Dr. Nathanael Low (1740-1808), physician and almanac publisher
1786 Dr. Nathanael Low House – 117 Portland Street
This house is part of the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places. Dr. Nathanael Low (1740-1808), a physician and astronomer born in Massachusetts, published Low’s Almanac, one of the publications upon which citizens of the early United States depended for taverns and stagecoach schedules. Low's Almanac also provided astrological information, verse, lore, homilies, recipes, and jokes. During Low’s years in this house, when Portland Street was part of the Boston-to-Portland turnpike, stagecoaches driving right past his door followed schedules published in his almanacs.
Low’s Almanac, November 1807:
The spangled frost now glitters in the ray,
And fire supplies the impotence of day:
Around the social hearth each jocund swain
Quaffs sober joy, bless’d product of his pain;
While round his cot innoxious tempests beat,
He smiles contented in his snug retreat.
Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Low served in the American Revolution from Berwick in 1780 in the company of Capt. Joseph Pray. He built his South Berwick home about 1787, just over a decade after that of John Haggens, later the Sarah Orne Jewett House, and a few years before a home was built on Academy Street by Edmund Haggens, John's brother, who served with Low in Capt. Pray's company during the Revolution. A Haggens tavern is among the stagecoach stops publicized in Low’s almanacs just before and after the turn of the century.
Much like Poor Richard’s Almanac, penned by Benjamin Franklin at about the same time, and the Farmer’s Almanac, which continues to this day, Low’s almanacs, published from 1762, combined astrological information with verse, lore, homilies, recipes and stagecoach schedules, guiding not only farmers but also turnpike travelers and people waiting for the mail.
As explained by Marion Barber Stowell in Early American Almanacs: The Colonial Weekday Bible, an almanac of Low’s day was “a miscellany: it was clock, calendar, weatherman, reporter, textbook, preacher, guidebook, atlas, navigational aid, doctor, bulletin board, agricultural advisor, and entertainer. The entire colonial family consulted its almanacs freely and regularly; these served the various family members not only as their general handy helper but even as their diary, memorandum book, and early-day Reader's Digest."
In 1998 a collection of Low almanacs were displayed in an exhibit at UCLA. As the curators explained, "Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, almanacs were the principal practical guides for farmers, tradesmen, navigators, fishermen, physicians, lawyers, educators, clergymen, and anybody else who simply wanted to know what day it was, how to get rid of rats, how to cure a corn, or how to get from Boston to New York.”
South Berwick’s Nathanael Low offered advice to his American readers: The art of holding one’s tongue is both a rare and excellent quality, and what contributes greatly to our eafe and profperity. It is as dangerous to fall in love with one’s own voice as one’s own face...
His 1807 almanac contains instructions on resuscitating a victim of drowning. Rub the body with flannel “fprinkled with spirits and flour of mustard,” advised Dr. Low. “To restore breathing,” a fireplace bellows comes in handy, “introduced…into one noftril” while closing the other, with a puff of tobacco smoke for good measure. Warm bricks applied to the soles of the feet are beneficial, and for a high tech remedy, electricity can be employed by “judicious practitioners.”
Finally, readers are warned ominously: In cases of drowning, salt is never to be used.
There was even an occasional tasteless ethnic turnpike joke:
“Two Irifhmen riding to New-York, one of them asked a man on the road how many miles it was there; to which he replied twenty:
“Arrah,” faid one of them, “we fhall not reach it to-night;”
“Pho,” fays the other, “come along, it is but ten miles apiece.”
Nathanael Low died September 6, 1808, leaving his wife, Sally, whom he had married two years after building his house on Portland Street. She had been Sally Carr of Somersworth (possibly present-day Rollinsford, NH).
It seems likely there were at least two Low children. One, Sarah C. Low, married cabinetmaker Joseph Murphy in 1819, and they lived next door at 123 Portland Street. Murphy's shop was next to Benjamin Nason’s in the Odd Fellows Block, which Murphy may have built, and he made furniture for leading families of the region. In 1835 Joseph and Sarah Murphy returned to Murphy's hometown of Lyman, ME.
The Low House, left, stands next to the house where the Lows' daughter Sally lived after marrying cabinetmaker Joseph Murphy.
Sarah's brother, Nathaniel Low (1792-1884), attended Dartmouth and became a physician like his father. After the latter's death in 1808, the younger Dr. Low continued the almanac for a number of years. He married Mary Anna Hale in 1818, as recorded in Vital Records of Berwick, South Berwick and North Berwick, Maine. In 1826 he became editor and publisher of a Portland, ME, newspaper, The American Patriot, for two years. He may have run for office and served as secretary of the Maine Senate from Lyman. Eventually the family moved to Dover, NH, Mary’s home town.
Nathaniel and Mary Low had two more children named Nathaniel and Sarah— grandchildren of Nathanael and Sally Low of Portland Street. Sarah Low, born in 1830 in South Berwick, later became a nurse and devoted three years in Army hospitals in and around Washington during the Civil War. Her letters and photograph have been preserved at the Woodman Institute and documented by Robert Whitehouse. They mention her brother “Nat,” Nathaniel Low, serving as a Union Army captain in 1863.
(This summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives at the Counting House Museum. Updated December 2020.)