A slice of life

George Bruce Upton
George Bruce Upton (1804-1874). NEHGS Collection

For as long as I’ve had my present office on the Society’s third floor, I’ve looked through my open door at a portrait of George Bruce Upton (1804–1874), the Society’s vice president between 1866 and 1874. I will confess that my eye did not linger over Mr. Upton’s portrait, as the representation does not appeal to me; on the other hand, immersed as I was this winter in my sabbatical project, once I noticed his nameplate I realized that Mr. Upton and his family appear frequently in the Gray diary:[1]

Manchester, Massachusetts, Friday, 20 July 1860: Nellie Gordon[2] invited Mary[3] and me to drive yest[erday] p.m. It cleared off finely, and we drove to Mr. Upton’s at Beverly – happily for Mary, Nellie Upton[4] was at home. Mrs. U.[5] was driving, but Mr. U. took us round the woods and to the bowling alley – a thing I had never seen before – so he insisted on my making my first bowl there, which I did most successfully, knocking down the 10 men in 2 rolls!

Manchester, Saturday, 28 July 1860: The young people had a delightful day at Mr. Upton’s, until Mary lost my little mosaic pin from her collar. She knew I prized it very highly, dear old “grandma Jackson’s”[6] bridal present to me. It was foolish in me to have put it in her collar, but the carriage was at the door and her pin up stairs – I knew this had a good clasp – and so I let it go. She lost it after the bath there and it spoiled the rest of her visit, poor child!

Boston, Sunday, 17 March 1861: Yesterday the boys took great pains to model a snow man in the front yard – and built a fort which he was supposed to guard. In the evening when Nelly Upton went out to go home she came back at once with the news that he was decapitated! This was a great grief – but I gave them permission to build another head on him – and to-day he forces a smile from every passer by.

Boston, Friday, 16 January 1863: Frank[7] escorted Mary and I to Mary Upton’s[8] bridal reception on Wednesday last – Sam[9] was not well enough to go. It was very crowded & hot – a handsome supper & plenty of flowers. The bride looked very lovely, though her dress a high-necked, long-sleeved white Moiré antique would have been very trying to most people.

Boston, Wednesday, 9 December 1863: Frank went to Mrs. J.A. Lowell’s[10] ball on Thursday last. His first ball; and he about the youngest man there – he knew some of the ladies – but did not dance; he and some [Harvard] classmates amused themselves till one o’clock looking on. F.C. escorted Lily Upton[11] down to supper – and came home soon after, having to be up early next morning for Cambridge. He looked very well in his handsome dress-suit – his first appearance in a dress coat! But how every thing costs, now-a-days – that suit cost $50!!

Boston, Thursday, 31 March 1864: The fourth day of this long storm. We were to have taken tea with Mrs. Dixwell,[12] but Arthur[13] is threatened with measles, so we could not go; Mary takes tea with Nellie Upton instead, who starts for Europe next Saturday…

I have had painful letters to read and answer to-day, a bootless duty, which must be discharged according to truth & conscience, and is sure to do more harm than good, giving offense which rankles long, and often cuts deep – for one’s own views and impressions however conscientiously thought out, do not necessarily recommend themselves to others as we grope about, and how little we know ourselves or others.

Boston, Sunday, 16 September 1866: Nelly Upton made us a long call yesterday – and talked a good deal about her sister Mary Young’s[14] death, and of the poor little delicate baby she left. Mr. Upton has bought a large farm in S. Framingham – among the hills, with a pond, a river, and a brook – this will be their future summer home.

Mrs. Upton cannot bear the sea-air, and so we shall have them no more at Beverly. The operation on her eyes … happily proved successful, and she can now use them carefully.

A later reference, to George B. Upton’s son Bruce and step-granddaughter, appears in 1873:

Boston, Saturday, 18 January 1873: Genevieve Rivers, step-daughter to Mr. G. Bruce Upton,[15] ran away with an Irish journeyman cabinet maker, at Milton, a week ago. She professed Romanism, after breaking her engagement with an English Methodist parson years ago; and interested herself in the Romish Sunday school at M. and there became acquainted with this man. His father we hear was a gentleman by birth in the old country, who ran away with a “maid of low degree,” the mother of this man, who is said to be very handsome. All sorts of horrid stories are afloat about the matter, which is distressing & disgraceful enough in itself…


[1] From the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, NEHGS.

[2] A daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Charles Gordon of Boston; Mrs. Gordon was an Upham, a family connection of the Grays.

[3] The diarist’s daughter Mary Clay Gray (1848–1923).

[4] The Uptons’ youngest daughter.

