Category Archives: lowell

Pollard’s Department Store – Lowell Born . . . Lowell Owned . . . Lowell Managed

Arthur G. Pollard, Founder of A G Pollard Department Store in Lowell, Massachusetts and Native of Plaistow, New Hampshire

Late on a Thursday afternoon on June 3, 1926, every available firefighting resource raced to Pollard’s Department Store on Merrimack Street in Downtown Lowell.  All of Lowell’s fire department was joined by men and equipment sent from Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Lawrence in the fight to save Pollard’s from a raging fire.  Pollard’s, also known as A.G. Pollard Co., traced its beginnings to 1836 when Hocum Hosford founded a dry goods store on Lowell’s Merrimack Street, in the same location that would one day house the much larger Pollard’s Department Store.

The fire did not result in any deaths, but many firemen were temporarily overcome by the billowing smoke and illuminating gas.  Others were cut by flying glass or hit by falling debris.

The fire had been discovered at 4:40 PM by workers from the nearby Lowell Electric Light Company.  Four hours later, despite firefighting efforts, only the walls remained of the 90-year-old institution known as the A G. Pollard Department Store on Merrimack, Palmer, and Middle Streets.

With his entire store gutted by the city’s worst fire on record, many expected 83-year-old Arthur Gayton Pollard to retire from retailing after what had been a lengthy and successful career.  Instead, barely a month later, he opened a temporary store, at the Number Six mill of the Bigelow-Hartford plant on Market Street.  Just months later, in 1927, he reopened his full store, at its historic Merrimack Street location.

Arthur Gayton Pollard lived long enough to oversee the return of his store to full operations.   He died on June 4, 1930, just one day after the fourth anniversary of the devastating fire.  So great was his reputation among the Downtown Lowell community that the merchants division of the city’s chamber of commerce voted to close downtown stores for one hour on June 6, during Pollard’s funeral.

Even the Bon Marche, one of A.G. Pollard's main competitors, closed in observance of his funeral on June 6, 1930.

Arthur Pollard’s influence stretched far beyond his department store.  During his working years, he was involved many of Lowell’s companies and institutions.  Pollard served as president of Lowell’s Union National Bank, Stony Brook Railroad Company, the Lowell Hosiery Company, and Lowell General Hospital.  He was also a trustee of the Lowell Cemetery Association, Lowell Textile School, the Ayer Home for Little Children, Rogers Hall School, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.  He was also active in the Republican party.  Although he never held or sought office, he served as treasurer on the Middlesex County Republican Committee for nearly 20 years.  In 1900, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which nominated McKinley for a second term.  Pollard had also amassed quite a reputation in free masonry, and attained high honors in the York and Scottish rites, both in Lowell and nationally.

A Pollard's Ad from 1944 touts its Lowell heritage.

Arthur Pollard was a native of Plaistow, New Hampshire.  He was born on January 5, 1843, the only son of Colonel Joseph Smith and Luella Josephine (Tucker) Pollard.  He moved to Lowell at 11 years old, and, five years later, began working, first with Hilton, Keyes & Lewis of Lowell, and next with the Lowell Board of Assessors.  By the time he turned 18, he had found work with Hocum Hosford, a prominent Downtown Lowell dry goods merchant and sometime mayor of Lowell.  (Hosford Square carries his name).  After three years, Pollard became a partner in Hosford’s firm.  Hosford and Pollard continued their partnership for two decades, until Hosford died in 1881.

A WWI-era advertisement for A. G. Pollard's Department Store

Until 1886, Pollard continued the firm as he had when Hosford was alive, but then bought out his interest from Hosford’s estate and became its sole owner.  Arthur Pollard renamed the concern, A. G. Pollard & Co.; his department store was born.  By the 20th century’s first years, the A.G. Pollard Company had become one of the largest stores in Massachusetts, rivaled only by a couple of stores in Boston.  Pollard became so well-known in Lowell circles that hundreds gathered on Lowell’s Merrimack Street to watch him be the first man in Lowell to drive an electric car.  In retailing innovations, Pollard was credited with the invention of the bargain basement.

From the 1943 Lowell City Directory

Despite his many successes in Lowell, Plaistow, Pollard’s hometown, was never far from his mind.  Over the years, he became known as the “father’ of the town.  Some of his many gifts to the town included a tower clock for the Town Hall, a flagpole for the Village Improvement Society, a site for a school building, and an oil painting of his father, Colonel Joseph S. Pollard.  He also funded the creation of a soldiers’ monument erected in Plaistow’s Pollard Square.  Its pedestal was made of granite and topped with a bronze figure, standing some eight feet in height.  The pedestal bears four bronze tablets, containing the names of 102 citizens of Plaistow who served in the Civil War.

Pollard's Logo, circa 1965

Pollard’s Department Store held on long after Arthur Pollard’s death.  During his lifetime, Pollard admitted his son, Harry G. Pollard to the business, who later succeeded his father as its president.  And, in the decades following Pollard’s death, his other descendants played prominent roles in the department store’s management.  By 1961, two of Pollard’s great-grandsons, William Pollard Bartlett and Sheppard Bartlett managed the company as its executives.

A November 1970 Advertisement for Lynch's Department Store (Formerly Pollard's)

After 133 years of existence and 88 years under the ownership of Arthur Pollard or his family, the store eventually came to be sold on August 21, 1969, to Dexter D. Gould of Manchester, who owned and operated a chain of stores spread across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  At the time of the acquisition, Gould controlled the Miss Lynch Shop, located across the street from A. G. Pollard.  He also controlled Lynch Co. of Manchester and Kimball Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  As the sale was announced in the local press, promises were made that Pollard’s would retain its name.  Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. The adjacent Hosford Block stands just beyond.


