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Merrill, Joshua
Manuscript Diary of Boston Petroleum Pioneer, Joshua Merrill, kept while traveling in Europe for pleasure and business, 1868

Small quarto, 110 manuscript pages, bound in half leather, contemporary marbled paper backed boards, spine cracked, boards detached, worn, rubbed, paper good, entries written in a legible hand, and dated 18 June to 8 September 1868.

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The diary records the incidents and events on a journey departing from New York harbor and arriving in Queenstown, Ireland on June 26th. He writes every day during the ocean voyage, describing shipboard life, the account consists of 25 manuscript pages, followed by a further 85 manuscript pages which vividly describe his adventures while in Europe, making a total of 110 manuscript pages. The diary ends on 8 September 1868, while he is touring Paris, France. 

Although the diary is not signed, there are enough clues and internal evidence within the diary to determine that the author is Joshua Merrill, a pioneer in the American petroleum industry. Our author lives in Boston Massachusetts and he is traveling in Europe with another man by the name of “Mr. Downer” both men are in the petroleum business. The two men are not there merely for sightseeing, or pleasure travel, but are examining the conditions of the oil, kerosene and petroleum business.

Our diarist mentions being in Europe, (even in some of the same exact places) 12 years earlier in 1856. This information, the fact that they two men are oilmen and that the author was in Europe 12 years prior, are enough clues to identify the diarist.

There is a Samuel Downer, an oil pioneer, whose obituary appears in The Boston Journal for 21 September 1881, this is likely the “Mr. Downer” mentioned in the diary:

“Mr. Samuel Downer, senior member of the Downer Oil Company, and proprietor of Downer Landing, died at his residence in Dorchester, yesterday afternoon, at the age of seventy-four. He has been a leading merchant in the oil trade in this city (Boston) for many years, having succeeded his father, Samuel Downer, Sr., while the traffic consisted wholly in whale oil. With the decline of the whale fisheries and the development of the petroleum interest, Mr. Downer’s sagacity led him to engage extensively in the manufacture or renting of the petroleum product for illuminating purposes, and he was one of the earliest, if not the first to establish that business in this city, his works being located at South Boston.

With further research, we find in a volume titled Biographical Sketches of Representative Citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by Graves & Steinbarger (1901) that “Joshua Merrill” was a business partner of Samuel Downer, and that Merrill had traveled to Europe about 1856:


“JOSHUA MERRILL, of South Boston, who may well be called the father of the oil industry in the United States, was born at Duxbury, Mass., October 6, 1828, son of the Rev. Abraham Dow and Nancy (Morrison) Merrill. His paternal grandfather was Major Joshua Merrill, of Salem, N. H., who fought against the British in the War of 1812. Major Joshua Merrill and his wife, whose maiden name was Mehitable Dow, and who was from Plaisted, N.H., were the parents of four children, two daughters and two sons. Joshua Merrill completed his education in the high school of Lowell, Mass. At the age of fifteen he left home and school to go to Boston, where he entered the employ of his elder brother, who was engaged in the manufacture of paper-hangings. In 1853 he undertook the sale of the lubricating oil then manufactured by the United States Chemical Manufacturing Company, of Waltham, Mass; and in the following year he entered into an engagement with the late Samuel Downer, who had acquired the proprietary rights of the Chemical Company's business, which included the manufacture of the article known as coup oil, a substance derived from the distillation of coal tar obtained in the manufacture of gas. Mr. Merrill disposed of this article for a number of years, or till 1856, to the proprietors of the New England cotton-mills. He then went to Europe to engage in the manufacture of that and other oils, and while there assisted in the erection of a factory for George Miller & Co., of Glasgow, Scotland. After a stay of one year in Europe he returned to America, and began a series of experiments in the manufacture of kerosene oil and other products of' coal distillation, at the Downer Kerosene Oil Company's works in South Boston, which were continued during the ensuing year with varying success. At length, after lavish expenditure, amounting to upwards of one hundred thousand dollars, he and his associates so far succeeded in perfecting the apparatus and manufacturing process that good merchantable oils, both illuminating and lubricating, were produced from 1857 to 1868, a period of eleven years. Mr. Merrill, however, still felt the need of a better lubricating oil than they had up to that time manufactured; and he bent his powerful inventive genius to its production. Many experiments were made, and failed to accomplish the desired result. Still, they were so far of use that they resulted in such an improvement of the company's product that their oils enjoyed the highest reputation and commanded the highest prices of any in the market. In 1867 Mr. Merrill was led by an accident that happened to one of the distilling vessels to pursue an entirely new and untried plan of manufacture, the operation being arranged to distil the oil at so low a temperature that the partial decomposition which usually takes place in the distillation of oils at a high temperature might be avoided. The results of this process were so satisfactory that in 1869 Mr. Merrill took out a patent for the new process of manufacture, and also another patent for the oil produced by it. Patents were early obtained in Europe, also, for "Merrill's Odorless Lubricating Oil." Mr. Merrill's next achievement was equally noteworthy. In 1870 he prepared, after long experimenting, in which he was ably assisted by his brother, Rufus S., an oil for illuminating purposes, to which he gave the name of mineral sperm oil. On the death of Mr. Samuel Downer, the founder of the oil works, Mr. Merrill, in company with his brother, William B., purchased the entire plant from the heirs, and has continued in the ownership up to the present time. He has been very successful; and the results of his life work have been of lasting benefit, not only to the oil industry, but also to the people of the United States and of other countries.”

