Thursday, April 28, 2011

Link Time: Shopping Days In Retro Boston

Here's a great site for those who want to know what shopping was like on Washington street before it was 'rebranded' as Downtown Crossing in a sad attempt to turn back the hands of time. Articles, memories, photos and pictures of newspaper advertisements. Very cool visit to Memory Lane.

Shopping Days in Retro Boston

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Boston Steals the Back Bay From Roxbury

Boston in 1838 - Boston-Roxbury border shown in red. Note Roxbury's Gravelly Point on the left. The border along today's Public Garden sat between what is now Arlington and Berkeley streets (BPL).

As plans were made to extend Boston into the Charles river estuary south and west of the Common, there was a problem to be dealt with. The problem was that the border through the back bay had been set to follow a channel that cut through shallow tidal flats. And that channel ran quite close to the Boston shore. When the Mill Dam was built from Boston to Brookline to enclose the bay and run tidal mills, Beacon street was extended across it, and Boston was given possession of the new-made land. The above Boston-Roxbury border was a straight-line adjustment of the original meandering border that had been formed by the path of the channel that ran out from the Stony brook outflow to the deeper bed of the Charles river.

So what was to be done, when the whole point of the land-making operation was to create a residential for well to do Boston residents? Between the state, which would claim a portion of the new lands for itself, to be sold at a profit, and the city, seeking an extension of its own area to prevent what might be called Brahmin flight, the two simply stole the Back Bay flats from Roxbury by fiat. Just as in the case of Dorchester Heights/South Boston at the start of the century (discussed in an earlier entry), there was money to be made, and the state and city joined hands in a profitable land grab from a bordering town.

So imagine if the Back Bay south of Arlington street had been made part of the town of Roxbury. The entire upscale residential district, plus everything over to Columbus avenue, would have put money into the Roxbury tax coffers. Would it have made sense for Roxbury to allow itself to be annexed by Boston in the 1868s? And if Roxbury had not been annexed, then the town of West Roxbury, including Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and West Roxbury would not have had a direct border with Boston, making annexation of those districts far less likely. So the Boston we know today - stretching from East Boston south to the Dedham line, depended on a political land grab of mud flats. Evidently, city building is like sausage making - it's best left unobserved.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Club: A New England Boyhood

Edward Everett Hale statue, Public Garden (photo by Mr Ducke, Flickr).

Somewhere in my online digging, I found the book A New England Girlhood, by Lucy Larcom. It is an autobiography that gives us a window into life in 19th Century Massachusetts. After the success of New England Girlhood, minister, philanthropist and author Edward Everett Hale was asked to pen a similar book, and he complied with A New England Boyhood.

Unlike Larcom, who had grown up on the north shore, and worked in the Merrimack river mills, Hale was the son of a Boston newspaper publisher and railroad advocate/entrepreneur. On his father's side he was related to Revolutionary War figure Nathan Hale, and on his mother's to Edward Everett, a leading politician and orator of mid-19th Century Massachusetts. As a side note, it was Everett who gave the two hour speech at Gettysburg that preceded Lincoln's two minute address.

I wouldn't read this book from front to back, but it's nice to browse and pick out the interesting bits. In Hale's childhood - the 1830s - there were still yards with gardens in what is now the downtown commercial district. His description of boys playing on Boston Common, the signs hanging from the taverns, and Papanti the famous dance master are the kind of eclectic memories that give a taste for life in antebellum Boston as seen through a boy's eyes. Don't expect a systematic exposition of Boston life - this is one old man's memories, and those of an exceptional man at that.

While you are at it, it would be worth your while to look into Hale's adult career as well, if only in the summary version. He was one of the great men of his age - the author of A Man Without a Country, among many other books - and a leading voice for philanthropy and social causes. Many of the post-Civil War social institutions founded in Boston were based on his writings, and his statue stands in the Public Garden with good reason. Today, his name is little more than vaguely familiar to most, but he deserved his reputation as one of the great men of his age.

A New England Boyhood - free download, Google Books.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Twofer: Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Mass. General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 1853 (BPL Flickr Group).

West End, 1855.

This entry is built more upon the featured photograph than the institutions shown above, so it will not be one of my typical capsule histories. The image shows MGH (left) and the Harvard Medical School (the square building) on the edge of the Charles river, before the filling of the banks extended the West End into the waters. Notice that both buildings are sitting on pilings. At the time, and for many more years, the Charles was still a tidal river, and here we see it at a relatively low tide. It was not until the dam was built across the mouth of the river that ebb and flow of the river would be stopped up, and the lake-like basin we know now created.

So this photograph reminds us that the Charles river basin of our time - including the Esplanade - is an artificial creation - a prime example of man mucking about with nature. That placid puddle we see now was once a wild estuary, draining three river systems; the Charles, small Stony brook, and and still-smaller Muddy river. The building-out of Boston - and Roxbury - was at the expense of a broad, shallow estuary system of salt marsh and winding channels. The damming of the Charles created a tub of water for our viewing pleasure - and to save our sensitive noses from the stink of the mudflats.

As a bonus, I'll mention that four years before this photograph was taken, George Parkman's body was dismembered and disposed of within the Medical School building. The story of perhaps Boston's most notorious murder was doubly notable, considering that Parkman had donated the land for the school that was the scene of the grizzly deed. If you don't know the story, definitely investigate it - it's a classic Victorian horror.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Public Garden That Could Have Been

The proposed Massachusetts Conservatory of Arts, Science and Historical Relics.

