Revolution 250 Podcast

Polly Sumner: Witness to the Boston Tea Party

August 22, 2023 Richard C. Wiggin Season 4 Episode 34
Revolution 250 Podcast
Polly Sumner: Witness to the Boston Tea Party
Show Notes Transcript

Can a fashion doll from England find happiness and friendship in Colonial America?  Among the cargo carried to Boston on ships bringing "the detested tea," was a doll that has become known as the "Polly Sumner Doll" named for its original owner.   She was purchased by a young woman in Boston, Polly Sumner, and her younger sister named the doll for the purchaser.  For five generations children in this family played with the doll, and took her to see some historic events--the Battle of Bunker Hill and Lafayette's visit in 1824.  Since 1886, Polly Sumner has been part of the collection of the Old South Meeting House or the Bostonian Society, and visiting children would write to her.  Now Richard C. Wiggin has told Polly's story in a children's book, Polly Sumner:  Witness to the Boston Tea Party.

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 Hello, everyone.
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 Welcome to the Revolution 250 podcast.
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 I am Bob Allison.
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 I chair the Rev 250 advisory group.
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 We are a collaborative effort among 70 organizations in Massachusetts looking at ways to commemorate the beginnings of American independence.
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 And our guest today is Richard C. Wiggin, Rick Wiggin.
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 is the past captain historian of the Lincoln Minuteman.
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 He's also formerly the director of the Bostonian Society, an historical organization in downtown Boston.
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 He's done audio tours for the Freedom Trail and for the Minuteman Historical Park.
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 He's someone who's had a career in the private sector before really getting the history bug and doing this in a big way.
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 He wrote a wonderful book, Embattled Farmers, Campaigns and Profiles of Revolutionary Soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts.
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 But also the book we're really here to talk about is Polly Sumner, Witness to the Boston Tea Party.
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 So, Rick, thank you for joining us.
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 Well, thank you, Bob.
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 I'm delighted to be here.
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 So who is Polly Sumner?
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 Well, Polly Sumner is a doll who actually arrived in Boston on one of the Tea Party ships.
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 This is actually a real doll.
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 She is part of the collection of revolutionary spaces, has been for 130 years.
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 Prior to that, she was in the same Boston family for five generations.
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 So she's been around.
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 So she certainly has.
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 So she started off not to be a child's doll, but a fashion doll.
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 Well, yes, she came to Boston as a fashion doll, presumably
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 And the term fashion doll is not a precise term, but presumably she was sent over to generate sales for the latest styles in London to solicit orders for them, and the dresses would be then crafted for the ladies who wanted that particular style.
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 She's like a small mannequin.
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 Like a small mannequin, sure.
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 It was the way of doing business for many years until magazines and other visual forms were generated.
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 So she's on one of the tea ships, and then she's actually unloaded the day of the tea party, or I think put on display in the window of the shop.
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 Well, the precise details are unclear, Bob, but yeah, she was on one of the ships.
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 She was on one of the ships.
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 We're not sure exactly which ship she was on.
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 According to her provenance, she was unloaded at some point in time, probably actually before the Tea Party, and was taken up to a shop on Corn Hill, which is now Washington Street, and put on display there.
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 So she's right around the old State House.
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 Around the old State House, that's correct.
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 Actually, probably closer to Old South Meeting House, but...
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 But thereabouts, yes.
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 And, but she doesn't, so she comes into the possession of one family you mentioned.
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 Can you tell us a bit about them?
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 So shortly after the Tea Party, which I say she was a witness of because according to the provenance, she was able to see the colonists gather at the old state house and preliminary to marching down to the ships.
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 but shortly after the Tea Party, she was purchased by a woman named Polly Sumner, who was from a prominent Boston family, the same Sumner as Charles Sumner, who was later a senator who was caned in the Capitol building in the Senate chamber.
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 And also Bostonians will recognize the name of the tunnel Sumner.
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 So Polly Sumner, the original, the real person, purchased the doll from the shop, took her home to Roxbury, and her sister decided that the doll needed to be named after her.