A ‘Forgotten New England’ Book?

The Jail on Lowell, Massachusetts' Thorndike Street, circa 1908 (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Good evening readers – it’s been a good week at Forgotten New England.   The site has hit 150 followers and has been experiencing some of its heaviest traffic ever.

And – an editor from a reputable publishing house happened upon this blog last week and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Lowell (Mass.) history.  I am.

I’ve got tons of content and research, but am short on photographs that aren’t already readily available on the Internet.  Does anyone have old photographs/memorabilia (1800’s to 1970’s) of Lowell landmarks and personalities that they’d be willing to contribute?  I can scan and return any originals.  Credit for the photo will be included in the book, of course.  Please send me a message at forgottennewengland at gmail dot com for further details.

And, as always, thanks for your continued readership and for all of the ‘shares’.


Downtown Lowell’s “Uncle” Dudley Page: The Man behind Page’s Clock

From the 1939 Lowell City Directory

If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve surely passed Page’s Clock in Kearney Square on Merrimack Street.  The clock, refurbished in the 1990’s, has been a Downtown Lowell landmark since the D.L. Page Company moved its operations into the nearby building at 16-18 Merrimack Street in May 1913.

As its advertisements claimed, the D.L. Page Company had been “makers of fine candies since Lincoln’s Time.”  By the time the late 1930’s had rolled around, Dudley L. Page had run his business for nearly 75 years.

“Uncle Dudley”, as he was affectionately known throughout Lowell, always proudly recalled that his first day in business was March 17, 1866, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.  Uncle Dudley founded his first candy shop on the corner of Lowell’s Middle and Central Streets, in the basement of a building that then housed Richardson’s Clothing Store.  He had returned from service in the Civil War just one year before.

In its years before the move into its Merrimack Street location, the D.L. Page Company housed its operations in various Downtown Lowell locations:  the basement of the Hildreth Block, a store opposite St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street, on the street floor of the Fellows Block, and in the old Masonic Building, also on Merrimack Street.  Uncle Dudley also opened branch locations at 9 West Street in Boston, as well as in Lynn and North Chelmsford.

Lowell Sun Advertisement for DL Page & Co, March 16, 1931

Born in New London, NH in the mid-1840’s, Uncle Dudley moved to Billerica when he was six.  At an annual meeting of the Lowell Historical Society in 1934, he delivered a paper on his childhood in Billerica recalling his boyhood ambition, which was not to be a baker and maker of fine candies, but to be a locomotive engineer.  In the decade before the Civil War, Uncle Dudley recalled a life where stagecoaches were the preferred manner of travel to reach the outskirts of town and where he followed the actions of Wendell Phillips, the ‘crusading abolitionist’.  He also recalled timeless childhood antics like skipping school in favor of visiting the swimming hole and hobbies that don’t seem so timeless, like catching eels in the Shawsheen River and pitching quoits.

Barely a decade later, Uncle Dudley went on to join the Union army, and even stood inspection before President Lincoln.  Soon after returning from his Civil War service, Uncle Dudley opened his store, and went on to specialize in candies of all kinds.  Over the years, he added a restaurant and  a luncheonette to his shop.  In the late 1870’s, he even completed a Doctor of Medicine degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson College.

Even as he neared his 100th birthday in the 1930’s, Uncle Dudley continued to actively bake, make candy, and oversee all of the daily activities of his shop.  And, with each year, Uncle Dudley celebrated the St. Patrick’s Day anniversary of his store with special offerings, including stick candy.

Well into his nineties, Uncle Dudley was often seen pushing slush from his store’s sidewalk, and was used by downtown officials to encourage his fellow merchants to do the same.  He figured prominently into the city’s social scene too.  In August 1934, local papers ignited with the gossip that only scandal brings when Uncle Dudley secretly wedded Miss Ella Calderwood.  Miss Calderwood had been a bookkeeper for his firm for several years, but had retired some 15 years before.  In her retirement, she worked as a piano instructor, and had acquired a reputation among local musicians.  Miss Calderwood had also served as a housekeeper for Uncle Dudley for some time.  Their marriage in August 1934 satisfied the rumors about their romantic involvement.  When they married, she was 85; he was 89.

Dudley L. Page (Courtesy: Lowell Sun - 8/11/1934)

After more than 75 years in business, Dudley L. Page died on November 20, 1942, at his home at 427 Andover Street in Lowell’s Belvidere section.  He was 98. At the time, he was one of the last two remaining Civil War veterans living in Lowell and had served as an honorary marshal in the city’s Memorial Day parades for years.  He had retained active management of his store up until his very last years, and kept an active interest in the store up until his death.  The store held on for a short period afterward, but in December 1947, the location was sold, and eventually became Brigham’s.

Uncle Dudley’s clock remains on Merrimack Street outside his store’s former building.  The clock fell into disrepair for a while in the late 20th century, but since its refurbishing in the 1990’s, it has once again rejoined the Downtown Lowell landscape as a link to the area’s vibrant past and to one of Downtown Lowell’s most influential long-time merchants.

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts. Page's Clock appears in the middle left of the photo, along the sidewalk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, John Phelan)


Yesterday’s Telephone Numbers: GLenview, MOntrose, and ULysses

In those long ago days before cellphones, speed dialing, and stored numbers, folks like Tommy Tutone telephoned girls like ‘Jenny’ by actually dialing 867-5309.  If he was a modern type, he may have even punched the number into the telephone’s touchtone keypad, an innovation that was several years old by the time the song was released in 1981.

