'Back Pages': A Blog Post from 2008

This post appeared on the richardhowe.com blog in Lowell on December 31, 2008, shortly after I had become a regular contributor to the popular Lowell publication. 

Back Pages

My family’s house in the South Common Historic District was bought by my wife’s grandfather in the 1930's. The house was built for managers of the Appleton Mill Company in 1860. Occupants in the first 70 years left things behind. One curiosity is a shelf of books from the 1800's—random titles from personal libraries that got passed down as the house changed hands. That's my guess, unless one past occupant collected the mixed bag of books. Poking through the books again this morning, I was struck by some coincidental dates.

     There's a beautiful, three-inch thick copy of Byron's Complete Works, Illustrated (Phillips, Sampson and Company: Boston, 1854) signed: "Mrs. Sarah E. M. Goodrich, January 1st, 1855." This volume contains "unabridged, line for line, word for word, the complete works of Lord Byron" in 1,071 gilt-edged pages, including "his suppressed poems and a sketch of his life." We have a two-volume set of The Ingoldsby Legends; or, Mirth and Marvels by Thomas Ingoldsby, Esq. (The Rev. Richard Harris Barham), published by W. J. Widdleton of New York in 1866. These are illustrated stories in verse about French musketeers, knights and ladies, the Merchant of Venice, smugglers and buccaneers, jackdaws, witches, milkmaids and nurses, and ghosts. What caught my eye today is the inscription on the title page: "F. P. Putnam, Lowell, Dec. 31, 1867"—signed 141 years ago to this day. Sometimes History jumps into your hand.

     This is the same Mr. Putnam who inscribed another book "Frank P. Putnam, Christmas 1872, from Eliza." Frank received as a gift Rambles of an Archaeologist among Old Books and Old Places by Frederick William Fairholt, F.S.A., published by Virtue and Co. of London in 1871. A book written in French that seems to go with this one is L'Age du Bronze: Instruments, Armes, et Ornaments par John Evans D. C. L., L. L. D., published by Librarie Germer Bailliere et cie. of Paris in 1882. There's also The Monumental History of Egypt as Recorded on the Ruins of Her Temples, Palaces, and Tombs by William Osburn, R. S. L. (London: Trubner and Co., 1854). In the style of the time, several of these volumes have marbled or feather-design end papers in rich greens, blues, reds, and gold.

     Mr. P. had other interests also, because his name shows up in an unusual book, The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean. In the vein of tales from the East, this mysterious author recounts the secret to the "Eastern narrative" and mind. His subject is "Cannabis Indica," the resin of which is hasheesh. He writes: "From time immemorial it has been known among all the nations of the East as possessing a powerful stimulant and narcotic properties ...." Harper & Brothers of New York published the book in 1857. The explorer proceeds with his narrative through stages of curiosity, ecstasy, pain, and torture to, finally, "abandonment of the indulgence." Sounds a little like a 19th-century version of the 1936 film classic Reefer Madness. Forget what you may have heard about Jack Kerouac experimenting with plants and chemicals. Is Putnam the missing link in “Beat” attitude in Lowell? In an Appendix, J.W. Palmer, M.D., citing medical journal articles and experiments in India, makes a case for medical use of the herb, all of which is oddly timely given the new law in Massachusetts regarding use of the substance.

     Putnam appears in real time in The History of Lowell and Its People by Frederick W. Coburn, volume III (Lewis Historical Publishing Company: New York, 1920). There's a full-page photo of him in business attire with a white handlebar mustache and a cigar in his hand. Here’s his profile:

     "Frank P. Putnam was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, November 15, 1848, and has ever resided in his native city and added to her mercantile greatness. He attended the public schools of the city, but at the age of fifteen years left high school to go into his father's store, business life greatly attracting him from boyhood. This was in 1863, or 1864, the clothing store of Addison Putnam [the oldest of Lowell's men's clothing and furnishing stores] then being located at the corner of Market and Central streets. He rapidly absorbed the principles upon which the business was conducted ... and upon arriving at legal age [became his father's] partner, the firm trading as Putnam & Son. [He later became president of Putnam & Son Company at 166-168 Central Street.]

     "Addison Putnam was a member of the Board of Aldermen for a time, but Frank P. has accepted no political office, but served the city for twenty-one years as a trustee of the Public Library. He is a director of the Appleton National Bank; trustee and vice-president of the Lowell Five Cents Savings Bank; director of the Traders' and Mechanics' Insurance Company of Lowell; and is a member of the Board of Trade. He is a thoroughly public-minded citizen, one who can be relied upon to aid in any movement promising better things for Lowell or the country-at-large. He is a Republican in politics.

     "In the not always peaceful arts of trade he has won eminence, and in his native city of Lowell is well known and highly esteemed as merchant and citizen. There are few men, who, if fortune had been kind to them in a financial way, but would develop some special interest which often amounts to a passion, sometimes a hobby. Mr. Putnam is not an exception, his passion being the cultivation of flowers, carnations, and single chrysanthemums being his specialty. Many are the prizes and first premiums which adorn his home, where four large greenhouses are stocked with the specimens and varieties which most appeal to the owner's tastes.

     "Mr. Putnam married, in Lowell, November 1, 1898 [at the age of 50], Sarah Barry. The family residence is at North Tewksbury, where the greenhouses are Mr. Putnam's especial pleasure, and a generous hospitality is extended."

December 31, 2008