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 So the doll became known as Polly Sumner.
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 And so then was there a child involved?
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 Was Polly Sumner the mother?
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 owner the dollar the sister the new owner the doll was an adult her sister was about how old well
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 Bob, if you start quizzing those precise details, we'll find that the genealogy doesn't quite match the provenance.
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 I'm sorry, but the thing is the children are playing with the doll.
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 The children are playing with the doll.
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 And Polly bought the doll for her, presumably at that time, unborn child.
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 She was pregnant.
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 But there seems to be, as I've looked at the genealogy,
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 There seems to be a little bit of confusion about dates and names of the kids.
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 But at least according to the story, she was bought from this shop that was displaying fine English goods by Polly Sumner for her unborn child.
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 So she wasn't thinking, there's a nice dress I'd like to purchase.
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 She's thinking, there's a doll I'd like to have my unborn child wear.
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 That's, yes, that seems to be the case.
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 And we'll try to differentiate between the historical record and the story that is told very well in the book because they're both really compelling and they don't want to bleed the two together.
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 As you can certainly appreciate, Bob, part of, one of the difficult jobs for historians is to distinguish
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 the actual facts from the stories and the myths that come down to us.
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 And in this case, we have a very, very old doll, the provenance of which says that she came on the Tea Party ship.
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 purchased by Polly Sumner.
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 And then she subsequently witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill from a rooftop in Roxbury.
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 Oh, my goodness.
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 Did the Sumner family live in Roxbury?
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 Well, actually, Polly Sumner, the real person, was actually married.
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 And her married name was Williams.
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 But yes, they lived in Roxbury.
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 She is purported to have been on the top of the Ahmoudi Mansion, which is one of Roxbury's very old and celebrated houses, which is where she watched the Battle of Bunker Hill.
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 So someone in the family took her up to the roof at the time of the battle to see this happening?
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 This would have been the real Polly Sumner's sister, Amy.
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 Amy, okay.
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 This is amazing.
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 It's an amazing story so far about this doll who's witnessing all of this.
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 And then subsequently she's, as you say, five generations of this family will treasure this doll as children.
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 And how does it, so I'm sure there were other stories you could have told in the book, or maybe you'll have subsequent volumes, which we'll talk about further things that Polly sees.
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 So Bob, we've had to, for this particular book, we've had to really deal with her revolutionary period, and it runs through the Declaration of Independence.
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 But what's remarkable about this doll is her history
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 subsequent history and the fact that as a museum piece at the Old State House, she has appealed to young kids and to such an extent that she has actually received through the years a fair amount of fan mail.
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 That's amazing.
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 So she was donated to the Bostonian Society in the 1880s, shortly after the Society was founded.
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 She actually, she was exhibited at the All South Meeting House.
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 Let me back up a little bit.
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 She was played with by five generations of the family up through the, or until just before, actually just after the Civil War.
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 But she was put away in storage for a while during the Civil War, after which Mary Williams Langley, who had played with Polly as a kid,
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 in the late teens and early 20s.
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 Those are years, not ages of Mary.
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 She played with Polly during the 20s as a kid and had actually held Polly up to cheer for Lafayette during his grand tour in 1824.
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 But now at the time of the Civil War, she's in her 50s or 60s.
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 She retrieves Polly from storage as the family storage and goes about repairing her limbs and restoring her.
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 You can appreciate that after five generations, Polly was probably pretty well worn and battered.
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 So, Rick, what's Polly made of?
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 I'm sorry?
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 What is Polly made of?
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 Polly's made of wood.
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 The record says she's oak, but she appears actually probably to be linden rather than oak.
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 But she's wood.
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 After the Civil War, her broken arms and legs were replaced by wood, but they were wooden originally, and they were replaced by leather arms and legs.
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 She was redressed.
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 She was given a new outfit and her face was restored, repainted.
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 So Mary Williams Langley now, who did this repair in the 70s, had this very old doll with a very, very strong historical history and ties to the family.