And, 20 years earlier, in 1962, Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes sang of a woman who urged men to call her at BEechwood 4-5789 so they could “have a date, any ol’ time”.

A generation before, in 1940, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, memorialized the phone number of Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania with the song PEnnsylvania 6-5000.

Do you find it easier to remember the telephone numbers of your childhood home or friends, than those of any one of the ten cellphones and landlines in your family today?  There was something about dialing a telephone number (or even punching it into a touchtone number pad) that helped commit it to memory.

The telephone companies didn’t always think so, though.  As seven-digit phone numbers were introduced during the middle of the 20th century, companies like New England Telephone and Telegraph added exchange names to existing phone numbers to help people remember the two digits added to the beginning of their phone numbers.  Locally, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company called its telephone exchange names ‘central offices’ when they were implemented in the early 1950’s.  In September 1954, in Massachusetts, along came GLenview for Lowell, ULysses for Tewksbury, NIagara for Tyngsboro, and MYrtle for Westford.  (ALpine for Chelmsford came soon after.)  The two initial letters of the central office names, always capitalized, represented the two initial numbers of the phone number to be dialed.  Hence, as it’s explained below, GL3-2181 becomes 453-2181:

New England Telephone, 1954

The idea behind central office names, beyond helping memories and expanding the pool of available numbers, was to enable ‘wide range dialing’, or allowing people to dial American and Canadian numbers directly into their telephones, without the assistance of an operator. The new system also standardized the numbering system and ensured that each telephone received a unique number.  Under this system, telephone numbers contained three components:  an area designation (now known as an area code), a Central Office designation (consisting of the first two letters of the central office name and the first number thereafter, and the station number (or the last four digits of the telephone number).

New England Telephone and Telegraph, 1964

So, how did it work?  If you were dialing within a central office (or telephone exchange name), you needed only to dial the five figures, as explained above.  If you wanted to call outside of your central office, the two letters were added.

There’s something nostalgic and ‘mid-century sounding’ to a phone number like BEechwood 45789, or more locally, GLenview 8-6361, which was the telephone number to reach one of Lowell’s largest department stores, the Bon Marché.  Today, in an era of Skype and email and text messages, it’s hard to imagine the same sort of nostalgia being attached to a phone number.


The Release of the 1940 US Census – April 2, 2012

On April 2, 2012, at 9 AM (EST), the National Archives will release the 1940 US census schedules at  http://1940census.archives.gov/.  The release, administered by The National Archives in partnership with archives.com, will mark the first time a census has been released online.  Site visitors will gain free access to view, search, print, and download the 1940 census schedules at the site.  The National Archives has already released a video on its YouTube channel providing information on the 1940 census, the archives’ preparations for its release, and instructions showing how to access the census after April 2:

Family tree historians have long scoured census records for basic information about their ancestors: names, approximate ages/birthplaces, and occupations.  Every ten years, since the first US federal census in 1790, the United States census has counted all individuals living in US homes.  The results are then used to determine the allocation of congressional seats and electoral votes.  The most recent census, the country’s 22nd, was executed in 2010.  The census is a requirement established by the US Constitution and is overseen by the United States Census Bureau.  Aggregated census data is available to the public soon after the census is taken.  The actual census records and data specific to individuals is withheld for 72 years.  The 1930 US census was released to the public in April 2002.  The 1940 census will be released next month.

1940 Census Population Questionnaire - Photo courtesy of the Public Information Office - U.S. Census Bureau.

The information collected by each census, as well as the questions asked for each, have varied over the years.  In the 1940 census, for the first time, enumerators asked respondents new questions to determine if they had worked for the CCC, WPA, or NYA (all components of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs) in late March 1940, as well as how much annual income they had earned during 1939.  The census also asked married women, widows, and divorcees their age at their first marriage as well as if they had been married more than once.  Also, for the first time, enumerators were instructed to add an “x” after the name of the person who answered the enumerator’s questions.

April 1940

Sen. Charles W. Tobey, was a vocal opponent of the 1940 census, more specifically, the inclusion of questions in the census asking for income information.  For the first time, this census asked respondents for information about their income.  Those opposing the collection of the information nearly succeeded in getting the question stricken from the instructions given to the enumerators.  In the end, though, as a compromise, the US government made available forms that people could mail in, if they did not want to provide the information to the enumerators.  The government published large numbers of the forms, but few were actually used.  Sen. Tobey was still not satisfied.  As late as census day, The Portsmouth Herald reported that he was still encouraging people not to answer the financial questions on the grounds that they invaded citizens’ privacy.

The census counted all people who were alive as of April 1, 1940 at 12:01 AM.  Babies born later on that day were not counted, while people who had died after 12:01 AM were.   The execution of the 1940 census was the largest yet, and included more questions than any of the prior censuses had before it.

As April 1940 began, approximately 120,000 enumerators descended upon the country to count each inhabitant.  Each enumerator had been provided a white, 4″x3″ identification card with a photograph and signature.  Unless respondents wanted to risk incurring a $100 fine, they were obligated to answer all questions, except for the ones regarding financial information, which could be mailed to the Census Bureau in Washington.

January 1941 - Commuters, who have just come off the train, waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Locally, in Lowell, Massachusetts, fifty enumerators descended upon the city.  A newspaper article from the day before revealed some of the prevailing thoughts among the citizenry as they thought ahead to census day.  William Tully, the Lowell Sun reporter writing the article, noted that local women felt reluctant to give their ages to census enumerators.  Through interviews documented within the article, Tully spoke with various women.  One thought that certain facts should not be collected, like income, since it was already captured in the income tax returns.  She also thought collecting information about the amount of a mortgage on one’s home was unnecessary.

