Unfolding Histories: Cape Ann Before 1900

A special exhibition opening this spring at the Cape Ann Museum, on view March 31 through September 9.

Seaman’s Journal. Schooner Lark, Thomas Saville, Master. Kept by John Butler, Jr. 1799–1801. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum. Gift of Josephine Saville, 1964. [Accession # 1823]

Collection of the Cape Ann Museum. Gift of Josephine Saville, 1964.


In the first major exhibition to bring together historical and archival material from nine Cape Ann institutions, Unfolding Histories: Cape Ann Before 1900 illuminates the area’s wide-ranging stories from Native American life to the first European settlers in the 1640s, the temperance movement, African American history and civil rights, women’s history, the advent of railroad and mass transportation as well as work, literary, and cultural life during Cape Ann’s early years.

As the region prepares for the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement on Cape Ann in 2023, the Cape Ann Museum seeks to highlight significant historical materials from its own collection as well as those from historical societies in the region for this exhibition.

Lenders to Unfolding Histories include: Annisquam Historical Society, Cape Ann Museum, Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum, Essex Town Hall, Gloucester’s City Hall, Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library, Manchester Historical Museum, Sargent House Museum, and Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museums. 


Ales and Liquor Trade Card, ca. 1890. Collection of the Cape Ann Musuem.


Organized thematically, Unfolding Histories lets the documents tell the history of Cape Ann including some often-neglected experiences and perspectives. The exhibition is designed to appeal to both scholars, looking to deepen their understanding of life for the disenfranchised in colonial America and the early Republic, as well as for local residents looking to appreciate the many factors that have shaped the place. Archival records depict the political and social structures of the nation before its founding up to 1900 and offer informative, enriching windows into the region that became a haven for some of America’s most renowned artists and writers.

“From the start, exhibition planners realized that getting everyday people excited about fragile scraps of paper and hard-to-read penmanship would be no easy task,” says Martha Oaks, Cape Ann Museum’s Curator. “As such, it was decided early on that the exhibition would be organized around broad themes that tell untold stories, uncover hidden histories, and highlight experiences of everyday people on Cape Ann. Ten themes were selected: African American history, charity and welfare, education, Native American history, literary imagination, religion, temperance, transportation, wartime, and women’s history.”

Guest curator for Unfolding Histories is Dr. Molly O’Hagan Hardy, Director for Digital and Book History Initiatives at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. A full color catalog, written by Dr. Hardy, will accompany the exhibition.

For more information about the exhibition and related programming, please visit the Museum’s website capeannmuseum.org

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