A Brief Outline of the Life of Ethel Stanwood Bolton by Meredith Marcinkewicz
Mrs. Ethel Stanwood Bolton was an artist, author and antiquarian, well known in Shirley, Fitchburg, and Boston. Mrs. Bolton died 45 years ago, but her work on the early history of Shirley is still the first reference for many researchers.
Mrs. Bolton was born in Boston in 1873. The daughter of a newspaper editor, Mrs. Bolton graduated from Wellesley College in 1894 and was married in 1897 to Charles Knowles Bolton, an historian and author who was the son of two writers. It must have been natural for Ethel to continue writing throughout her life. When Charles and Ethel moved from Boston to the old brick house on Center Road in Shirley, at the turn of the last century, Ethel began writing a book about the hip roofed house and her experiences in making it a suitable place to raise young children. By 1905 their house was featured on the cover of Suburban Country Life. What started off as a summer residence later became a year round home.
While Charles was working as Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, Ethel was serving as Registrar for the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames and writing books about colonial samplers and the early American techniques of making portraits out of wax. While Charles was becoming one of the first Presidents of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Ethel was copying cemetery inscriptions from the old cemetery in Shirley Center and transcribing the diary of an 18th century farmer named James Parker. Both of these were later printed in the New England Genealogical Register and the diary formed the basis for a chapter in what was to become Ethel’s History of Shirley, Upland and Intervales.
At various times in her literary and political career, Mrs. Bolton belonged to the Book-in-Hand Club, the Altrurian Club, the Groton District Women’s Republican Club, the Taxpayers’ Association of Shirley, the Groton Garden Club, the New England Club of Fitchburg, the Fitchburg-Wellesley Club and the Women’s Republican Club of Boston. She was also one of the first women to vote in Shirley after the passage of the 19th amendment.
Mr. and Mrs. Bolton were early collectors of Shaker furniture and crafts and also loved to visit estate sales to pick up bargains. In 1912 they hosted an Open House, at their home in Shirley, for the members of SPNEA. They were two of the first members of Trinity Chapel in Shirley Center, and enjoyed having company over to Sunday tea after worship.
With all this information, less is known about Mrs. Bolton’s artistic tendencies. We do not know if she had any formal art training. Someone once said that she did woodcuts, but the pictures we see in her books are really pen and ink sketches. In 1899 Mrs. Bolton published the History of the Stanwood Family, but did not include any of her own sketches. In 1910 Scotch Irish Pioneers, by Charles K Bolton, was illustrated by Ethel Bolton, with maps, ships, and Irish village views, This may have been the first time her illustrations were published.
In 1914 Shirley Uplands and Intervales, written and illustrated by Mrs. Bolton, gave anecdotes of Shirley history, genealogical information, and the history of many of Shirley’s older homes. Mrs. Bolton took new photos and used old glass negatives as models for her sketches of the homes.
In 1927 Mr. Bolton published his book American Armory . He does not credit his wife with the illustrations, but they look like they could have been hers. In 1929 C. K. Bolton published The Real Founders of New England, with maps and coastal scenes drawn by Ethel. The Shirley Historical Society has a copy of this book as well as some of the original sketches.
In 1931, Mrs. Bolton illustrated the New Year’s letter of the rector of the Old North Church in Boston. In 1935, she illustrated her husbands latest book, Terra Nova, The Northeast Coast Before 1602.
There were many Christmas greetings featuring sketches of various of churches around old England and New England, of course including Trinity Chapel and the First Parish Meetinghouse.
Margaret Frasier, of Ayer, has a Dodge family coat of arms that was drawn by Mrs. Bolton. We don’t know how many other samples of her work may be in the back parlors of Shirley homes, but we do appreciate all that was done by Mrs. Ethel Bolton to preserve these views of Shirley history.