Joshua had a brother named William, our diarist mentions that he wrote to “William” on a number of occasions. shows that Joshua Merrill applied for a passport on 12 May 1868, the month before this diary begins. also has a passport for a Joshua Merrill in 1856, the first time he went to Europe, as per his biography.

Joshua Merrill was born on 6 October 1828 and died on 16 January 1904 at his home at 678 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Besides the oil business, he had for forty years been the most generous benefactor of the Tremont Methodist Church, president of the Boston Wesleyan Association and for many years a trustee of Boston University.

Merrill mentions shaking the hand of Admiral Farragut on the Fourth of July while in Glasgow. Merrill sails on board the Cunard Line steamship, S. S. Cuba, and once in Europe his entries carry his description of European culture, the countryside, the people, the hotels, the oil business, and other impressions.

Sample Quotations:

“June 18th, On board S. S. Cuba June 18th, 1868, twenty four hours out from N. Y. from which port we sailed on 17th at 3 o’clock P.M. We are having so far a splendid run having logged about 289 miles in 24 hours. The weather was very hot in N.Y. when we started the thermometer indicator 90 in the shade. About dark it set in thick and foggy and the steam whistle was constantly blowing all night. About 7 ½ o’clock this morning passed a steam ship going west. Near enough to hear the whistle but not near enough to see him. It has continued thick all day so we have been unable to see any vessels. In fact, it is so wet on deck from the condensed fog as to be quite unpleasant. We have quite a large number of passengers on board. Mostly Americans among whom is Mr. A. T. Brown of ___celebrity with his entire family, a Mr. Mitchell and lady, a Mrs. Allen of Boston. The company are social and agreeable. Two very pretty young ladies from Georgia, Misses King’s are on board. The majority of the passengers are well but a few have paid their respects to Neptune. I have escaped so far having been quite sick in N.Y before sailing and vomiting quiet fully. I hope I shall escape entirely. Mr. Downer is a little squeamish but a good lunch and a drink of Champaign seemed to cure him. He is at this moment sleeping soundly in the saloon on cushions. We have a Mr. Marshall on board who crossed with Mr. Downer in 66’ in the China and home in the Ana with him. He is a young pleasant fellow and good company. I have on the whole enjoyed my first day at sea and begin to feel rested already.” 

Merrill meets a Mr. Libby from Brooklyn, New York, the manager of Brooklyn Gas Works, they pass the Steamship City of Paris on the second day out.