Another woman, who worked in the executive office of a large department store in downtown Lowell, replied:  “I know nothing about the census questions and I haven’t, as yet, looked into the matter.  As a rule, my husband knows more about these things than I do.”

April 1940

Another woman, a salesgirl in a local department store, replied:  “I’m not going to answer any questions about my age.  Oh, I suppose I’ll have to answer their old questions, but it won’t be cheerfully.”  When asked about the census questions:  ‘Has this women been married more than once?’  and ‘age at first marriage?’, she quipped:  “it’s none of their business.  And if you quote me on that, I’ll smash you.”

“What in the world is the government going to do with information like that?”  Another woman asked the reporter, who admitted he had no idea.  “Neither have I,” she continued, “and I think the whole thing is foolish.”

The US Census Bureau’s web site lists some interesting comparisons between life in 1940 and life today.  In 1940, for example, the average life expectancy was 61 years for men and 65 for women.  Today, the average life span has expanded some 15 years, with male life expectancies reaching 76 years and female life expectancies reaching 81.  Also, in 1940, nearly three in every four (73%) women over the age of 25 had not finished high school.  Today, only 14% in that group have not completed high school.

Family tree historians eagerly await the release of the 1940 census on April 2, 2012, at 9 AM (EST).  For many, it’s the first census in which they will find themselves or their parents.  It’s also the first census that will be released online for the public’s free access, either from the facilities of the National Archives or from the convenience of researchers’ homes.  Readers, what are you hoping to find in the 1940 census?  Where will you start looking?


Remembering Downtown Lowell’s Bon Marché through the Years, 1878-1976

To mourn the loss of the Bon Marché Department Store in Downtown Lowell is almost like mourning the loss of a beloved grandparent.  On the day the Bon Marché closed, its faithful came out one last time to reflect on their relationship with the store, and to discuss among themselves what its loss would mean to Downtown Lowell.  As the Bon Marché prepared to close its doors for the final time at 5:30 PM on January 10, 1976, customers picked through its remaining inventory and expressed their mixed feelings about the new Jordan Marsh branch that would open in its place.  As she shopped in the Bon Marché one last time, Anita Angers told the Lowell Sun: “This is awful.  I’ve shopped here for years.  Oh, I like Jordan’s.  I go to the mall for Jordan’s, but I don’t like Bon Marché leaving.  It’s a sad day for Lowell.”  Betty Cook offered The Sun a different perspective:  “I think it’s great.  I’ve shopped here for 10 years, but I’m glad Jordan’s is coming.”

Merrimack Street looking east, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Bon Marché Store Directory from 1928

For generations, the Bon Marché offered six floors of wares to Downtown Lowell.  Below ground, on its basement level, the store sold kitchenware, groceries, and electrical household equipment.  Walk in from the street and you would find  hosiery, gloves, and shoes on its first floor.  One floor up, dresses, coats, and corsets were sold.  The third floor featured the gift shop, mirrors, and dinnerware.  Music was the theme on the fourth floor, where radios, Victrolas, and records could be found.  The top floor included the beauty shop, barber shop, and the store’s executive offices.  The Bon Marché offered it all.

But, to tell the real story of the Bon Marché is to tell the story of Downtown Lowell.  If you’ve grown up or spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve heard of the Bon Marché department store, which operated for decades on Merrimack Street.  Its takeover by Allied Department Stores, the same chain that owned Jordan Marsh, mirrors the same fate that happened to lots of independent, locally-owned department stores in the mid-20th century.  And, its eventual demise on Downtown Lowell’s Merrimack Street mirrors the fate of many long-time downtown merchants as mid-century Lowell rolled into the 1970’s.

The Bon Marché was born during Downtown Lowell’s heyday.  Its founder, Frederic Mitchell opened his first store on Merrimack Street in 1878.  A native of Lowell, Mitchell was educated in the local schools and, in the wake of the Civil War at the age of 16, became a pattern maker.  Soon after, he decided to try his hand at the dry goods business and found work with A. C. Skinner, who then owned and operated a small Merrimack Street store.  Mitchell eventually left the dry goods business and went to California where he speculated in cattle and sheep.  Upon his return to Lowell in the late 1870’s, he opened his first dry good store named ‘This is Mitchell’s‘ on Merrimack Street.  He traded for his first merchandise, exchanging his ranch in California for his new store’s first wave of inventory, sight unseen.  From humble beginnings, the store grew into the Bon Marché of later years, eventually acquiring its well-known name within a few years.

The store’s initial merchandising efforts followed the trends of the day, and much of the store’s wares were sold outside, on Merrimack Street in draped packing cases.  Mitchell could predict with reliable accuracy that his millworker customers would descend on his storefront once monthly, right after they received their monthly wages.  Millworkers waited until ‘the ghost walked’, as they said, and then went to the stores of the day to buy the wrappers, yards of cloth, and silverware that they had been eyeing during the entire month before.  During the three weeks between pay days, Mitchell and his counterparts chased tramps away from their racks of clothes and planned for the next onslaught of millworkers, each one armed with newly-earned cash.

