Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Roxbury, the Horological Hub

Expert Stephen Fletcher on a Simon Willard Roxbury Tall Clock.

 Simon and Aaron Willard were born in Grafton Massachusetts in the mid 18th century. They apprenticed as clock makers, and in 1780 came to live and work in Roxbury. Within ten years, Aaron would move his shop to Boston, but Simon stayed in Roxbury Simon's shop was on what is now Washington street (then the only road running across Boston Neck to Roxbury) near Eustis street. While Aaron is considered the lesser craftsman, he was the superior businessman, surrounded by a clockmaking colony around his Washington street shop, and retiring a well to do man. 

The Simon Willard Supreme Court Clock.

In Roxbury, Simon Willard's clock-making process also involved farming out work to surrounding shops. Simon himself made the cockworks. There would have been painters and engravers, and cases were made by various local craftsmen For a time after the Revolution when metal was dear, they actually imported British clockworks and put them into their own wood boxes. Simon would make clocks during the winter, and travel up the north shore of Massachusetts to peddle them, sometimes going as far as Maine.

 During their early years, the Willards built the standard tall clock - what we would call a grandfather clock. In 1801, Simon Willard invented the so-called banjo clock. This smaller clock, with its short pendulum, could be hung from a wall or put on a mantle.This made clock-owning available to many more people. The design was patented, with the help of Thomas Jefferson, who Willard met while  working in the capital, but Simon Willard did not fight to protect his patent, and many other clockmakers copied and profited from his design.Willard became Keeper of the Clocks at Harvard, and made clocks for the Old South Church and the Capitol building in Washington D.C., as well as the famous Supreme Court clock shown above. He retired in 1839, and lived with various sons and daughters until he died in 1848 at ninety six years old.

Advertisement for an E. Howard clock. As was traditional for the time, the Roxbury factory address is not given. Most such businesses had sales offices in Boston, and used their downtown address. This can cause confusion for the amateur historian.

 E. Howard watch.

Edward Howard, born 1813, apprenticed with Aaron Willard Jr in Roxbury. Starting in 1842 with a partner, the Howard and Davis company built high quality wall clocks, along with precision balances, sewing machines and fire engines(!). A factory was built in Roxbury in 1845. The company evolved over the years, with different partners and various reorganizations. Davis left, Howard Clock and Watch failed and became Howard Watch and Clock. The company had only two standard models, but made many others to order. They made regulator wall clocks and watchman's clocks for business, and tower clocks for buildings. The clock at South Station was made by E.Howard. During the late 19th century, their watches were among the best made in the country.

Howard and Davis Clock and Balance mfg., Hampden (East on this map) and Norfolk streets, Roxbury, 1852. They would later move across Hampden street to where Proctor street is on this map. Howard street would be laid out parallel to Norfolk street and just behind the Howard factory in 1859.

E. Howard Watch and Clock Co. 1884. Eustis, Prescott and Hampden streets, Roxbury (building shown below).

E. Howard Factory, 1888 (Smithsonian Institution Libraries)

Howard watches were among the finest in the nation. Edward Howard developed the stem wind watch, doing away with the need of key winding. Howard retired in 1881, with the business going on under his name. The watch business was sold in the early years of the 20th century, and manufacturing was moved to Waltham. It is claimed that the  Howard company remained in business in Roxbury until the 1930s, but the company was sold to Hamilton Watch company in 1927. The company name does show up on a 1931 map, so someone doing business as the E. Howard Clock Co. on Eustis street at the time.

So for a century, Roxbury was the home to some of the finest horological craftsmen and elite brands in the nation.

E. Howard Watch and Clock Company

The Simon Willard Supreme Court Clock 

The Willards and their Clocks 

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Let's Go To The Races!

The trotters run at Readville (BPL Flickr photo group).

It's been a while since I posted. That's because I've suffered from a 'new improved!' version of Google Blogger. As with  other  social media software, Google has managed to scramble what was a perfectly good system, for no benefit that I can see. I won't bore you with the details, but the difficulties of learning the new layout have been great enough to make me walk away from the effort for many weeks. That being said.... back to Boston history.

Many people are familiar with Suffolk Down racetrack in East Boston. Fewer know that there was once a track in Readville at the southern tip of the city. The track, once cite of the civil war training Camp Meigs, famous for its role in the  history of  the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. After the war, it became home to an agricultural fairground in the then-new town of Hyde Park. With the fair came horse racing, and the racing stayed after the fairground closed.

Cars racing at Readville (BPL Flickr photo group).

The Readville track, at the Boston/Dedham border, 1918.