During the filling and development of Boston's Back Bay, there were many grand schemes proposed for how the land would be used. The area that became the Public Garden was the first to be filled, extending land that had once been the shore of the Bay and home to a rope walk (that is, rope factory). There was immediate pressure to sell off the land for housing, but the city kept the land with the intention of putting it to the public good.

The above building, proposed by a Mr William E. Baker, Esq, was based on the Zoological Garden in London and the Jardin des Plantes of Paris. This was before the Natural History Society building was erected (as described in an earlier entry) so there was need for such a facility. However, the building as designed was apparently not appreciated, and the land was left for a garden park.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Club: Historic Photos of Boston

Here we have another book of photos, text and captions by Timothy Orwig. This one is a little different from those I've already looked at in that it covers the 20th Century as well as the 19th. In fact, only one of four chapters represents the 19th century, so this book is a good complement to any of the others I've covered. The 19th Century photos shown here include some of the 'usual suspects' from other sources - this is no doubt unavoidable given the paucity of material and the desire to cover the 'big' subjects. With the inclusion of the 20th Century, you also get away from downtown Boston, including a look at an auto race at the Readville track - half a mile from where I sit now, and a famous shot of Presidential candidate Eisenhower in an open car on Blue Hill ave.

All in all, this is well worth a look. It's not a book I'd go back to very often, but nice to see at least once.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Trade Cards

Frank's Dining Room.

Frank's Dining Room - 15 Harrison avenue, 1888 map.

Trade cards were a very popular form of advertising during the late 19th Century. They had been used throughout the 1800s, but the development of color lithography in the 1870s lead to a great increase in their use. These weren't just throw-away items - they were brought home and pasted into scrapbooks as well. Happily, not all were treated that way, so we have them available to us now.

As you can see in this small collection, certain genres were popular. Cherubic children, flowers, and comic figures are very common. In many cases, it is hard to associate the product with the picture, so as is true today, the advertisement was meant to catch the eye more than to inform.

Here's an idea for the person with a love for Boston history and a need to fill a wall space with something very cool: get yourself to ebay, and do a search for Boston trade cards. You'll find a wide range of them available for small money. Buy a few, thinking of their sizes, and how they'd fit together in a frame. Then, find the DIY picture framing shop in Brookline Village, and visit them. They'll set you up with mat, frame and glass, and cut your mat for you. Then in you go to the assembly room, and you put your cards into the mat and put the mat in the frame. I recommend small plastic corners to hold the cards without using adhesive on them. When it's all together, you have a beautiful framed collection of Boston-related art collectibles, and all the kids on your block will want one. ;-)

I've marked the locations of the businesses in blue. Many buildings had multiple tenants, so a shop may have been one of two or three within the marked building.

Edward C. Almy & Co. Fine Clothes.

Edward C. Almy & Co., 616 Washington street, 1888 map.

R. & J. Gilchrist, Dry Goods. Did this become The Gilchrist department store that sat at the corner of Washington and Winter streets for much of the 20th Century? I assume so, but I haven't been able to nail it down.

R.& J. Gilchrist, 5 and 7 Winter street, 1888 map.

Griswold Corset Parlor. The Boston Directory of 1885 lists the proprietor as Mrs K.A. Griswold. Yes, women owned and operated businesses in 1885.

Griswold Corsets, 359 Washington street, 1888 map.

Lewando's French Dye House.

Lewando's French Dye House, 17 Temple Place, 1888 map

Now that I think of it, do I remember seeing a Lewando's dry cleaner business somewhere?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lost Train Stations: Boston and Maine, Depot Number One

Boston and Maine station, Haymarket square, 1866.

The Boston and Maine railroad ran from Boston to Portland, and over the years, through expansion and consolidation, would cover New Hampshire and stretch across northern Massachusetts to New York and extend south to Springfield. The photograph above shows the station that sat on Haymarket square. This was the only rail line from north of Boston that ever extended so far into the city.

Boston and Maine RR station (marked in red), Haymarket square, 1852.

This map fragment shows the location of the station. Please notice the triangle (the Bullfinch Triangle) formed by Merrimack, Causeway and Charlestown streets. Causeway street was built along the line of the old dam across the North End cove. Merrimack and Charlestown streets approximate the curving path of the original shore of the cove, and the land within the triangle thus formed was all made land, built with fill taken from Beacon Hill. On the far side of Causeway street, we see other railroad stations (to be discussed later), wharfs and docks, and other streets laid out on filled land.

The railroad tracks ran between Canal and Haverhill streets from Causeway street to the station. The tracks were laid out on top of the filled canal - appropriately - that had been built through the Bullfinch Triangle to Haymarket square. Before the building of the railroads, the Middlesex Canal had carried freight south from the Merrimack river to the port of Boston. The canal through the filled land of the old cove was considered an extension of the Middlesex. With the coming of the railroads, the canal was no longer profitable or necessary, so the Boston extension could be replaced by the trains.

In time, the Haymarket station would be replaced by a new one on Causeway street, which I'll look at later.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Club: Lost Boston

Jane Holtz Kay's Lost Boston is a classic illustrated look at Boston's past. It features mainly photographs, with occasional prints and maps - all black and white. Themed chapters organize the content, with the themes representing, of course, the visual material available to the author. So you get the Great Fire of 1872, parks, churches, etc.; all the usual suspects. I remember - vaguely - when this book came out in 1980. It was the first time I had seen old photos of historic Boston, and it was a great pleasure.

My only criticism would be that some photos are made quite small to fit alongside the text. Space is always an issue with such books, but size really does matter when it comes to historical photographs. In any case, the book is well worth a look - it's a good book for browsing and for inspiring further investigations.