M. & J. Matheson, Millinery & Fancy Goods.

In the days when well-dressed residents would not be seen around town without a hat, millinery shops amounted to an essential public service. So it easy to imagine that a store run by two of Captain Matheson’s daughters would have been well patronized. In fact, a contemporary newspaper account stated about one of their opening evenings in the mid-1880s: “To say that they were well patronized gives no idea of the large attendance. … ‘Ain’t that awfully nice.’ ‘Oh isn’t that perfectly lovely.’ ‘Just too sweet for anything,’ and a host of other feminine expressions told the pleasure that the patrons of this establishment were enjoying while the [Matheson] sisters and their aides, tastefully dressed for the occasion and with smiling faces, were attending to customers and booking orders. The lady who cannot be suited in this place either in style or price could not be suited anywhere.”¹

The building had the further distinction, in 1915, of becoming one of the earliest — if not the first — Provincetown outposts in the sprawling Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company grocery store empire. In one place or another (including 120 Commercial Street), the A&P was a centerpiece of town life until 2003.

Sister “M” was Mary Stewart “Mamie” Matheson (later MacMurray) (1862-1913). Sister “J” was Jessie Taylor Matheson (1865-1962), who lived across the street, at 186 Commercial Street, until her death at the dawn of the Space Age. Their father, Capt. William Matheson (1828-1896), bought this property in 1884 from Capt. Gideon Bowly (1816-1893), the surviving partner of J. E. & G. Bowly Auctioneers and Commission Merchants, which did business here. The Bowlys built this wharf head building in 1851, at the time [?] they were constructing the adjoining Bowly’s Wharf — later known as Steamboat Wharf, Matheson’s Wharf, and Fisherman Cold Storage Wharf.

Left: The “Mill’y” shop of the Mathesons once abutted a fish house. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map From Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1889), from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261889. Right: The “Mill’y & D.G.” (dry goods) store was later surrounded by the Fisherman Cold Storage. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1912), from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261912.

From Provincetown or, Odds and Ends From the Tip End, by Herman Atwell Jennings, 1890. Photographs by George H. Nickerson, Irving Rosenthal, and William M. Smith.

The Matheson sisters’ shop, with its ample display windows, is at the right of this 1880 photograph looking northeast on Commercial Street. Immediately next to it, you can see the barn doors on the quarters of Pumper Company No. 2, which is now a public restroom. At the far left is 188 Commercial Street. From the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 1, Page 128, in the Dowd Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 826.

A 1909 postcard view, looking southwest on Commercial, shows No. 187 at the far left. The sign in the second-floor window says, “Lodging.” Below that is a sign for “Souvenirs & Millinery / J. T. Matheson’s.” From the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 11, Page 58, in the Dowd Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 4703.

“In the rear part of the store is the office of Captain Matheson, who controls and manages a small fleet of vessels that are engaged in the Grand Bank and West India (Caribbean) business,” Herman Atwell Jennings wrote in his 1890 guide to Provincetown. But the real action was at the store itself.

To judge from contemporary references, the business was known in 1885 only by the name of the older sister — M. S. Matheson & Co. — and did not yet deal principally in hats. Instead, the store offered: “Dry and fancy goods, felting, fancy silks, flosses, and chenille. All articles required in embroidery a specialty, at low prices.” A year later, it was called M. & J. Matheson. The address, under the old street numbering system, was 186 Commercial. Captain Matheson transferred the ownership of the property to Mary and Jessie in 1894.

Descriptions of the store upend our notion of the 19th-century as a period of monochromatic sepia. The Mathesons promised patrons they would find hats in all the newest, most fashionable colors: a grayish green known as sage; light green; light blue; heliotrope, a vibrant pink-purple; and old rose, a grayish pink. (See below.) And they weren’t all gigantic effusions, as we might envision Victorian hats to have been. No, there were “cunning little Dutch bonnets about as large as a Columbian postage stamp and just the thing to wear at theaters to please the men, for they offer no obstruction to the stage view.”¹

No color images exist of the Mathesons’ inventory, but this illustration ought to give you an idea of the spectrum they offered.