The history of the Bon Marché can be traced through its advertisements to Lowell residents through the years.  Even in its early years, the Bon Marché billed itself as the largest department store in New England and touted its great deals, often obtained through efficient bargaining with its own suppliers.  The Bon Marché got its name from French words translating roughly to a ‘good bargain’.  A typical ad from the time, published during the Christmas season of 1898, was entirely text-based and announced a combination of its offerings to customers and its superior negotiations with suppliers.  Intermixed with offers for china, dolls, men’s suspenders, and ladies’ shirt waists were transcriptions of correspondence from suppliers who had been ‘forced’ to accept ridiculous offers received from the buyers of the Bon Marché, the savings from which had been passed along to customers.

A Lowell Sun advertisement from December 1898

An advertisement for The Bon Marche, 1908

An advertisement for the Bon Marche, 1918

While Lowell progressed through the first years of the twentieth century, the advertisements of the Bon Marché evolved to make use of advancing technology.  Pictures of the store’s merchandise were added to its ads, and the spare heading of its late nineteenth-century ads was substituted out for the more-familiar cursive-based heading that remained the store’s logo well into the twentieth century.  By 1908, the store’s advertisements (at left) carried offers of ice cream, which could be bought by the gallon for a dollar, or in smaller portions with hot chocolate for a more affordable five cents.  And, while Greater Lowell lived through the first World War, the Bon Marché offered its patrons an opportunity to support the US war effort by buying thrift and war stamps (at right).  The Bon Marché also collected peach pits that were used by the government in gas masks.  As the Bon Marché celebrated its 40th anniversary during that year, it continued to offer the latest trends in coats, suits, dresses, muffs, and petticoats, all first quality and at prices that ‘could not be duplicated’.

An advertisement for the Bon Marche, 1928

By 1928, the Bon Marché had become an established member of the Downtown Lowell retailing community and heavily touted its anniversary celebrations.  In 1928, at its fiftieth anniversary, a ten-day sale was prominently advertised in the local press.  The Bon Marché continued to sell the latest in fashions and also began to carry radios, at prices which were good for the time, but high in comparison to today’s prices.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that $137.50 you would have spent for a radio in 1928 would set you back something north of $1,800 in today’s money.

Ten years later, in 1938, the Bon Marché planned another ten-day celebration, with a focus on remembering its founders.  Store managers decorated the store’s interior and exterior in patriotic colors.  Clerks were asked to wear badges that matched the theme.  Sales were advertised in all six floors of the store and streamers had been strewn throughout.  The sixtieth anniversary celebration also honored its employees at a pre-sale banquet at the nearby Rex Grille.  Also, pins were awarded to employees who had more than five years of service with the store.

In a testament to Bon Marché as an employer and to the long-term employment mentality of the time, the Bon Marché and The Lowell Sun ran a special feature on September 30, 1938, showing all employees who had more than 10 years with Bon Marché.  There were 62.  All appear in this full-page advertisement, produced below:

From the Lowell Sun, 9/30/1938, Bon Marché employees with 10 or more years of service

A few years later, as the Bon Marché and the rest of the downtown community lived through WWII, the store instituted wartime hours and again offered war bonds and stamps to its customers to support the war effort.  Lowell experienced a brief economic boom in the war years, mostly from the increased need for clothing produced by its remaining textile mills and its involvement in munitions manufacturing.

January 1943

Later in the 1940’s, as the Bon Marché celebrated its 70th anniversary, the wartime business boom that had fueled increased sales slowed and sale levels returned to normal.  By the time of its 70th anniversary sale in 1948, the store heavily advertised its ‘rock bottom’ prices and the convenience offered by its charge account.

1948

The economic difficulties experienced by Lowell’s downtown merchants continued into the 1950’s.  The city’s last two major textile mills, the Boott Mills and the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, both closed before the Bon Marché 80th anniversary celebration in 1958:

1958

And, the economic malaise continued in Lowell past the store’s 90th anniversary sale in 1968:

1968

1976

The Bon Marché Department Store closed its doors for the last time on January 10, 1976, after surviving several decades of Lowell’s declining economic climate downtown.  Lowell’s unemployment rate entered double digits.  The store’s closure marked the end of a Downtown Lowell institution that had survived nearly a century.  From its small-time beginnings as “This is Mitchell’s” in the last years of the nineteenth century to its last years as a subsidiary of a larger corporation, the Bon Marché Department Store served generations of Lowellians as they sought to buy clothes, housewares, and electronics.  During the changeover in 1976, rumors emerged that Jordan Marsh, the store that replaced the Bon Marché, had only committed to a three-year trial period in downtown Lowell.  In the end, Jordan Marsh stayed in Downtown Lowell, for more than a decade – not leaving until the early 1990’s.  The Jordan Marsh chain, itself with deep New England roots, disappeared in 1996, when the last of its stores were converted to the Macy’s name.

The story of the Bon Marché follows closely the story of the rise and subsequent fall of downtown Lowell as it lost the textile industry to which it owed its founding.  The Bon Marché survived several economic slowdowns, the Great Depression, the loss of the city’s mills, and the loss of downtown shoppers to suburban strip malls.  Unfortunately, the Bon Marché didn’t live to see Lowell’s resurgence, which began in earnest with the establishment of the city’s National Historical Park, which occurred just after the store’s closing.

Readers, do you have memories of the Bon Marché that you would like to share?  Please add them to the comments below.

1976


The Memorial Hall and Public Library of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1893

Lowell's Memorial Building and Public Library, ca. 1905

Today, Downtown Lowell’s Memorial Hall is mostly known for the Pollard Memorial Library it houses, named for the city’s late mayor Samuel S. Pollard.  For its first 90 years, until its renaming in 1981, Lowell residents and visitors knew it as the Lowell City Library.

