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History of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants: 1920-1929

The 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims in 1920 was an event of national prominence. The post-war era of the Roaring Twenties was just beginning, America was a world power, and she was feeling good about herself. The story of the Pilgrims, benefiting from superior public relations by such as poet Longfellow and orator Daniel Webster during the previous century, was the story of America. So important was the celebration, that it was not the private organizations such as the Mayflower or Pilgrim societies which led in planning the festivities, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which appropriated public funds and appointed a commission especially for the anniversary. Among their plans were the renovation of the Plymouth waterfront area (at a cost of $800,000) and the building of a memorial hall in Plymouth ($665,000). The General Society of Mayflower Descendants planned a restoration of the Cole's Hill burial ground, for which the Massachusetts Society's quota of the cost (¼ of the total) was $6,400. The year-long celebrations in Plymouth included parades, dedications, and construction, and they culminated in a life-size pageant of the landing. People came from distant parts to see the spectacular events.

The Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants celebrated the Tercentenary at their Annual dinner in November of 1920 which featured Governor Calvin Coolidge, the new vice president-elect, who, as Bowman put it, "(although a poor speaker) will undoubtedly be a tremendous drawing card." Other guests at the Copley Plaza in Boston were the Netherlands Charge D'Affaires; Andrew J. Peters, Mayor of Boston; and John W. Weeks, former U.S. Senator. Over five hundred people were reported to have attended. Coolidge spoke on the Compact as the Pilgrims' "acknowledgment of the abiding supremacy of law and the right to participate in the form and establishment of government." Weeks provided some fun by remarking, "How joyful the old Pilgrims would feel could they see...what a well-groomed and fine looking body of descendants they had produced."

The most spectacular society meeting, however, was held in 1927 when Bowman and his cohorts pulled out all the stops and achieved that pinnacle of social success for which hereditary societies are usually remembered. Held in the gold-and-rose tinted Louis XIV Ballroom of the Somerset Hotel, the honored guests were Sir Esme Howard, Ambassador from Great Britain, and his wife, Lady Isabella. There being no substitute for royalty, no matter how minor, publicity on the step-by-step progress of plans for this event began as early as October. Engraved invitations were sent, the arrival of each participant to town was recorded, souvenir menus were prepared, and five hundred to six hundred members and guests made reservations, filling the main ballroom and spilling over into a second. When it was over, the newspapers reported:

The keeper of the social records in that tome devoted to high and mighty personages and their affairs will, without doubt, devote a considerable space and much gilded ink to appropriately describe the Mayflower dinner last evening at the hotel Somerset...Mayflower descendants, hundreds strong, came out for the commemoration celebration of the Signing of the Compact, 307 years ago. And to fittingly glorify their celebration they gathered at the honor table such a scintillating galaxy of star guests as seldom is seen about one board.

Also in attendance were Mrs. Alvin Tufts Fuller, wife of the Governor of Massachusetts, Sir Thomas Tait of Canada, and Senator Frederick H. Gillett:

For lions of only slightly lesser importance, The Descendants corralled ever so many luminaries of society, diplomacy, the service and the law to grace the honor table ...Colonels and generals, admirals, judges, consul generals and such made up a company of two score, their uniforms and their decorations a far cry indeed from the drab and homespun those signers wore when they drew up the famous Compact ...Speeches colorful as the the gowns of the feminine guests, and of wit as scintillating as their jewels, flowed in rounded periods ...

Sir Esme's speech emphasized the ties between England and America and warned that those trying to destroy Anglo-American friendship would lead to another world war. Senator Gillett made mention of the recent Saco-Venzetti case and "was vociferously applauded when he paid tribute to Massachusetts and her courts ...," while Judge Webster Thayer sat at the head table. Thayer had upheld the conviction despite defense appeals. After such an event, all succeeding social gatherings pale.

The Society's major achievement of this decade was the acquisition of the building at 9 Walnut Street on Beacon Hill for $33,000. Over $18,000 of renovations had to be made to the five-story brick building which was already one hundred years old (the fifth story had been added in 1857). From the second floor balcony, the famous Frog Pond on Boston Common could be seen if one leaned way out and looked sharp right.

Immediately after moving into the house on July 15, 1926, a campaign was begun to pay off the mortgage. An assessment of $2.00 per member was made and dues were increased from $6 to $8. The mortgage was paid off on March 18, 1928, and at the Annual Meeting on the 28 th, a mortgage-burning ceremony took place, the ashes placed in a specially engraved silver box. To fill the house, the Society began an expanded collection program. Mrs. Alden A. Thorndike, chairman of the House Committee, donated a valuable collection of old Staffordshire china and an antique cabinet to hold it. Miss Clara Endicot Sears gave a Court Cupboard made in 1676, and Miss Mary Patterson Lord presented three large portraits which were hung in the reception rooms. In the meantime, Bowman just about cornered the market on Brewster imprints (books printed by William Brewster on his printing press), setting the cap on the Society's select collection. In his report for 1921, Bowman noted that seven Brewster imprints had been given to the Society, bringing the total collection to ten, of which four were duplicates. He claimed this collection ranked only behind Yale and Bodleian Library at Oxford. In addition, Bowman wanted a complete collection of all editions of Nathaniel Norton's New Englands Memorial. By 1922 he had editions two through seven and lacked only the first, which had been printed in 1669. An imperfect copy was presented to the Society in 1924, but an unusually fine copy was later located by Bowman, and $1,350 was raised to buy it.