UMass Lowell Logo

Lowell Historical Society

The Blue Plate Special: An Eclectic View of the Lowell Historical Society's Collections

This is an exhibition of some of the more unusual materials held by the city's longest-standing private organization devoted to preserving Lowell's history.  The documents and objects reflect the broad interests of the Lowell Historical Society.   Politics, the military, business, cultural affairs, and education are but a few of the subjects covered in this exhibition.

     History is a grand story with a vast cast of characters and countless plot lines interweaving 
through the centuries.  The Lowell story is  
remarkable for its reach.  Since the 1820's, Lowell has been a place whose people and events have consistently affected national and international affairs.  Still, it is the daily activity of "unexceptional" people that is often of most interest to observers years later.

     The Lowell Historical Society was established in 1902 as the corporate successor of the The Old Residents' Historical Association, founded in 1868.  The Society collects and preserves books, manuscripts, photographs, and objects of antiquarian and historical interest; encourages the study of local history; and publishes material that illustrates and preserves the history of Lowell.  The Society' s books, manuscripts, and photographs are housed at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Lowell History in the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, a research library open to the public.

     In 1991, the Lowell Historical Society opened its own facility in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum building of the Lowell National Historical Park.  The headquarters of the Society will combine office, program, and storage space.  Exhibits in this space will feature materials from the Society's collections.   Throughout the year the Society sponsors, lectures, tours, temporary exhibits, displays, workshops, and other public programs in the city.  In addition to these and other activities, the Society offers research and technical assistance in areas ranging from genealogical inquires to the use of historical photographs.


What is a blue plate special?  At the old lunch counters and diners the “blue plate" was the special of the day-nothing fancy, just a meal of the best available, perhaps a combination of American chop suey, green beans, salad, roll, and red jello for dessert.  This exhibit gathers some of the more peculiar items in the Society's collections.  Selected for their oddity or rarity, the objects and documents range from the 1825 Hurd's Mill Pay Register to the 1935 bell from the last electric trolley in Lowell.

How many people know that the rubber heel was invented in Lowell?  This notable advancement in creature comfort was dreamed up in Humphrey O'Sullivan's shoe store on Merrimack Street.  A colorful advertising poster for this establishment is an early 20th century item.  It is one of many large-scale advertisements and documents of delicious variety which line the main corridor of the Mogan Cultural Center.  Another business history artifact is the blue and gold Father John's Medicine sign.  Father John O’Brien's cold remedy was first concocted in a drugstore on Merrimack Street.

     An interesting piece is "An Account of the Expenses of the Town of Lowell" for the year ending February, 1834.  The budget figures of 157 years ago are eye opening.  Notice that the entire town budget was $17,609.21.  The account was issued two years before Lowell incorporated as a city, so the signatures are by five selectmen.  

Druggists Ad

Another document from the mill eara is a broadside announcing a play at the National Theatre of Boston in 1849.  The subject is a Grand Gala Performance of Mill Girls of Lowell, or Lights and Shadows of Factory Life with Mysteries of Lowell, Dover, Nashua and Manchester, A Drama of Innocence and Guilt.  Another reference to cultural history is the 1859 poster announcing a special train to a theater performance in Boston.  This recalls the Lowell Folk Festival train in July, 1990, which carried Bostonians to Lowell for a taste of culture.

     One of the many impressive Civil War items in the Lowell Historical Society’s collections is the Allotment Roll of Co. G, 33rd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers.  The 1862 roll lists the name, rank and pay of each soldier and the person to whom his allotment shall be sent.  Note the Lowell addresses.

     The objects displayed in cases at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Center for Lowell History advance the theme. The most unusual piece in the Society’s collection is a mummified child’s foot.  One Society member says, "Every historical society has an Egyptian artifact, and this is ours."  It is the oldest item in the collection.

     One curiosity shown here is the sea urchin helmet with a coconut shell liner from he Philippine Islands that was donated by Sergeant Scott, a Lowell soldier who took part in the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1901.  The helmet is one of several artifacts from the Philippines in the collection.  Another piece of American military history is a copper bolt mounted on a  scrap of timber, from the frigate Constitution.  This remnant of  “Old Ironsides” was presented to the Society in 1929, when the ship was being rebuilt at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

     There is a wide assortment of objects of material culture in the cases: printing plates for a Boston and Lowell Railroad map; ceremonial ribbons or “ribands” of the Old Residents' Historical Association; a pair of woman’s high top leather shoes; a Lowell cigarette box; a brick made at a brickyard of East Merrimack Street; books; pamphlets; and other artifacts.

     The funeral broadside from 1835 announcing the services for the late Rev. Enoch W. Freeman has an extraordinary story behind it.  The broadside recently surfaced while a historical society in New York was weeding its collection.  Thinking it would be of interest to people in Lowell, the New York group sent it to the Society.  This artifact is linked to one of the greatest mysteries in Lowell and will be the subject of a talk by Walter V. Hickey, Society board member, at 7:30 p.m. on February 27th in the Mogan Cultural Center.