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 So she takes this doll and puts it on display
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 in the Old South Meeting House in the 70s and 80s.
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 She pulls the doll from display in order for her grandchildren to play with the doll.
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 And the doll generates a fair amount of notoriety as a result of this.
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 She's displayed at the Old South Meeting House.
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 She's displayed at the Tremont Temple.
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 She's displayed at a church fair in Roxbury.
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 And she's displayed at a women's club luncheon on the North Shore.
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 She gets a firm on a press.
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 And so the world starts to learn something about this doll who arrived in Boston on one of the Tea Party ships.
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 And so in 1919, the family donates the doll to the Bostonian Society.
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 That's fascinating.
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 So we're talking with Rick Wiggin, who is the author of Polly Sumner, Witness to the Boston Tea Party, about this amazing doll.
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 And children's toys usually don't last more than, well, a generation would be lucky for a lot of them.
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 So the fact that we have a doll from this period is somewhat amazing.
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 And then that she has this remarkable provenance that she's been witness to so much, which is partly the reason, I think, why the family
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 saved her.
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 But it's interesting that Mary Williams Langley puts her on display but then pulls her out so her grandchildren can enjoy the doll too.
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 It's still a doll.
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 There's this wonderful picture of the doll with Mary Langley's grandchild.
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 There's some question actually about
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 I've identified the individual as Annie Williams Langley.
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 The curator of the Revolutionary Spaces has identified her as Mary, Annie's sister.
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 So we're not entirely sure exactly, but it's sort of evidence of the journey that Polly has taken over the years.
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 And then as you said, children, when she's been on display, children have connected with her and written letters to her and felt that, you know, a doll is real to a child.
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 And so this is part of the world.
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 So what are they saying to her when they're writing to her?
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 Uh, well, Bob, kids live in the present.
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 Uh, they, they haven't, don't really have a good concept of the past.
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 And so,
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 teaching kids history is is a sort of a difficult proposition and i think why i think paulie's power in this regard is that she she's authentic and she she is the personification of of the past and the kids can look at her because she's real she exists uh and they can understand the stories that she has to tell because
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 because she can relate to them on their level, the fact that she still exists in the present.
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 That's right.
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 And she's a tangible, it's different from simply being a tangible thing that was there.
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 She has a face and can then, has eyes, so she is a witness to a child.
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 So they're writing to her because she represents something or she was a witness to something that maybe they're just learning about.
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 Bob, I've watched my grandchildren play with their toys, whether they're human or not, or human figures or not.
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 They talk to the toys, and I think they believe the toys talk back to them.
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 The toys certainly do, yes.
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 Yeah, and so the imagination is wonderful, and Polly simply brings that out in the kids, and the story gets told.
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 So she's on display at the Old State House, and then for a long time she's not on display.
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 And you become, how did you first learn about the doll?
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 Bob, I was, for a brief period, I was executive director of the Bostonian Society, which had the doll in the collection.
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 And we used her for fundraising, actually.
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 But we couldn't, and that was a special situation, we couldn't put her on display because how do you safely put a 250-year-old doll on display?
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 It's very, very difficult to do, and inconsistent with standards of conservation of artifacts.
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 But nevertheless, we were,
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 We were bringing her out for this fundraiser.
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 The curator of the collection was telling me about this doll.
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 And I'm thinking to myself, well, that's kind of neat, kind of wonderful.
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 When she said that she was the recipient of letters from kids through the years, that just sort of blew me away.
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 It was astounding to think that this inanimate museum piece would actually attract fan mail from the kids.
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 And so I decided at that point in time that what we really needed to do was to leverage that power through a children's book.
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 And we went out looking for children's authors to write the story.
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 We never found one that was consistent with or that we felt could capture Polly's personality and what she represented consistent with the integrity of the history.
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 That was, you know, we needed to really do both things to be effective.
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 So after I left the Bostonian Society, I decided that, you know, while I had no particular experience with children's literature, I decided that if this was going to get
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 So I did.
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 And you found a terrific illustrator too, Keith Lavazza.
