Librarians and archivists can be in charge of anywhere from hundreds to thousands or even millions of documents in their collections. It can be challenging under the best of circumstances to keep track of all of those moving pieces. Older facilities have to contend with even more issues. Through the years, multiple cataloging systems were likely used. And every time materials are recataloged, they have to be arranged on the shelves according to the new system. There is no repository anywhere that hasn’t lost track of items through the year because of miscataloging or mis-shelving.
Even as august an institution as Harvard University, with its vast financial resources, is not immune from these problems. Members of the cataloging team at Houghton Library made a major discovery on the shelves recently. Historians had long known that a meeting of townspeople in 1767 had Bostonians creating a non-importation agreement, where they would not purchase imported goods. This was in response to the Townsend Acts which levied heavy tariffs on British goods in the colonies.
What the Houghton catalogers found was a set of eight sheets that delineated the agreement not to purchase imported items. It was dated at Boston October 26, 1767. The list of items that would not be purchased included dozens of items, including hats, gloves, cloths, cordage, watches, silversmiths and jewelers wares, silk, cotton, velvet, thread, lace, snuff, mustard, malt liquors, household furniture, chaises, coaches, anchors, and more. The agreement was to take effect December 31, 1767.
The best part is that these eight pre-printed pages are filled with the signatures of hundreds of Bostonians. The document contains the names of well-known Bostonians such as Paul Revere, who clearly was the first singer, with a large signature and flourishes a la fellow Bostonian John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence nine years later. His riding partner William Dawes also signed the document. But it is important to note that not all of the signatories were the rebellious type. The names of a number of loyalists also appear. A number of the signers attached notes, such as “for one year,” to their names. Perhaps most notable are the names of women, interleaved among the men. These women were signing independently of their husbands or fathers, of their own volition.
The town of Boston had an adult population of about 7,000 individuals at the time. More than 650 people signed the document. That is almost 10% of the adults in the town. When you consider that the vast majority of the adults were married to each other, this may represent as many as 15 to 20% of all the families in the town.
The pages are filled with well known Boston family surnames, such as Berry, Brattle, Call, Emmons, Farmer, Gibson, Gill, Greenough, Kneeland, Nowell, Pierce, Pool, and Williams. I, of course, looked for the names of member of Benjamin Franklin’s family who still resided in Boston at the time, and found a number of them among the signers, including Thomas Dawes, Jr., Samuel Emmons, William Homes, Jr., and Barnabas Webb. Interestingly, on the last page of the document is the signature of a woman named Elizabeth Franklin. To the left, in pencil, is written “sister of B.F.” with a hand-drawn finger pointing to Elizabeth’s name. This is patently incorrect. Franklin’s sister Elizabeth died in 1759, and her surname was Douse at the time of her death. While Franklin had two sisters-in-law named Elizabeth, these women would have been about 70 years old by 1767, and the crisp and clear signature appears to belong to a much younger woman.
The staff at Houghton has digitized the pages and made them available online to the public. You can view them on the Harvard University Library website.