A Look at Christmas in Boston in 1875
The date was December 24, 1875, and Marion “Minnie” Boyd Allen didn’t have time to go to school.
How could she? The 13-year-old aspiring artist was too busy hanging lines of cranberries on strings in the billiard room in her South End home, and stuffing cornucopias and holiday boxes with a variety of sweets alongside her brother, William Allen.
“The house is turned upside down getting ready for tomorrow,” Allen scribbled in her journal in clean cursive. “Will and I put up the tree and hung evergreen.”
The next day, on Christmas, after preparing for guests to arrive, her house was filled with holiday cheer.
“Folks began to come at about half-past-ten,” she wrote. “We children stayed together on a sofa and played a few games.”
Later, following the “usual Christmas dinner,” the children unwrapped presents. So many, in fact, that Allen couldn’t list them all in her diary.
The 139-year-old musings of the young Bostonian, preserved in a red journal and shared by the staff of the American Antiquarian Society, based in Worcester, tells the tale of what it was like to be a teenage girl ringing in the holidays in the 19th century.
“[It’s] a volume that proves to be as fascinating for its mundaneness as for its extraordinary in-depth look into the everyday life of what we now call a ‘tween,’” wrote Kayla Haveles, outreach coordinator at the American Antiquarian Society.
Allen, who would later grow up to be an esteemed artist, kept a steady log of her “comfortable, upper-middle-class childhood,” as Haveles describes it, including excerpts and drawings indicating her excitement about summer vacation, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
“She talks about anything and everything, and it’s fascinating just for that reason,” Haveles told Boston in an interview. “This really is a glimpse into an age you don’t typically get to see.”
Haveles, who has been sharing snippets of Allen’s journal entries for the past few months, said the descriptions throughout Allen’s diary are indicative of the wealthy lifestyle enjoyed by her family.
“Census records indicate that the Allens were well off, her father’s house being estimated at $50,000 and his personal property at $450,000 in 1870,” Haveles wrote in a blog post. “Her diary paints a vivid picture of her…childhood, full of play dates with friends; games of croquet, billiards, and pitch; summers in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee; and frequent trips out of the city to ‘Hillside,’ most likely her grandparents Seawards’ place in Melrose, Massachusetts, where she climbed trees, jumped rope, and put on plays.”
On Christmas day in 1875, the lavish activities enjoyed in the family’s South End property—a tree with presents, as captured by Allen in a drawing at the top of her diary entry that day, sat in the bay window—included a feast, a visit from Santa Claus, and guests dancing to wind down the evening.
“She has this upper-middle-class Victorian background, and everything she writes about is often what we kind of think of when we see these Christmas cards from that era,” Haveles said. “It reminded me of The Nutcracker, even though it was written at a different period. Just the whole thing of having a giant tree, and the family gathering around, and the trimming of the tree—it was very similar.”
Fast-forwarding a year, Haveles also shared what was on Allen’s mind in 1876, as she once again prepared for Christmas day. As noted by Haveles, that year, at age 14, Allen’s Christmas Eve entry was “disappointing,” as the busy teenager tried to finish up some last-minute gift making, decorating, and celebrating in the city.
It marked the last entry in the young artist’s journal, leaving readers curious about what transpired Christmas day feeling “cheated.”
“It seems suiting that the diary would end here. Having begun it when she was 12, at 14-years-old Minnie is now on the eve of adulthood,” Haveles wrote. “It’s hard to begrudge her growing up, but the rich, amusing, and rare way in which she recorded her adolescent years leaves one wanting to read more.”