Celebrate Forefathers Day!

My favorite holiday of the year is nearly upon us, and I think the time is right for a celebratory BHS blog post!  Sure, while there are many holidays populating the month of December, I think we can all agree that there is one that obviously outshines all the others.  That day, of course, comes on December 22nd, when we unite in celebration of Forefathers Day, the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620!

"Embarkation of the Pilgrims" by Robert W. Weir.  Image via aoc.gov.

"Embarkation of the Pilgrims" by Robert W. Weir, 1857. Image via aoc.gov.

Ok, there are two discrepancies in the above paragraph.  The first is that, as we all remember from grade school (right?), the correct date of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth is December 21st, rather than the 22nd.  However, due to an adjustment in the Gregorian calendar, the first official commemoration of this historic event in 1769 took place on December 22nd, and this has been the conventional date of celebration ever since.  The second discrepancy is that Forefathers Day is not my favorite holiday (for me, nothing beats Halloween); in fact, like most people outside Plymouth, I grew up not knowing that the holiday even existed.  That didn’t change until very recently, when we on the CLIR team came across the records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, an organization for Brooklynites of New England ancestry that was formed in 1880.

Cover page of the New England Society's Certificate of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Proceedings, 1880.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Cover page of the New England Society's Certificate of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Proceedings, 1880. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the New England Society was one of Brooklyn’s most popular social clubs, and for good reason: according to census records, by 1870 there were actually more New Englanders living in Brooklyn than in Boston!  The Society provided the perfect outlet for these recently transplanted New Englanders to celebrate and connect with their heritage throughout the year.  The Society held annual festivals and dinners, convened at monthly meetings, hosted lectures by well-known scholars of New England history, and held several other special events celebrating the history and culture of New England.  To gain admittance to the Society, applicants had to be upstanding gentlemen and provide proof of their genealogical link to New England.  The Society’s records contain several membership applications from Brooklynites eager to gain admittance to the Society:

NES Membership Application 1

Membership application of Herbert B. Henry, 1383 Pacific Steet, Brooklyn, N.Y. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Membership application of Dudley Clarke, 1 Montgomery Place, Brooklyn, N.Y.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074.

Membership application of Dudley Clarke, 1 Montgomery Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Ah, the coveted membership admission letter!  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Ah, the coveted membership admission letter! Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Society attracted attention outside Brooklyn as well.  The Society’s first annual festival in 1880, for instance, was attended by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who had links to the New England state of Vermont.  Fortunately for BHS, Hayes signed his name in the Society’s autograph book:

Cover page of the Society's autograph book for its first annual festival, December 21, 1880.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Cover page of the Society's autograph book for its first annual festival, December 21, 1880. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Signature of President Rutherford B. Hayes.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Signature of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

As you might suspect, among the many New England cultural traditions that the Society celebrated was Forefathers Day.  Note in the above photo that the Society’s first annual festival was held on December 21st, affirming that, even though Forefathers Day has never been widely celebrated outside Plymouth, the New England Society helped keep the tradition alive in Brooklyn, even if they chose to celebrate it on the historically accurate date of December 21st.  As it turns out, the Society’s annual dinner seems to have been regularly held on December 21st in honor of Forefathers Day, as evidenced by some surviving menus and programs:

Menu for the Society's Forefathers Day dinner, December 21, 1885.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Menu for the Society's Forefathers Day dinner, December 21, 1885. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Program for the Society's annual dinner, December 21, 1916.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Program for the Society's annual dinner, December 21, 1916. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Invitation to the Society for the Connecticut Congregational Club's Forefathers Day celebration, 1894.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Invitation to the Society from the Connecticut Congregational Club for its Forefathers Day celebration, 1894. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

As shown by the records of the New England Society, Brooklyn is not so much a stranger to the celebration of Forefathers Day as we might have thought.  In fact, the New England Society is still active today, and as recently as 2008, the Society held its annual holiday party on December 22nd in the spirit of Forefathers Day.  So if Forefathers Day sounds like something you’d like to add to your repertoire of December holiday celebrations, know that you don’t have to be from Plymouth to don a Pilgrim hat this December 22nd (or 21st, if you prefer).  Though I suppose Plymouth may be the only place where you can actually buy a Pilgrim hat.

I’d like to close with a spotlight on another item found in the records of the New England Society.  While it’s not directly related to Forefathers Day, it does get my vote of being the best piece of correspondence ever composed.  It also reveals that there was at least one New Englander living in Brooklyn  who was not standing in line to join the New England Society.  The item in question comes from a Mr. Horace L. Kent, who had apparently received one too many pieces of unwanted solicitations from the Society in the mail.  By December of 1911, the situation had reached the point where Kent, in desperation, wrote a letter directly to the President of the Society demanding that this “persecution” cease.  We’ll never know what drove Mr. Kent to overreact to such a degree, but thanks to the surviving letter, we can delight in the fact that he did.  A transcription of the letter follows the below image:

Letter to the Society from Horace L. Kent, December 8, 1911.  Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Letter to the Society from Horace L. Kent, December 8, 1911. Records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, ARC.074, Brooklyn Historical Society.

“Hon. Mr. President:

If you have a spark of humanity in your composition, will you please render me a little bit of assistance in this, my dire need?

I have written your society at intervals for the past four years begging them to stop sending me Mr. Howard Kent’s mail.  I have begged and pleaded until patience has ceased to be a virtue.  I am now going to begin to threaten, so if you have any regard for the personal safety of your secretary, you had better caution him to refrain from sending me any more of Mr. Howard Kent’s mail, for I shall certainly go over there and thrash him within an inch of his life if he insists upon sending me this literature.

I have spent from one to four dollars on postage returning letters, due bills, tickets, invitations, etc.

In the first place, Howard Kent does not live at 858 Prospect Place, and he never did.  You annoyed me so much with this mail business that I was obliged to move out of the neighborhood.  The house is now for sale, and you will have to do one of two things: you will either have to cease sending me this literature, or Howard Kent will have to buy 858 Prospect Place.  I thought when I moved here I would escape this persecution, but you seem to have followed me up, and found my new address.  It is terrible.

I don’t want your tickets at $3.00, because I am a New England man myself, and know that no New England dinner costs more than twenty-five cents.

I am enclosing you a letter to Mr. Howard Kent, which my secretary opened by mistake.

I hope and pray that this will be the last time I shall be obliged to write you on this subject.

Please forgive me for addressing this letter to you as President, but I realize it is of no use to write to your Secretary any more.

Very truly yours,

Horace L. Kent”

This was one Brooklyn New Englander who almost certainly did not celebrate Forefathers Day.

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