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3. The Safety Net

"Dawn of the Century" March & Two-Step, sheet music cover

E.T. Paull, "Dawn of the Century" March & Two-Step sheet music cover. As Sheffield Peabody faced the 20th century, he grappled with changes wrought by the technologies represented here: typewriters, the telegraph, electric streetcars, dynamos, engines, telephones, sewing machines, cameras, printing presses, locomotive, and "horseless carriage" type automobile.

Shortly after New Year’s day of 1901, Sheffield Peabody welcomed his grandson Ray Lewis Peabody into the 20th century.  About to turn 70 years old, Sheffield’s diaries show an increasing self-consciousness about historical change, family genealogy, and his own mortality.  Later this same month, for example, he wrote: “Queen Victoria of English Government, died at 6:30 P.M. Isle of Wight.  Born May 24, 1819. Acceded June 20th, 1837.  Died Jan. 22nd, 1901.  Age 81 yrs., 7 months, 28 days” (22 Jan. 1901).  The formality of this inscription obviously had less to do with any direct impact upon his life than some sense of an era coming to its end.

Perhaps incredible to a contemporary reader, much of Sheffield’s life continued as it always had—he still was cultivating potatoes (in the morning), then mowing and raking (in the afternoon) when he took ill and died a few days later at the age of 84.  Whether this continued physical activity was voluntary or necessary is a complex issue.  The modern safety net of Social Security, Medicare, and so on had not been legislated into existence; still, there were provisions for those in need more subtle than the familiar cliché “we take care of our own.”

This exhibit of Sheffield’s later years explores the infrastructure supporting him in times of need, along with the pleasures of slowing down a bit.  It begins with his responses to the rapidly changing times, then moves on for a look at how he coped with aging and his increasing involvement in domestic life.  Whereas other exhibits in “Peabody Networks” are measured in terms of his sometimes far-ranging travels, this one ends as it does for many of us: not moving so much anymore, reliant upon the love and support of a local community.