In 1896, a new mile-long trotting track opened, with grandstands and a hotel. With a new century came a new form of transportation, and the first thing men did with automobiles was to race them.Trotters and automobiles shared the track. By the early 1930s, a new track had been laid, and cars were king. Nineteen thirty-seven saw the last official race, and during the war years, military pilots used the track to practice landings.

Cars at the starting line (BPL Flickr group).

Cars in the 'pit.'

Stop and Shop built a large distribution warehouse on the site along the railroad tracks, which sits empty today, waiting for redevelopment. As a final, threatened indignity, the town of Dedham once considered their strip of land at the site (much of it wetlands) as a dedicated 'adult' business district. The effort was, of course, an effort to scam their way out of Constitutional requirements, and wiser heads prevailed.

Source: Boston Public Library, Sports Temples of Boston

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Old Feather Store

Old Feather Store, 1775, approximate location marked in red. Notice how close the location was to the waterfront. The building was on Ann street, at the edge of the then-appropriately named Dock square.

The Old Feather Store, photographed shortly before it was torn down.

Boston, 1855. The location of Ann street relative to Faneuil Hall helps us place the Old Feather store.

No discussion of lost Boston buildings is complete without a a shout-out for the Old Feather Store. The building was erected in 1680, after the fire of 1679 burned much of the area (and led to the first paid fire department in North America) and housed many businesses over the years, including the eponymous feather store in the early 1800s. The construction was oak timber and stucco, embedded with pieces of broken glass bottles replacing the more common pebbles in the mix.

For more details:


Celebrate Boston

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Toy Theatre

Toy Theatre, from the BPL Flickr photo group.

Toy/Copley Theatre, across from Stuart street, 1917.

The photograph above, with the interesting title Toy Theatre, set me off on one of my typical investigations. I had never heard the name before, and had no idea where it was. My first stop was Cinema Treasures, the go-to online reference for old cinemas. And there I learned that the Toy was an old name for a cinema in the Back Bay that was part of the Shubert and then Sack chains, ending as the Sack Capri. The photo above shows the entrance on Dartmouth and Stuart streets - in a later incarnation, the entrance would be from Huntington avenue.

The Toy Theatre, Lime street, lower Beacon Hill.

Interior of the original Toy Theatre.

Lime street, between Mt Vernon and Chestnut streets, just before the Toy Theatre was founded. The 'X' through many buildings in the neighborhood denotes a stable, where hay was kept, and represented a fire hazard.

The Toy Theatre was founded in 1911 by an amateur theatrical group to present plays that had not been presented professionally in Boston. That included both works written by members of the group itself and playwrights from this country and Europe. The group would eventually premier some of the lesser known works of George Bernard Shaw in Boston.

The theatre was located in a former stable in Beacon Hill's stable district, between Beacon and Charles streets and the Charles river. Nineteen eleven was just the time when automobiles were replacing horses, and many larger stables were being turned into garages.

The founding group consisted of the usual high society types, including the daughter of one of the owners of the Jordan Marsh department store. In 1913, after complaints from theatre goers about profanity, Mayor Curley stepped in and censored a production of Across the Border. James Michael Himself read the script, and after removing one offending line, did allow the show to go on.

The new Toy Theatre was built in 1914 on Dartmouth street in the Back Bay. Somewhere along the line, management was turned over to a Mr. Jewett, who offed acting lessons there. In 1937, Mr Shubert bought the property and turned it into a movie theatre. When Stuart street was extended across Dartmouth street, the theatre building was moved away from Dartmouth street, and an entrance was run from Huntington avenue, where it became the Sack Capri, which would run Breakfast at Tiffany's and La Dolce Vita. The theatre and the entire block was lost in the early 1960s to a new Mass Pike exit ramp.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Sargent's Daughters - The Biography of a Painting

In 2009, I published an article on my Remember Jamaica Plain blog about the Boit family. The hook for the post was John Singer Sargent's painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a favorite of mine. I've just learned that the same year, Erica E. Hirshler published a book on the painting, so I've taken a look at it. While Edward D. Boit did live in Jamaica Plain as a child, he spent much of his married life in Europe, and while in the United States stayed either on Beacon Hill or in Newport. Which means that the book itself says nothing about Jamaica Plain. It does, however, speak of Boston, so I thought I'd put this follow-up to the earlier blog post here.

The book does a good job giving a sense of the American expat life during the late 19th century. The book is the story of both the Boits and of Sargent, and shows how their lives were intertwined for many years. We get Sargent's development as an artist, observations by their mutual friend Henry James, and much information from the diary of Edward Boit's brother Robert. And of course, we get the daughters. Much has been made of the later lives of the girls, and Ms. Hirshler shines a good deal of light on what has long been a mystery.

