Exploring Portsmouth through Craftsmen’s Eyes

By: Judith Marshall

I began my master’s degree at UMass Boston with a vague understanding of public history. I knew that it gave me the opportunity to pursue my passion for history outside of the academic world. However, I did not have any real experience doing public history and I was a little uncertain and nervous about my choice. I was quickly immersed into this world, gaining experience not only in public history but also in archives. At UMass I have had the opportunity to attend conferences, volunteer with public history projects, and collaborate with community organizations in course practicums. The most rewarding, however, has been my internship with Historic New England.

This internship has been an invaluable part of my public history education, giving me the ability to gain hands-on experience in the field. In spring 2015, I started my internship at Historic New England, an organization that aims to preserve and interpret New England architecture and material culture. I was eager to start this internship for a couple of reasons. First of all, I value their capacity to use historic houses as a means of interpreting everyday life in the past. Second of all, I appreciate their dedication to making New England’s culture engaging and accessible to the public—both through their historic houses and their wonderful public programs.

My internship project required that I research the men who were involved in building one of Historic New England properties—the Rundlet May House, a 19th century history home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—and then write an interpretation proposal based on that research.

Rundlet May House, a federal-style house in Portsmouth New Hampshire, built in 1807.
Rundlet May House, a federal-style house in Portsmouth New Hampshire, built in 1807.

This project immediately interested me. Traditionally, historic homes have focused on the wealthy families who lived in them. However, recent public history practices have started to change how historic homes interpret regional histories. Some historic institutions have now begun to include the histories of marginalized populations, using the homes to discuss the lived experiences of enslaved people and servants. Researching and interpreting the lives of the men who built the Rundlet May House would be a continuation of this trend to include everyday people in the interpretation of historic homes. Serendipitously, James Rundlet, the merchant that built the house, left a detailed work schedule and account book. These documents offered me an accurate picture of the men involved, the supplies they used, the time it took them, and the wages they received. In other words, I had a fascinating window into the lives of the craftsmen.

After transcribing the schedule and account book, I researched the craftsmen, a challenging task. I knew relatively little about the craftsmen, besides their names and the fact that they were in Portsmouth between 1807 and 1808. This problem was compounded with the fact that so many men in New England had the same name, making the research particularly tricky. For instance, when looking for information about James Folsom, a carpenter who worked on the Rundlet May House in 1807, I found census records that included James Folsom I, II, III, IV, V, and VI. These records were even more difficult to discern when you include the fact that pre-1840 census records only documented the names of the head of the households. All other persons in the household, from a certain age range, were only numerically counted. It became difficult to determine which one of these James Folsoms was the joiner who worked on James Rundlet’s house.

 

James Folsom from Exeter New Hampshire (note: NOT the James Folsom who worked on the Rundlet May House) posted this message in the newspaper in 1812. Even he was annoyed with having the same name as so many others! “Owing to the frequent mistakes made by there being a number of persons of the name JAMES FOLSOM in this town, the subscriber, son of Benjamin Folsom, late of Newmarket, respectfully requests his friends and others having occasion to direct letters, etc. to him, to call and consider him by his real name. James B. Folsom.” Source: Constitutionalist (Exeter, NH), August 4, 1812. Volume: II, Issue: 7, Page: 1.
James Folsom from Exeter New Hampshire (note: NOT the James Folsom who worked on the Rundlet May House) posted this message in the newspaper in 1812. Even he was annoyed with having the same name as so many others! “Owing to the frequent mistakes made by there being a number of persons of the name JAMES FOLSOM in this town, the subscriber, son of Benjamin Folsom, late of Newmarket, respectfully requests his friends and others having occasion to direct letters, etc. to him, to call and consider him by his real name. James B. Folsom.” Source: Constitutionalist (Exeter, NH), August 4, 1812. Volume: II, Issue: 7, Page: 1.

The interpretive proposal, at first, felt like uncharted territory. I had some experience with public interpretation, but it was still relatively new to me. This part of my internship became the most rewarding and exciting aspect. Initially, I thought I would plan a house tour that examined each room from a different craftsman’s eyes. In each room I would give a biography about a craftsman and link his work to Rundlet’s house. However I thought that this would be a disjointed tour, with nothing linking the rooms together. I scratched the idea and I started to think about different avenues of interpretation.

During my research, I uncovered a wealth of information about the craftsmen themselves. I discovered that many of them had a robust political life, including some of who were elected municipal officers. I also learned that some were involved with societies such as the New Hampshire Mechanics Association. I wanted to find a way to include all these facets of their lives into my interpretation so I developed a proposal for a walking tour. I thought that a walking tour would be a great way to reveal the craftsmen’s lives to the public. I could discuss not just their work at the Rundlet May House, but also their political activities, the societies they belonged to, and the other houses they helped construct.

The walking tour gave me the opportunity to interpret history spatially instead of just thematically. While it is my instinct to organize historic evidence in thematic terms, so that each story flows smoothly to the next, this kind of narrative form is not logistically possible within the format of a walking tour. The organization of walking tours depends on the geographical location of a site; tour participants would not be happy to walk from one side of Portsmouth to the other just so I that could connect two complementary sites thematically. Looking at interpretation in terms of space meant that I had to reorganize my frame of thinking.

Before I knew it, the semester was over. Yet there was so much more I wanted to do with the tour. After all, I had only created a brief proposal. After discussing it with staff at Historic New England and my mentors at UMass Boston, I have decided to use my proposal as the foundation for my capstone project. This semester I am building on the work I did for my internship, conducting more research on the craftsmen and creating a full tour script. Most excitingly, I will have the opportunity to give a trial run of the tour. I am thrilled to see this project through to the end.

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