“I remember my Aunt Jessie as an elderly lady in the ’50s and ’60s,” her great-great-niece, Charlotte Matheson (Moat) Fyfe told me in 2021. “Her sister Mary must have been the driving force behind this store because Jessie is the last person on Earth I would think would be interested in fashion. Tall and thin, flinty and no-nonsense. Formidably plain-spoken, but always very kind to me, sending me off to the kitchen to find Mrs. Atwood, the housekeeper, and get a cookie or two. And she loved the Lennon Sisters on the Lawrence Welk Show. Even had a picture of them taped up on her bedroom wall.”

Perhaps Jessie Matheson was without fashion sense, but she had attended the Bryant & Stratton Business College in Boston, one in a nationwide chain of schools that exists to this day, now as Bryant & Stratton College. A number of Provincetown residents were alumni, but — as far as I’ve been able to determine to date — Matheson was the only alumna in their ranks.

Jessie continued the business here under her own name until at least the early 20th century. Besides furnishing hats, fabrics, and notions, she also operated a circulating library, took in lodgers, and sold souvenirs, like ornate chinaware depicting Provincetown scenes, made by W. Adams & Company of Boston. The construction in 1907 of the Fisherman Cold Storage complex at 183-185 Commercial Street might have driven away what carriage trade remained, but there was certainly need in the crowded West End for a grocery store.

In 1915, just after Jesse Matheson sold the building to Fisherman Cold Storage, the storefront space was leased to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. One of Provincetown’s eminent historical researchers, Denise Avallon, drew the transaction to my attention after this article was published. She also pointed me to this descriptive account in the Yarmouth Register of 23 October 1915:

Mr. E. A. Carpenter of Providence, R.I., is the manager of the local store. The storefront is painted red of the vermillion hue, and the fresh stock arrayed on the shelves and counters looks inviting. The prices are positively cheaper for the same quality and make than the other stores.

By 1938, the cold storage complex and the A&P store were razed. Bubala’s parking lot marks the spot.

Mary Stewart “Mamie” Matheson was the first of the two sisters in business, to judge from this advertisement the 1885 guide and directory, Chequocket; or, Coatuit; The Aboriginal Name of Provincetown. From the MacMillan Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 364.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Mamie’s business partner was her sister Jessie Taylor Matheson. This advertisement, from 1894, is courtesy of Charlotte Matheson (Moat) Fyfe.

Left: An undated card from the Misses Matheson invited the recipient to come and examine the “latest creations of fashion” coming “direct from New York and Boston.” Courtesy of Charlotte Matheson (Moat) Fyfe. Right: Jessie Matheson went it alone as the 20th century neared. The advertisement is from 16 March 1899. Advocate Online, Provincetown Public Library.

Jessie was still advertising as late as 1907. This notice appeared in The Mayflower, published by Provincetown High School students. From the School Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 6122.

¶ Last updated on 2 April 2021.

Site of 187 Commercial Street on the Town Map.

Also at 183-187 Commercial Street:

Fisherman Cold Storage Company.

Jetty No. 6.

Bubala’s by the Bay.

Matheson’s Wharf.

Thumbnail image: Detail of an 1894 advertisement, presumably from the Advocate, furnished by Charlotte Matheson (Moat) Fyfe, Mary and Jessie Matheson’s great-great-niece.

In memoriam

• Capt. Gideon Bowly (1816-1893)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 119084270.

• Joshua Elsbery Bowly (1813-1883)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 124291463.

• Mary Stewart “Mamie” (Matheson) MacMurray (1862-1913)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 52875905.

• Jessie Taylor Matheson (1865-1962)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 52877033.

• Capt. William Matheson (1828-1896)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 52876983.

¹ From an unannotated newspaper clipping furnished by Charlotte Matheson (Moat) Fyfe, Mary and Jessie Matheson’s great-great-niece.

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