Very little of the book features Boston, but the oldest daughter did have her 'coming out' while the family was on one of their rare return visits. And the painting was in and out of the Museum of Fine Arts - first as a loan, and then as a gift. Still, you do get a sense of Boston Brahmin life, even if most of it is in exile. One particular criticism grows out of the simple fact that very little is known about the genesis of the painting. Occasionally, the author falls into the 'what was he thinking?' rhetorical gimmick, in an effort to fill in the historical blanks. Of course, it's a shame we don't know certain things, but that doesn't give us license to impose upon real life characters. This extends to quoting from a contemporary of a character of whom little is known. The quoted passages may represent a window into the life of the person of interest, but then again, maybe it doesn't. This minor quibble aside, the book is definitely worth a look if you're a fan of the painting.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: The Theatres of Boston

In an effort to learn more about the history of movie theatres in Boston, I searched out The Theatres of Boston, by Donald C. King. Much of the book's focus is on theatres proper, rather than cinemas, but the latter part of the book does feature cinemas, and the two naturally go together.

The book goes back to the Colonial era, with Puritan Boston's aversion to theatre - both John Hancock and Samuel Adams were firmly against. You get the full history of theatre development, slowly at first, and then the buildup of the first theatre district, the growth of vaudeville, and the gradual shift to moving pictures. For those who bemoan the lack of cinemas today, I found it interesting to learn just how much was lost by the end of the 1960s. I also learned that the first porn theatre in the Combat Zone was actually in 1960 - before the tearing down of Scollay square. The story that's usually told is that such businesses moved to lower Washington street after Scollay square was razed, which was 1962.

The book alternates between story telling and more reference-like passages. Some chapters are little more than descriptions of theatres - size, seating, interior design and materials, etc. This is of interest to the specialist, but for readers like me, such passages are easily skipped.

There are drawings, photos and posters to liven things up. I'd call this a good library book - not something I'd buy, but worth a read-through.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Book Review: Boston Lithography

The book is subtitled The Boston Athenaeum Collection, and presents 128 prints, about half black and white and half color. It features Boston lithographers, so while many represent images of Boston, it also includes portraits, sheet music covers and scenes from other communities. It opens with a text section that discusses the development and growth of the industry, and ends with a reference section on the various firms and artists. Some of the Boston-specific prints are already available online, but it's nice to have them in hand.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Boylston Market

Boylston Market, BPL Flickr photo group. No overhead wires for streetcars, so perhaps 1880s.

Boylston Market was designed by Charles Bullfinch, erected in 1809-10, and named for philanthropist Ward Nicholas Boylston (Boylston street was so-named at the same time).

Note: The father of Ward Nicholas Boylston was the loyalist Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who lived in Jamaica Plain (then Roxbury). The Hallowells left Boston with General Howe in 1775. In time, the son, Ward Nicholas, took his uncle's surname, and returned from London to the United States in 1800 to fight for the return of the family property through his mother's line (his father being a loyalist). A magnanimous court returned the estate at Centre and Boylston streets in Jamaica Plain to him, and he remained there until he died in 1828. So Boylston street honors the son of a loyalist who returned and became a respected American.

This photo dated 1881-1883. BPL Flickr photo group.

More than just a market, Boylston market was home to various institutions, and housed a hall where concerts and meetings were held, including those of the Handel and Haydn Society and the New England Anti-Slavery Society.

Title: Corner of Washington and Boylston Streets, Boston. The old Boylston Market, Published in: Ballou's pictorial drawing-room companion, unknown date (possibly mid-1850s) BPL Flickr photo group.

The then-new Boylston Market, 1813. At the corner of Boylston and Orange (later Washington) streets (click on map for larger image).

Near the end: Boylston Market, 1883.

Boylston Market was torn down in 1888, and replaced by the Continental Clothing House, which I discussed in my last entry. The belfry was eventually placed on the Calvary Methodist Church in Arlington Massachusetts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Continental Clothing House

The original Continental Clothing House building, at Washington and Harvard streets.

The Continental Clothing House, or Freeland, Loomis and Company, was founded in 1873. The store was preceded by the C.W. Freeland, Beard and Company, located at 152 Devonshire street, as revealed by the 1865 Boston Directory. At the same time, Silas Loomis was having success in business in in the Midwest. After the Chicago Fire of 1871, Loomis came to Boston and joined the firm Freeland, Loomis and Company. The first location of the new store was 744-756 Washington street. This was at the corner of Harvard street, which was one block south of Kneeland street. The contemporaneous print above boasts "The Largest Retail Clothing House in New England."

