vivid descriptions of his activities during the month of December we really get a glimpse of a typical South Shore holiday season during the antebellum period.  On December 22nd, he and his friend, Inman (also a teacher in Duxbury), took a two hour sleigh ride with friends to Plymouth to enjoy the festivities surrounding  Forefather’s Day, the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims.[1]  All the men met at Pilgrim Hall, “a very large room full of Indian antiquities and all the old ‘trumpery’ that the Pilgrims brought with them” and proceeded, escorted by the Standish Guards, to the Unitarian Church. There they heard a rousing speech on the “foremothers” by Joseph R. Chandler, Esq. of Philadelphia. Dining at Pilgrim Hall following the ceremony cost $2, a price too rich for William. He and Inman went to the Pilgrim House instead where they ate turkey. [2] A ball that evening was also far too costly for the young teacher – at $3 a ticket he had to turn down a young Plymouth lady who invited him, noting to his brother, “tis a trouble to be poor.” A dancing party the same evening in his own neighborhood probably took some of the sting out of his straitened circumstances.

The following Saturday evening, William attended the Christmas celebration at the Universalist church on Washington Street in Duxbury which was “’jock full’ and very neatly trimmed with evergreen.”[3] Religion was a bit more fluid during this period and members of various Protestant denominations would frequent each other’s meetings. A particularly good visiting minister at any church was always an event not to be missed no matter what your affiliation. William went half the time to the Unitarian Church and the other half to the Universalists – where he could also see Methodists.

Washington Street, Duxbury with Seth Sprague, Jr. House, c. 1870.

Washington Street, Duxbury with Seth Sprague, Jr. House, c. 1870.

Temperance meetings took up much of William’s time during December. The Temperance movement was quite popular in Duxbury with between 400-500 members of the local chapter. Included in this number were at least half a dozen sea captains who gave up drink. According to William, these “old topers will come out and sign the pledge and tell their experience, then we cheer them – I never enjoyed myself better in any meetings.”  Seth Sprague, Jr., one of the most substantial men in town and a Massachusetts State Senator, never missed a meeting. It must have been somewhat embarrassing for William to have purveyors of spirits in his immediate family – both his brother and father operated the Webster Tavern in Bridgewater, NH. They would have had a hard time with the business in Duxbury, as William advised them, “alcohol does not show his head here, if he does they pounce upon him.”

William was also a member the Duxbury Lyceum, also known as the Debating Society of Duxbury. The Lyceum was formed in 1832 by a group of mostly young men and women who gathered together to argue popular topics of the day. During December 1841, the little group considered the questions, “Ought parents to choose the partners for their children” (William spoke in the affirmative); “Is there anything improper on a ladies making a proposition to a gentleman for marriage,” (William supported the negative); and, “Are early marriages advisable” (William would have spoken for the affirmative if it had not been too cold to attend). Much of his arguments were definitely made with a bit of tongue in cheek.  In addition to his debating, he attended a singing school held two evenings a week.

William was looking forward to 1842. He already had an invitations to dine with  Capt. George P. Richardson, a wealthy retired sea captain, and also to share a clam dinner with his old roommate. His days of being a “pedagogue” were numbered as he was planning to “set a pole and let it fall and then follow it.” He ends his letter with “wishing you all a new happy new year – please remember me to all that take the pains to enquire.”

Now, it is incumbent upon me to tell you what became of our humorous friend. I debated whether to write this article without mentioning William’s future and let you all believe that his pole pointed toward a long life filled with many more holidays. But, I knew there would be at least a few among you who would be unsatisfied with that, so I will tell you what became of him. William’s death came just two years after this letter was written, when he was a mere 27 years old. He died of consumption (tuberculosis), a disease that was far too common in the  19th and early 20th centuries and took many lives. He is buried in the Webster Cross cemetery in Bridgewater, NH.  But, I prefer not to dwell on that and would rather image our young jokester as he was on New Year’s day in 1842, bent over a overly large piece of paper, chuckling to himself as he recounted his December in Duxbury.

[1] Forefather’s Day is still celebrated in Plymouth by the Pilgrim Society/Pilgrim Hall Museum and the Old Colony Club. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forefathers’_Day and http://historicaldigression.com/2014/12/22/forefathers-day-salute-plymouth/

[2] Pilgrim House was a hotel on the corner of Main and Middle Streets in downtown Plymouth established by Danville Bryant in 1834. It burned on June 20, 1846. At the time of William Webster’s turkey dinner, the hotel was owned by Francis J. Goddard. In 1856 Union Hall was built on the site.

[3] See A Christmas Romance in Duxbury for more history on the local Unitarian Church.

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