“June 20th, We have made a splendid run the last 24 hours, 342 miles by the ships log. The wind is S. West and is a good stiff breeze. All sails set and the ship is very steady. Few of the passengers are sick and the waiters have enough to do to wait upon the tables. Our Steward James is a good likely fellow and does first rate by us. I played Euchre last eve with a Mrs. Allen for a partner against Mr. Marshall and Mrs. Polk of Tennessee, the latter lady is a perfect lady and one I could like very much. She has a daughter on board, a pretty young lady. Also her Negro servant. We had a very nice game but were beaten by 3 games. The day has passed off very pleasantly and the whole ships company are more social and agreeable. I guess in a day or two we shall all know each other very well. I played scuttles again today and beat 2 out of 3 games I think. I am getting to be a very good player at it as I usually manage to score pretty well. We have several Englishmen on board, regular John Bulls who eat a big dinner and drink a quart of wine after dessert besides one or two bottles at dinner. How they stand the muddle I hardly see. But they seem to enjoy life and grow fat on it…..We passed a ship under full sail last eve at 8 o’clock. Today we have seen not a sail; we must be nearly 1,000 miles from N.Y. and only passed as yet three vessels. Truly the ocean is a vast waste and a ship seems a tarry little thing upon its surface. The ship is all the world to us and as she gracefully dips and rises on the billows she seems almost endured with life. I have to love the old ship that so nobly carries us on our way. May God preserve her and her gallant officers and ____men.” 

“June 21st,  ... At 5 o’clock we discovered about six miles ahead a full rigged ship under full sail bound East. We rapidly over hauled her and in less than an hour we were along side. She proved to be the N. B. Ship Prince Leopold and as we sailed past her we gave them a parting adieu by moving of handkerchiefs and hats. It was a fine sight to see her with all sails set bounding over the billows. We passed a brig very near this morning at 4 ½ o’clock. We did not learn her name and I was cunning enough to be fast asleep in berths. Mr. Downer is an early riser. He was up at 4 o’clock this morning but he turned in again at 5 and slept well until 8 when I left him having complete my toilet. We had service at 10 o’clock today. The service was read by the surgeon, a fine young fellow whom everybody likes. I joined in the singing with a well and felt devotion.”

“June 23rd,… This morning we passed a large ship bound east and at 10 o’clock another sail was in sight but so far to the North, we could but just see her. On the whole we see very few vessels. This is an evidence of the vastness of the ocean for hundreds of ships are on its bosom bound to and from Europe but we meet comparatively few of them and we can see on a clear day a radius of 30 miles or 60 miles diameter. How vast is the stupendous ocean. I have been quite free from sea sickness so far and expected a headache brought on by too much indulgence at table…” 

“June 24th,… The Cuba steamed against head winds and lost 24 hours. 318 miles. There is now a heavy roll and the passengers are mostly in the saloon playing Euchre, writing or reading. Mr. Downer is fast asleep in his bunk. He sleeps daytimes and complains of inability to sleep nights. I retire about 10 ½ o’clock and sleep sound all night. I think it much the best way. We passed about 11 o’clock through a school of dolphins. They jumped out of water and seemed quite playful. It is a pretty sight to see their colored sides and belly shine in the sun as they jumped about the ship. It is not raining quite hard so what with the rain and cinders on deck it is not very agreeable. We have decided to leave the ship at Queenstown, formerly Cork, then to Lakes of Killarney and then to Dublin and Belfast. Then by steamer to Glasgow going up Scotland first on boat then we will determine. We expect to be in Queenstown Friday by 12 A.M. giving us Sunday at Killarney and so on as above. It is now about dinner time and I must begin my toilet by washing up, combing my hair and get ready to appear decently at my table for today I bid my journal goodbye.”