The library’s building, Memorial Hall, was built to remember the sacrifices of Lowell’s Civil War dead.  Local surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) expected that the Hall would provide them a meeting place, at least for special occasions, if not on a regular basis.

As early as 1887, veterans and citizens of Lowell were considering a memorial to the city’s Civil War dead.  At that point, Lowell residents and the memorial committee of the G.A.R. hadn’t yet decided whether the memorial would be a monument or a building.  The idea of a memorial hall soon gained traction, as the members of the local Grand Army posts needed a place to meet.  The Lowell Sun wrote:  “”The veterans are growing old; they are paying heavy rent for halls, and now that a memorial building is erected, they expect to be made in some respects the beneficiaries of the city’s good will.”

Several different proposals emerged.  One involved constructing a building with an observatory that would overlook the city from

Lowell's Monument Square predates the Memorial Hall and City Hall buildings, which were constructed on the site of several frame buildings owned by the Merrimack Manufacturing Company

Fort Hill.  (This option was eventually dismissed as Fort Hill was seen as too remote for veterans, and was the location most likely to attract loafers and vacationers, rather than the veterans it was meant to serve.)  Another option would have created a municipal building with the upper floors dedicated to G.A.R. meetings.  (This option eventually morphed into Lowell’s City Hall building, which was completed a few months after Memorial Hall.)  The last, and winning, proposal called for the building of a new city library that included space for G.A.R. meetings.  All agreed that the Memorial Hall should be a ‘grand and imposing edifice’, to adequately recall the men and deeds that they hoped to commemorate.

The history of Memorial Hall is firmly intertwined with the City Hall building next to it.  (Its tower can be seen in the postcard view, above.)  Their cornerstones were laid on the same day:  October 11, 1890, and both took nearly three years to complete.  The Memorial Building opened to much fanfare on June 3, 1893.

A procession marched through Highland, Elm, Central, Merrimack, Moody, and Colburn streets, ending at the new Memorial Building.  Prayers were offered by Rev. Dr. Chambre.  An American quartet sang songs, and the keys to the building were presented to Mayor Pickman.  Speeches were delivered by the Mayor, members of the local posts of the G.A.R., and former mayor and future governor Frederic T. Greenhalge.

Memorial Hall and public library, Lowell, Mass, ca. 1908: Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A bust of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler was next presented to the people of Lowell by a group of African-American Bostonians who wished to see it placed in the new hall.  In a speech by their spokesman, they said the bust would be “dedicated to the memory of those who gave their lives that the union might be preserved, and all men made free and equal under the law.”

The Hon. F. T. Greenhalge closed the ceremony by saying: “Long may this Memorial Library stand.  May the sun shed its brightest and softest radiance upon it.  And while one stone remains upon another, may it stand as a witness of valor and patriotic devotion – of liberty and wisdom – of the loyalty of your fathers and the love and gratitude of their children.”

As the exercises concluded, the officials opened the new building for public inspection while the quartet played “”Soldier’s Farewell”.


Dating Old Photographs – The Clues that Tintypes Hold, 1890

Most family historians have THAT box.  The box always looks roughly the same.  It’s the box that belonged to the toaster your mother had three toasters ago.  Or, maybe it’s a shoebox for a pair of long-lost boat shoes from Thom McAn or a gift box from Anderson Little (remember them?).  Maybe it’s a bag from a now-defunct department store like Stuarts or Caldor.  Not long after I took up genealogy in 1988, I began inheriting boxes and bags like those, and they all had lots of photographs – old ones.  There were some color photographs from the 60’s and 70’s, black-and-white photographs from the 40’s and 50’s, and older sepia-colored photographs beneath those.

The photographs from the latter half of the 20th century are easiest to identify.  Most times, I know the subject; if not, the bell-bottoms or dark wall paneling scream 1974 . . . and a well-placed beehive will strongly suggest the decade before that.  And, once you have an approximate date, it’s fairly simple to deduce that you’re staring at your second-cousin, or Uncle Freddy as a kid, or maybe you’ve uncovered that long-lost great-aunt no one has mentioned since Thanksgiving 1981.

As you move back in time, what gets harder to identify are the black-and-white photographs.  Some have dates printed along their white borders; others have dates stamped on the back.  It’s usually pretty easy to pick out grandparents as parents and parents as children.  Great-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles can also be identified, if not on sight, then by context.

Then, you get to the most interesting photographs – the tintypes, the cabinet cards, and the carte-de-visite (CDV) photographs.  These are the photographs you wish you had had when your grandparents were alive to see them.  Sometimes, you can pick out some family resemblances and these provide valuable hints.  Sometimes, you get really lucky and someone, long ago, labelled the photographs for posterity.  That usually doesn’t happen.

So, what do you do?  In 1990 or so, I got a stack of tintypes (one appears above, to the left) from an aunt, who had gotten them from my grandmother 20 years earlier.  My Aunt had no idea who they were, and the small length of ancient string that had long kept them together wasn’t talking either.  At the time, I knew they were old – probably 19th century, but wasn’t really sure how to proceed.  I had researched some genealogy at that point and knew that that branch of the family had come to Lowell in 1869 from Manchester, England.  I also knew that tintypes like the one above spanned a fairly wide range of years, from 1852 to about 1905 or so.  So, I knew that the photograph could be either English or American and that the woman could be an ancestor from any one of three generations.  That wasn’t very helpful in helping me identify her.