"King's Handbook of Boston said: "The first place of business in this country to make use of the electric light was the Continental Clothing House, at the south-west corner of Washington and Harvard Streets ; the proprietors, Freeland, Loomis, & Co., successfully making the experiment Nov. 14, 1878. In 1881 the light was introduced in illuminating Scollay Square and a section of Court Street at night; and it was also employed in a number of hotels, shops, and large establishments. Its general introduction in the street-lighting of the city has since been carried forward. "

Before I go on to the second location of the Continental Clothing House in Boston, this might be the appropriate place to insert mention of the Omaha branch store. Presumably based on Silas Loomis' experience in the West, the Omaha Illustrated of 1888 reported: "The proprietors of the establishment have fixed upon Omaha as the most important point for the western distributing branch of their business, and will eventually transfer a large portion of their manufacturing to this city, where, in the near future, it is proposed to enter into competition with the large western wholesale markets of Chicago and St. Louis in supplying the demand of the great West and Northwest, which must look to Omaha for its supplies of every description."

Evidently, Freeland and Loomis were thinking big. The Omaha Illustrated article also informs us that the stock for the store would be manufactured in Boston by between by "between five and six hundred hands," at the home facility. That's interesting. I take from that reference that the stock sold at the Boston store had been made on the premises as well.

The new building, at the corner of Boylston and Washington streets.

From an advertisement, Boston Globe, December 7, 1923.

Back to Boston. In 1888, the store moved up Washington street to the corner of Boylston street, on the site of the old Boylston Market (more on that building in a future entry).

Advertisement from The Tech, newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, December 10, 1896.

Another advertisement from The Tech, the newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, March 30, 1917. Stylish, aren't they?

Promotional pin from the Continental Clothing House.

The trade card for the Continental Clothing House shows, on opposite sides (above and below) the difference between your average suitor and the well dressed man.

On September 7, 1923, a Boston Globe article announced that the Continental Clothing House, under the name Freeland Loomis Company, had been bought by William Filene's Sons Company. Both the main Boylston street store and a newer store at Washington and Franklin streets were included in the sale. So now we know what happened to this major Boston retail institution. At least we know what happened to the name. I still don't know what Filene's did with the Boylston street location, and how long it remained as a retail establishment.

Monday, June 4, 2012


The Young Men's Christian Association was founded in London in 1844, with the first American chapter opened in Boston in 1851. It was led by evangelical Christians, and intended to serve young men new to the city, and keep them on the straight and narrow. The organization went through several homes as it grew, ending up at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley streets in the Back Bay. The 1883 map below shows the location, opposite the Museum of Natural History and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Men could find housing, read in the library, attend lectures, take classes and exercise. This was part of the 'muscular Christianity' movement of the time.

Fire at the old YMCA building, circa 1930 (BPL Flickr photo group).

YMCA location, Boylston and Berkeley streets, 1883.

YMCA at Huntington avenue, 1920 (BPL Flickr photo group).

The organization would move from Berkeley street to Huntington avenue, where the Opera House sat on the opposite corner, the New England Conservatory and the new Museum of Fine Arts building was just up the street.

YMCA Huntington avenue, 1917.

Young Men's Christian Union building, Boylston street (still standing). Photo by Robert P. Burke, taken from a Boston Landmarks Study Report.

The YMCU was, like the YMCA, founded in 1851. So why two young men's Christian organizations at the same time? Wikipedia claims that Unitarians were excluded from the Evangelical YMCA (without citation, as usual). It was a group from Harvard that established the YMCU, and Harvard was primarily Unitarian at the time, so this would make sense. The building was designed by Nathaniel J. Bradlee, who was both a leading architect at the time and a life member of the organization. The 1883 map below shows the L-shaped wing in the back. The photo above does not show the long-lost clock tower that was situated at the top of the left section of the facade. The UMCU matched the YMCA in offering classes, a library, exercise facilities and the rest.

Young Men's Christian Union, on Boylston street between Washington and Tremont streets, 1883.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Guns of Boston Harbor

Fort Warren, George's Island (BPL Flickr photo group).

A new series of photos was just released in the Boston Public Library Flickr photo group, including these images of the military batteries that once protected Boston Harbor. While Boston long had forts protecting the city, by the 1870s, they were obsolete. In the 1880s, the Presidential Endicott Commission recommended a dramatic expansion and modernization of America's coastal defense system. Between 1890 and 1910, earth and concrete batteries were constructed around Boston harbor, including the three shown here. They were manned during World Wars I and II, with most decommissioned during the Cold War.

Fort Strong, Long Island (BPL Flickr photo group).

Fort Andrews, Peddocks Island (BPL Flickr photo group).

Fort Standish, Lovells Island (PBL Flickr photo group).

For anyone interested in this subject, make sure you visit the Massachusetts Forts Wiki, which will tell you all you ever wanted to know.