The term relic is one that we often associate with medieval saints – it conjures images of beautiful reliquaries built to hold small pieces of wood or bone, imbued with miraculous healing powers. Some of the relics in our collection are religious in nature, such as the crosses carved from the wood of the pulpit and pews of the Federal Street Church, built in 1729 and replaced in 1859. The collection at the Old State House also holds a large number of secular relics, including a root of the tree in Salem where the witches were said to have been hanged and a piece of the tree under which the Treaty of Santiago was signed in 1898.
Several of the secular relics in our collection commemorate Boston’s revolutionary past. Many of these secular relics are wooden, most often made from either the wood of a tree, or from the timbers of an important building. Some of them are unmodified – simply pieces of wood with cards attached explaining their relevance, such as this small piece of wood from the house of the colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), with a card that reads "Chip from the Hutchinson House, Garden Court, built about 1710, sacked 1765, torn down 1832." We also hold a piece of a fence that surrounded the Joseph Warren monument on Bunker Hill in 1794, with a note affixed to it that reads, "Piece of a post from the fence which surrounds the Joseph Warren Monument on Bunker Hill / 1794 / From George W. Forristall."
Other relics of the Revolutionary period were made into useful or decorative items, such as the cups made from parts of the Hancock House. The Hancock house was built for Thomas Hancock (John Hancock’s uncle) between 1734 and 1737 and demolished in 1863. Other parts of this famous mansion were made into thread boxes and other commemorative items that we hold in our collection.
Without the information included in our database, object files, and inscribed on the paper tags, many of these items would be seen as no more than pieces of wood. What is interesting about them comes not from their inherent value or aesthetic appeal, but from what we know (or think we know) about their origins.