I looked for more clues.  The photograph, like lots of others in the 19th century, was obviously taken in a studio – the odd tree-trunk-looking thing and the landscape backdrop weren’t going to fool me.  But, tintypes don’t carry photographers’ marks.  I guessed the woman’s age to be between 30 and 35, and she appeared to be wearing a ring on her right hand, along with a bracelet, necklace, and earrings.  With a range of 1852-1905 for the photograph, though, I still needed more clues to determine her identity.  Enter fashion.

It’s pretty easy to date photographs from the late 20th century, if you spend a moment studying what people are wearing, or how they’ve fixed their hair.  The same can be said for the 19th century.  The woman in the photograph wears a dress of a common pattern known as “windowpane check”; its sleeves are the easiest indicator of a date on the early side of 1890 – the tight sleeves begin precisely at the shoulder’s tip and portray none of the exaggerated fullness that the rather well-remembered leg-of-mutton sleeves would become known for as the 1890’s wore on.  Her hair is another indicator of the late 1880’s.  The bangs aren’t cut short or styled in the large curls popular in the earlier part of the 1880’s.  Instead, she wears her bangs in a style more prevalent right around 1890.

So, a quick study of fashion can get me a guess of, say, 1890, or so, but what if she wasn’t so well-to-do, and if her dress or hair was out of fashion at the time of the photograph?  I still see people trying to sport haircuts from the early 1990’s.  I needed a little more confirmation before I set about looking for women born around 1855 in my family tree.

I looked at the other photographs, and came across this one, in a different box.  I recognized the background immediately – the bridge, the mountains.  And, that same shaggy carpet is on the studio’s floor.  I put the two photographs next to each and decided I had a match.  Both photographs came from the same studio, most likely.  I was even ready to assume they had been taken on the same day.  Why?  If you look very closely at the first photograph, above, you’ll notice in the extreme lower-right corner, the same chair that the child in the photograph at the right is sitting on.  The photographer didn’t quite succeed in moving it out of the picture.  So, the woman from 1888 had a two-year-old child.  But, I still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the photograph had been taken.  From what I knew about the branch of the family, the most likely choices were Lowell, Massachusetts or Manchester, England.  Of course, there was a chance that the photograph could’ve been taken somewhere else entirely.

That’s when I found this carte-de-visite (CDV) photograph, at left.  Do you recognize the background?  I did too.  That’s even the same chair.  This game of matching was paying off.  On the back of the CDV was the photographer’s mark (right), which can be used to help date a photograph too.  Armed with a set of city directories, I quickly determined that the photographer, Napoleon Loupret was at 51 Central Street in Lowell, Massachusetts from 1885 to 1893.  Bingo – I had a probable date (1888 or so) and a city (Lowell, Massachusetts).  I also knew that I had a family, a woman, who was about 30 or so, who had children, born sometime between 1882 and 1890.

A List of Photographers in Lowell, Massachusetts 1886

When I first started researching this photograph, I had a hunch that the woman was my second-great-grandmother, and that the children were my great-grandmother and her older brother.  The age differences were just about right.  But – once I narrowed the date range to 1885-1893, and later to about 1890 – the ages no longer worked.  My great-grandmother was the youngest of her family, but born early enough that she would have been 12 at the time of the photographs, not 2 or 3 as the children pictured clearly are.  So, the search continues, and the mystery remains unsolved, but when I do uncover and add a woman to my family tree who was born around 1855, with children born in the late 1880’s, I’ll already have photographs that just may show what she looked like in life.

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Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Sacred Heart School, 1967

On a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in early May 1967, two men simultaneously spotted the billowing smoke escaping from the first-story windows of Sacred Heart School’s “new building” on its Moore Street campus in Lowell, Massachusetts.  John J. McWilliams, an off-duty police officer, ran and activated the fire alarm at a nearby fire-box.  John Sickles, a Tewksbury resident who happened to be driving past the scene, drove to the nearby Lawrence Street firehouse and notified the firefighters inside.

Marked with a black arrow above, Sacred Heart School's "new" building once fronted Lowell's Moore Street.

At 58 years old, the “new building” was the newer of Sacred Heart School’s two school buildings on the corner of Moore and Andrews Streets in the city’s South Lowell neighborhood.  Its cornerstone had been laid on October 9, 1909 by Lowell native and then-Archbishop William H. O’Connell, who later became a Cardinal.  By 1967, the school, which served the children of parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish located across Moore Street, had grown to include the “old” and “new” buildings that served some 600 students, from grades 1-8.  The building now burning housed the younger children, through Grade 4.  The older children attended classes in the “old building”, which standing just 25 feet away, was threatened by the raging fire too.

By the time the first firefighters arrived, a few moments after 2 PM, the fire had spread past the first-floor boys’ lavatory near where it had started, through an air shaft, across the school’s gleaming oil-treated floors, and up the stairwells into its third-floor auditorium.  The first alarm company to arrive on the scene, led by Deputy Chief Mulligan, quickly determined that the three-story brick building could not be saved.  They soon called for more alarm units.  Sacred Heart School’s new building was entirely engulfed in flames before the second alarm units even reached the fire.  Five more companies arrived to fight the blaze, and to protect the surrounding neighborhood, tightly packed in the city’s South Lowell section.  They also worried for the school’s remaining building, the old building, nearby, but still untouched by the flames.

The firefighters called in two more engines.  At 2:43 PM, help was called in from surrounding communities outside Lowell.  Firefighters from Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Bedford, and Lawrence all answered the call.  Some assisted Lowell firefighters at the fire.  Others manned Lowell’s fire stations, while their firefighters fought the Sacred Heart School fire.  The inferno was declared a general alarm fire.  Veterans on the city’s fire department remarked it was the worst fire they had seen since the 1941 fire that had claimed the Bartlett School, more than 25 years earlier.