“June 25th, Early this morning at 4 A.M. we were awakened by the ships engines stopping. So unusual an occurrence woke nearly the whole ship (or so it seems). We were hailed by a ship, 90 days from Valparaiso S. A. with her flag at half mast. Her Captain was sick with congestive liver. The ship lowered a boat and brought the sick man on board the steamer when off we sailed again. It was very fortunate for him we came along in his track for he might be two or three weeks yet before reaching port. We made 325 miles run last 24 hours…”

“June 26th, At 4 ½ o’clock the Cuba arrived at Queenstown, formerly called Cork Harbor until her Majesty calling one day it was altered to Queenstown. This place is attributed for its beautiful harbor and it is indeed very beautifully situated. I was the first one to step foot on the Irish soil and I was immediately beset by a crowd of women and children for pennies. In fact one persistent little girl followed us to the railway station, full half a mile, begging all the way for pennies. I did not give her anything as she seemed too persistent to be wholly in need…”

“June 27th, (Killarney)…..My impression of Ireland so far is the country is beautiful but the people are poor and wretched. Squaller and poverty is the common lot in life with its accompaniments dirt and crime. The people are a downtrodden sort and the only hopes of the poor classes is in immigration to America, the golden land of promise whose fair western fields stuck out in beauty to invite them. Most all the poor people have their friends in America and their hope and prayers is that they may reach there in the new world….They had many questions to ask us of the country and of their friends there and the reverent God Bless You, however still ringing in my ears. As I answered their many questions as well as I could, I have one or two missions to perform for them when I get home for which I expect their blessing to my dying day. Tonight off to Killarney Lake.” 

They are staying at the Royal Victoria Hotel at Lakes of Killarney. They then take a 24 mile horseback ride, Merrill then describes the trip. The journey takes them on to Dublin where they stay at the Shelburne Hotel, and thence to Belfast where they board a steamer for Glasgow up the River Clyde:

“July 2nd, We left Belfast at 5 o’clock P.M. on the Steamer Llama en-route for Glasgow where we arrived after a delightful passage of 14 hours instead of eight as I was told would be the time of passage. We had a very pleasant run up the Clyde from Greenock, 24 miles from Glasgow. The little river is a vast fleet of steamers and presents a most business like appearance. We arrived in Glasgow at 8 o’clock A.M. I here lost my trunk whilst I was in the cabin a few moments. A lusty porter seized it and carried it I know not where. I went to the boat 3 times for it and by ___of perseverance I track it to a cab man who took it to a hotel with some soft headed passenger who did not know enough to carry it back to the boat and exchange it for his own left in the place of mine he had taken. But I found him out and got mine own and so after much trouble and six shillings expenses I am all right again. I find old Glasgow looks very natural to me, it seems but yesterday that I was here but 12 years have gone since. I spent the winter and spring of 56 in this busy and smoky city. I called this morning at 139 Rutland St., my old lodging room in 56’. I went to the door and there I found Mrs. Lockhart and Janette just where I left them twelve long years ago. Mrs. Lockhart knew me at once and I was most agreeably entertained by her….”

“July 4th, Fourth of July, the birthday of America. We celebrated it by drinking to the honor and prosperity of America. I had the pleasure of shaking the hand of Admiral Farragut this morning. He has been in Glasgow the past two days. The city fathers showed him kind attention and he is quite the Lion of the town. He left this morning at 9 ½ o’clock and I lifted my hat with great pleasure to the gallant man whose fighting qualities are of a very high order. We met Mr. Young Jr. shortly after leaving the hotel and shook hands with him. He called his father out to see us and we had a pleasant chat with the old fellow…..”

“July 5th, We arrived in Liverpool this morning at 6 o’clock putting up at the Old Waterloo Hotel which looks much as it used to 12 years ago. Old Mr. and Mrs. Lynn, the landlord and wife, have grown older and the old waiter Anthony, who has been in the same spot 40 years, steps less lightly than of old showing time has been passing rapidly. I wrote to wife and William today and then strolled about the town seeing the numerous objects of interest. After dinner we took a drive out about the suburbs and had a very pleasant time. I felt lonesome and homesick thinking of home and the loved ones but it soon passed off and I try to keep up a good heart and grow strong as possible.” 

