Nathaniel Balch - "Hatter" & Friend to John Hancock

Nathaniel Balch (May 7, 1735-September 18, 1808) was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Benjamin and Nazareth (Cushing) Balch. On May 26, 1763 he married Mary Fletcher and together they had five children.

Nathaniel was a "hatter", a maker and seller of hats, and carried out his business at 72 Cornhill Street (now Washington Street) in Boston. Nathaniel was known for his sense of humor and his shop was a popular place for people to gather. Even the elite members of Boston society would spend time at Nathaniel's shop. One of the elite members, of Boston society, who spent a great deal of time with Nathaniel was John Hancock.

John Hancock was the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780-1785) but is often more commonly known for his prominent signature on the Declaration of Independence. During his life Hancock would become well acquainted with Nathaniel and various sources speak of them as close friends. Hancock is said to have invited Nathaniel to most social gatherings and to have even invited him to go along on various trips.

One family tradition, involving Nathaniel and John Hancock, has Hancock one day saying to Nathaniel; "Come up and see a savage I have locked in my garret". When Nathaniel went to see the "savage" he found that it was in fact a portrait painter by the name of Edward Savage. Savage was being protected, from arrest for debt, by Hancock and was painting a portrait of the governor. At the request of Hancock a painting of Nathaniel was painted (the picture in this article). In 1897 this portrait, of Nathaniel, was in the possession of his great-grandson William L. Balch. In much more recent times the portrait appeared for sale on Ebay.

Various Quotes Concerning Nathaniel Balch:

While searching for "Balch", on ebay, I stumbled across his portrait of Nathaniel Balch. Ultimately the portrait didn't sell for the $9,500 asking price they wanted but it led me in some interesting directions. Using Google & Google book search I was able to come across some interesting information concerning Nathaniel Balch. Below is what was said about the portrait in the ebay listing.

"Exceptional Early American Portrait of a Boston Hatter is by American Artist Edward Savage. This painting is guaranteed original with provenance. This oil painting on canvas has hand written notes on back, naming the sitter as Nathaniel Balch, "The Hatter" (1735 - 1808, Wife Mary Fletcher) Painted by the Artist Savage— by order of Governor Hancock of Massachusettes.(John Hancock) This painting has normal overall age and needs restoration due to the puncture damage at the top, comes untouched as found and has original family history and papers with it. This was purchased directly from the descendents. The frame is 34" high and 29" wide. A most exceptional piece of American History by a most exceptional American Artist."

~Source: "Bryantiques"(user name on ebay)

While looking for Nathaniel on Google's book search I came across various books that mentioned his involvement in history. A book called Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston(by Samuel Adams Drake) indicated that Nathaniel Balch was a "hatter" (a seller or maker of hats) and a good friend of the famous John Hancock (Governor of Massachusetts and signer of the Declaration of Independence). This book, in talking about John Hancock, discussed various guests whom Hancock had entertained while governor of Massachusetts. One guest, in particular, Jacques Pierre Brissot (influential in the French Revolution) was said to be "astonished" by the relationship between John Hancock and Nathaniel Balch. In his book, Samuel Adams Drake, discusses the Balch/Hancock relationship and Brissot's reaction to it by saying:

"Brissot was astonished to find the governor in friendly converse with "a hatter" (Nathaniel Balch). Balch was a great favorite of the governor's. He was a "fellow of infinite jest," majestic in appearance, benevolent, and of sterling worth. His witticisms never failed "to set the table in a roar." Loring relates that when Hancock had occasion to go into the district of Maine on an official visit, he was attended by Hon. Azor Orne of his council, and his old friend Balch. Their arrival at Portsmouth, N.H. was thus humorously announced :- "On Thursday last, arrived in this town, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., accompanied by His Excellency John Hancock, and the Hon. Azor Orne." When Hancock was dying he called his old friend Balch to his bedside, and dictated to him the minutes of his will, in which he expressly gave his mansion-house to the Commonwealth. Death intervened before this intention could be carried out."

~Source: Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston - By: Samuel Adams Drake

Another source, The Family Magazine; or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge, discussed the Balch/Hancock relationship in much the same way as Samuel Drake. The Family Magazine had this to say about the Balch/Hancock relationship:

"He (John Hancock) was very fond of joke and repartee, so much so, that a worthy citizen of Boston, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., a hatter, who never failed to appear among the invited guests at his hospitable board, obtained the unenvied appellation of 'the Governor's Jester'."

~Source: The Family Magazine

In a book called the Life of Campestris Ulm The Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis, we see information about Nathaniel and his life away from John Hancock. The other two sources I sighted indicated that Nathaniel was referred to as the "Governor's Jester" and that he never failed "to set the table in a roar" at dinner parties. In Curtis' book he talks about Nathaniel's relationship (and location) in Boston society.

"The latter (Nathaniel) had a shop on Washington St., opposite Water, where, seated in a broad arm-chair at the shop-door, he would keep his visitors in a roar at his witticisms."

~Source: Life of Campestris Ulm The Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common

Genealogy of Nathaniel:

Father: Benjamin Balch
Mother: Nazareth (Cushing) Balch

Wife: Mary (Fletcher) Balch
Married: May 26, 1763


1. Nathaniel (Feb. 26, 1764-Jun. 10, 1881)
2. William (Jul. 11, 1765-Nov. 4, 1791)
3. Margaret (May 17, 1767-Unknown)
4. Mary (May 15, 1769-Unknown)
5. Sarah (Dec. 5, 1774-Unknown)

Primary Sources/Links:

Genealogy of the Balch Families in America - By: Galusha B. Balch

Life of Campestris Ulm - By: Joseph Henry Curtis

Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston - By Samuel Adams Drake

The United States Magazine and Democratic Review By Carnegie-Mellon University, School of

The Family Magazine

Reminiscences of the Last Sixty-five Years - By Ebenezer Smith Thomas

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