1846: Benjamin Lincoln Ball to Abel Ball

This fascinating letter was written by Benjamin Lincoln (“B. L.”) Ball (1820-1859), the son of Dr. Stephen Ball (1767-1850) and Lydia Lincoln (1780-1866) of Northborough, Worcester county, Massachusetts. B. L. wrote this letter to his older brother Abel Ball (1810-1876). Benjamin was an 1844 graduate of the Harvard Medical School. Abel received his medical degree from Bowdoin College in 1837. Both of the brothers specialized in the field of dentistry and by 1846, they had entered a joint practice (with two others) at No. 34 Tremont Row in Boston where they manufactured artificial teeth.

Notice published in the Boston Evening Transcript on 15 Feb 1847

In this letter to his brother, “B. L.” describes with significant detail his trip to Washington City to attend the Great National Fair which opened on 20 May 1846 at the newly completed Patent Office. This was the first National Fair for the exhibition of American manufacturers held in the Nation’s Capitol and we learn from the official catalogue published for that event that “B. L. Ball of Boston” was one of the exhibitors. His was exhibit No. 378 — “a case of artificial teeth.”

“B. L.” mentions his traveling companion “Sarah” whom I assume was his younger sister Sarah Fearing Ball (1828-1925).

Most intersting in this letter is the account by B. L. of his visit to the “President’s House” to attend a levee given by President Polk and his wife who apparently worked the room full of guests — many of them American manufacturers like himself — in town for the National Fair.

A web search for biographical material on Dr. Ball revealed that he had more than an interest in the burgeoning field of dentistry and orthodontics. He apparently loved hiking in the mountains and traveling the world. He was known to have traveled through Asia in 1848, 1849 and 1850 where he visiting the Alps on his way home from the East. He seems to have been the first American to make an ascent of a snow peak in the Alps other than Mont Blanc. He recorded his travels and authored at least two books in the mid-1850’s: Rambles in Eastern Asia (1855) and Three Days on the White Mountains (1856) — the latter publication detailing his “perilous adventure” of attempting to climb Mount Washington (in the White Mountains of New Hampshire) during winter when he nearly froze to death. His book became a favorite of early-day mountain hiker enthusiasts such as Henry David Thoreau.

B. L.’s cenotaph is etched on his parents headstone in Massachusetts but tells us he died in Chiriquí, Panama on 11 December 1859. I could find no explanation for his death in Central America but I assume he was on yet another adventure — perhaps to California.

In closing the letter, B. L. makes a reference to “excitement” in Washington with respect to the “Mexican affairs.” Historians will remember that a few days previous to this letter, President Polk requested Congress to declare war on Mexico in response to the unprovoked attack on Gen. Zachary Taylor’s soldiers in the disputed zone north of the Rio Grande River.

The recently completed U.S. Patent Office — site of the Great National Fair in May 1846


Washington [City]
Tuesday, 19th May 1846

Broth[er] A.,

Mrs. Polk “can carry on a flirtation with most anyone in the room.” (BLB)

We arrived here last eve Monday from Baltimore where we spent Sunday and are boarding at Mrs. Potter’s — wife of the late Dr. [Nathaniel] Potter, Baltimore. ‡ This eve we have just returned from the President’s House where we had a very pleasant time. Mr. [Charles] Hudson — representative from Westminster [Massachusetts] accompanied and introduced us. We found Mr. Polk and wife very agreeable and affable. She with a little bouquet in her hand can carry on a flirtation with most anyone in the room. You would not distinguish them from the rest of the company present. On account of the fair, there were a great many more in [the room] than usual. To my address that the room was very much crowded this eve, she said, “Yes, many more than she could expect,” and that she was obliged to then open the other rooms and was delighted to see so many. She talked so fast that I could hardly get in a word for my own defense. Mr. [James] Buchanan, Mr. [John] Slidell, Gen. [Sam] Houston, Mr. [Richard] Pakenham, and other Lions were present, most of whom we had the pleasure of an introduction, none of whom were at all unapproachable.

C. J. Ingersoll — “the most serpent-looking head I ever saw.” (BLB)

Today Mr. [William H.] Dunkinson ¹ showed us over and about the Capitol. We found nothing of interest in the debates today although we spent some time in listening, both in the House and Senate. C. J. Ingersoll ² — [the] one who made the attack upon Webster’s character — has got a head which when you look at him reminds you of a black snake. The most serpent-looking head I ever saw. He was at the President’s [House] this eve, laughed, talked, and appeared as though no odium rested upon him for the attack, but on the contrary, as if he had been raised one step higher in the public estimation by it. We fell in with a Mr. & Mrs. Rendall from Boston at Baltimore with whom we are going to Mt. Vernon. He keeps in Pearl Street.

Today, Wednesday 20th, we have been to the Navy Yard and Patent Office.

Mr. Southworth † has gone to Rio Janiero — absconded and left his wife here.

We have plenty of green peas and strawberries. The fair does not open till tomorrow or next day. so many goods &c. sent in that they cannot get ready. I met Capt. Baker ³ in [the] street here from Hingham. I suppose he has some things for the fair.

Sarah is well & [in] good spirits. It is now getting to be pretty warm. Considerable excitement in regard to Mexican affairs.

Sarah sends love to all. Says she enjoys traveling very much. We shall stop in Philadelphia one day on [our] way back. My regards to E. and all that we are well and constantly moving and changing somewhere.

Yours, — B. L. Ball

¹ William H. Dunkinson (1812-1879) grew up in St. Mary’s county, Maryland, the son of a slave-holding planter. He married Anne Barney Williams in December 1836 and resided in the Washington D. C. area where he practiced medicine. In 1846, Dunkinson was elected into the Maryland House of Delegates representing his home district of St. Mary’s.

² Charles Jared Ingersoll (1782-1862) was a Representative from Pennsylvania.

³ John Baker (b. @ 1780) was a manufacturer of upholstery trimmings, cords, tassels, etc. in Hingham, Plymouth county, Massachusetts. He partnered with Barnabas Lincoln in the firm from 1836 until January 1846 when he continued the business with his son Abner. His exhibit at the National Fair was No. 30 — “a number of handsome specimens of upholstery, consisting of fringes, bullion tassels, gimp, frog-holders, etc. etc.”

† This was most likely Albert Sands Southworth (1811-1894) who produced some of the finest portrait dageuerrotypes. His studio was at 51-2 Tremont Row and Dr. Ball’s Office was at 34 Tremont Row. He was married in November 1842 to Louise Roxana Dwight.

‡ Dr. Nathaniel Potter (1770-1843) was the founder of the University of Maryland Medical School. He died suddenly during a fit of coughing on 2 January 1843. His widow (his second wife) was Henrietta M. (Ford) Potter.

Advertisement for the National Fair in Washington (1846)


Griff View All →

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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