At this point in the diary Merrill and Downer start looking over the petroleum situation on the docks before traveling on to Chester and Manchester:

“July 9th, Arrived at 3 ½ o’clock yesterday P.M. spent the afternoon looking about town and in the eve went to the Theatre Royal. Saw Foul Play, very well performed.  Returned at 11 o’clock but awake with headache which I have suffered from considerably all day. We called on W. & G. Skelton, no 15 Quay St., Deansgate, Manchester. They’re large oil and tallow merchants. Showed them our 29 oil. It struck them as something very fine. I think they never saw anything like it before. Either for oiliness or odor. We made mixtures of 10 percent sperm and the sperm smell entirely predominates. I think we shall get an order from them to sell them 20 or 30,000 gallons. They say about 6,000,000 ___galls of oil are used for lubricating purposes in G. B. for year. I think we shall get a portion of this trade if we are active and work it rightly. The English and Scotch oil is good color but very thin in body and smells like shale oil. It is no comparison to ours in quality and they have hard work to sell even the 1 ½ million galls they produce and it is ____sold to mix with fatty oil in proportion of from ½ to 2/3  fatty oil to ½ to 1/3 shale oil…..It rains today, first rain since we landed. The dull day and Manchester smoke makes it dark and gloomy. Tonight off to London.”

“July 18th, As we took a boat and sailed down the River Thames to the tunnel, I went through the tunnel and felt funny, enough as I reflected the river was over my head and large ships sailing up and down it is a great work and well worth seeing once in a person’s life. But I should not care to go through it often, as it is a long way down too and the air is cold and strong smelling. It is not a success as pronouncing undertaking but it is a big engineering feat to build it. We also sailed down to Greenwich Hospital and Woolwich Navy Yard. Both very interesting places. We dined at Woolwich on mutton chops and poor ___. I was very poorly impressed with Woolwich. It is a place of pleasurable resort and think I should much prefer some other town. It is dirty and the people are low and drunken. I saw several in this despicable state…..”

“July 19th,… Dover. We spent the day here and go to Paris tonight by the 10 ½ o’clock boat. We went to ride today in an open carriage for two hours. Riding is very cheap in England. One fashion here is abominable with the long sweeping trails of the ladies. It is disgusting to see the dear creatures be dragged up so when we gallant fellows think them all purity and grace. When the actual facts, the thin ankles (and I guess legs) are pretty sights to behold but still they are very careful to never show them. I guess on a while the English women have big feet and ankles. They are so averse to their being seen. I expect to be pleased with Paris where short dresses for the street is the fashion I am told. I am glad the American ladies copy Paris instead of London in their particulars.”

Merrill and Downer travel to Paris by boat. Merrill’s detailed and very descriptive entries about Paris make for interesting reading; the new streets, the slaughter house, driving all over in open carriages, the theater, and much more:

“July 23rd, Hotel Maurice. This forenoon was completely used up in writing home. We did not finish until 2 o’clock. We then went to the American reading room and learned from papers of the 11th that the Senate had passed the bill making petroleum free. It was good news indeed and I felt like shouting amen…..We strolled about the streets and boulevards today until 4 ½ o’clock admiring the exceeding beauty of all French stores. There is always something new and beautiful to admire in their artistic arranging of goods…..In the evening we went to La Closerie des Lilas a sort of refreshment garden where the students and girls went and have a gay time dancing and laughing and acting very ridicules to my mind. At all events I do not care to go the second time to see such fun, it is too low to suit my taste. I prefer the opera by all means….” 

