Occasionally at the Society’s Library, we come across an item that one of our predecessors put aside as a work-in-progress, usually because identification seemed impossible. The passage of time, of course, makes it even harder to find someone who might recognize an item. On the plus side, we have tools today that can help in ways that were hard to imagine only a few years ago. This advantage was brought home to us recently when we found a set-aside tintype photograph. The subject was apparently a “Yankee Peddler” with his horse-drawn wagon loaded with goods. No one had identified the photo’s time, place, or person.
Luckily, the background of the picture is a storefront with a sign. The picture was obviously printed backwards. (The oddly-shaped edges hint that the tintype’s photographer may have copied an existing photograph.) Scanning and flipping the tintype showed that the storefront’s signs said “J. COSGROVE. W.I. GOODS” and “WHOLE SALE LIQUOR DEALER.” That was not a lot of information to go on, and “W.I. Goods” was an unfamiliar term. After a few false starts, searching for J. Cosgrove on Ancestry.com using “liquor” as a keyword and 1870 Massachusetts as a hypothesized time and place led to an ad in the 1870 Lowell, Massachusetts Directory for J. Cosgrove at 272 Merrimack Street, a wholesale and retail dealer in West-India goods and groceries, as well as wines, liquors, cigars, and ales. It appeared that we had found our photograph’s location.
The alphabetical and grocers’ listings in 1870 revealed that that the proprietor’s name was John. To find the possible time period for our picture, we searched Lowell’s directories back and forward from 1870. (City directories have been digitized by and are available from several online sources; if one source does not have the years needed, it is worth checking for others.) John Cosgrove was listed in the 1849, 1851, and 1853 Lowell Directories as running a boarding house at 208 Merrimack. In the 1855 directory, John Cosgrove started being listed as a grocer at 230 Merrimack (residence at #232). By 1858, Cosgrove was at 270 Merrimack (residence at #272) and finally in 1864, he was at 272 Merrimack (house #274), where his listing stayed through 1874.
The 1870 Census of Lowell's Ward One shows grocer John Cosgrove, age 42, born in Ireland but a citizen of the United States, with $20,000 of real estate and $6,500 in personal goods. Elizabeth Cosgrove, born in Massachusetts, age 20, was keeping house (relationship unspecified). Among others living in the household was John F. Beggs, age 17, no occupation. In 1876, John F. Beggs was operating a grocery at the 272 Merrimack address, advertising himself as the “Successor to John Cosgrove.”
Up to this point, searching was going quite smoothly. All that was left for us to be confident that we had identified the period and place of our tintype was to make sure that John Cosgrove had not opened another grocery in another location. That proved to be the most difficult step. There were plenty of John Cosgroves to trace, but proving whether or not they were the Lowell grocer was not easy. A probate index and a related newspaper article indicated that John of Lowell had probably died in late 1878, but even with that information, searching multiple online indices and going through Lowell death registers did not lead to the right death record. Finally, his death was found recorded in Boston, having taken place at 15 Metropolitan Place on November 16, 1878. Boston City Directories of 1877 and 1878 show that Mrs. John Cosgrove was living at #15 Metropolitan Place. The Boston City Directories of 1875, 1877 and 1878 show no listings for John Cosgrove or his grocery. Indexed Massachusetts directories did not yield an entry for him, either.
Based on our research, we think it fairly safe to say that our picture was taken on Merrimack Street in Lowell (in roughly a city block between #230 and #272, assuming the numbers did not change over the years) in the 1854 - 1874 time period. We have no idea who the peddler was or why the picture ended up in Acton, but we are happy at least to have given the photo some context. Seeing a passing peddler would no doubt have been a familiar experience to people of his time, and the Lowell building probably no longer exists. It is a scene worth preserving.
In the course of trying to confirm the time frame and place of our photograph, we found out more than we had intended about John Cosgrove. If you are a descendant, please contact us; we’ll be happy to share what we found.
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