[5] Ann Coffin Hussey (1807–1881) was married to George Bruce Upton 1826–74. In 1860, the Uptons lived at 60 Bowdoin Street, across from the Grays at 1 Beacon Hill Place.

[6] Susan Kemper (1758-1846) married Dr. David Jackson of Philadelphia; several of her relatives lived in Boston.

[7] The diarist’s eldest son, Francis Calley Gray (1846–1904).

[8] Mary Upton (1839–1866) married Alexander Young on 14 January.

[9] Mrs. Gray’s second son, Samuel Shober Gray (1849–1926).

[10] Elizabeth Cabot Putnam (1807–1881) married John Amory Lowell as his second wife in 1829.

[11] Mary and Nellie Upton’s sister Elizabeth Upton.

[12] Elizabeth Ingersoll Bowditch (1823–1888) married John James Dixwell in 1846.

[13] Arthur Dixwell (1853–1924).

[14] See entry for 16 January 1863.

[15] Geraldine Ipolyte Russell (1819–1885) was married to George Rivers 1839-54 and to George Bruce Upton (Jr.) in 1858.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

5 thoughts on “A slice of life

  1. Your first excerpt here gives the liveliness to Mr. Upton that his formal portrait fails to do. I love Mrs Gray’s delightful account of his introducing the ladies to bowling! I am enjoying getting to know Mrs. Gray and her family and friends through your series- like receiving a passed-along family letter as my family use to do (and still does via email, come to think of it). I do hope you will be able to update Miss River’s life adventures at some point. Mrs. Gray is clearly a compassionate and insightful woman, but I wonder if class prejudices are showing through a bit on this one. A young couple in love may well elope knowing they faced such negative attitudes about their union. I confess I hope that things worked out well for them. (For relaxation right now I am reading Maeve Binchy’s books set in Ireland. I am a hopeless romantic. I also cry at movies.)

  2. I see in our Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910 database that William L. Shields and Rosaline G. Rivers were married in Boston 11 January 1873. He was 24, a cabinetmaker born in Ireland and the son of Patrick and Mary Shields; she was 23, born in Providence, the daughter of George and Geraldine I. Rivers.

    I would agree with you that Mrs. Gray’s class prejudices do break through in this case: in many ways, she has the world view of a Jane Austen narrator, and, generally, viewed “misalliances” with distaste. On the other hand, she was very much in favor of her cousin Kate Drinker’s marriage to a younger (and presumably less “well-connected”) man, writing with some asperity about Kate’s grandmother’s disapproval of the match, even if Mrs. Shober’s reservations were couched in terms of Kate’s wonderful intelligence and professional prospects. As so often, Mrs. Gray’s views are a moving target, dependent on her knowledge of and proximity to the person or people in the case.

  3. Mrs. Gray writes such charming words, and words so succinctly expressed. Although all of her expressions are quite memorable, this one paragraph stands out for me…

    “I have had painful letters to read and answer to-day, a bootless duty, which must be discharged according to truth & conscience, and is sure to do more harm than good, giving offense which rankles long, and often cuts deep – for one’s own views and impressions however conscientiously thought out, do not necessarily recommend themselves to others as we grope about, and how little we know ourselves or others.”

    Can those feelings or those words be written or spoken any better? Well done Mrs. Gray.

    At that I had to check for any possible connection of my own to Mrs. Gray (and to the venerable George Bruce Upton) – and remote as it might be, I was able to find one if only by the marriage of a distant cousin, Katharine Bigelow Lawrence, who married Augustus Lowell, son of Elizabeth Cabot Putnam. What fun!

    Alas, I think I may not have been able to go bowling with them, or attended any other events, as I daresay I have no $50 suit.

    I look forward to hearing more.


    Jeff Record

  4. I don’t find Mrs. Gray words to reflect class prejudice at all. She was simply a woman of her times. A posited contemporary of Mrs. Gray’s of perhaps a lesser economy would have no doubt found the same things “horrid” such as she did. Those were the times, and I have to consider that any indication of religious or social prejudice, or concerns over marital origins and status, found in Mrs. Gray’s entry for 15 Jan 1873 would have been returned from any class, Roman or Protestant, rich or poor – just perhaps not expressed as well, or expressed somewhat differently.

    I cannot lambaste the old customs with the views of today.- we haven’t done all that much to improve upon them ourselves. In doing so, we exhibit the very class prejudice we often seek so ardently to disassociate ourselves from. My hat is off to Mrs. Gray, and to her points of view being well thought out, customary of the day, and entirely her own.

    J. Record

    1. Thanks, Jeff! She is both a product of her times (born in 1818, after all) and — what makes her voice so interesting — capable of transcending her times. Not always, it’s true, but often enough!

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