He makes a visit to Brussels and Antwerp, where he again visits the docks and the merchants selling oil:

“July 27th, Old Mr. Schmidt still keeps this hotel and the same servants, or at least many of them are still here who were here in 1856 when I was here before. We called after breakfast on Mr. Bertrand M. Nottebohm man in Antwerp. He is a fine fellow. Showed us kind attention. We went with him to the docks and petroleum yards. There is in stock about 72,000 bbls of oil and 15 to 20,000 bbls of Naphtha. I saw some oil in warehouse that was leaking very bad. I think the loss must be very great. I also went in the Naphtha Houses and it was impossible to stay more than a moment as the [Naphian] was so strong it made me drunk at once. The bbls were leaking fearfully. 25 to 35 percent. It is a horrible condition of the trade to stand such fearful loss and not grumble…”

Merrill and Downer next visit, Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Hamburg:

“August 5th, We received our letters on Cuba today, up to 20 July. The welcome news of the signing of the bill by President Johnson came to hand. Oil is now free and what a relief it is from the very vexations, bothers and troubles of conforming to all the requirements of the law and paying a tax when dishonest, dealers cheat and go free. We went to Hotel at 3 o’clock, dressed for dinner at Mr. Nottebohm’s. We passed a very delightful eve. Met Mr. and Mrs. Webber, the father and mother of Mr. Notteham’s intended wife. They are very refined and intelligent people. After dinner, which was in Nottebohm best style, about 12 courses and six different wines, we repaired to the garden for coffee and cigars. We had a very merry and enjoyable and social time and I shall ever remember it with feelings of gratification and never forget the kind treatment of Mr. Nottebohm and his kind family….” 

Cologne and a steamer down the Rhine River, and Lucerne, Switzerland:

“August 12th, Today we left Lucerne at 5 o’clock A.M. and after a most delightful sail on the lake of 2 ¾ hours, we arrived at Fluelen. Here we take [diligence] where Mr. Downer and I take seats in the [blanquet] on top of the coach. We had a delightful ride of 12 hours. At Fluelen I bought a flask of Eau De Vie and a bottle of wine and a basket of plums and thus equipped we started off. The scenery after passing Altdorf begins to be beautiful in the extreme. We begin to rapidly rise as the diligence goes heavily along the mountain road which is as smooth as a floor. We pass in constant view of mountains rising from 3 to ten thousand feet high and so wild and impressive that I feel completely awed at the grandeur. About 10 o’clock we begin to rapidly ascend and at 12 begin the Pass of St. Gotthard, up, up we go amongst the clouds and soar above them and the snow and glaciers are seen on all hands. The melting snow and ice feeds the mountain streams until as we approach the summit of the pass they are very numerous. It also begins to be cold and I find my own seat none too warm for this elevated region of 5,000 feet above the ocean. We stop to dine for half an hour at the St. Gotthard Hotel where we get a dinner of six courses and a small bottle of Swiss wine for 2 f. 50 c. each or 50 cents, cheap as bull beef as the Yankee’s say…..”

Merrill travels to Italy and to Milan:

“August 15th, My second day in Milan. After breakfast I wrote my wife a letter describing my impression of Milan and the trip therein. I today stood by the grave of poor Miss Ford. Where I sadly dropped a tear to her memory and I felt bad and lonesome indeed as thoughts of her sickness far away from home and friends and loved ones and thought of the many sorrowful nights and days she must have suffered as she rapidly faded away. Her fate is indeed a mournful one. The place of her burial is in a quiet but a very pretty yard and in a small part set off for the burial of Protestants. A dark marble head stone with an appropriate inscription on it in Italian tells of her patience and nature during her long sickness. I picked a few green shrubs and flowers from her grave, then kissing tenderly her portrait set in thick glass in the head stone, I sadly left the yard and wished all kind and good wishes to the departed Miss Ford. We left Milan for Genoa…..”

Merrill and Downer then head on to Genoa, Marseille, Lyons, Leipzig, and back to Paris. His last entry is in Paris:


“From 31st Aug. to 8th Sept. inclusion in Paris devoting time to looking about and learning all I could of this marvelous city. I have met several American’s I know, including Henry Richards and wife of Boston and several of our Cuba passengers all of whom look well and pleased with their experience in Europe.”