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 Can you tell us a bit about that process?
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 Well, as you certainly know, the illustrators are matched up typically with authors through the publisher.
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 And that was the case here.
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 Keith happens to be a local boy who grew up in the area.
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 He talks a lot about being in the north end of Boston where his dad was a fisherman.
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 And he now lives in Plymouth.
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 But he's a terrific, terrific illustrator, terrific author.
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 And he did a phenomenal job with some of the illustrations in the book.
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 And he was a delight to work with.
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 He was very, very concerned about getting the historical parts of the –
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 story correct in the illustrations.
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 He was so concerned about accuracy, historical accuracy that at one point he was fussing over whether the streets were paved with cobblestones as we know them today or with pebble stones as was popular at the time.
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 We had the opportunity to tour the replica T-ships
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 so that we have an illustration of the hold of the ship that she was in.
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 And we think that's completely accurate in terms of the way it's depicted.
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 Is it cobblestones or pebbles?
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 Well, Bob, maybe you should tell me.
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 We'll have to read the book.
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 I think we actually avoided that question in the illustrations.
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 But there are some streets, old streets, that have cobblestones, and there are smaller streets that have cobblestones.
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 We're talking with Rick Wiggin, author of Polly Sumner, Witness to the Boston Tea Party.
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 And also to get around the problem of not being able to keep a 250-year-old doll on display, you've had a replica made.
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 Yeah, we did.
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 A couple of years ago, Nat Shidely, who's currently the president of Revolutionary Spaces, which is the successor to the Bostonian Society, he commented to me that Polly represented a real conundrum because they couldn't display her.
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 Of course, I understood this totally.
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 So I've worked with them to have a... So they've commissioned a replica so that now Polly can actually be displayed.
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 It would be nice if it were the authentic Polly, but the replica is a very, very good doll.
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 She was made by a very professional woodcarver, a doll maker in Arkansas, commissioned by Revolutionary Spaces.
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 And so...
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 So now in time for the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Polly 2 is currently on display at the Old South Meeting House.
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 Well, that's great, that's great.
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 So the tagline for the book, or one of the taglines is, can a fashion doll from England find friendship and happiness in colonial America?
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 Does Polly find friendship and happiness in colonial America?
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 I don't want you to give away the plot.
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 So I think she finds happiness in colonial America.
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 She certainly has found happiness in the relationship she's developed with the kids in modern America.
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 And I think she represents, as I said, she's the tangible link for kids to this history.
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 And what did you learn about writing for children in the process, in the long process of doing this?
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 It's a very different process than writing an adult book.
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 It took many years to do it.
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 And I had wonderful help from a lot of very, very talented individuals, but without which I would never have been able to do it.
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 So have you seen a response to it?
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 I mean, it's a long process where you're working on the book, and then now it's out there.
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 So what's the response been to the Polysomnir story in this new version?
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 Yeah, so far it's been very good, Bob.
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 I've been very pleased.
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 It's available online at a number of places, and it seems to be selling reasonably well.
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 It's available in a number of places along Boston's Freedom Trail.
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 It's available at the Visitor Center on the Common and at Old State House and also at Meeting House and the Tea Party Ships and Museums.
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 And we're hoping that it will generate some further distribution and sites along in historic Boston.
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 But it's been very well received.
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 Thank you.
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 That's good.
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 That's good.
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 It's a good book.
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 And Jonathan tells me that Nat Shidely is going to have the original Polly conserved so she can be put on display more frequently, which is definitely a big step, probably because of your book and your work on this.
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 I think that's terrific.
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 Now, again, you end her story in the book with the Declaration of Independence.
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 Is there thought of having subsequent editions of the book or further adventures of Polly Sumner?
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 Well, Bob, perhaps.
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 I'm not sure at this point how to do that.
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 But, you know, as I mentioned that she waved to Lafayette,
 23:53.662 --> 23:56.463
 during his grand tour in the 20s, 1820s.
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 She is purported to have watched the Civil War regiments from Massachusetts leave from the Boston Common, head south to the war.
