Aolib.comFragment of Photochrom print of the front of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany (ca. 1897)

Customs and Fashions in Old New England »


By Alice Morse Earle

We owe much to these trainings and these trials of marksmanship. In conjunction with the universal skill in woodcraft and in hunting, they made our ancestors more than a match for the Indian and the Frenchman, and in Revolutionary times gave them their ascendency over the English.

Election Day was naturally a time of much excitement to New Englanders in olden times, as nowadays. In fact, the entire week partook of the flavor of a holiday. This did not please the ministers. Urian Oakes wrote sadly that Election Day had become a time “to meet, to smoke, carouse and swagger and dishonor God with the greater bravery.” Various local customs obtained. “’Lection cake,” a sort of rusk rich with fruit and wine, was made in many localities; indeed, is still made in some families that I know; and sometimes “’lection beer” was brewed. In early May the herb gatherers (many of them old squaws) brought to town various barks and roots for this beer, and they also vended it on the streets during Election week. An Election sermon was also preached.

Boston had two Election Days. “Nigger ’Lection” was so called in distinction from Artillery Election. On the former anniversary day the election of the governor was formally announced, and the black population was allowed to throng the Common, to buy gingerbread and drink beer like their white betters. On the second holiday the Ancient and Honorable Artillery had a formal parade, and chose its new officers, who received with much ceremony, out—of—doors, their new commissions from the new governor. Woe, then, to the black face that dared be seen on that grave and martial occasion! In 1817 a negro boy named William Read, enraged at being refused the high privileges and pleasures of Artillery Day, blew up in Boston Harbor a ship called the Canton Packet. For years it was a standing taunt of white boys in Boston to negroes:

“Who blew up the ship?
Nigger, why for?
’Cause he couldn’t go to ’lection
An’ shake paw—paw.”

Paw—paw was a gambling game which was played on the Common with four sea—shells of the Cypr[oe]a Moneta.

The 14th of July was observed by Boston negroes for many years to commemorate the introduction of measures to abolish the slave trade. It was derisively called Bobalition Day, and the orderly convention of black men was greeted with a fusillade of rotten fruit and eggs and much jesting abuse. It was at one of these Bobalition—Day celebrations that this complimentary toast was seriously given and recorded in honor of the newly elected governor: “Governor Brooks–May the mantelpiece of Caleb Strong fall on the hed of his distinguished Predecessor.”

In other localities, notably on the Massachusetts coast, in Connecticut, and in Narragansett, the term “Nigger ’Lection” was applied to the election of a black governor, who held his sway over the black population. Wherever there was a large number of negroes the black governor was a man of much dignity and importance, and his election was a scene of much gayety and considerable feasting, which the governor’s master had to pay for. As he had much control over his black constituents, it is plain that the black governor might be made useful in many petty ways to his white neighbors. Occasionally the “Nigger ’Lection” had a deep political signification and influence. “Scaeva,” in his “Hartford in the Olden Times,” and Hinman, in the “American Revolution,” give detailed and interesting accounts of “Nigger ’Lection.”

A few rather sickly and benumbed attempts were made in bleak New England to celebrate in old English fashion the first of May. A May—pole was erected in Charlestown in 1687, and was promptly cut down. The most unbounded observance of the day was held at Merry Mount (now the town of Quincy) in 1628 by roystering Morton and his gay crew. Bradford says: “They set up a May—pole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days togeather, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking togeather like so many fairies or furies rather.” This May—pole was a stately pine—tree eighty feet high, with a pair of buck’s horns nailed at the top, and with “sundry rimes and verses affixed.” Stern Endicott rode down ere long to investigate matters, and at once cut the “idoll Maypole” down, and told the junketers that he hoped to hear of their “better walking, else they would find their merry mount but a woful mount.”

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