Firefighters directed the department’s pump-fed, high pressure lines at all four sides of the building.  They threw up a water curtain to protect the old building.  A few minutes after 3 PM, the fire began poking through the school’s roof.  Seven minutes later, firefighters were ordered out of the school when the top of its west-facing wall began to fail, spilling bricks, plaster, and other debris into Andrews Street.

Sacred Heart School's "New Building" - Lowell, Massachusetts

Police pushed back the crowds that had gathered along Andrews Street as firefighters risked death and severe injury to remove their equipment from the failing wall.  For the next hour or so, firefighters worked to contain the flames while they raced unchecked through Sacred Heart School’s new building.  Eight classrooms, an auditorium, the offices of the principal and of the school nurses, and the lavatories were all destroyed.  At 4 PM, the roof above the third-floor auditorium failed and fell into the building.  Its weight caused the floor of the third story to sag, forcing firefighters to abandon their efforts inside the building and escape using the nearest ladders and fire escapes.  More sections of the school’s roof soon failed, allowing firefighters atop aerial ladders clear access to aim their deck guns at the flames.  The fire was finally declared under control by 4:30 PM.  Smoke towered some 75 feet above the doomed school building as firefighters began to re-enter the building’s first floor and subdue any leftover trouble spots.  Chief Gendron left three companies on the scene overnight to prevent any additional outbreaks.

One firefighter lost his life fighting the blaze.  While helping fellow firefighters raise a 45-foot extension ladder on the school’s Moore Street side, John J. Wojitas, a WWII veteran and a 24-year veteran of the Lowell Fire Department, fell victim to a fatal heart attack.  He was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. John’s Hospital (now Saints Memorial).  Rev. W. Irving Monroe, the fire department’s chaplain, was on the scene of the fire and left with Wojitas when he was stricken.  Rev. Monroe returned to the scene of the fire later, delivering the news that Wojitas had died to his saddened fellow firefighters.

The school’s loss weighed heavily on the local community that had gathered to watch the efforts to save the building.  Most were graduates of, or otherwise connected to, the school.  The school’s nuns, of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, stood stricken with the priests of the school’s church, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  In its aftermath, the school announced that its classes would be cancelled for a few days following the fire.  Rev. Frederick Higgins, OMI, acting as the church’s pastor while Rev. John T. McLaughlin, OMI, was recuperating in Florida from an illness, announced that plans to place students in other schools would be discussed.  By Sunday afternoon, the day after the fire, a crane had been already put in place to take down the charred ruins of the school.
The top two floors of the school were soon condemned and the city’s deputy commissioner of lands and buildings ordered that students not attend class in the school’s old building until those floors were leveled.  Some talk was made about saving the school’s first floor, but ultimately, this was leveled too.

The Rev. Bruce M. Lambert, pastor of the First United Baptist Church soon reached out to Rev. McLaughlin to offer the church the use of their facilities at Central Plaza at 99 Church Street in Lowell, which included, in his words, “a modern educational wing, with 10 classrooms, accommodating up to 300 pupils, an office and a large open basement recreation room.”  Sacred Heart officials ultimately chose to use their old building on a double session basis, for the few weeks remaining in the school year.

The school did rise again.  On September 22, 1968, a crowd of more than 2,500 people gathered to watch the dedication of the new Sacred Heart School building.  Its student body of 500 began classes there on the following day.  The Sacred Heart School band provided the crowd with a concert as dignitaries, parishioners, students, alumni, and friends looked on.  After the concert, a tour of the new building was given.  The cornerstone was laid during the ceremonies by Rev. John T. McLaughlin, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and the Very Rev. Thomas Reddy, OMI, Oblate Provincial of the Eastern Province.  The school’s principal, Sr. Mary Kevin, SSMN, proudly looked on.

Sacred Heart School's new "New" building, dedicated in 1968. Photo from The Lowell Sun, 9/17/1968

As part of the ceremony, Fathers Reddy and McLaughlin passed through the rooms of the new school building, blessing each one, and finished by hanging a crucifix in the principal’s office.  After giving thanks to all those who helped in the rebuilding effort, Father McLaughlin told the crowd about the contents of a box which had been sealed into the new school’s cornerstone.  The box contained all of the keepsakes that had been sealed in the cornerstone of the 1909 building: copies of The Lowell Sun and the Lowell Courier-Citizen detailing the construction of the first school and its groundbreaking ceremony.  In addition to the 1909 items, new keepsakes were added to the cornerstone box:  Lowell Sun articles describing the 1967 fire that had destroyed the former school building and the new school’s groundbreaking ceremony, a Miraculous Medal, a Sacred Heart Badge, and a list of all the current priests and teaching sisters.  The priests had also added a list of parishioners, a medal of Pope Paul, a Kennedy half-dollar, and a picture of John Wojitas, the fireman who died while fighting the fire that had claimed the old school.

By the time I began attending Sacred Heart School more than a decade later, people still spoke of the great fire that had claimed the “new building”.  During my first few years at the school, we still attended classes at Sacred Heart’s “old” building, with its quaint coat rooms and ornate woodwork.  The building was eventually demolished, ten or fifteen years ago.  The school itself closed a few years later.

Do you have memories of the fire, or of Sacred Heart School or Church?  Please share them here!

Note to readers:  The Fires of Lowell series includes several other articles, including one detailing the 1904 fire of Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Church.  This post marks the fifth installment of the series.


1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.