 24:10.647 --> 24:13.308
 So this doll has been around.
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 I think the question really is, can I or can somebody else pick this story up and tell it
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 faithfully to the history that the doll has actually experienced.
 24:30.901 --> 24:32.862
 What kind of outfit is she wearing now?
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 You mentioned that after the Civil War, Mary Williams Langley gives her a new outfit.
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 So how is she dressed now as she would have been in 1773?
 24:43.049 --> 24:43.769
 No, she's not.
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 She's actually dressed in a relatively modern style dress.
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 Over the years, she's been dressed and redressed
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 Shortly after the revolution or shortly after the Boston Tea Party, she was redressed in a George Washington-like outfit.
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 And subsequent to that, she has appeared periodically in the latest American styles.
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 So, you know, each of her owners over the years has redressed her appropriately.
 25:21.889 --> 25:27.591
 That's interesting, very much like each generation retells the story of the revolution in its own way.
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 Sure, sure.
 25:32.973 --> 25:38.554
 So there's a replica of her on display, or sometimes on display, and there may be the original.
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 Any thought of having more of these made so that other children can enjoy Polly Sumner?
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 Is she going to remain at the old state house or old self-meeting house?
 25:50.370 --> 25:56.792
 Well, I think the, I don't know how to answer that question, Bob.
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 I'm not going to make more Polysomnus.
 25:59.873 --> 26:03.994
 Yeah, you've certainly done more than your part by telling her story.
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 There is a plan, however, to write and produce a children's play
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 about Polly Sumner, which the playwright and producer is hoping and planning to have done by the actual anniversary date of the Boston Tea Party, which is December 16th of this year, is the 250th anniversary.
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 So we'll see how that develops, but
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 That would be great.
 26:38.294 --> 26:48.619
 And just think about at this time, she was probably in 250 years ago, she was in London, preparing to be shipped to Boston, hoping someone would buy this dress.
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 Or has a much different trajectory.
 26:54.762 --> 26:55.682
 Sure, sure.
 26:55.742 --> 26:56.123
 26:57.850 --> 27:12.294
 I'm also thinking, and I'm not sure if this isn't either your role or mine, that potentially she could be used as a fundraising tool, as she was when you first encountered her at the Bostonian Society for Children's Programming.
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 And really getting kids connected with the story, I think, is the essential thing that we were talking about earlier.
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 She's such a powerful means of doing that.
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 Well, that's my hope.
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 And that's why I wrote the book.
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 It's why we tried to find another author who'd write it originally.
 27:32.482 --> 27:38.648
 The story she tells is a story that kids sort of naturally connect with.
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 And in the book, we have Polly herself telling the story.
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 It's a first person story she tells of her adventures.
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 And I think the kids,
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 The kids can relate to that.
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 Through the years, this picture that has just been put up is Gloria Boser from Baldwin, New York, who for six years carried on a correspondence with Polly.
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 She sent up her allowance to help with Polly's upkeep.
 28:08.219 --> 28:17.245
 And there's a very fascinating article in the Boston Globe there that was just up on the screen from the 30s about all this.
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 That's amazing.
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 It really is a terrific way, or Polly is a terrific way, ambassador for us to get the word out and get kids invested in the story, interested in the story.
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 Maybe in ways they wouldn't be simply by seeing tea being dumped overboard, which is an exciting thing.
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 But here you have this connection with someone who experienced it.
 28:41.487 --> 28:45.310
 And that's, I think, the critical thing that you've really captured in the book.
 28:47.017 --> 28:47.958
 Indeed, indeed.
 28:48.358 --> 28:59.146
 I've just been informed about a school in Illinois, another school, who has adopted this book as part of their curriculum.
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 And so I'm hoping that this will actually be the case, that it's a way that kids can learn what they really need to learn, particularly in our divided country today.
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 We need to really...
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 bear down on our historical roots and the things that connect us as people.
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 That's a very good point.
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 And the doll is certainly a way of doing that.
