The History of Needham in 100 Objects
The History of Needham in 100 Objects celebrates the Needham Historical Society’s 100th Anniversary with a look at some of the artifacts and treasures collected along the way.
From ancient hunters to a Colonel in the Revolutionary War, from farmers, scientists, and suffragists to record-setting athletes and intrepid explorers, Needham boasts a rich history of outstanding people and remarkable accomplishments.
Our town – and our world – has been shaped by their deeds and devotion, foresight and perseverance.
100 Objects? Too many to show here, but here’s a sneak peek…. Come and see the rest!
(Click on images to enlarge)
- Art & Craft: In an age before mass production, the necessities and the luxuries of life were equally crafted with patience and skill by Needham residents. Domestic embellishments for the home, as well as the work of master craftsmen, all demonstrate the pride of accomplishment by these men and women. In addition to these crafts, Needham also fostered a number of fine artists, some of whom are world-famous.
- Notable Events: Some of the events in our history are celebrations, such as the anniversaries of the town or the nation. Some bring sadness, like the tragedy of the Needham Trust Company robbery. These are the occurrences that gladdened our hearts – or broke them – and remain in our town’s memory as the most important and influential.
Chinese Sewing Table, circa 1860
This splendid Chinese worktable was brought by Captain Gorham Burkitt to his daughters sometime before 1867, after one of his voyages to China. The nearby coastal cities of Boston, and especially Salem, were hubs of the United States’ trade with China in the 19th century. Prior to the Revolutionary War, trade with Asia was controlled by Britain’s East India Company. After the War, in the 1790s, the United States opened up its own trade routes. The major American export was furs, which were abundant in the northern parts of the new country. In return, the clippers brought back tea, silk, spices, and porcelain.
The Dolphin-Cam (1970s) – The “dolphin camera” is a computer-controlled camera mounted in a waterproof brass tube for mobile underwater photography. Charles Wyckoff designed the camera, a strobe of similar size, and a small sonar unit, to be strapped to the back of a dolphin for underwater exploration. In the 1970s, Wyckoff joined a project in Scotland that was looking for the Loch Ness Monster, as a means of testing his dolphin-mounted prototype for sonar-guided underwater photography. The camera worked well, and although Wyckoff did not succeed in finding Nessie, he did get “1000 perfect pictures of salmon looking at us head on.”
The Washington Kerchief (1776 or 1777) – “George Washington, Esq. Foundator and Protector of America’s Liberty and Jndependency.” The wording (“Independency”) and the lack of the Stars and Stripes suggests that that this kerchief was made sometime between the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 and the adoption of the Flag in June 1777. It is believed to have been made by Joseph Hewson of Philadelphia at the request of Martha Washington, as a means of bolstering Washington’s status as military commander. It is considered to be the first piece of American political propaganda. The damage to the textile was caused by deterioration resulting from the caustic red dyes. Because few kerchiefs were made, and because of their fragile nature, only four are now known to exist – two in the collections of the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, DE, one in a private collection, and one that belongs to the New-York Historical Society – in addition to this one. Help us preserve the Washington Kerchief! Here’s how.
- Before Needham: Before 1711, Needham was part of Dedham for almost 100 years, a source of pasture for cattle and land for farms. Long before Dedham, the land belonged to the Massachusett, who valued the riverbanks for hunting and resources. The Native Americans and the English cooperated for a while in the 1600s, but that situation did not last.
- Science and Exploration: From the murky depths of Loch Ness, to the frozen wastes of Antarctica, to the vast reaches of space, Needhamites have explored the mysteries of the world and recorded the beauty of our town.
- Wartime: Wars are fought between nations, but the soldiers are our families and friends, and Needham has not been spared the loss of loved ones. Even so, Needhamites have answered the call for almost every American war, often without the need for conscription. The sole exception? The Mexican War (1846-48), which was opposed in the North as an attempt to extend slavery into the new territories.
- Politics and Government: Big national events get their start in the affairs of small towns. If Needham was not exactly on the beaten path, it was at least near the beaten path, and an active participant in the affairs of the day. The important issues that rocked America, from Independence to Prohibition, were just as urgently debated in Needham.
- Families and People: The history of a town is the collective record of the accomplishments of its citizens. We highlight a few (by no means all!) of the families and individuals whose actions had an impact on the growth and development of Needham.
- Daily Life and Community: Celebrations are all very well, but life goes on. The cows need to be milked and the mail must be delivered. Many of the objects in our collections represent the way people lived and worked every day, as well as the ways in which they heard the news, and gathered together to talk it over.
- Commerce and Innovation: Once Needham gained a railroad, farming was no longer the only business in town. Commercial ventures used the trains to reach more clients, to improve their products, and to sell their goods more widely. In the 20th century, the development of Route 128 and the Industrial Park made Needham part of the world-wide market.