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 And the story is a way of doing that and having this root into the story.
 29:33.854 --> 29:35.436
 That's a terrific idea.
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 Again, as the parent of boys, I don't know a whole lot about what girls play with, but there was the American Girl.
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 There is the American Girl craze or the dolls that have a wide following.
 29:52.887 --> 29:56.789
 Again, probably people in the audience know a lot more about this than I do.
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 And more about this than I do also, Bob.
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 But yeah, the American Girl doll company has had a...
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 periodically has had a colonial doll.
 30:12.933 --> 30:21.339
 Those are fictional stories that they create to go along with these dolls they create.
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 What I think is fascinating about this is that Polly is real.
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 She's authentic.
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 And there's an authenticity here that these other dolls don't really have.
 30:35.134 --> 30:35.654
 That's true.
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 And again, we're both speaking in a summer when the biggest movie has been about a doll from the 1950s, 1960s and so on.
 30:45.538 --> 30:51.100
 But there's a certain moral authenticity here that it's not, you know, Polly Sumner is part of this world.
 30:51.180 --> 30:57.582
 It's not Polly's world that we're allowed to peek into, that she is part of this much bigger world.
 30:59.127 --> 31:01.548
 Sure, sure.
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 Again, for me, that's been the driving force for all of this is that Polly can speak to the kids.
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 The kids can relate to Polly.
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 Whereas a lot of kids have difficulty with history because history is typically taught as names, dates, and facts.
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 And there's nothing there that necessarily the kids can relate to.
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 But Polly gives them that.
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 Polly is relatable.
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 Polly's real.
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 She's there.
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 She's a human face.
 31:38.460 --> 31:46.603
 And they can speak to Polly, and Polly speaks back to them.
 31:48.018 --> 31:48.619
 This is great.
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 We've been talking with Rick Wiggin, Richard C. Wiggin, the author of Holly Sumner, Witness to the Boston Tea Party, which actually is a true story.
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 You have the doll who was part of this.
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 She was on one of the ships with the tea.
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 She sort of would have been in a shop across from the Old South Meeting House where she would have seen the procession.
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 She was actually in the window because that's where you would put a doll on display.
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 And also a feminine face, not only a feminine face, but a young girl's face in what's become very much an adult male story about the Boston Tea Party.
 32:28.525 --> 32:56.728
 and the revolution and she connects us with this past in such a way that it's not just the doll but it's this family the has her and the little girls who played with her and as part of this um big world so really want to thank you rick for bringing polly back to life for us and urging the revolutionary spaces to get her back on display and get more kids connected with this incredible story
 32:57.898 --> 33:21.569
 I think it's important, Bob, because history is so critical to us as a people, and so I think that we need these kids to relate to history, to understand how and why things have happened, and to have faith in the institutions of America.
 33:22.129 --> 33:22.509
 33:23.930 --> 33:26.051
 Well, thank you so much for doing this, and I want to
 33:26.798 --> 33:32.662
 thank Jonathan Lane, our producer, and our listeners around the country and around the world.
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 You know, Rick, when we started off on doing these podcasts, we imagined we'd have folks like you tuning in, but we have friends all around the country, all around the world tuning in, and I want to thank our listeners in Parkton, Maryland, and in Sotus, New York, Denver, Colorado, Davenport, Florida, Franklin, Tennessee, and Rehoboth, Massachusetts, and all places beyond, between, and if you
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 are in one of these places and you would like one of our Revolution 250 refrigerator magnets or other artifacts, send Jonathan Lane an email, jlane at
 34:08.116 --> 34:15.782
 And we'll put up a link to the website where you can get your copy of the Polly Sumner book to share at
 34:15.822 --> 34:16.923
 That's easy to remember.
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 And look forward to hearing more about the doll and her adventures.
 34:22.833 --> 34:28.203
 And now we will be piped out with a tune Polly would have heard, which is The Road to Boston.
 34:28.965 --> 34:29.445
 Thanks, Ray.
 34:29.486 --> 34:30.087
 Thanks, everyone.